Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 11 2018

Cuban Missile Crisis

I n November 1960, U.S. senator John F. Kennedy (1917– 1963) of Massachusetts defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) in the presidential election. Kennedy was taking on a difficult job: U.S. relations with the Soviet Union were declining, and the world seemed to be proceeding deeper into crisis and conflict. A prime example of this was displayed on the evening of October 22, 1962, when Kennedy addressed the nation via television. The president had undisputable evidence that Soviet-built nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States and many Latin American countries were in place in Cuba, 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the U.S. shoreline.

As noted in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, in his televised address, Kennedy said, "Should these offensive military preparations continue … further action will be justified. I have directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities [possible action].… It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.… No one can foresee precisely what course it [the retaliation] will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred." In the following decades, especially during the 1990s as Soviet documents became available, records revealed that in late October 1962, the world was indeed at the brink of a nuclear holocaust. The intersection of the careers of a U.S. president and a newly established leader of a small nearby island, Fidel Castro Ruz (1926–), would keep the world's population on the edge of their seats for many days.

A young Fidel Castro

Born in Mayarí, Cuba, in 1926, Castro grew up in a solidly middle-class home. He graduated from the University of Havana in 1950 with a law degree. During most of Castro's early years, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (1901–1973), an oppressive dictator (a leader who uses force and terror to maintain control), ruled Cuba. Batista had been in complete control of the island since 1933, either directly or through other presidents. Batista's economic policies helped establish light industries, such as canneries, and allowed foreign companies, many from the United States, to build their businesses in Cuba. U.S. corporations dominated the sugar industry, oil production, and other key aspects of the island's economy. Most of Cuba's wealth was owned by a tiny percentage of the population; most Cuban citizens lived in dire poverty. Under these circumstances, Cuba was ripe for revolution, and Castro, the handsome, intense young lawyer, proved to be a charismatic leader.

In 1953, Castro attempted to overthrow Batista and was sent to prison. After his release in 1955, Castro went to Mexico and immediately gathered rebels together. In December 1956, Castro and his men landed in Cuba and carried on guerrilla, or irregular and independent, attacks against Batista's army for the next few years. The people of Cuba, especially the many who lived in poverty, increasingly supported the young revolutionaries, or those seeking radical change. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba. Within weeks, Castro established himself as premier.

Initially, the United States supported Castro, who was not a communist at the time. Communists believe that the best economic system is one that eliminates private ownership of property. Under this system, the goods produced and the wealth accumulated are, in theory, shared equally by all. A single party, the Communist Party, controls government and almost all other aspects of society. Communism is in direct contrast with the values of democratic, capitalist countries such as

the United States. A democratic government system requires government leaders and others who hold public office to be elected by the citizens in general elections. Candidates represent different political parties—and ultimately, all the people who vote for them. Capitalist economic systems allow private ownership of property and businesses. Competition in a free, or open, market determines prices, production, and distribution of goods.

The American media, including Life and Reader's Digest magazines, hailed Castro as an educated, daring, determined soldier. Castro wanted to lift Cubans out of poverty. He cut rents, proposed improved education and health care, and instituted farming reform, or dramatic change. He broke up large estates into smaller parcels for common citizens to farm. He also sought to end America's domination of the Cuban economy. However, Castro made no movement toward setting up free elections, which he had earlier promised to do. Appalled at Castro's actions, many middle-class and wealthy Cubans fled to the United States. From there, they began an anti-Castro campaign aimed at influencing the Cubans who stayed behind. To Castro's dismay, the United States did nothing to stop the anti-Castro effort. When Castro sought aid for his reforms from the United States, he was refused. During 1960, Cuba's relations with the United States rapidly slid downhill. The Soviet Union was ready and able to step in, signing a trade agreement with Castro in February 1960.

Moving toward communism

During mid-1960, Castro nationalized, or took control and ownership of, a billion dollars' worth of U.S. businesses in Cuba, including American oil refineries and banks. In response, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) halted U.S. importation of Cuban sugar, but the Soviet Union quickly agreed to buy the surplus. The Soviets also agreed to supply petroleum products to Cuba. In September 1960, Castro met Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) at the United Nations in New York City. Khrushchev warmly received Castro and privately gloated that communism had its first toehold in the Americas. Castro publicly aligned his country with the communist Soviet Union. On January 3, 1961, the United States and Cuba broke all diplomatic ties. For the most part, the American populace of the early 1960s believed that no leader would voluntarily turn toward communism; they figured that the Soviets must have been behind Castro all along. They overwhelmingly supported a hard-line anti-Castro policy.

President Eisenhower had early on suspected that Castro would take Cuba down the communist path, so in March 1960 he had secretly authorized the use of $13 million to train Cuban exiles, the people who had fled Cuba, to carry out an invasion of Cuba and oust Castro. Approximately fifteen hundred exiles volunteered to be trained for this job by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The top-secret training took place in the Central American countries of Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco

When President Kennedy took office, he inherited the Cuban problem. He had been briefed by Eisenhower's administration about the plans to remove Castro. Surprised, Kennedy nevertheless allowed the CIA and the Cuban exiles to proceed. However, knowing that it would look bad for a powerful nation to invade a tiny island, he refused to involve the American military; U.S. military aircraft would not be allowed to provide cover for the invasion. Kennedy hoped it would appear that the United States had played no part. The CIA and the fifteen hundred exiles, sure that the Cuban people would rise up and aid their effort against Castro, went ahead with their invasion on April 17, 1961, at a swampy beach area known as the Bay of Pigs.

Castro had gotten word of the planned invasion through informants who knew some of the exiles and had

his army ready with Soviet-made tanks. The defeat of the invading exiles was swift and complete. It was clear the failed invasion was backed by the United States, because the band of exiles could have never become so organized or bold otherwise. Kennedy was publicly embarrassed by the failure. He vowed that in the future he would consider more carefully the advice of those surrounding him.

The Cuban people had not risen up to overthrow Castro as expected. Instead, the Bay of Pigs invasion seemed to increase their support of Castro. Now firmly in the communist camp, Castro railed against American imperialism. (Imperialism is the practice of taking over other countries by force for economic or political gain.)

By this time, the Castro that Americans constantly saw on television was an eccentric-looking character: He always dressed in a military uniform, he had a scruffy beard, and his cigar seemed to be permanently attached to his mouth. Convinced that Castro was a serious threat to the United States, President Kennedy ordered Operation Mongoose, a top-secret plan to oust Castro. Operation Mongoose encompassed various plots, from placing hallucinatory drugs in Castro's drinking water to assassinating him. However, Operation Mongoose never materialized.

Communism on the march

Khrushchev was eager to maintain the forward progress of communism in the Western Hemisphere. By the spring of 1962, he had already sent many advisors and arms to Cuba. The Soviet investment in the island was substantial. Cuba's locale was a logistic dream for Khrushchev and a nightmare for the United States. Khrushchev fumed over the fact that U.S. missiles with nuclear warheads were openly located in Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom, within easy striking distance of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev admitted that those warheads scared the Soviets. The Soviets had never placed nuclear weapons outside their country's boundaries, because the weapons positioned inside the Soviet Union had the capability of annihilating Western Europe and reaching the United States. Nevertheless, Khrushchev knew that if he stationed nuclear weapons in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. coastline, it would cause Americans a great deal of anxiety.

When approached with the idea, Castro was not convinced that he wanted his island to be an outpost of Soviet nuclear weapons. But he soon agreed, and sent his brother Raúl and a Cuban military delegation to Moscow to work out the details. Castro wanted the missiles openly placed on Cuba, with the full knowledge of the international community. He hoped this would raise his status among Latin American leaders. But Khrushchev insisted on secrecy; he believed that once the missiles were in place, the United States could not act without the possibility of provoking war. So in secrecy the Soviets planned to install forty missile launchers in Cuba. Of the forty, twenty-four would be SS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launchers, each armed with two missiles. Each missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, had an explosive power equal to 1 million tons (907,000 metric tons) of TNT. At the end of World War II (1939–45), the city of Hiroshima, Japan, had been leveled in minutes by the equivalent of 13,000 tons (11,791 metric tons) of TNT. The MRBMs had a

range of 1,100 miles (1,270 kilometers), so Washington, D.C.; Dallas, Texas; and all the southeastern states were at risk. The other sixteen missile launchers would be long-range, capable of sending missiles northward to Canada and south into Latin America. Calculations showed that the only major U.S. city they could not reach was Seattle, Washington.

In July 1962, Soviet ships sailed toward Cuba with their cargo of missile equipment. Also headed for Cuba was the latest Soviet military equipment plus over forty thousand Soviet troops. Soviet fighter planes known as MiG's, some bombers to be assembled in Cuba, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to protect the nuclear missile sites all moved across the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba. The size of the undertaking was enormous. All the while, the Soviet government consistently assured the United States that the arms buildup in Cuba was purely defensive in nature—that the Soviet Union had no need to station missiles outside its own territory. These assurances would soon prove to be lies.

Revelations of October 14, 1962

Alarming intelligence reports from the National Security Agency (NSA) began late in 1960 and continued in 1961. The NSA was America's prime intelligence organization that listened to and analyzed foreign communications. Through intercepted messages, the NSA determined that Cuba was significantly building up its weapons, with the Soviet Union's help.

Additionally, the NSA heard Spanish being spoken on a surveillance tape from Czechoslovakia, an Eastern European nation under Soviet control; it turned out that Cuban fighter pilots were being trained in Czechoslovakia by the Soviet military. The NSA also intercepted messages that indicated that Soviet ships headed for Havana, Cuba, had no cargo listed—a quiet method of concealing the equipment they carried. The NSA reported on construction of SAM sites and new radar installations of air defense systems in Cuba. They also spotted Cubans training on Russian military equipment. U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., grew increasingly worried. Nevertheless, all these systems could be categorized as defensive systems, and Soviet authorities continued to insist that everything they provided to Cuba was purely defensive. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, secret planes that gathered information, flew at high altitudes over Cuba, and the pictures they brought back did not indicate any offensive weapons sites in Cuba.

