Sergei Khrushchev


Dr. Sergei Khrushchev and Chuck Helppie

George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis Conference

October 27, 2012


I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dr. Khrushchev just before the start of the conference. Sergei told me he was twenty-seven years old when the crisis occurred and was quite close to his father, Premier Nikita Khrushchev, during the events as they unfolded. I found his insights to be profoundly revealing in understanding the extent of that crisis from the viewpoint of the highest level of the Soviet government. 

I asked if the Soviet generals were as aggressive in their recommendations of action as our Pentagon generals were. He replied, “No. The Soviet generals were not overly aggressive during the Cuban Missile Crisis because they knew they had tactical nuclear weapons in place in Cuba.” (That’s a fact the United States was completely unaware of until forty years after the crisis ended.)

“The Soviet generals were concerned about Cuba’s leadership doing something stupid. Castro was not popular with our (Soviet) leadership in Moscow, but he was extremely popular with our Soviet troops in Cuba. Castro spent a lot of time visiting our troops and giving them pep talks and those troops became extremely fond of Castro. We were worried some of those troops might be more amenable to Castro’s situation than ours.”

I told Sergei my research showed that his father didn’t really respect President John F. Kennedy’s leadership skills. Was that true?

“Khrushchev did respect JFK, but his mistakes at the Vienna Summit revolved around Kennedy trying to convince Khrushchev that capitalism was far superior to our economic system.”

(At this point we were interrupted as the conference organizer, Francis Gary Powers, Jr., was trying to get the conference started. He didn’t have time to elaborate on the rest of his answer, but I still had a couple of questions I needed to ask.)

Did your father’s removal from office in October, 1964 have anything to do with the theory by some American historians that Khrushchev’s removal was a reaction to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson as a perceived American hardliner?

“No. Premier Khrushchev’s removal had nothing to do with LBJ’s presidency. Khrushchev was proposing reforms that would have resulted in lots of Soviet bureaucrats losing their jobs and they didn’t like that. They ‘fired’ him before he could ‘fire’ them.”

My final question revolved around the Soviet viewpoint of America. Did the Soviet Union view the United States as ‘evil’ as we viewed the Soviet Union?

“Each side viewed the other side as evil. However, the Soviet generals and Khrushchev knew the USA was far superior, both technologically and militarily. The U.S.S.R. wanted to ‘push’ the United States without pushing too far.”

At this point, the conference began and we had to bring our discussion to an end. However, Dr. Khrushchev still had more to add later.



First panel discussion, 10:00 am – 11:30 am:

(These are my abridged notes of the panel discussion with the highlights)


Dr. Martin Sherwin began the conference by introducing the participants in the first panel. They were:

  • Colonel Buddy Brown – US Air Force pilot who flew U-2’s from 1957-1964, and who worked at Lockheed after retiring in 1984. He was involved with developing top secret projects for Lockheed.
  • Dr. Sergei Khrushchev – Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s son. Holds a Ph.D. in engineering, and has authored 310 books and articles on missile guidance systems and space design.
  • Dino Brugioni – Photo-interpreter for the CIA. Founder of the National Photographic Interpretation Center and an author of six books and ninety articles.
  • Lt. Commander Tad Riley – retired Naval officer who flew an F8U ‘Crusader’ over Cuba at 200 feet at 400 miles per hour to photograph the missile sites. 


The first panel discussion began with the moderator, Dr. Martin Sherwin, making an introductory statement:

“Fifty years ago today was “Black Saturday” – October 27, 1962 – the exact height of the Cuban Missile Crisis…The tension between the USA and the USSR started with Hiroshima at the end of World War II. That was the start of the USSR’s determination to get nuclear weapons themselves…As a result, the Cuban Missile Crisis became a world crisis as it unfolded.”

Dr. Sherwin then kicked off the conference by asking this question of Dr. Khrushchev:

“Why did Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba?”

Khrushchev: “It was the obligation of a superpower to help Cuba when Castro declared he was now a member of the Soviet bloc. With that statement, Cuba became to the USSR what West Berlin was to the USA. It was, otherwise, a worthless piece of land to us.”

“How were the missiles found?”

Brugioni: “On October 16, I prepared the briefing boards to show to the president. The U-2’s carried 6,000 feet of film in one long roll. It would reach from the White House to the Capitol Building – imagine being on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass and looking at that!...I had a ‘parade book’ of Moscow photos of their military parades with pictures of their missiles on display. I was searching for their SS-3 and SS-4 missiles, and when I found them I reported to Lundahl.”

“Did the administration believe you?”

Brugioni: “We had problems with Bobby Kennedy. He was, for all purposes, acting as the president. When we showed him the photos of the missile sites, Bobby asked, ‘How can you be so sure? It looks like someone’s just digging a basement.’ I told him we saw those same patterns of construction around their missile sites. My map also showed DC was within reach of those missiles. Bobby looked at that and then asked, ‘Could those goddamned things hit Oxford, Mississippi?’ I told him they could and the next day I put Oxford Mississippi on the map of the areas those missiles could reach!”

