Twenty-sixth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Soviets Harass Allied Planes
In early February 1962, Soviet fighters began “buzzing” Western aircraft flying in the air corridors linking Berlin to West Germany.
A post-war agreement signed by the Soviets guaranteed the Allies the use of these corridors.
In addition to the hugely dangerous buzzing, Soviet planes were flying at altitudes reserved for the Allies and trying to force military transports to land inside East Germany. In March they dropped metal “chaff” to confuse air control radars. Soviet fighters also broke the sound barrier over Berlin, further frightening a population already badly rattled by the infamous seven-month-old Berlin Wall.
During this period, East Germans fired on a clearly marked British Army car, hitting it 18 times and seriously wounding an enlisted man. East German gunfire also riddled a U.S. Army vehicle but did not wound its personnel.
Most observers interpreted the harassment as part of the USSR’s never-ending campaign to force the Western Allies out of Berlin.
Q1. Soviet Harassment Ceases. But Why?
On April 5, 1962, a Times article reported that “the Russians have suddenly ceased harassing the Allies’ Berlin traffic and officials are wondering what, if anything it means.”
A Possible Explanation
In late March The Saturday Evening Post published this statement by President Kennedy:
“…Of course in some circumstances, we must be prepared to use the nuclear weapon at the start, come what may—a clear attack on Western Europe, for example.…”
Kennedy’s remark made headlines and even prompted a question at his March 29 news conference. Then, a few days later, the air harassment ceased abruptly.
Being conspiratorial themselves, the Soviets instinctively believed that everyone else must be too. That is why Khrushchev had read Kennedy’s January 30 allusion to the 1956 Hungarian uprising as a serious warning to him: when the U.S. invaded Cuba, the USSR had better stay on the sidelines—or else (see by following the link provided).
Could the Kremlin now be reading Kennedy’s words to mean that the U.S. considered the air corridor harassment a prelude to a Soviet attack on Western Europe? If Kennedy did mean that, then he was warning the Soviets that they were courting a U.S. nuclear strike—unless the harassment ceased.
The harassment ceased—before a week had passed.
Q2. Talks Over Berlin Resume. But Why?
In mid-March, at the height of the air harassment campaign, the USSR and the United States had broken off dead-locked negotiations over the future of Berlin.
On April 17, 1962 the Times reported from Washington that Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Anatoly Dobrynin, the newly arrived Soviet Ambassador, had “agreed today to carry on talks on Berlin in meetings here in the coming weeks.” Why had the Soviets returned to the table?
A Possible Explanation
On April 9 the huge U.S. military exercise called LANTPHIBEX kicked off in the Carolinas (see by following the link provided). The U.S. press dutifully ran Pentagon press releases, complete with pictures.
Could the April 9 start of these highly publicized maneuvers have galvanized the Soviets into jump-starting the Berlin negotiations eight days later? Could the Soviets have thought, “If we begin talks over Berlin, perhaps the U.S. will postpone the invasion of Cuba they are obviously rehearsing”?
By the time the Rusk-Dobrynin talks were announced, Nikita Khrushchev had taken the first steps toward establishing Soviet missile bases in Cuba. That risky plan had to be kept secret from the United States. A United States whose planes were no longer being harassed in Europe; a United States now negotiating over Berlin—might that be a United States less likely to look for trouble brewing in the Caribbean?
What do You Think?
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My main source for these events is The New York Times and, occasionally, other major American newspapers. I have prepared an index of the more important of these articles which I can forward to interested readers.
It is remarkable that the USSR did not abrogate the post-war air corridor agreement when their 1948 land blockade attempted to starve the people of Western Berlin into accepting annexation by East Germany. The Western Allies’ massive airlift through those corridors defeated the Berlin Blockade. The Allies stayed. The big question in the early spring of 1962: was this harassment campaign a prelude to a more determined effort to force the Western Allies out of Berlin?
The Saturday Evening Post article, by Stewart Alsop, which appeared in the 31 March 1962 issue, is discussed in the in this series: .
President Kennedy was much criticized for this statement, despite his disclaimer concerning an attack on Western Europe. He was asked about the statement during his news conference of 29 March (Question 18 in the transcript), at which point he repeated the disclaimer.
The Soviets, naturally, had a field day with Kennedy’s quotation. Pravda opined that the President had declared that America was “entitled to strike the first atomic blow, to become an initiator of a war of aggression.” (Seymour Topping, “Soviet Denounces U.S. On War Aims.” New York Times, 1 April 1962, p. 1.)