Then on October 14, 1962, a U-2 mission returned with chilling photographs. Processed and analyzed on October 15, the photos showed the first clear evidence of medium-range ballistic missiles at construction sites in an area known as San Cristóbal. The photographs arrived on the desk of the president's national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy (1919–1996), on the evening of October 15. The MRBM installation appeared almost complete; the longer-range equipment looked as if it would not be ready until the end of the year. Knowing that sleep would be hard to come by for a while, a grim Bundy decided to let the president sleep that night.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, Bundy showed and explained the photographs to President Kennedy. Kennedy immediately called together a small group of senior cabinet members, security officials, and military leaders to assess the situation and advise him. The group became known as Ex-Comm, short for Executive Committee of the National Security Council; it stayed almost continuously in session for the next two weeks. (The National Security Council is part of the executive branch of the U.S. government. The council advises the president on matters of foreign policy and defense.) With an eye cast toward historical documentation, Kennedy secretly had all the brainstorming discussions of Ex-Comm tape-recorded.

The following days brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. When the Ex-Comm tapes became available in the 1990s at the close of the Cold War, they confirmed that there were several moments when one more command or one slight move on either country's part could have unleashed a nuclear holocaust. On October 16, 17, and 18 Ex-Comm discussions included a variety of proposals, from doing nothing, at least not immediately, to staging an invasion of Cuba. Members of the committee divided into two camps: hawks and doves. Hawks favored immediate military strikes to take out the missiles and Castro's communist government. Key hawks were General Maxwell Taylor (1901–1987), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military leaders at the Pentagon. Doves, fearing massive casualties, favored a strategy of diplomacy and less aggressive tactics. Key doves were Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1909–1994) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1916–). At the outset, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968), the president's brother, joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff in supporting an invasion or a surprise air strike. However, after further discussions, he decided an air strike was not in the best interests of the United States. In fact, many Ex-Comm members changed their minds—supporting one position, then another—as ideas were discussed.

All Ex-Comm members agreed from the start on one objective: The missiles must be removed from Cuba one way or another. President Kennedy and Ex-Comm could not permit this armed Soviet intrusion into the Americas, within

easy reach of North, Central, and South America. If the United States did not respond, the committee reasoned, Khrushchev would push for more communist influence in the region; this would undermine U.S. leadership in the Western Hemisphere and cause a massive negative reaction among the American public. Kennedy's political future would be in doubt, and fear of eventually being surrounded by Soviet-controlled communist states would increase.

President Kennedy addresses the American people

On Thursday, October 18, intelligence reports given to Ex-Comm indicated that medium-range missiles were almost ready, capable of being launched from Cuba in about eighteen hours. That afternoon, Soviet foreign minister Andrey Gromyko (1909–1989), in the United States for a United Nations meeting, met with President Kennedy at the White House. Kennedy did not reveal his proof of the missiles. Gromyko still insisted that Soviet military assistance for Cuba was only defensive. Late that night, Ex-Comm decided against immediate invasion of Cuba and settled tentatively on a more cautious plan—a naval blockade around Cuba that would prevent any additional Soviet ships and their military cargo from reaching Cuba.

President Kennedy did not want to announce the grave situation to the American public until a plan of action was decided upon, so he continued his planned schedule of campaign appearances as if nothing was amiss (the purpose of these appearances was to support various candidates for the upcoming November midterm elections). As plans favoring the blockade firmed up, he cancelled the rest of his campaign appearances. Kennedy thought the blockade most likely would not trigger immediate war. While demonstrating that the United States would not tolerate the missiles, the U.S. response still gave Khrushchev a way out and time to withdraw from the situation. Because blockades were against international law, the term "quarantine" was used instead.

Once the decision for a quarantine was made, Kennedy requested that the television networks clear out a prime-time evening slot on Monday, October 22, for an urgent address to the nation. Anatoly Dobrynin (1919–), the Soviet ambassador to the United States, who knew nothing of the offensive missiles, was handed the text of Kennedy's speech shortly before airtime. Dumbfounded, he quietly went back and sat in his embassy office, attempting to gather himself before relaying Kennedy's message to Moscow's leaders.

Addressing the American people, President Kennedy explained the situation fully. As noted in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Kennedy announced that the quarantine was scheduled to begin the morning of October 24, that the U.S. military was on full alert and prepared for any scenario, and that any nuclear missile launched would require a "full retaliatory response." Kennedy called for immediate meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations Security Council. (All the nations of North, Central, and South America make up the OAS, which was created to ensure mutual protection and cooperation in the Western Hemisphere.) Kennedy called "upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine [secret], reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stabilize relations between our two nations." Kennedy called on Khrushchev "to move the world back from the abyss [pit or depth] of destruction." As Kennedy spoke, the Joint Chiefs of Staff put the level of U.S. military alert worldwide at DEFCON 3, heightened state of preparedness for nuclear war. DEFCON, short for Defense Condition, is a rating system describing progressive alert levels used within the military; DEFCON 5 is normal peacetime readiness, while DEFCON 1 is maximum force readiness (for instance, an enemy's missiles are in the air and a nuclear war is imminent). For the first time in history, all planes of the U.S.

air defense system were armed with nuclear weapons. U.S. nuclear submarines took up assigned positions, and nuclear missiles located in the United States were readied for firing.

To the brink of nuclear war

On October 23, Khrushchev denounced the quarantine as a violation of international law. Khrushchev vowed that his ships would continue on course, that any American ship trying to stop them would be fired on by Soviet submarines stationed around Cuba. Those Soviet submarines had each been armed with a nuclear warhead, and their crew members had orders to fire if provoked. It appeared Moscow would push to the brink of nuclear war. The secretary general of the United Nations issued a plea to the United States and the Soviet Union, asking them not to push the world into war.

On the morning of October 24, the U.S. quarantine went into place, and the U.S. military went to DEFCON 2, the last level before nuclear war. This alert level was reached at no other time in history. Then U.S. intelligence reported an amazing development: It appeared that the Soviet ships had halted in the ocean. Secretary of State Rusk made his famous statement, "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked," as noted in Dino A. Brugioni's Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet Khrushchev did not back down entirely. He relayed a message to President Kennedy calling the quarantine an aggressive act, and the missiles already in Cuba remained. However, on October 25, the Soviet vessels carrying military equipment turned around. Those with no military equipment proceeded; they were searched and then allowed to go on to Havana.

Meantime, at President Kennedy's request, Robert Kennedy was having secret "backdoor" meetings with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin. On the evening of October 26, a long emotional letter from Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles from Cuba if the United States vowed not to invade Cuba. Dobrynin and Robert Kennedy met, and Dobrynin brought up the offensive U.S. missiles located in Turkey. The next morning, October 27, before President Kennedy could respond to Khrushchev's first letter, a second, more demanding letter insisted that the United States agree to remove the missiles in Turkey if the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba. Events that Saturday—known as Black Saturday because many felt it was the day the world came closest to annihilation—turned even uglier. A U.S. U-2 flight over Alaska drifted into Soviet airspace, and the Soviets regarded it as a test of their defense system. The U-2 simply drifted out of Soviet airspace without incident, but it caused much tension among Soviet leaders. Then in Cuba, another American U-2 was spotted and brought down with a surface-to-air missile. The pilot was killed. Amid the worsening situation, the U.S. military command was clamoring for a fight. In their book Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991, Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing report that Secretary of Defense McNamara walked out of the White House that evening into the open air and thought he would never live to see another Saturday.

Robert Kennedy advised the president to simply ignore Khrushchev's demands in the second letter and accept the terms of the first letter. President Kennedy agreed. Robert Kennedy then met with Dobrynin and informed him that the United States would halt the quarantine and not invade Cuba if the Soviets would pull out the missiles. When Dobrynin asked about the missiles in Turkey, Kennedy assured him that those missiles would be removed after the crisis was over. However, Kennedy insisted that this agreement be kept secret, because the United States could not appear to withdraw protection for Western Europe for its own purposes. Dobrynin relayed this information to Moscow. Soviet leaders did not realize that the United States considered the missiles in Turkey outdated and had intended to remove them soon anyway. The next morning, October 28, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. Immediately both sides breathed easier. DEFCON was reset at alert level 5, the lowest concern level. Khrushchev proceeded to bring the Soviet missiles back to the Soviet Union.

Both Khrushchev and President Kennedy could claim their diplomacy halted the crisis when it appeared to be spiraling out of control. Castro, on the other hand, gained no advantage from their agreement; he was outraged over the missiles being removed, angered because he was totally left out of the negotiations by Krushchev and not even consulted about their removal, but he could do nothing about it. Despite the appearance of defeat, Khrushchev's main goal was to keep Cuba communist, and in the early twenty-first century, Cuba remained a communist country.

By the spring of 1963, the United States had removed all its missiles from Turkey. Press reports never mentioned that their removal had anything to do with the Cuban Missile

Crisis. Few people knew that the missiles in Turkey had been replaced by much more effective missiles on a Polaris submarine.

The world had been to the brink of nuclear war, but at that point, having scared themselves mightily, the super-powers compromised. Sobered leaders in Washington, D.C., and Moscow began serious talks to start the process of bringing nuclear weapons under control with a test-ban treaty. In June 1963, a direct hot line was set up between Washington, D.C., and Moscow to help reduce the chance of nuclear war occurring because of miscalculation or misunderstanding.

For More Information


Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

Brubaker, Paul E. The Cuban Missile Crisis in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.

Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Random House, 1991.

Chang, Laurence, and Peter Kornbluh, eds. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. New York: New Press, 1998.

Chrisp, Peter. Cuban Missile Crisis. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2002.

Finkelstein, Norman H. Thirteen Days/Ninety Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: J. Messner, 1994.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

Huchthausen, Peter A., and Alexander Hoyt. October Fury. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2002.

Isaacs, Jeremy, and Taylor Downing. Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945–1991. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

Kennedy, John F. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, 1963. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963.

Kennedy, Robert F., and Arthur Schlesinger. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. W. W. Norton, 1999.

Lynch, Grayston L. Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2000.

May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Medina, Loreta M., ed. Cuban Missile Crisis. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2002.

Thompson, Robert S. The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Triay, Victor Andres. Bay of Pigs: An Oral History of Brigade 2506. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Web Sites

George Washington University. "The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The 40th Anniversary." National Security Archive. (accessed on August 4, 2003).

National Security Agency. NSA and the Cuban Missile Crisis. http://www. (accessed on August 4, 2003).

U.S. Air Force. "Cold War History: 1949–1989." USAF Museum. (accessed on August 4, 2003).

Washington Post. "Reliving the World's Most Dangerous Days." Cuban Missile Crisis. archive/index.html (accessed on August 4, 2003).