Riley: “We practiced supersonic low-level flights over South Carolina. We scared the hell out of a lot of chicken farmers! My job was to fly over Cuba at low level and look for construction sites marked on my maps of Cuba.”

Brown: “There was a hurricane coming in and I didn’t think the U-2’s would fly that day (October 16) because the long wings of the U-2 could be easily ripped off under the wrong circumstances. I was finally cleared to take off in the brunt of the storm and it wasn’t until I climbed above 50,000 feet that I finally emerged above the storm clouds. I continued my climb to 70,000 feet and headed for Cuba. I flew parallel lines above Cuba at 70,000 feet for three hours sucking up pictures. I then flew back to McCoy Air Force Base in Florida while the other U-2’s flew out of Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. I had barely landed when the guys removed the film from my cameras and sent it straight to NPIC (the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Arlington, Virginia.”

Brugioni: “The military knew we had a missile superiority of 10-1 to as much as 15-1 over the Soviets. Our Pentagon wanted a confrontation with the USSR as soon as possible because of that superiority. General Curtis LeMay wanted us to bomb AND invade Cuba. It’s a good thing we didn’t because we had no idea Cuba had 100 tactical nuclear weapons. The USA had an advantage in strategic nuclear weapons, but not in those tactical nukes.”

(In basic terms, a strategic missile was a long-range ballistic missile with a range of a thousand miles or more. A tactical missile was a short-range missile with a range of 150 miles or less.)

Khrushchev: “Your advantage was probably 20-1 in strategic nuclear missiles. The USSR had 24 ballistic missiles with 3-megaton warheads. LeMay figured the USSR could kill 50 million Americans and the USA would kill 100% of all Russians.”

“How much agreement was there in the different governments about possible solutions?”

Khrushchev: “JFK had to deal with the election process since mid-term elections were coming up in a few weeks. The election process in America required public discussions of the options. The USSR didn’t have any of that. It was discussed at the highest levels without regard to public opinion. It was easier for Khrushchev because there weren’t so many discussions of opinions.”

Brugioni: “Everyone was against JFK’s position – the governors, the Congress, the military – they were all unbelievably angry at JFK for not going to war. JFK was alone in his position. My boss, Lundahl, was shocked at the verbal beating JFK was taking at those meetings.”

Sherwin: “Here’s a little-known fact: The nuclear storage areas had to be kept cool at all times because of the sensitive nature of the weapons. No one in the USSR had thought of how hot and humid Cuba always was. The only air-conditioning in Cuba was in the brothels. Castro had all the air conditioners removed from the brothels and taken to the storage sites to cool the weapons.”

Riley: “My first flight over Cuba was October 23 and I flew again every other day for a total of six missions: the 23rd, the 25th, the 27th, the 29th, the 31st, and November 2, 1962. I followed another plane (my navigator plane) about a half-mile back of his course, taking pictures. I was low enough to see the whites of their eyes as I zoomed overhead.”

Brown: “We (the U-2’s) were on a ‘stand-down’ after Andy was shot down. (‘Andy’ was Major Rudolph Anderson who was shot down by a Cuban air defense gunner who acted without orders from any higher command.”

Khrushchev: “There were three Foxtrot submarines, not four. The fourth sub became damaged en-route from Russia and had to return. (That’s why the fourth sub was never successfully tracked by the U.S. Navy.) Each sub carried a 15 megaton nuclear torpedo.”

Sherwin: “The sub B-59 was seconds away from firing a 15-megaton torpedo at our aircraft carrier group which had been tracking, shadowing, and harassing the sub for three days, trying to force it to the surface. Running out of air, it finally did come to the surface but was almost convinced it had to fire on our fleet to avoid humiliation back home. Fortunately, the submarine commander of the entire Russian fleet was on that sub and ordered the boat’s captain to stand down and not attack. It took a few tense moments for that captain to decide to follow orders.”

Brown: “Another one of our U-2 pilots flying out of Alaska collecting air samples and looking for signs of Soviet nuclear testing accidentally got lost and flew deep over the Soviet Union while he was disoriented by the Aurora Borealis. This happened at the same time Major Anderson was shot down over Cuba. The Soviets thought that U-2 was a precursor to a US attack to avenge the loss of the other U-2 over Cuba and they scrambled fighters to shoot it down. Luckily the pilot (Chuck Mosby) realized his error when he picked up Russian music on his radio, and he swiftly headed back to Alaska. No one had the guts to tell JFK what had happened until the U-2 was back over Alaskan airspace.”

