RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was on a morning exactly 50 years ago that President John F. Kennedy was first told the Soviet Union had installed nuclear weapons in Cuba. A tense 13 days followed, days that brought the world as close to nuclear war as it's ever been. Of that moment's main protagonists, only Cuba's Fidel Castro is still alive.

This anniversary might have been a big event in Cuba, but with the 86-year-old Castro ailing and out of the public eye, the event Cubans know as The October Crisis is being commemorated quietly, as Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Twenty miles south of Havana, the small town of Bejucal looks much as it did in October 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIP-CLOP OF HORSE CART)

MIROFF: Horse carts pull school children and loads of fresh-cut green plantains through the narrow muddy streets. The sleepy town doesn't seem like the kind of place to put an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but a military bunker here was the biggest storage depot on the island for the Soviet nukes. By the peak of the crisis, U.S. spy planes were roaring overhead snapping photographs of the site.

Antonio Torres was a 23-year-old Cuban militiaman at the time.

ANTONIO TORRES: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: They flew low and close to the ground, said Torres, a local farmer who stopped on his bicycle to share a few war stories. We pointed our guns at the planes, Torres says, but our commander, Fidel, hadn't given the order to shoot.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had secretly put dozens of intermediate and short-range nuclear armed missiles on the island, disguising some of the rockets as palm trees. When the U.S. imposed a navel blockade, Cuba's 36-year-old leader Fidel Castro lined Havana's seafront boulevard with anti-aircraft battalions and told Cubans to brace for an imminent U.S. invasion.

Carlos Alzugaray was a university student and defense analyst at the Cuba's Foreign Ministry then. He remembers coming back to the ministry late at night, exhausted after spending the day digging trenches, and getting questions from his colleagues about the U.S. Army nuclear warfare manual he'd been reading. He was 19.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY: Carlos, you have been reading all these books. What happens when there is a nuclear war? So I said well, most probably what will happen is that we will see a big flash. We will feel a lot of heat. And then we will be dead.

(LAUGHTER)

ALZUGARAY: And with that we went to bed.

MIROFF: Alzugaray went on to be a Cuban diplomat and a professor of international relations at the University of Havana. Like Castro, he insists it was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles in April 1961 that led directly to the Missile Crisis, pushing Castro to reach for an equalizer to deter future U.S. intervention.

ALZUGARAY: The U.S. was pursuing relentlessly a policy of regime change in Cuba. If Kennedy hadn't pursued the destroying of the Cuban Revolution in the way that he did probably nothing like this would have happened.

MIROFF: Castro hasn't been seen in public in nearly six months. His brother Raul now runs Cuba but doesn't have the same affection for re-hashing the glory days with old foes.

In 2002, Castro hosted a gathering that brought together aging Soviet commanders with former Kennedy advisors like Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This year's commemoration will be far more low-key. But Cuban scholar Esteban Morales was there 10 years ago, and ironically, he and other Castro supporters have come to see the episode just as many of their American adversaries do. It was Khrushchev, they say, who blinked.

ESTEBAN MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: I think we lost a great opportunity in the crisis, Morales says. The only great opportunity we've ever had in our conflict with the United States because what we've learned over the years is that you have to have something to negotiate with. You have to have something to give.

Kennedy gave his word that the U.S. would not invade Cuba but Morales says the missiles could have been bargaining chips to end the U.S. trade embargo, or the covert operations against Castro that carried on for decades.

Newly uncovered Soviet archives show Moscow left nearly 100 tactical nuclear weapons on the island without U.S. knowledge, but by late November, 1962, the Soviets removed them anyway, wary of the hot-tempered young Castro.

Over the years, Castro would leverage that perceived betrayal to secure other military hardware and the generous Soviets aid that ensured his survival. And even without the missiles, the American invasion never came.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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