Other Sources

Kenny, Charles, ed. John F. Kennedy: The Presidential Portfolio—History as Told through the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Compact disc (audio). New York: PublicAffairs, 2000.

Words to Know

Bay of Pigs: Failed U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs by fifteen hundred Cuban exiles opposed to Fidel Castro, on April 17, 1961.

Capitalism: An economic system in which property and businesses are privately owned. Prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government intervention.

Communism: A system of government in which the nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society. Private ownership of property is eliminated and government directs all economic production. The goods produced and accumulated wealth are, in theory, shared relatively equally by all. All religious practices are banned.

Cuban Missile Crisis: A showdown in October 1962 that brought the Soviet Union and the United States close to war over the existence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Democracy: A system of government that allows multiple political parties. Their members are elected to various government offices by popular vote of the people.

National Security Agency (NSA): The United States' premier organization assigned to protect U.S. information systems and listen in on and analyze foreign intelligence information.

Quarantine: A blockade; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States installed a buildup of naval ships around Cuba, with the intent of preventing any additional Soviet ships and their military cargo from reaching Cuba. Because blockades were against international law, the term "quarantine" was used instead.

People to Know

Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (1901–1973): Cuban dictatorial leader, 1933– 44, 1952–59.

Anatoly Dobrynin (1919–): Soviet ambassador to the United States, 1962–86.

Fidel Castro Ruz (1926–): Cuban premier/president, 1959–.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969): Thirty-fourth U.S. president, 1953–61.

John F. Kennedy (1917–1963): Thirty-fifth U.S. president, 1961–63.

Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968): U.S. attorney general, 1961–64.

Nikita S. Khrushchev (1894–1971): Soviet premier, 1958–64.

Kennedy's Favorite Spy Photograph

Mounted on a wall in President Kennedy's office was a photograph of a Cuban launch site for Soviet SAMs, surface-to-air missiles. The picture clearly shows roads in a six-pointed star pattern connecting the launch sites. The picture was taken at an altitude of less than 500 feet (152 meters), at 713 miles (1,147 kilometers) per hour, by a U.S. Air Force RF-101C. Kennedy liked the photograph because of the clarity of the geometric design of the missile installations.

The Inside Word

The response of the U.S. intelligence system during the Cuban Missile Crisis helped President John F. Kennedy navigate the ominous days of late October 1962. Three groups played key roles in providing information from surveillance and reconnaissance missions. (Surveillance and reconnaissance refer to examination and survey of enemy territory and activities.) The groups included the Signals Intelligence, the Strategic Air Command, and the Tactical Air Command.

Signals Intelligence, or SIGINT, is part of the National Security Agency (NSA). NSA is America's premier organization assigned to protect U.S. information systems and listen in on and analyze foreign intelligence information. NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States; NSA employees are often referred to as the "codemakers and codebreakers." SIGINT has a long and fabled history: In World War II (1939–45) SIGINT broke the codes of the Japanese military, helping bring an end to the war. SIGINT monitored the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba at its earliest stages, in mid-1960. SIGINT listened in on and analyzed Soviet communications discussing the operation to supply Cuba with weapons; they also heard messages from Soviet ships headed for Havana. Then they intercepted Cuban discussions about the arrival of "Russian equipment" at the unloading docks.

By May 1961, SIGINT listened to radio chatter from Cuba about special ship cargo—defensive radar systems associated with antiaircraft weapons. Then in August and September 1962, SIGINT picked up information that SAMs, surface-to-air missiles, had arrived on the island. Subsequently it reported that fifteen SAMs were operational, most likely in position to protect secret operations. In other words, the SAMs were in position to shoot down U.S. Air Force reconnaissance flights.

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the U.S. Air Force operated the high-flying U-2 aircraft that photographed various portions of Cuba. In October 1962, photographs taken on U-2 missions revealed definite construction of bases for intermediate-range ballistic missiles only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the U.S. coastline.

While U-2s continued their high-altitude photography, the Tactical Air Command (TAC), also part of the U.S. Air Force, used the RF-101C aircraft to take low-level photographs of Cuban missile sites and of the docks where Soviet ships brought their cargo. The crews of the RF-101Cs directed photography on daring flights that traveled at 700 to 1,000 miles (1,126 to 1,609 kilometers) per hour, often at treetop level. U-2 and RF-101C aircraft continued making reconnaissance flights throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, one U-2 was lost over Cuba when it was shot down by a SAM.

SIGINT provided round-the-clock information to senior military and political leaders. The SIGINT command center was under the direction of Juanita Moody, who had served as a cryptanalyst (codebreaker) during World War II. She and Lieutenant General Gordon Blake took the responsibility of overseeing the staff of the command center and getting information to the White House. It was SIGINT, through interception of radio messages from Soviet vessels, that first notified President Kennedy on October 24 that the "quarantine" appeared to be working. Mapping the location of the Soviet vessels, SIGINT confirmed that the ships appeared to be stopped in the water outside the ring of American ships.

SIGINT, along with U-2 and RF-101C aircraft, continued surveillance and reconnaissance as the Cuban missiles were dismantled and shipped back to the Soviet Union.

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 14 2018

Cuban Missile Crisis








Perhaps no single event in the history of the cold war presented as great a challenge to world peace and the continued existence of humankind as the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The outcome of the crisis has been linked to the development of a direct Teletype hotline between Moscow and Washington, D.C., the initial stages of superpower détente, and the ratification of a bilateral atmospheric testing ban on nuclear weapons.


Despite the failed U.S. effort to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy continued to make Castros removal a primary goal. In November 1961, Kennedy initiated Operation Mongoose, a covert operations plan designed to incite dissident Cubans against Castro. Perhaps as a result, Castro, who enjoyed the Soviet Unions political and military backing, began receiving regular covert shipments of Soviet arms, ostensibly for defensive purposes only.


On October 14, 1962, a U2 spy plane, flying a routine Strategic Air Command mission over Cuba, snapped a series of photographs that became the first direct evidence of Soviet medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. These missiles clearly constituted an offensive weapons buildup on the island.

On the morning of October 16, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy presented a detailed analysis of the photographic evidence to Kennedy at an Oval Office briefing. Just before noon, Kennedy convened the first meeting of fourteen administration officials and advisers. The group became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm.

Time was of the essence. ExComm members received estimates that the Soviet missiles could be at full operation within fourteen days, with individual missiles readied within eighteen hours under a crash program. Most missiles were determined to be SS-4s, with a range of approximately 1,100 nautical miles (1,266 statute miles). This placed major American cities, including Dallas and Washington, D.C., within range of a strike. Later, photographic evidence concluded that several SS-5s, with a range of 2,200 nautical miles, were also included in the Soviet arms shipments.

For the next seven days, ExComm debated the merits of three general approaches to the developing crisis, all while keeping a tight public lid on the Cuban discovery. The first was a surgical airstrike targeting as many missile sites as possible. The second was an air strike followed by a U.S. military invasion of Cuba. The third was a blockade of Soviet ships thought to be carrying additional materials in support of the offensive weapons program.

In an attempt to allow diplomatic approaches an opportunity to work, Kennedy opted for the blockade, which was termed a quarantine so as to avoid warlike denotations.


On October 22, in anticipation of a Cuban and/or Soviet reaction to the quarantine, the joint chiefs of staff placed U.S. military forces worldwide on DEFCON 3 alert. At five that afternoon, Kennedy met with seventeen congressional leaders from both major parties to discuss the situation. The president received some support for the quarantine, but notable exceptions included Senators J. William Fulbright and Richard B. Russell, both of whom believed that the strategy would not compel the Soviets to abandon their missiles.

By six that evening, Secretary of State Dean Rusk met with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, and presented the ambassador with an advanced copy of Kennedys address. At seven, Kennedy addressed the American public in a seventeen-minute speech. His major objective, in addition to calling public attention to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, was to outline the U.S. responsethe quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchevs reply to Kennedys speech arrived on the morning of October 23. Premier Khrushchevs letter insisted that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were defensive in nature, and that the proposed U.S. response constituted a grave threat to world peace.

Kennedy was concerned that Berlin, which was divided into segments of East and West at the end of World War II, would become a focal point for Soviet retaliation. As such, he directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop plans for protecting Berlin in the event the Soviets mounted a quarantine around the city.

By the evening of October 23, Kennedy and ExComm had new worries much closer to home. Earlier in the day, the CIA began tracking several Soviet submarines unexpectedly moving toward Cuba. This made the Navys job of conducting the quarantine more complicated, as it now had to track the changing position of the Soviet subs in order to ensure the safety of its own vessels.

The quarantine, which received the unanimous backing of the Organization of American States, went into effect at 10:00 a.m. on October 24.

Early morning intelligence on that day suggested that sixteen of the nineteen Soviet cargo ships identified as Cuban bound were reversing course. The remaining three, however, were nearing the quarantine line, including the Gagarin and Komiles. Naval intelligence reported that one of the Soviet subs had taken a position between the two ships. Kennedy, though wishing to avoid conflict with the sub, authorized the aircraft carrier USS Essex to take whatever defensive measures were necessary against the submarine. This was perhaps the most dangerous moment of the cold war, as both superpowers were armed and mere moments from turning the war hot. Just prior to any armed hostilities, however, both Soviet ships stopped dead in the water, and eventually reversed course.

Realizing that a diplomatic resolution to the crisis was imperative, Kennedy and senior ExComm advisers began to consider offering the Soviets a missile trade. Specifically, if Khrushchev pulled his missiles out of Cuba, the United States would dismantle and remove its Jupiter missiles in Turkey.


October 25 found the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, publicly confronting the Soviet ambassador, Valerian Zorin, in front of the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union had, until this date, denied that offensive Soviet missiles were in Cuba. At this point, Stevenson showed the council, and the world, several reconnaissance photographs of the Cuban missiles.

This triumph was short-lived. By five that evening, CIA director John McCone reported to ExComm that some of the Cuban missiles were now operational.

By the morning of October 26, Kennedy was convinced that only an invasion of Cuba could succeed in removing the missiles. ExComm initiated preliminary civil defense measures for the American Southeast, while the State Department began to devise plans for establishing a new civil government in the wake of Castros deposing. By that afternoon, the U.S. military was poised to conduct a land invasion. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advised Kennedy to expect heavy American casualties in the campaign.

