Impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Name of Event: Cuban Missile Crisis
Date of Event: 16 October 1962
Ended: 28 October 1962
Participants: Soviet Union; Cuba; United States
Cause: Confrontation over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Result: Withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey and Italy.
Casualties: 1 individual Killed; 1 U-2 Aircraft Shot Down.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a thirteen-day standoff between Soviet and American forces on the tiny island nation of Cuba. The confrontation began after Soviet forces were caught by spy satellites (and aircraft) deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba. The move by the Soviet Union was a direct response to the American deployment of nuclear missiles across Turkey and Italy only a few months prior. The Cuban Missile Crisis is largely considered to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war, as tensions between the Soviet Union and United States reached a critical stage during their thirteen-day standoff.
Following the seizure of power in Cuba by Fidel Castro in 1959, the tiny island nation quickly aligned itself with the Soviet Union, requesting military aid and supplies as it sought to implement a communist government. As tensions from the ensuing Cold War continued to grow unabated between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Cuba became a focal point of attention between the two superpowers as Soviet forces poured tremendous resources into providing economic and military stability for the Cuban government in its inchoate stages.
It wasn’t until 14 October 1962 that tensions over Cuba reached a boiling point as an American U2 spy-plane made a high-altitude pass over the island nation and photographed numerous Soviet SS-4 Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles that were under construction. Two days later, President John F. Kennedy as briefed about the situation, prompting the President to assemble his Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of his cabinet for massive deliberations over the course of action that needed to be taken.
For nearly two weeks, American and Soviet forces entered a tense standoff as Kennedy and his advisers demanded the removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba (only ninety-miles off the coast of Florida). From the American perspective, the placement of nuclear missiles this close to the U.S. mainland was unacceptable as it allowed the Soviet Union to target any target they desired along the east coast. For the Soviets, the placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba offered not only a strategic launch area, but also provided security to the fledgling Communist regime there which had already faced a failed United States-backed invasion (“Bay of Pigs”) in 1961. With nuclear weapons positioned on the island, Khrushchev and the Soviet regime understood that further American aggression in the area would be halted completely.
As deliberations continued, the United States was placed in a difficult situation, as direct action against the Cuban island was likely to provoke wider conflict with the Soviets, and possibly result in nuclear warfare. Although a full-scale invasion of the island, as well as a strategic bombing of Cuba was entertained by Kennedy from the outset, he ultimately decided that a less-direct approach was far more sensible. On 22 October 1962, Kennedy put his plan into action, notifying the American public (via television broadcast) of his decision to implement a complete blockade of Cuba with the U.S. Navy. In addition, Kennedy made a public ultimatum to the Soviets, demanding that all missiles would be removed from the island-nation, or face direct military action.
Blockade and Reconnaissance
On 24 October, just two days after Kennedy’s implementation of the blockade, Soviet ships that were bound for Cuba approached the American ships. During the intense standoff, however, the ships decided to halt their advance as the U.S. Navy made its presence (and its intent to destroy any ships that attempted to enter) clear from the onset.
As the Navy enforced Kennedy’s blockade, the United States Air Force continued to run reconnaissance flights over Cuba, providing the CIA and Pentagon with vital information about troop deployments on the island, as well as the location of additional missile sites. Tragedy struck on 27 October, however, as Major Rudolf Anderson’s aircraft was shot down over Cuba, killing Anderson before he could eject safely. Tensions from the incident reached an all-time high, as both sides crept ever-closer to nuclear war.
A Deal is Struck
As tensions continued to grow between both the Americans and Soviets, Khrushchev and Kennedy were finally able to work out an arrangement to end the standoff before it spiraled out of control. On 26 October, Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove all Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States promised to not invade the island after their removal. On 27 October, Khrushchev sent an additional letter to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles if the United States would also dismantle their missile installations located in Turkey. Publicly, Kennedy accepted the first letter and supposedly ignored the contents of the second letter. Privately, however, American officials secretly agreed to the second letter’s demands as well. Attorney General Robert Kennedy personally notified the Soviet ambassador of Kennedy’s decision, and on 28 October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a sudden end.
Impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis
With the world nearly catapulted into nuclear war, both the United States and Soviet Union began talks (following the crisis) to open up direct lines of communication between the two superpowers. In 1963, a direct “hot-line” was installed in Washington and Moscow to allow Soviet and American leaders to talk directly with one another in case of further conflicts. The two powers also signed two additional treaties regarding nuclear weapons and their use. Indirectly, however, the crisis prompted the Soviet government to only increase their research and funding of intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBMs) in the years that followed, leading to a stockpiling of advanced missiles capable of hitting targets in the United States. Similarly, the United States continued to build up its military hardware and resources in the years to come as well.
