The Cuban Missile Crisis: On the Brink of Nuclear War

Updated on October 9, 2018
President John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Chrushchev
President John F. Kennedy, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Chrushchev

Setting the Stage

Since the end of World War II, conflict had been building between the Western powers led by the United States and the communist Soviet Union. The Cold War tensions between the United States and the communist Soviet Union came to a head in October 1962. Cuba’s radical government, led by Fidel Castro, alarmed the United States as they advocated revolution throughout Latin America and had established close ties with the Soviet Union. Since 1959, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had sought to overthrow Castro through covert operations, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Adding to the air of mistrust between the USSR and Western powers was the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to physically divide the city of Berlin. The wall violated the agreements of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which allowed free movement within the city of the peoples of the four governing nations. The Soviet action angered the three Western powers in the city: the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Hostilities would escalate to a standoff between U.S. and Soviet tanks over the newly erected wall. President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to end the crisis by removal of the tanks from the proximity of the East-West Wall. Kennedy stated, regarding the wall: “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Thus, the stage was set for the most dangerous act in the Cold War.

The Discovery

In the summer of 1962, Cuba and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to deploy an arsenal of missiles on Cuban soil, which included: forty-eight SS-4 ballistic missiles, thirty-two SS-5 ballistic missiles, twenty-four surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft batteries with 144 launchers, and forty-two bombers. The Soviet arsenal could have easily targeted much of the mainland United States with only 90 miles separating Cuba and Florida. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted to gain a foothold in the Americas and counter the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey that were targeted at the Soviet Union. The Soviets were also trying to bolster their position in the Communist world, which was currently being challenged by Mao Zedong’s leadership in China. Khrushchev admitted later that the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba “would have equalized what the West likes to call the balance of power.”

The United States was becoming very concerned at the arms buildup in Cuba and in September, President Kennedy publicly warned that if weapons designed for offensive use were detected in Cuba, “the gravest of consequences would arise.” The U.S. was monitoring the situation with the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. On October 14, the spy plane photographed active missile sites in Cuba. Analysis of the photos by the CIA led them to believe the missiles were near operational and could possibly even carry nuclear warheads. An alarmed President Kennedy assembled key advisors, designating them the Executive Committee or ExComm, and the group debated how to respond to the growing threat. The president’s charge to the group of top advisers was to “set aside all other tasks to make a prompt and intensive survey of the dangers and all possible courses of action.”

One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16.
One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16.

Kennedy’s Resolve

The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, a member of ExComm, believed that the Soviet missiles, while reducing the warning time before American cities could be hit, did not significantly alter the Soviet-American balance of nuclear power. McNamara argued, “It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” His stance was that the U.S. should simply ignore the nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy was not going to ignore the missiles in Cuba, perhaps because of the recent humiliation his administration had suffered in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, or maybe as a result of the tank standoff at the Berlin Wall with Khrushchev. Whatever the reason, Kennedy came to view the Cuban Missile Crisis as a test of his leadership of the nation and the free world. He felt that even though the balance of power might not shift with the missiles in Cuba, the “appearance” created an advantage for the Soviets. Therefore, his decision was that the missiles in Cuba would have to go.

U-2 aircraft similar to the ones that flew airborne photo reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962
U-2 aircraft similar to the ones that flew airborne photo reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962

Finding a Solution

The ExComm believed an airstrike against the missile locations was not plausible because it might leave missiles untouched, thus allowing for a retaliatory strike on the U.S. Kennedy put the military on alert for a possible invasion. The stakes were high as the U.S. believed there were 10,000 Soviet troops guarding the island, and there would be significant American casualties if open warfare broke out. Unknown to the Americans, there were actually 42,000 Soviet troops in place instead of the 10,000 estimated. The United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, recommended a diplomatic approach to the crisis. He suggested the U.S. should offer to dismantle its obsolete Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba. Kennedy rejected Stevenson’s recommendation, stating he “felt strongly that the thought of negotiations at this point would be taken as an admission of moral weakness of our case and the military weakness of our posture.” The negotiations option was not practical, as discussions with Castro would legitimize his government and Khrushchev would simply stall the negotiations to give time for the missiles to become operational. To remedy the situation, ExComm called for a naval blockade of the island to stop further Soviet military shipments and to force Khrushchev to retreat in the face of superior U.S. forces in the region. Kennedy agreed with the idea of a blockade combined with an effort to get Khrushchev to back down. The blockade was to be officially called a “quarantine” to avoid being charged with an act of war under international law.