At six that evening, the State Department received a letter from Khruschev proposing that the U.S. declare it would not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets dismantling the missiles. Later that evening, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the presidents closest adviser and brother, held another in a series of private meetings with Dobrynin. It was at this meeting that Kennedy, with the presidents approval, began to specifically discuss the option of a Turkey-for-Cuba missile trade.

Any positive momentum from this meeting stalled on the morning of October 27. A second letter from Khruschev arrived at the State Department around eleven. This letter replaced the noninvasion pledge with the requirement of a complete removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. This raised the stakes for the Kennedy administration, as any public agreement on the Jupiter missiles would appear as a quid pro quo, with the U.S. forced to develop its security and foreign policies under severe threat.

The situation deteriorated even further when a U2, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down over Cuba around noon. Sensing that he was losing control of the crisis, Kennedy decided not to retaliate against the anti-aircraft site that fired on Anderson, much to the consternation of his military leaders.

At an ExComm meeting later that evening, the idea of responding only to the offer in Khrushchevs first letterthe noninvasion pledgewhile ignoring the terms of the second letter, was debated. President Kennedy eventually came to adopt the proposal. Robert Kennedy was sent to discuss the terms with Dobrynin, which included an agreement not to publicly disclose the Turkey-for-Cuba missile trade, so as to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo.


President Kennedy, while hopeful that a deal would be reached, activated twenty-four Air Force units in preparation for a Cuban invasion to occur no later than October 29.

A CIA update in the early morning of October 28 claimed that all MRBM sites in Cuba were now operational. At nine that morning, Radio Moscow broadcast Khrushchevs reply to the terms outlined to Dobrynin the night before. In it, Khruschev stated that all Soviet missiles in Cuba would be dismantled and crated. No public mention of the missile trade deal was made. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over, and a world war with nuclear weapons had most likely been averted.

Many historians generally view President Kennedys performance in the crisis as exemplary, and worthy of emulation by all chief executives. However, some revisioanry scholars have criticized Kennedys interpretation of the threat posed by the Cuban missiles as an overreaction not warranted by a sober assessment of Soviet intentions and strategic goals.


Of the many scholarly works devoted to understanding the dynamics of the missile crisis, and its effects on policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, is Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikows Essence of Decision (1999). This volume has perhaps the greatest continuing impact for scholars and other interested persons alike. Allison analyzes the crisis through three distinct models. Model One assesses foreign policy from the rational actor approach, which considers each state as an individual or person, and attempts to understand actor behavior according to specified risks and payoffs. Model Two examines the crisis from the vantage point of the individual agencies involved, while Model Three attempts to capture the individual interests and proclivities of the major players involved.

Allison and Zelikow use the unique exigencies presented by the crisis to suggest that the models are incompatible in understanding the strategic calculus between states. Yet their description leaves the models open to the argument that they are not able to account for the novel and immediate adaptations that events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, require of government actors. At the same time, it is not clear that there is much true difference between the models, especially two and three, as all three are steeped in the rational choice tradition. Thus, while the examination does help to shed some light on the internal dynamics inherent in government decision-making processes, the uniqueness of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the relative inability of the three models to capture the dynamics at work in both Washington and Moscow serve as a reminder of how critical, and potentially catastrophic, a period the thirteen days in October 1962 truly were.

SEE ALSO Castro, Fidel; Cold War; Communism; Democracy; Kennedy, John F.; Khrushchev, Nikita; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. 1999. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman.

Brune, Lester H. 1985. The Missile Crisis of October 1962: A Review of Issues and References. Claremont, CA: Regina Books.

Hilsman, Roger. 1967. To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Medland, William J. 1990. The Cuban Missile Crisis: Evolving Historical Perspectives. The History Teacher 23: 433447.

Rostow, Walt W. 1972. The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History. New York: Macmillan.

Sorensen, Theodore C. 1965. Kennedy. New York: Harper and Row.

Brian Robert Calfano

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated Jun 11 2018



The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is the closest the world has ever come to full-scale nuclear war, and fear of the narrow means by which true disaster was averted frightened European and North American leaders into changes that dramatically altered the international system. Thereafter the Cold War entered a more stable phase, as the superpowers shifted from direct confrontation to a series of proxy wars fought over the ensuing generation throughout the developing world. Washington and Moscow each recognized a need for diffusing their mutual tensions in the wake of the crisis, while their European and Asian counterparts generally developed a greater desire for an alternative to seemingly moribund Soviet and U.S. leadership.


Cuba was the focus of the crisis, but the roots of this conflict lay in long-standing Soviet and U.S. antagonism and insecurities. The country had become a thorn in the side of U.S. leaders following Fidel Castro's seizure of power in 1959. Analysts in Washington debated Castro's faith in communism, but whatever his leanings, U.S. policy makers believed their reputation in Latin America could not tolerate a truly radical state only ninety miles from Florida. Castro's threats to nationalize foreign property on the island might seem a dangerous example to revolutionary groups throughout a region long considered a U.S. sphere of influence, they reasoned, while Cuba was simply too close for comfort for U.S. leaders ever vigilant against communist outposts. President Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed Castro's overthrow as early as January 1960, a year before breaking diplomatic relations with his regime. By the time John F. Kennedy took office the following year vowing to "oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas," plans for a U.S.-supported invasion by Cuban exiles were already advanced, and the new president approved the operation with minimal oversight.

The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 proved one of Kennedy's greatest fiascos. He publicly took full responsibility but swore thereafter to hold more tightly to the reins of power lest others drive his administration to ruin. He appointed his most trusted advisors, including his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to oversee Cuba policy, making Castro's removal one of his highest priorities. Cuba's affect on U.S. security and prestige, the president believed, threatened to tilt the Cold War's delicate balance in communism's favor.

Correctly believing that U.S. leaders sought his fall from power, Castro sought Moscow's protection, a move the Soviets embraced. Premier Nikita Khrushchev in particular sought greater parity in U.S.-Soviet relations by the early 1960s and believed Washington's greater nuclear strength, including its nuclear missiles stationed along the Soviet border in Turkey, ensured that the Americans held the better hand in any superpower clash. The two communist leaders therefore decided in May 1962, for reasons both believed were defensive, to deploy to Cuba some eighty nuclear missiles, with range enough to place virtually the entire continental United States—including the newly constructed American missile fields in the Dakotas—within Moscow's sights. "Installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro's government," Khrushchev later recounted, and "equalized what the West likes to call the 'balance of power'," (Khrushchev, pp. 493–494). Washington saw things differently. Soviet missiles in Cuba offered the Kremlin a true first-strike capability, including the ability to destroy Washington without warning while decimating America's missile deterrent as well. Surely the Kremlin would not risk this dangerous move, Kennedy's intelligence team incorrectly determined a full five months after Khrushchev ordered the missile deployment. If Cuba should "become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union," Kennedy publicly warned, "then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies" (Public Papers, 1962, p. 674).

Kennedy was therefore infuriated to learn, on 16 October, that a U.S. spy plane had captured photos of Soviet missile-site construction in Cuba. His national security team hastily developed three options for removing the threat: invasion, negotiations, or blockade of the island. While his more hawkish advisors called for an immediate strike, on 22 October Kennedy announced a "quarantine" around Cuba. Soviet leaders vowed their ships would not respect the American blockade, and Khrushchev warned that Kennedy was pushing "mankind towards the abyss" (Hunt, p. 239). Soviet ships eventually halted just short of the quarantine line two days later, but as missile-site construction continued in Cuba, each side continued to prepare for war.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed. Public blustering continued, but private discussions—including secret meetings between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin—eventually developed a usable compromise. The Soviets would remove the missiles following a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba, while Kennedy promised to remove his missiles from Turkey (after a politically prudent six-month interval). "I am not going to war over worthless missiles in Turkey," Kennedy privately explained (LaFeber, 1994, p. 601). By 28 October full-scale war had been averted, though revelations during the late 1990s demonstrated that nuclear war was in fact closer than ever realized. Unbeknownst to Washington, Soviet commanders in Cuba had full authorization to employ nuclear arms in defense against a U.S. invasion, and one can only imagine the consequences of U.S. landing forces in Cuba being met with nuclear fireballs. "Where would it have ended?" asked former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1992 upon learning of this near-catastrophe: "in utter disaster" (LaFeber, 1994, p. 601). Only Castro seemed displeased by the peaceful conclusion of the crisis. Having been ready to sacrifice his country's existence for the sake of its independence, indeed having urged Khrushchev to strike the United States, Castro felt betrayed by what he termed the Kremlin's "surprising, sudden, and unconditional surrender" (Suri, p. 40). It would take several years and millions in aid before he would trust the Soviets again.


The ramifications of this near brush with disaster dramatically changed the course of the Cold War, and Europe's role in the conflict especially. Kennedy proved shaken by the nearness of the conflict and resolved thereafter to limit the risk of nuclear warfare. He authorized a direct "hot line" between the White House and the Kremlin so that leaders could communicate directly during any future crisis, and a U.S.-led ban on atmospheric nuclear tests followed. In retrospect, a decreased U.S. emphasis on potential flash points of superpower conflict followed as well, replaced by low-scale responses to communist insurgencies throughout the formerly colonized world. In areas such as Southeast Asia and Central America, subsequent U.S. policy makers would put this "flexible response" strategy to the test without fear of a nuclear exchange.

Soviet leaders drew similar and different conclusions from the conflict, shaped by their perception that they had lost the confrontation because of the very disparity of power that the missile deployment in Cuba had been designed to eliminate in the first place. On the one hand, Khrushchev left the conflict as shaken as Kennedy. What was needed was a "relaxation of tension," he told his U.S. counterpart. Others within his government preached strength, however. "You Americans will never be able to do this to us again," one Soviet diplomat warned, and while U.S. leaders focused on countering communist insurgents throughout the developing world, Soviet policy makers thereafter focused primarily on narrowing the nuclear gap (Garthoff, pp. 133–134). By the mid-1970s neither side could be said to have had a real advantage in this arena, especially as each possessed the ability destroy the other (and the world) numerous times over. Khrushchev did not survive in power long enough to oversee this transformation, however, but was instead deposed in October 1964. "You insisted that we deploy our missiles on Cuba," one accuser charged, "and carried the world to the brink of nuclear war." Yet "not having any way out, we had to accept every demand and condition dictated by the U.S." (Fursenko and Naftali, p. 354). The great irony of Khrushchev's departure is that he ultimately left the Soviet Union with the very international stability, built on a foundation of nuclear parity, that he had long sought, though the burden of matching the wealthier Americans would eventually cripple the Soviet economy.

