THE Cuban missile crisis was even more precarious than history has portrayed it, according to soon-to-be-published transcripts of meetings between Soviet and United States participants in the 1962 face-off. Last fall in a closed session at Harvard University the Soviets revealed that:
Nikita Khrushchev never ordered the downing of an American spy plane at the height of the 13-day crisis. A Soviet general in Cuba gave the order to fire on the U-2. US jets were preparing to bomb Cuban antiaircraft bases when President Kennedy canceled the mission.
Soviet ships were told to ram the American quarantine line, but the order was countermanded by a process even Soviet participants do not understand. Had the ships sailed on another hour, the US Navy would have sunk them.
The Soviet missiles were probably never armed with nuclear warheads. Had Kennedy known, he likely would have ordered an air strike within hours of discovering the missiles.
The missiles were meant to protect Cuba from what the Soviets felt was an imminent US invasion. The Kennedy administration, stung by the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, had discarded the idea. But the Soviets felt the US would try again - and this time, they'd do it right.
Scholars were stunned by the openness of their Soviet counterparts, says James Blight, a Harvard scholar who attended. The Americans had planned not to record the sessions, thinking the presence of a microphone would inhibit a Soviet delegation that included a former Khrushchev speechwriter, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, and the secretary to the former Soviet special envoy to Cuba. Instead, the Soviets nearly insisted on one. Professor Blight recalls their asking ``Do you think we would come 8,000 miles to go off the record?'' Former Kennedy officials attending included Robert McNamara (secretary of defense), McGeorge Bundy (national security adviser), and Gen. Maxwell Taylor (chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff).
A transcript sent to the Soviets after the meeting was returned without deletions, says Blight, who co-authored ``On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis'' with David Welch. The book contains edited transcripts of the Harvard meeting, analysis, and interviews with American officials.
More insights are likely at a second meeting of Soviet and American participants in Moscow at the end of the month. Cuban officials briefed by Fidel Castro will be there, as will the former senior KGB officer in North America.