Although some would argue that Khrushchev’s proposals to end the crisis resulted in a mutually beneficial accord with the United States government, the compromise, ultimately, embarrassed Khrushchev and the Soviet regime as nobody knew of the secret deal to remove American missiles from Turkey. Thus, instead of being hailed as a hero in his actions against Kennedy, Khrushchev’s reputation plummeted in the Soviet Union as his deal was seen as a retreat from the standoff, and a tremendous victory for the United States. Only two years later, Khrushchev would lose his seat of power, primarily from the perceived embarrassment he had placed on the Soviet Union.
Cuba also perceived Khrushchev’s deal in a negative light, as Castro and his regime felt betrayed by the Soviet Union. Not only had the decision to end the crisis been made solely between Khrushchev and Kennedy, but Cuban interests, particularly the American Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay were never even discussed during the negotiation process. Moreover, Cuban authorities were never happy with Khrushchev’s decision to install missile sites on Cuban soil in the first place, as Castro felt that such measures would only bring about unnecessary attention from the global community. As a result of the crisis, Cuban-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly in the months, years, and decades that followed.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in Hindsight
In more recent years, memoirs have indicated that nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States was almost a foregone conclusion, given the number of accidents and close-calls that nearly triggered all-out war. For example, on 27 October 1962, an American ship (USS Beale) dropped signaling depth charges (non-lethal) on a Soviet submarine inside Cuban waters. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the submarine was equipped with a fifteen-kiloton nuclear torpedo. Afraid to surface, due to the blockade, the B-59 submarine remained submerged, despite running low on air-supplies. After a fight broke out aboard the submarine concerning the course of action that needed to be taken, the ship’s captain reportedly tried to arm the nuclear torpedo on-board for combat. Deputy Brigade Commander, Vasily Arkhipov, however, finally convinced the captain not to attack, after much difficulty; reasoning with the commanding officer that surfacing was a far more reasonable and logical choice than the threat of nuclear war.
In other memoirs from the time period, historians have also learned that the United States planned to launch a massive invasion of Cuba, that was planned for the third week of the crisis (had it continued further). With approximately 100 nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the Soviet Commander given full authority to launch the missiles without notice from Moscow, the costs of such an invasion would have likely been devastating. Some scholars have estimated that nuclear war during the time would have cost approximately two-hundred million lives.
“Now that the Cold War has disappeared into history, we can say authoritatively that the world came closest to blowing itself up during thirteen days in October 1962.”— Arthur Schlesinger
Quotes About the Cuban Missile Crisis
Quote #1: “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, decisions made by President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, could have plunged both countries into thermonuclear war.” – Ronald Kessler
Quote #2: “The most terrifying moment in my life was October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I did not know all the facts – we have learned only recently how close we were to war – but I knew enough to make me tremble.” – Joseph Rotblat
Quote #3: “The lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is plain: Strength prevents war; weakness invites it. We need a commander-in-chief who understands that – and who won’t leave us facing a foe who thinks he doesn’t.” – Arthur L. Herman
Quote #4: “Now that the Cold War has disappeared into history, we can say authoritatively that the world came closest to blowing itself up during thirteen days in October 1962.” – Arthur Schlesinger
Quote #5: “This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western hemisphere.” – John F. Kennedy
Quote #6: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of a worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth – but neither shall we shrink from that risk any time it must be faced.” – John F. Kennedy
Quote #7: “Our goal is not victory of might but the vindication of right – not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.” – John F. Kennedy
Quote #8: “It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.” – Robert McNamara
Quote #9: “You [President Kennedy] have made some pretty strong statements about their being defensive and that we would take action against offensive weapons. I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this [crisis]. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way too. In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.” – General Curtis LeMay USAF
Quote #10: “We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.” – Dean Rusk
Do you feel that nuclear war was a real possibility during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
In closing, the Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered as one of the most dangerous events to have transpired during the Twentieth Century as two superpowers nearly made the threat of nuclear warfare a reality in the fall of 1962. If not for Kennedy’s desire to mitigate the situation through more peaceful measures, rather than direct military action, the world may have faced devastation on a scale never before seen in its history. The direct lessons that can be learned from the two-week long standoff should never be forgotten, as the event is a testament to the notion that all actions have equal and equivalent reactions.
Zelikow, Philip and Graham Allison. Essence of Decision: Explaining The Cuban Missile Crisis 2nd Edition. London, England: Longman, 1999.
Wikipedia contributors, "Cuban Missile Crisis," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cuban_Missile_Crisis&oldid=895743758 (accessed May 7, 2019).
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© 2019 Larry Slawson