The Cuban Missile Crisis altered European and Asian diplomacy as well. Chinese leaders forged ahead with their own nascent nuclear program in its wake, determined never again to let Moscow take the lead in the East–West conflict. Relaxation of U.S.–Soviet tensions, illustrated by their mutual support for the Limited Test Ban Treaty, proved that both countries only sought "domination of the world by the two great despots," China's foreign minister charged, while Mao Zedong later vowed that Beijing's nuclear threat guaranteed that "the Chinese people will never accept the privileged position of one or two superpowers" (Suri, pp. 75–76).

France's Charles de Gaulle would not have put the idea any differently. The Cuban crisis reinforced his long-standing view that French power was needed as a counterweight to Soviet and U.S. balancing, and he was particularly incensed when Kennedy chose to only "inform" him of events during the crisis rather than "consult" (LaFeber, 1991, p. 228). He rejected the Limited Test Ban Treaty as a U.S.–Soviet ploy to limit France's "right to possess its own arms," and within a year he removed his military from full participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and vetoed Britain's application for entry into the European Common Market. British membership would be as Washington's "Trojan Horse," he charged, and "the end would be a colossal Atlantic community dependent on America and directed by America" (LaFeber, 1991, pp. 228–229). Cuba proved to de Gaulle that an independently strong France was needed for a true balance of powers, even if limits on French international cooperation followed.

British leaders had already reached a similar conclusion on the need for an alternative to bipolarity and on the central importance of nuclear weapons to true great power status because, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan quipped, "We must rely on the power of the nuclear deterrent, or we must throw up the sponge!" (Nunnerly, 1972, p. 117). Macmillan's government was particularly infuriated with Washington's public expectation of unwavering support during the Cuban crisis, but unlike de Gaulle, British analysts determined to work to reform superpower relations from within rather than to break outright with the Americans. This faith in the special relationship was put to the test in December 1962, when Washington threatened cancellation of its promised Skybolt missile. Britain's nuclear deterrent, its sole remaining claim to great power status, required this U.S. aid, and an irate Macmillan ultimately persuaded Kennedy to supply Polaris missiles in their place. The damage to their relationship of these twin blows, Cuba and Skybolt, was immense, leading British leaders too to fear Washington's rising hegemony. "The United States didn't want a partner," one British official exclaimed in frustration. "They wanted a satellite" (LaFeber, 1994, p. 603).

Not every state chose nuclear parity as the answer to the East–West divide. German leaders in particular, whose history made development of this fearful weapon simply impossible, feared in particular their geographic peril. Set between the warring superpowers, indeed divided by them, German leaders pushed hardest for détente following 1962, because as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer explained even before the Cuban stalemate, any future war in Europe "would be a nuclear war … without any profit for the survivors" (Suri, p. 26). His was a common sentiment throughout the Continent, and with a wall bisecting the ancient capital of Berlin since 1961, German leaders led the charge following the Cuban Missile Crisis toward East–West reconciliation, even though it would take until the end of the decade for terms such as détente or Ostpolitik to enter the diplomatic lexicon. "There is no hope for us," West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt concluded after the Cuban Missile Crisis, "if there is no change," and Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain must "break through the frozen front between East and West" (Suri, p. 217).

Castro left the crisis the only real winner, while superpower bipolarity endured its death-blow. The tense October days allowed the Cuban leader to solidify his tenuous hold on power, and for the remaining decades of the Cold War he remained a favorite ally in Moscow and notorious in Washington. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev survived in power long after the affair, and their departure symbolized the way the Cuban Missile Crisis, in many ways the low point of the Cold War brought on by the logic of a world divided in two, revealed to observers throughout the world, and to Europeans especially, the need to find a third way.

See alsoArms Control; Cold War; Nuclear Weapons; Soviet Union.


Primary Sources

Chang, Laurence, and Peter Kornbluh, eds. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Kennedy, John F. Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy. 1961, 1962. Washington, D.C., 1962, 1963.

Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York, 1999.

Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers. Translated and edited by Strobe Talbott. Boston, 1974.

May, Ernest, and Philip Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Beschloss, Michael. The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963. New York, 1991.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy 1958–1964. New York, 1997.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Washington, D.C, 1989.

George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. ChapelHill, N.C.,2003.

Hunt, Michael. Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1996.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1990. New York, 1991.

——. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad since 1750. New York, 1994.

Nash, Philip. The Other Missiles of October: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Jupiters, 1957–1963. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997. Nunnerly, David. President Kennedy and Britain. New York, 1972.

Scott, L. V. Macmillan, Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. London, 1999.

Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York, 2003.

Jeffrey A. Engel

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 11 2018

Cuban Missile Crisis


The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was triggered by the Soviet deployment to Cuba of medium-range, nucleararmed ballistic missiles. The United States demanded that the Soviet Union remove these missiles and imposed a naval blockade on Cuba, threatening to sink any Soviet ships that approached the island without permitting their cargoes to be inspected. Eventually, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) announced that it would remove the missiles, and the crisis ended. Most historians affirm that the world has never been closer to global nuclear war than during the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis (Oct. 14Oct. 28, 1962).

The roots of the Cuban missile crisis go back, in part, to an earlier crisisthe failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban expatriates trained, supplied, and directed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The purpose of the failed invasion was to overthrow Fidel Castro's leftist rule of Cuba, but had two unintended effects. First, it frightened Castro, causing him to make concessions to the U.S.S.R, which wanted to place military bases on the island of Cuba, in exchange for protection against further U.S. invasion attempts. Second, it heightened tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, read U.S. weakness in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and blustered publicly that he might retaliate by driving the U.S. out of West Berlin. U.S. President John Kennedy, in return, openly boasted that the U.S. possessed many more (and more accurate and deliverable) nuclear missiles and warheads than the U.S.S.R., and would consider striking first with them if it ever found itself at a military disadvantage. Kennedy's claim was true; in 1962, the U.S.S.R. had at most 20 or 30perhaps as few as four functional, deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); the U.S. had several hundred. Nevertheless, Kennedy had claimed, during his presidential campaign, that the incumbent Eisenhower's administration had allowed the Soviets to get ahead of the U.S. in missiles, causing a "missile gap." A missile gap did exist, as Kennedy knew, but in reverse; it had always been the U.S. that was far ahead of the U.S.S.R. in such weapons. Once in office, Kennedy dropped the old story about the "missile gap" and brandished the United States's nuclear superiority openly against Khrushchev.

Khruschev's response was to secretly build missile bases on Cuban soil to compensate for Soviet inferiority in ICBMs. These missiles were medium-range and intermediate-range, rather than intercontinental, but from Cuba could reach the entire continental U.S. except its northwest corner. Similar missiles had been by stationed the United States for years in Turkey, which borders southern Russia. Castro gave permission to the Soviets to build Cuban missile bases in trade for a promise of protection against U.S. invasion and for cancellation of Cuban monetary debts.

Construction of the Cuban bases proceeded throughout the summer of 1962. The U.S. was aware, from various intelligence sources, that the Soviets were building up military forces on the island, but did not realize that intermediate-range nuclear weapons were part of the plan. Kennedy issued warnings to Khrushchev that the U.S. would not tolerate a major military buildup in Cuba, but would do "whatever must be done" to guarantee U.S. security; Kennedy and his advisors believed that Khrushchev would take these grave warnings seriously, and were

also aware that the U.S.S.R. had never yet placed nuclear weapons outside Russian territory; these factors made it seem unlikely that nuclear weapons were part of the Cuban buildup. Nevertheless, they were.

U-2 spy planes (aircraft designed to take reconnaissance photographs from very high altitudes) were making regular flights over Cuba, observing the military buildup. On October 14, a U-2 spy plane photographed an area near San Cristóbal, Cuba, revealing launch pads, missile erectors, and transport trucks for medium-range missiles. Four of the launchers were already in firing position. Khrushchev had decided to deploy launchers for at least 16 intermediate-range missiles (capable of reaching most of the continental U.S.) and 24 medium-range missiles (capable of reaching the southeastern U.S., including Washington, D.C.).

The U-2 pictures were shown to Kennedy on the morning of October 16. Much like the Kennedy administration's claims during the Bay of Pigs crisis that the U.S. had no illegal intentions in Cuba, Khrushchev's claims to have no desire to base missiles in Cuba had proved to be untrue. Kennedy hastily assembled an ad hoc executive committee of the National Security Council, which helped him come up with two alternative plans: (1) Immediate attack on the Soviet missiles sites in Cuba, followed by a full invasion of the island using 180,000 U.S. troops. (2) A naval blockade of Cuba, to be lifted only if the Soviets removed its missiles. If the blockade did not workand it was a risky plan, as such a blockade is, by international law, an act of warthe invasion plan would be carried out.

On October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the American people by television. He stated:

"This sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted againTo halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back."

Over the next four days, ships carrying Russian goods were searched at sea, and several Soviet vessels carrying missiles were turned back by U.S. naval vessels. The U.S. Strategic Air Command placed all its B-52 intercontinental bombers on 15-minute takeoff alert on October 20; on October 22, it placed them on a revolving airborne alert, with a percentage of bombers airborne at all times, ready to head over the North Pole toward the Soviet Union. ICBM crews were also placed on highest alert, ready to launch, and nuclear-armed Polaris submarines moved to their pre-assigned war stations at sea. The Soviet Union already had over 45,000 of its own troops on Cuba (though the U.S. estimated only 16,000), armed with 90 shortrange nuclear warheads that would have been used against a U.S. invasion force. (The U.S. did not know of these short-range nuclear weapons.)

A U.S. invasion of Cuba, had it occurred, could have escalated rapidly to nuclear war, first in Cuba and then globally. The entire world, including Kennedy and Khrushchev and their advisors, feared throughout the crisis that global nuclear war was extremely probable. If nuclear war had occurred, it could have caused hundreds of millions of deaths, and significantly destroyed the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and many other nations as functioning societies.