The first panel ended at 11:30 am and I asked Dino Brugioni if it was true the NPIC was secretly hidden above a car dealership in Arlington, Virginia. He laughed and said: “Yes, NPIC was on the top four floors of the Stuart Motor Company in Arlington, Virginia – right in the heart of the ghetto. We couldn’t go out to eat because the neighborhood was so bad!”


Second panel discussion, 11:45 am – 1:00 pm:

(These are my abridged notes of the panel discussion with the highlights)

Dr. Martin Sherwin resumed the conference by introducing the participants in the second panel. They were:

  • Dr. Sergei Khrushchev – Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s son. Holds a Ph.D. in engineering, and has authored 310 books and articles on missile guidance systems and space design.
  • Michael Dobbs – author of One Minute to Midnight and Six Months in 1945
  • Svetlana Savranskaya – A  research fellow at The George Washington University’s National Security Archive where she directs its cooperative projects with Russian archives and institutes and edits the Russian and East Bloc Archival Documents Database


The first panel discussion began with the moderator, Dr. Martin Sherwin, introducing Dr. Sergei Khrushchev to the podium.  Dr. Khrushchev began by asking a rhetorical question:

“Who was strong and who was stubborn in the Cuban Missile Crisis? The popular thought is that JFK was strong and Khrushchev was weak. Others think JFK was viewed as weak by the Soviets."

"Premier Khrushchev never thought JFK was weak. He simply thought men in their 40’s (age) were not as scared of war as men in their 60’s and 70’s. Khrushchev was concerned about JFK’s lack of fear of war.

“At this particular time, the superpowers of the world were the USA and the USSR. These two new superpowers had replaced the old superpowers of Great Britain, Germany, and Japan.  The USSR was second in world power to the USA. The USSR wanted to be the equal of the USA. The peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis came as both countries became more and more equal.

“At the Geneva Summit in 1955, the USSR rejected the ‘Open Skies” offer put forth by the Eisenhower administration because Khrushchev wanted to hide their weaknesses from the USA. He didn’t want it known that they weren’t the equal of the USA militarily. The USA became highly suspicious of why and what the USSR was hiding and it led to heightened tensions as a result.

“Once John Foster Dulles became US Secretary of State, Khrushchev wanted to stand up to Dulles because Dulles hated the USSR. Khrushchev knew where he stood with Dulles at all times.

“When Castro took over power in Cuba, Khrushchev was very leery of him. Khrushchev thought Castro was just another Third World dictator who also might be secretly aligned with the CIA!

“When Castro came to the USA to meet with (President) Eisenhower, Eisenhower decided it was more important to play golf that to meet with Castro. He sent Nixon in his place, and it was that meeting with Nixon which pushed Castro into the arms of the USSR.

“However, Khrushchev didn’t trust Castro, and he didn’t want to risk war with the USA over Cuba. But after the Bay of Pigs, Castro came out and publicly declared he was aligned with the Soviet Bloc and thus forced Khrushchev to come to his aid. Otherwise Khrushchev and the USSR would have lost face to the rest of the world.

“During the Crisis, the USA said they could “…kill us many times over…” due to their huge advantage in nuclear weapons. We replied we can only kill all of you once! That should be enough.

“Khrushchev said he didn’t understand something about America. He said he was steeped in European history. In Europe, the ‘enemies were always at the gates.’ It had been that way for centuries. And was an accepted way of life. He didn’t understand the United States’ paranoia over perceived threats. I believe it was because you have always been nation isolated by your geography. Every year you and your media would get all worked up over something and worry to death about it. We thought your reaction to this crisis was more of the same."

[My observation: Dr. Khrushchev indicated without saying so that Pearl Harbor’s impact on our nation’s physique was not quantified by the Soviet hierarchy. Our entire Cold War philosophy when it came to national security was predicated upon never allowing a repetition of Pearl Harbor, particularly with nuclear weapons.]

“I was with my father when JFK was to speak to the nation. Khrushchev said simply, “They found the missiles.” However, he was referring to the strategic ballistic missiles [with a range of 1,000 miles+] – the Americans didn’t know about the tactical nuclear missiles [with a range of 150 miles or less]. He was scared the Cubans would start something no one would be able to stop.

“Both sides pushed forward and back. The blockade became too dangerous because of the possibility of a misunderstanding. Both sides finally decided it had to be toned down.

"Ted Sorensen later told me: ‘I edited my book to make Kennedy look stronger than he really was.’

“What was the end result of the Cuban Missile Crisis? We protected out values and President Kennedy protected their values.  JFK’s American University speech [June, 1963] was to limit further stockpiling of nuclear weapons to stop the arms race.”

Who won the Crisis?

“We won. We stopped a nuclear war.’ [He didn’t say that stridently or boastfully. His tone was very even and measured; very factual.]

“This is why we negotiate with Iran because we don’t know what they want. Are they reasonable? We don’t know…I can’t imagine making China mad at us when they could one day just sell all their US Treasury bonds in one day and wreck our economy. That’s why we must always negotiate.”


