It was October 1962. The United States and the Soviet Union were at each other's throats over the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. The nuclear nightmare loomed as President John F. Kennedy told Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to get the missiles out of Cuba. Or else.
But there was something even Kennedy did not know. Stored on the island at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo were as many as two dozen nuclear weapons assemblies. The plutonium to make them into active bombs was a short flight away in Florida.
The revelation that U.S. nuclear-capable weapons were on Cuban soil during the 1962 crisis is contained in a newly declassified 1978 Pentagon history of the deployment of nuclear weapons outside the United States during the Cold War.
According to "Where They Were," an article based on the Pentagon report and published in the November/December issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United States stored nuclear weapons in 27 countries and territories, generally at U.S. military bases, between 1951 and 1977 _ in some cases in places whose governments did not know they were there.
"We now know for the first time that we had nuclear weapons in Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis," said nuclear analyst William M. Arkin, co-author of the article.
Arkin said 12 to 24 non-nuclear depth bombs, used in anti-submarine warfare, were stored at Guantanamo from December 1961 until about September 1963. In the event of conflict, they could have been armed with plutonium capsules _ called "pits" _ flown in from the Naval Air Station at Cecil Field in Jacksonville.
Non-nuclear assemblies were deployed for two reasons. First, the technology at the time required that the nuclear "capsule" be kept separate from the assembly. Scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission maintained custody of the nuclear material until the president asked that it be turned over to the military.
Second, by deploying these assemblies separate from the nuclear material, the United States could say truthfully that nuclear bombs were not being kept on the host country's territory. At the same time, the host country could honestly attest that it had not accepted nuclear weapons from the United States.
In practice, however, as these documents confirm, the United States did not always tell the host country when assemblies became armed nuclear weapons.
In Cuba, Kennedy's ultimatum was enforced by a U.S. naval quarantine around the island and a veiled threat of nuclear retribution. Khrushchev relented, but the Cold War arms race had begun.
The authors of the article said the documents didn't show conclusively whether Kennedy or his secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, knew the weapons were stored in Cuba.
McNamara said Tuesday that he had "no recollection" that they were there.
"If we had known about them, I'm certain President Kennedy and I would have talked about it in October 1962," he said. "There was a question about whether our forces preparing to invade Cuba needed to be equipped with nuclear weapons."
In fact, however, Kennedy only had to know that the nuclear material was in Florida. He did not have to know that the bombs awaiting this material were already in Cuba.
The authors, Arkin, Robert S. Norris and William Burr, also learned that U.S. nuclear weapons were stored in such unlikely locales as Japan, Greenland, Iceland and Taiwan _ all declared non-nuclear nations and far less plausible sites for deployment than, say, NATO countries.
But McNamara said that the United States intentionally did not fully inform even host countries in Europe.
"Under U.S. efforts to avoid disclosure of nuclear plans, the U.S. withheld information even from its allies on the nature and location of these weapons and plans for their use," he said. Some, like West Germany, invited the United States to deploy nuclear weapons on their soil. But it is unclear which ones were fully informed of the extent of deployment.
"Until now, there has never been official information on where, when and what kinds of nuclear weapons were deployed overseas," said co-author Norris, a private specialist on nuclear weapons.
The history also shows there was no central repository for information about nuclear deployments, so the picture is "incomplete," according to Arkin. "We're talking about the most important objects on the planet, and we still don't completely know where they've been and when."
As weapons technology and the political landscape changed through the 1960s and '70s, the weapons were withdrawn from many bases as quietly as they had arrived. The United States is currently the only nation with nuclear weapons deployed outside its borders, but the hosts today number only seven: Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Among the other revelations contained in the newly declassified "History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons: July 1945 through September 1977":
+ The first nuclear weapons deployed by the United States went to Morocco, when it was still a French colony. Components first arrived in 1953; the French government was not informed. Analysts had always believed that Great Britain was the first country to receive American nuclear bombs, in 1954.
During the peak years of the early 1970s, the United States had more than 12,000 nuclear weapons outside its borders _ 7,000 in European NATO countries, 2,000 on land in the Pacific and 3,000 on a variety of naval vessels.
The United States deployed 38 types of weapons systems abroad, including bombs, missiles, and components. Twenty-one types were in place in West Germany beginning in 1955, 20 in Guam beginning 1951 and 19 in the Japanese island of Okinawa beginning in 1954, while under U.S. postwar occupation.
In Iceland, a nation with a long non-nuclear tradition, nuclear bombs were stored at the U.S. base in Keflavik for three years beginning 1956, without government knowledge.
Two types of nuclear bombs were deployed to Taiwan _ the government knew about only one _ but were removed in the early 1970s as President Richard Nixon sought to improve relations with China.
The "History," which serves as the basis for the article, was prepared by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 1978. After a Freedom of Information Act request in 1994 and subsequent appeals by the authors, the Pentagon released pieces of the document, with sections censored.
It blacked out the names of 18 destination countries. However an alphabetized appendix enabled the authors to figure out which countries had been censored. Only one remained a mystery, a listing between Canada and Cuba.
A global nuclear presence
A 1978 Pentagon report, recently made putlic for the first time, reveals the Cold War locations of nuclear weapons outside the United States. Here's a look at where and when they were deployed.
COUNTRY/REGION INITIAL DEPLOYMENT
1. Alaska Nov. 1955
2. Canada July-Dec. 1960
3. Cuba Dec. 1961
4. Greenland Feb. 1958
5. Guam July 1950
6. Hawaii July 1954
7. Icleand Feb. 1956
8. Japan Dec. 1954
9. Johnston Island July 1964
10. Kwajalein July 1963
11. Midway July 1961
12. Morocco July 1953
13. Okinawa July 1954
14. Philippines Dec. 1957
15. Puerto Rico June 1956
16. Rep. of Korea Jan. 1958
17. Spain March 1958
18. Taiwan Jan. 1958
19. Belgium+ Nov. 1963
20. France+ Aug. 1958
21. Greece+ Oct. 1960
22. Italy+ April 1957
23. Netherlands+ April 1960
24. Turkey+ Feb. 1959
25. United Kingdom+ Sept. 1954
26. West Germany+ March 1955
+ NATO countries