On October 26, Khrushchev sent a private message to Kennedy indicating that he would be willing to remove the missiles if the U.S. would promise not to invade Cuba. The following day, a more formal message said that Soviet Union would remove its missiles only if the U.S. would remove its Jupiter-class intermediate-range missiles from Turkey. In secret negotiations between Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy (brother of President Kennedy), the U.S. did promise not to invade Cuba in exchange for withdrawal of the Soviet missiles; it did not, however, promise to remove its missiles from Turkey. These missiles were considered largely symbolic by U.S. strategists, and were technically unreliable and obsolete. Additionally, their threat to the U.S.S.R. could have been replaced by deployment of a Poseidon submarine carrying nuclear missiles to the eastern Mediterranean. In secret, therefore, Kennedy seriously considered trading the missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba, although in public he refused to do. On October 28one day before the deadline urged by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff for launching a Cuban invasionthe Soviets stated that they would remove their missiles from Cuba. The crisis abated.

Many historians have viewed Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis as a masterpiece of statesmanship. The Soviet Union backed down; its missiles were removed; U.S. goals were fully met; American geomilitary prestige was preserved. Other historians argue that the Kennedy administration was not as deft in reality as it seemed publicly. Kennedy and his advisors were badly frightened; Secretary of State Dean Rusk began to weep when told, at the height of the crisis, that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. Robert Kennedy said later that his brother had put events in motion that he could not control.

What is certain is that Khrushchev and Kennedy were both willing to risk global nuclear war for dubious gains. The Soviets were soon to achieve strategic nuclear parity with the U.S. simply by building more and better ICBMs; any strategic advantage to be gained by placing missiles in Cuba would, therefore, be short-term. By the same token, no long-term U.S. interests were at stake in the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range missiles to Cuba, as within a few years every city in the continental U.S. would be vulnerable to Soviet ICBMs and submarinelaunched ballistic missiles anyway. Kennedy administration officials knew that the Soviet buildup in Cuba would, at worst, decrease the United States's massive strategic advantage, or appear to do soin Kennedy's words, make the Soviets "look like they're coequal with the U.S." Kennedy was thus, willing to gamble the world's future not to save the U.S. from an imminent military threat, but because to tolerate the Soviet buildup in Cuba would, in his words, "have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality."

The U.S. emerged from the Cuban missile crisis with greatly expanded confidence in its own geopolitical skill. Its policymakers had verified, as they believed, that "showing resolve" (threatening to use military force) was more effective than diplomacy, the United Nations, or international lawwith the proviso that the U.S. should be more willing to commit conventional (non-nuclear) military forces in a crisis, in order to keep back from the nuclear abyss. Today, many historians argue that U.S. willingness to invade Vietnam is directly attributable to its success during the Cuban missile crisis.



Nathan, James. Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 2001.


Frankel, Max. "Learning from the Missile Crisis." Smithsonian. October, 2002: 5364.


Bay of Pigs

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 14 2018

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962–63).On 15 October, 1962, U.S. intelligence discovered Soviet strategic nuclear missile bases under construction in Cuba, leading to the most dramatic and dangerous crisis of the nuclear age. After a week of secret deliberation with a group of advisers (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm), President John F. Kennedy demanded that the missiles be withdrawn and imposed a naval “quarantine” on shipments of “offensive” weapons to Cuba. Kennedy ordered a massive redeployment of U.S. forces to the Caribbean and placed the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on heightened alert.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was furious at what he considered Kennedy's flagrant interference in Soviet‐Cuban affairs and his violation of freedom of navigation. But by the time the quarantine took effect on the morning of 24 October—after a unanimous endorsement by the Organization of American States—Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships not to challenge the blockade. For several days a settlement proved elusive and pressure built for more decisive action.

Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev wanted to risk nuclear war over the issue, and both became increasingly concerned that an accident or inadvertent military action might trigger escalation. An apparent break in the tension came on 26 October, when, in a rambling, emotional letter, Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. But in a second, tougher letter received the following morning, Khrushchev demanded that Kennedy withdraw analogous Jupiter missiles from Turkey (deployed under the aegis of NATO). Most of Kennedy's advisers argued strongly against this, on the ground that it would be interpreted by the Soviets as evidence of American weakness, and by NATO as betrayal of an ally. Kennedy decided to ignore Khrushchev's latest demand and accept his earlier offer.

As the ExComm deliberated on 27 October, word reached the White House that an American U‐2 reconnaissance plane had been shot down over Cuba, and that another had inadvertently strayed over Siberian air space, narrowly avoiding a similar fate. Kennedy resolved to bring the crisis to an end. Ignoring the ExComm's advice, he secretly agreed that the United States would withdraw its missiles from Turkey “within a few months” as a private quid pro quo to a UN‐verified withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Kennedy would also pledge publicly not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev accepted, and on 28 October the acute phase of the crisis came to an end.

Castro, feeling betrayed by his Soviet patron, refused to allow United Nations inspectors on Cuban soil to verify the withdrawal. But satisfied by aerial photography that the Soviets had withdrawn the weapons the United States considered offensive, Kennedy issued a proclamation terminating the quarantine on 21 November.

The causes of the crisis have long been debated. Khrushchev conceived the deployment in the late spring of 1962, after a hasty and uncritical decision‐making process involving only a small group of advisers. His goals appear to have been to deter a feared American invasion of Cuba; to redress the United States's massive superiority in strategic nuclear weapons, publicly revealed by the United States in October 1961, exploding the myth of a “missile gap” favoring the Soviet Union; and less importantly, to reciprocate the Jupiter deployment in Turkey.

The crisis provides textbook illustrations of important misperceptions and miscalculations. The U.S. government had calculated that the Soviet Union would not deploy nuclear weapons to Cuba because such a move would be inconsistent with past Soviet behavior, and because it seemed obvious that it would trigger a major confrontation. The Kennedy administration also failed to appreciate the extent to which the public demolition of the missile gap myth heightened the Soviets' sense of vulnerability; the strength of Soviet and Cuban fears of a U.S. invasion of Cuba (heightened by the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of the previous year); and the strength and sincerity of the Soviet view that if the United States had the right to deploy missiles in Turkey, the Soviet Union had the right to deploy missiles in Cuba. Consequently, Kennedy failed to deter the move in a timely fashion, issuing stern warnings against it only in September 1962, when the secret deployment was well underway.

Similarly, Khrushchev grossly overestimated the willingness of Kennedy and the American people to tolerate a major disruption in the hemispheric status quo; under estimated the likelihood that American intelligence would discover the missiles prematurely; and failed to appreciate that the secrecy and deception surrounding the deployment would inflame American passions. Consequently, Khrushchev underestimated the risks of the deployment.

Although scholars differ in their assessment, some consider the Cuban Missile Crisis a classic case of prudent crisis management. Kennedy and Khrushchev prevented the conflict from escalating while they sought and found a mutually satisfactory solution. They did so by avoiding irreversible steps, curtailing unwarranted bluster, and avoiding backing each other into a corner. Other scholars have criticized the handling of the crisis as being too timid or too reckless. Kennedy's critics on the right lament his unwillingness to seize the opportunity to destroy Castro; his critics on the other side of the spectrum condemn his willingness to risk nuclear war merely to delay the inevitable—the vulnerability of the American homeland to Soviet nuclear weapons. Hard‐liners in the Soviet military severely criticized Khrushchev for yielding to U.S. pressure. New information on intelligence failures, command and control breakdowns, and near accidents suggest that both leaders' fears of uncertainty, misperception, misjudgment, accident, and unauthorized military action provided a critical degree of caution and circumspection that prevented the crisis from escalating even further.

Paradoxically, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to an immediate improvement in U.S.‐Soviet relations. A series of agreements intended to restrain the arms race and improve crisis stability followed, most notably the Hot‐Line Agreement and Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Over the following decades, the superpowers crafted a modus vivendi designed to prevent a similar occurrence whereby the Soviet Union refrained from deploying military equipment with offensive capabilities to Cuba, and the United States acquiesced in a Communist‐controlled Cuba with close ties to the USSR.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Changing Interpretations; U‐2 Spy Planes.]


Raymond L. Garthoff , Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1987; rev. ed. 1989.
James G. Blight,, Bruce J. Allyn,, and and David A. Welch , Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse, 1993.
James G. Blight, and and David A. Welch , Risking ‘The Destruction of Nations': Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis for New and Aspiring Nuclear States, Security Studies, 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 811–50.
Anatoli I. Gribkov, and and William Y. Smith , Operation Anadyr: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1994.
Richard Ned Lebow and and Janice Gross Stein , We All Lost the Cold War, 1994.
Ernest R. May and and Philip D. Zelikow , Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1997.
James G. Blight and David A. Welch, eds., Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1998.

David A. Welch

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 29 2018


The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than perhaps any other incident in the Cold War (1946– 1991). The crisis began on October 14, 1962, when American U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba brought back photographs revealing that sites for medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles were under construction. The Cuban missiles posed a serious strategic problem for President John F. Kennedy because they were capable of hitting targets deep within United States territory. The missiles also posed a political dilemma for the president because of his campaign promises to contain Communism aggressively. Coming after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and with only weeks to go before the mid-term 1962 elections, Kennedy believed that American voters would see any decision that allowed offensive weapons to remain only ninety miles from U.S. soil as a sign of weakness.

It is still uncertain why the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro decided to install offensive missiles in Cuba. Some have speculated that the Communist leaders saw the missiles as a way to defend Cuba from another U.S. invasion. Others surmise that Khrushchev saw the missiles as a way to alter the strategic balance of power in the Cold War by creating the impression that the United States lacked the resolve to confront Communism. It also seems possible that the Soviet leader saw the missiles as diplomatic bargaining chips he could use to extract concessions from the United States on other sensitive Cold War issues.

To address the threat posed to U.S. interests by the Cuban missiles, Kennedy convened an executive committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council. The EXCOMM consisted of thirteen advisers, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, CIA Director John McCone, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen. For twelve days beginning on October 16, the EXCOMM met in secret to plan the U.S. response.

Almost from the beginning of deliberations, the EXCOMM concluded that the United States had to take some action that would remove the missiles from Cuba. Among the proposals discussed was a preemptive air strike to destroy the missile bases before they became operational. Kennedy rejected this plan when the U.S. Air Force could not guarantee that all missile sites would be destroyed. The EXCOMM also discussed a land invasion of Cuba that would both destroy all offensive weapons and remove Castro from power. The president, worried that this strategy would provoke a Soviet retaliation against West Berlin or lead to general war, also rejected this plan. In the end, the EXCOMM agreed to impose a "quarantine" of Cuba, blocking all shipments of weapons to Cuba. Kennedy believed that this option would demonstrate the U.S. resolve to prevent the missiles from becoming operational and would also provide time for a diplomatic solution to be found.