Michael Dobbs and Svetlana Savranskaya were then introduced at the conclusion of Dr. Khrushchev’s remarks by the moderator, Dr. Martin Sherwin:

“Michael Dobbs was the Washington Post Bureau chief in Moscow and has been at most of the important events shaping the end of the twentieth century. He was at the Gdansk shipyard in 1980, Tiananmen Square in 1989, and Moscow in 1991 during the coup against Gorbachev.

“Svetlana Savranskaya edited and translated Mikoyan’s book, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis, and is currently a professor at American University.


Michael Dobbs: “The real risk of the Cuban Missile Crisis was further down the chain of command. The worry wasn’t JFK and Khrushchev – it was a worry of a lower-ranked officer or soldier starting the war.

“On October 27, 1962, Castro went to the Soviet Embassy at 3 a.m., hysterically cabling Khrushchev to eliminate the capitalist menace with nuclear weapons if the US attacked. The Cubans moved tactical nuclear missiles to just outside Guantanamo Naval Base to destroy the base if the American attack occurred. JFK, of course, knew none of this.

“The real threat is what JFK didn’t know. Major Rudolph Anderson’s U-2 was shot down by a Cuban local civil defense commander. Castro didn’t order it; Khrushchev didn’t order it or even know about it. On the American side, our own Air Force was too scared to tell JFK that they had a lost U-2 reconnaissance plane wandering over the USSR. JFK wasn’t told about that until the U-2 got back into US airspace.”


Svetlana Savranskaya: “Contrary to popular myth, the crisis did not end on October 28, 1962. JFK knew the crisis wasn’t over, but he had the crucial mid-term elections coming up the first week in November. As of the ‘end of the crisis’, there were still:

  • 42,000 Soviet combat troops based in Cuba
  • Russian long-range bombers were still based in Cuba
  • 80 cruise missiles with a range of 120 miles were still based in Cuba
  • There were secret tactical nuclear weapons hidden in Cuba
  • There were four Foxtrot submarines with nuclear missiles and nuclear torpedoes in the Sargasso Sea

“Castro was very angry at the Soviets. He was shut out of the negotiations with the imperialists over the fate of his own nation. The problem was that Castro was very popular with the Soviet troops stationed in Cuba. He used to visit them all the time to build rapport and comradery.

“Mikoyan was dispatched to Cuba and given three tasks to accomplish:

  • Smooth the missile withdrawal
  • Calm Castro down and convince him to accept ground inspections
  • Khrushchev wanted to keep Castro as a close ally to preserve the Soviet Communist legitimacy in the face of the rising threat from the other Communist power – China.

“The Soviet commanders in Cuba never had authority to use the tactical nuclear weapons on hand. However, they had the capacity to use them in the face of a threat. Those tactical nukes were never to be transferred to Cuban control.

“After a long series of meetings with Castro, Mikoyan came to the conclusion that due to Castro’s irrational behavior, all nuclear weapons had to be removed from Cuba. He lied to Castro and made up a USSR law that nuclear weapons couldn’t be transferred to a third party. This came about after three weeks of meetings with Castro in November, 1962.”


Dobbs: “The Turks thought U.S. missiles in Turkey were prestigious for their country. Thus it was a diplomatic problem to remove them as a solution to the crisis.

“Getting back to those Russian nukes: In case of war, even if the Soviet High Command said ‘Don’t use nuclear weapons!’ – once communications were destroyed, if you can’t get in touch with Moscow, you can use tactical nukes in case of invasion (but not the strategic nuclear weapons). Those were the secret orders from the Soviet military. However, Khrushchev said “You can’t! Don’t even think of using strategic missiles!”

"The big question has always been: Why were strategic nuclear weapons placed in Cuba in the first place? To make sure the US would never think of invading Cuba. Of course, that became the reason for advocating an invasion of Cuba by the US military. The tactical nukes were added for civil defense purposes.”


Sergei Khrushchev was 27-years-old at the time and worked on the guidance systems of Soviet Ballistic missiles: “I knew it was an American psychological crisis – you had them every year. Europeans didn’t have annual psychological crises.

“October 27, 1962 was a normal day for us in Russia. There was no panic – unlike the USA. There was a big difference between the USA and the USSR in their attitudes toward the crisis. The US media ratcheted up the emotion in the crisis – the USSR press was factual and not emotional.

“Mao told Khrushchev in 1957 in Peking: “You must not be afraid to kill Americans. We can afford to lose 200-300 million Chinese and we’ll still be here.

“Khrushchev tried to explain to Castro in May, 1963, that nuclear war kills everyone. Avoiding war allows your economic system to win in the long run.”


And with that, the conference ended.


Chuck Helppie

Author, Kennedy Must Be Killed – A Novel