The quarantine of Cuba began on the morning of October 22. Later that evening, in a televised address, Kennedy revealed to the American people for the first time the existence of the Cuban missiles and the plan for their removal. For the next several days Cold War tensions reached their zenith as the world waited for the Soviet response. The first part of that answer came two days later when the first Soviet ships bound for Cuba reversed course to avoid the U.S. blockade. On October 26 Khrushchev sent two cable messages to Kennedy that provided the second part of the Soviet response. In the first message the Soviet leader offered to remove the missiles in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. Before the president could respond, a second, tougher cable arrived. In it Khrushchev demanded that until the United States pledged not to invade Cuba and also dismantled its Jupiter missiles in Turkey, the Soviet offensive weapons would remain on the Caribbean island. Although the United States had already decided to remove the Jupiter missiles because they were obsolete, the president refused to include them in any settlement for fear that it would appear that his administration had been forced to make concessions to the Soviets. On the advice of Robert Kennedy, the president resolved this dilemma by accepting the terms of the first letter he had received from Khrushchev and simply ignoring the second letter.

While the Kennedy administration waited for a response, Robert Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, on October 27. The attorney general insisted that unless the dismantling of the missiles began within twenty-four hours, the United States would "remove them." At the same meeting, the president's brother made clear that the United States was willing to remove all the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the near future but insisted that their removal could not be part of the public settlement reached by the two Cold War adversaries. Early the next morning, October 28, when Khrushchev replied to the president that the missiles would be removed in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended.

The crisis seemed to have a sobering effect on both the United States and the Soviet Union. The realization that any slight miscalculation during the crisis could have triggered a nuclear war led both nations to establish a "hot line" providing rapid, direct communications between Washington and Moscow. The crisis also apparently encouraged Premier Khrushchev to soften his rhetoric against the United States, for he again began to emphasize the importance of "peaceful coexistence" with the United States. It similarly led President Kennedy the following year to initiate negotiations with the Soviets for nuclear arms reduction. The product of this effort was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed on July 25, 1963, which ended atomic tests in the air and underwater. Although the Cuban Missile Crisis did little to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, in retrospect it seems clearly to have begun the process that culminated in détente between the United States and the Soviet Union less than a decade later.


Fursenko, Aleksander, and Naftali, Timothy J. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: Norton, 1997.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1989.

Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Norton, 1971.

May, Ernest R., and Zelikow, Philip D. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Nathan, James A., ed. The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

White, Mark J. The Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

John W. Malsberger

See also:Containment and Détente; Kennedy, John Fitzgerald; Preemptive War .

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated Jun 27 2018


CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS. Often regarded as the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was a culmination of several Cold War tensions that had been building for some time. As a result of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's turn toward Soviet-style communism in the early 1960s and the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, U.S. Cuban relations were openly hostile by 1962. In April and May 1962, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles from Florida. In an agreement with Castro, the weapons would be shipped and installed secretly, so that when they were operational, the West would be presented with a fait accompli.

During August and September 1962, U.S. intelligence found evidence of increasing Soviet military aid arriving in Cuba, including advanced surface-to-air missile installations, IL-28 Beagle nuclear-capable bombers, and several thousand Soviet "technicians." Refugee reports also suggested that Soviet ballistic missiles were on the island. Although U.S. intelligence could not confirm these reports, critics of President John F. Kennedy's administration used them in political attacks during the lead-up to the November congressional elections. In response, in September, Kennedy publicly warned that if weapons designed for offensive use were detected in Cuba, "the gravest consequences would arise."

On 14 October, a U-2 aerial reconnaissance flight over Cuba returned photographs of long, canvas-covered objects. As American photo analysts pored over the photos during the next twenty-four hours and compared their findings to their catalogs of known Soviet weaponry, it became clear that the Soviets were installing medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and launch pads in Cuba, where they would be within easy striking distance of much of the mainland United States.

Having just dealt with the civil rights riots at the University of Mississippi, the Kennedy administration again found itself confronted with a crisis. The president was informed of the discovery on the morning of 16 October and immediately convened a White House meeting of his top national security advisers, a body that later became officially known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm. Kennedy decided not to confront the Soviets until he and the ExComm could consider and prepare courses of action. During this series of top secret meetings, several courses of action were considered, ranging from direct military strikes on the missile sites, a full-scale invasion of Cuba, a quid pro quo removal of American Jupiter missiles in Turkey, and a blockade of the island. Acutely aware that miscalculation by either side could spark nuclear war, Kennedy settled upon a blockade of Cuba in tandem with an ultimatum to the Soviets to remove the missiles, both to be announced during a special national broadcast on television during the evening of 22 October. In that broadcast, Kennedy declared that a naval quarantine of Cuba would go into effect on the morning of 24 October and would not be lifted until all offensive weapons had been removed. He also announced that he had ordered increased surveillance of Cuba and, ominously, that he had directed the armed forces "to prepare for any eventualities."

On 24 October, as U.S. strategic nuclear forces were placed on DEFCON 2, the highest alert status below actual nuclear war, the world waited anxiously for the Soviet response to the quarantine. Despite some tense moments, the deadline ultimately passed without serious incident, as several Soviet-chartered ships either changed course or stopped short of the quarantine line. On 25 October, the

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai E. Stevenson, famously confronted his Soviet counterpart, Valerian Zorin, with photographic evidence and said he would "wait until hell freezes over" for a Soviet explanation. At U.S. insistence, the Organization of the American States officially condemned the Soviet-Cuban action and thereby formalized Cuba's hemispheric isolation.

Over the next few days, U.S. intelligence reported that not only were the MRBMs nearing operational status, but there were also intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and tactical nuclear weapons on the island. While U.S. forces continued to mobilize, a series of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev was supplemented by several secret unofficial channels, the most notable of which was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's secret meetings with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, and Georgi Bolshakov, the intelligence chief at the Soviet embassy.

On Saturday, 27 October, the crisis was at its peak. During the afternoon, reports came in of an American U-2 being shot down over Cuba by a surface-to-air missile. As tension mounted, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that they were ready to launch an invasion of Cuba within twenty-four hours. In communications on 27 and 28 October, Khrushchev formally capitulated by agreeing to dismantle the missiles and ship them back to the Soviet Union. In turn, Kennedy publicly announced that he had pledged to provide a noninvasion guarantee to Cuba conditional on the offensive weapons being removed and the implementation of effective international verification. Secretly, he also agreed to remove the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Although the crisis had been largely defused peacefully, it was not over. Castro refused to allow UN inspectors onto Cuban sovereign territory, and Khrushchev initially refused to accept that the Soviet IL-28 Beagle bombers were offensive weapons. Intensive discussions through the United Nations finally led to Khrushchev agreeing on 20 November to remove the bombers in exchange for a lifting of the naval quarantine.

For many, the crisis demonstrated the dangers of the nuclear age. Subsequently, a telephone hotline was established linking the White House and the Kremlin and efforts were intensified to secure arms control agreements and détente.


Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: Norton, 1997.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989.

May, Ernest, and Philip Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Concise ed. New York, Norton, 2002.

David G.Coleman

See alsoBay of Pigs Invasion ; Cold War ; Russia, Relations with .

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 17 2018


The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous moment in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The actions taken by President John F. Kennedy's administration prevented the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. The crisis also illustrated the limitations of international law, as the United States relied on military actions and threats to accomplish its goal.

The crisis grew out of political changes in Cuba. In the 1950s, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, led a guerrilla movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista lost the confidence of the Cuban people and on January 1, 1959, fled the country. Castro became premier of the new government.

At first, the United States supported the Castro government. This changed when Castro seized U.S.-owned sugar estates and cattle ranches in Cuba. The United States subsequently embargoed trade with Cuba, and the central intelligence agency (CIA) began covert operations to topple Castro. In 1960, Castro openly embraced communism and signed Cuba's first trade agreement with the Soviet Union.

Many Cubans had left the island of Cuba for the United States following the Castro revolution. Aided by the United States, a Cuban exile army was trained for an invasion. Although most of the planning took place in 1960, when President dwight d. eisenhower was finishing his second term, the final decision to invade came during the first months of the Kennedy

administration. In April 1961, Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a debacle, in part because U.S. air support that had been promised was not provided. The exile army was captured.

Convinced that the United States would attempt another invasion, Castro asked Premier Nikita Khrushchev, of the Soviet Union, for nuclear missiles. Khrushchev agreed to what would be the first deployment of nuclear weapons outside the Soviet Union. President Kennedy at first did not believe the Soviets would follow through on their promise. On October 14, 1962, however, photographs taken by reconnaissance planes showed that missile sites were being built in Cuba. The president convened a small group of trusted advisers, called the Executive Committee of the national security council (Ex Com). Attorney General robert f. kennedy served on Ex Com and became the key adviser to President Kennedy during the crisis.

Military officials advocated bombing the missile sites or invading Cuba. Others argued for a nuclear strike on Cuba. These ideas were rejected in favor of a naval blockade of Cuba. All ships attempting to enter Cuba were to be stopped and searched for missiles and related military material. President Kennedy, believing that the Soviets were using the missiles to test his will, resolved to make the crisis public. Bypassing private, diplomatic procedures, Kennedy went on national television on October 22 and informed the United States of the missile sites, the naval blockade, and his resolve to take any action necessary to prevent the missile deployment.

Tension built during the last days of October as the world awaited the approach of Soviet missile-bearing ships at the blockade line. If Soviet ships refused to turn back, it was likely that U.S. ships would either stop them or sink them. If that happened, nuclear war seemed probable.

During the crisis, the united nations was not used as a vehicle for negotiation or mediation. The United States and the Soviet Union ignored an appeal by Secretary General U Thant, of the United Nations, that they reduce tensions for a few weeks. Instead, the Security Council of the United Nations became a stage for both sides to trade accusations. Ambassador adlai stevenson, from the United States, presented photographs of the missile sites to back up U.S. claims.

On October 24, the crisis began to ease, as 12 Soviet ships on their way to Cuba were, on orders from Moscow, diverted or halted. However, construction on the missile sites continued. On October 26, Premier Khrushchev sent a long, emotional letter to President Kennedy, claiming that the missiles were defensive. He implied that a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba would allow him to remove the missiles. President Kennedy replied, accepting the proposal to exchange withdrawal of the missiles for the promise not to invade. He also stated that if the Soviet Union did not answer his reply in two or three days, Cuba would be bombed. On October 28, the Soviets announced on Radio Moscow that the missile sites were being dismantled.

Some historians maintain that President Kennedy acted heroically to meet a threat to the security of the United States. Others claim that the missiles at issue were of limited range and were purely defensive, and that Kennedy was reckless in brandishing the threat of nuclear war. Most agree that the crisis was probably the closest the Soviet Union and the United States ever got to nuclear war.

The significance of the crisis to international law and the management of international crises has led to many books, articles, and scholarly conferences. In October 2002, a conference hosted by Fidel Castro was held in Havana. It was a rare event because participants from the United States, Soviet, and Cuban governments attended the gathering, sharing their impressions of what had happened during the crisis. Participants included former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara, Kennedy presidential aides Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorensen, and Richard Goodwin, as well as Ethel Kennedy, the widow of robert kennedy.

The Cuban government declassified documents relating to the crisis and Castro took center stage, arguing that Khrushchev had inflamed the situation by lying to Kennedy that there were no nuclear weapons in Cuba. McNamara confirmed that most of Kennedy's advisers, both military and civilian, had recommended he attack Cuba. The conference ended with a trip to a former missile silo on the western side of Cuba.

further readings

Blight, James G., et al. 2002. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Diez Acosta, Tomás. 2002. October 1962: The "Missile" Crisis as Seen from Cuba. New York: Pathfinder.

Garthoff, Raymond. 2002. "The Havana Conference on the

Cuban Missile Crisis." Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

O'Neill, William L. 1971. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. New York: Quadrangle Books.



Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated Jun 11 2018

Cuban Missile Crisis

On May 29, 1962, a high-ranking Soviet delegation, posing as an agricultural mission, but including the head of the Soviet Union's Raketnye voyska strategicheskogo naznacheniya (Strategic Rocket Forces) and two nuclear ballistic missile specialists, arrived in Havana to propose the installation of nuclear ballistic missiles on the island. Cuba agreed. Raul Castro and Che Guevara traveled to Moscow in early July to formalize the agreement. Nuclear missiles began arriving in Cuba secretly during the first half of September under a Moscow project code-named Operation Anadyr.

Several post-crisis accounts cite fears in both Moscow and Havana of a United States invasion of Cuba. They were provoked in part by U.S. activities surrounding Operation Mongoose, a post-Bay of Pigs covert effort by Washington aimed at removing Cuba's Fidel Castro, which was coupled with a Soviet desire to redress what was then a 17-to-1 nuclear missile imbalance in favor of the United States.

Rumors swirled for weeks of Soviet missiles in Cuba, but confirmation did not come until an American U2 surveillance flight over the island on October 14, 1962. By then, there were also 40,000 Soviet troops on the island. In a seventeen-minute, nationally televised October 22 speech, President John F. Kennedy cited "unmistakable evidence" of Soviet intermediate and long-range nuclear missiles and nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba. He also announced the imposition of a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment" headed for the island, warning the Soviet government that the United States will "regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev responded on October 27 in a message broadcast by Radio Moscow, in which he called for the dismantling of U.S. missile bases in Turkey in exchange for withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Almost simultaneously, a Khrushchev letter to Kennedy arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with essentially the same message.

The basic agreement resolving the crisis called for removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba under United Nations supervision while promising removal of the naval quarantine and a pledge by the Kennedy administration not to invade Cuba. While withdrawing the Jupiter missiles from Turkey was not a quid pro quo for withdrawing the Soviet missiles from Cuba, it was part of the discussions for settlement of the missile crisis. The settlement made no mention of withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey, but that obviously was an unspoken part of the agreement, and the missiles were withdrawn within six months.

A new message from Khrushchev, broadcast over Radio Moscow on October 28, effectively terminated the crisis. In it, he said "the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as 'offensive,' and their crating and return to the Soviet Union."

An angry and recalcitrant Castro refused to allow on-site inspections of the missile removal from Cuba, which, as a result, was limited to aerial surveillance.

Although never formalized with a written agreement—and kept secret for many years—Kennedy's no-invasion pledge and its post-missile crisis implications continue to be apparent in the early twenty-first century, both in U.S. policy towards the island and the fact that Cuba remains under Castro's control nearly a half-century later.

There are those who argued that the no-invasion agreement was rendered invalid by Castro's refusal to allow on-site inspections to assure removal of the missiles. While the validity of that argument has never been tested, President Nixon reaffirmed the no-invasion pledge the early 1970s, when it appeared the Soviets might be building a submarine base at Cienfuegos, on Cuba's south coast.

See alsoCastro Ruz, Fidel; Castro Ruz, Raúl; Communism; Guevara, Ernesto "Che"; Soviet-Latin American Relations.


Bohling, Don. The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations against Cuba 1959–1965. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005.

Blight, James G., Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ed. Robert F. McCort. New York: Random House, 1991.

Chang, Laurence, and Peter Kornbluh, eds. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. New York: New Press, 1992.

Frankel, Max. High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Nafatli. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: Norton, 1997.

Gribkov, Anatoli I., and William Y. Smith. Operation Anadyr: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis, ed. Alfred Friendly Jr. Chicago: Edition Q, 1994.

Jarman, Robert L., and Jane Priestland. British Archives on the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962. London: Archival Publications International, 2001.

Lechuga, Carlos. Cuba and the Missile Crisis, trans. Mary Todd. Melbourne, Australia, and New York: Ocean Press, 2001.

May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962, ed. Mary S. McAuliffe. Washington, DC: History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, 1992.

U.S. Department of State. Office of the Historian. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, vol. 11: Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

                              Michael A. Palushin

                                    Don Bohning

Cuban Missile Crisis

views updated May 23 2018


The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most serious incidents of the Cold War. Many believed that war might break out between the United States and the Soviet Union over the latter's basing of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.

Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba promising to restore the liberal 1940 constitution but immediately took more radical steps, including an economic agreement in 1960 with the Soviet Union. In turn, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, promised in June to defend Cuba with Soviet nuclear arms. In early 1961, the United States broke relations with Havana, and in April it helped thousands of Cuban exiles stage an abortive uprising at the Bay of Pigs.

Khrushchev was convinced that the United States would strike again, this time with American soldiers; and he believed that Castro's defeat would be a fatal blow to his own leadership. He decided that basing Soviet missiles in Cuba would deter the United States from a strike against the Castro regime. Moreover, so he reasoned, the Cuba-based medium-range missiles would compensate for the USSR's marked inferiority to America's ICBM capabilities. Finally, a successful showdown with Washington might improve Moscow's deteriorating relations with China.

In April 1962, Khrushchev raised the possibility of basing Soviet missiles in Cuba with his defense minister, Rodion Malinovsky. He hoped to deploy the missiles by October and then inform Kennedy after the congressional elections in November. He apparently expected the Americans to accept the deployment of the Soviet missiles as calmly as the Kremlin had accepted the basing of U.S. missiles in Turkey. Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, when finally consulted, flatly told Khrushchev that Soviet missiles in Cuba would "cause a political explosion" (Taubman) in the United States, but the premier was unmoved. In late April, a Soviet delegation met with Khrushchev before departing for Cuba. They were told to "explain the plan" to install missiles "to Castro" (Taubman). In fact, their mission was more one of "telling than asking." Castro was hardly enthusiastic, but was ready to yield to a policy that would strengthen the "entire socialist camp" (Taubman). Later the Presidium voted unanimously to approve the move.

Perhaps most remarkably, Khrushchev believed that the deployment of sixty missiles with forty launchers, not to mention the support personnel and equipment, could be done secretly. General Anatoly Gribkov warned that the installation process in Cuba could not be concealed. And American U-2 spy planes flew over the sites unhindered. The Cubans, too, doubted that the plan could be kept secret; Khrushchev responded that if the weapons were discovered the United States would not overreact, but if trouble arose, the Soviets would "send the Baltic Fleet."

In July 1962, the American government learned that the USSR had started missile deliveries to Cuba. By the end of August, American intelligence reported that Soviet technicians were in Cuba, supervising new military construction. In September, Kennedy warned that if any Soviet ground-to-ground missiles were deployed in Cuba, "the gravest issues would arise." Rather than calling a halt to the operation, Khrushchev ordered it accelerated, while repeatedly assuring Washington that no build-up was taking place.

On October 14, U.S. aerial reconnaissance discovered a medium-range ballistic missile mounted on a launching site. Such a missile could hit the eastern United States in a matter of minutes. On October 16, Kennedy and his closest advisers met to discuss the crisis and immediately agreed that the missile must be removed. On October 22, Kennedy announced a "quarantine" around Cuba, much to Khrushchev's delight. The premier thought the word sufficiently vague to allow for negotiation and exulted, "We've saved Cuba!" Despite his apparent satisfaction, Khrushchev fired off a letter to Kennedy accusing him of interfering in Cuban affairs and threatening world peace. He then went to the opera.

The turning point came on October 24, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador that the United States would stop the Soviet ships, strongly implying that it would do so even if it meant war. Khrushchev reacted angrily, but a letter from President Kennedy on October 25 pushed the premier toward compromise. Kennedy wrote that he regretted the deterioration in relations and hoped Khrushchev would take steps to restore the "earlier situation." With this letter, Khrushchev finally realized that the crisis was not worth the gamble and began to back down. Another war scare occurred on the twenty-seventh with the downing of a U-2 over Cuba, but by this point both leaders were ready and even anxious to end the crisis. On October 29, the premier informed Kennedy that the missiles and offensive weapons in Cuba would be removed. Kennedy promised there would be no invasion and secretly agreed to remove America's Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Khrushchev's Cuban gamble helped convince the Soviet leadership that he was unfit to lead the USSR. This humiliation, combined with failures in domestic policies, cost him his job in 1964.

See also: cold war; cuba, relations with; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; united states, relations with


Fursenko, Aleksander, and Naftali, Timothy. (1997). "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 19581964. New York: Norton.

Nathan, James A. (2001). Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Taubman, William. (2003). Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton.

Thomson, William. (1995). Khrushchev: A Political Life. Oxford, UK: Macmillan.

Hugh Phillips