Podcast: The Cuban Missile Crisis: America on the Brink of Nuclear War

The Blockade

President Kennedy announced the blockade on October 22 in a nationwide television address when he called upon Khrushchev “to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.” The speech had a chilling effect at home and around the world. For many it became near panic as financial markets fell and the price of gold reached a record high. There was a run on grocery stores as people stocked up on supplies for their makeshift shelters. One Columbia University professor described his students as “literally scared for their lives.” But most people continued with their day-to-day lives—watchful and waiting.

Kennedy backed up his words when he sent U.S. warships to the Caribbean waters to intercept Soviet ships. On October 24, U.S. strategic nuclear forces were placed on DEFCON 2, the highest alert status below actual nuclear war, and the world waited anxiously for the Soviet response to the ultimatum. In Florida, 140,000 troops prepared for an assault against Cuba. To show the Soviets the U.S. was deadly serious, twenty-three nuclear armed B-52 bombers were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union. The medium range B-47 bombers were dispersed to various military and civilian airfields, made ready for action at a moment’s notice. Kennedy received widespread support for this action while Moscow denounced the blockade as a violation of international law and an interference in their relationship with Cuba. Kennedy and Khrushchev were exchanging telegrams to end the crisis and on October 26, Khrushchev proposed to remove the “defensive” Soviet missile if the United States would not invade Cuba. The next day, Khrushchev asked that the U.S. remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. As part of the negotiations, the brother of president Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, met privately with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to explore the possibility of the missile swap agreement.

The crisis escalated even further when a surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 plane over Cuba. President Kennedy decided to strike a deal and publicly agreed to the no-invasion pledge and privately, through his brother, assured the Soviets that the American Jupiter missiles would be removed from Turkey. Khrushchev accepted the U.S. terms as he feared the situation would lead to war and he knew that Castro was an unpredictable ally. It wasn’t until mid-November that the Soviets agreed to pull out the bombers. Castro resented the settlement and did not cooperate with the United Nations on-site inspection to confirm the removal of the missiles. Although the missiles and the bombers did leave Cuba, an official agreement between the United States, Cuba, and the Soviet Union was never signed.

Aftermath

The successful resolution of the crisis bolstered Kennedy’s leadership position within the country and abroad. The crisis had been a close brush with nuclear oblivion, and Kennedy himself during the height of the crisis placed the likelihood of disaster at “somewhere between one out of three and even.” The crisis led to Khrushchev being deposed in 1964 as his actions were deemed reckless. The outcome of the crisis did have the effect of slowing the escalation of the Cold War. To soothe tensions between Moscow and Washington, a “hotline,” or teletype, was installed that would allow direct and immediate communications between the two governments to stop any hostilities before they could escalate. Additionally, the Soviet Union and the United States entered into a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. The U.S. policy remained hard-lined with Cuba, with assassination attempts against Castro and CIA sabotage missions to continue. To put the Soviet nuclear arsenal on par with that of the United States, they began a rapid buildup of nuclear weapons. As a sad twist of fate, the enhanced short-term prestige that the Kennedy administration experienced in the wake of the crisis translated into a greater long-term insecurity for the United states. Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was determined to avoid the humiliation Khrushchev experienced. Starting in early 1965, the Kremlin embarked on a massive expansion of the Soviet nuclear weapon arsenal. By the end of the decade the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States. Now the entire world would be held hostage by two nuclear superpowers capable of destroying the very planet the human race calls home.

References

Boyer, Paul S. (editor) The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press. 2001.

Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy. Time Books. 2012.

Clifton, Daniel (Chief Editor). 20th Century Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley. 2000.

Powaski, Ronald E. March to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1939 to the Present. Oxford University Press. 1987.

Reeves, Thomas C. Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History. Oxford University Press. 2000.

Questions & Answers

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      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        9 months ago from Missouri

        Rochelle:

        Thanks for the comment. I was alive when the crisis occurred but was too young to remember.It is always good to hear how people reacted.

      • Rochelle Frank profile image

        Rochelle Frank 

        9 months ago from California Gold Country

        Yes, it was a scary time, but President Kennedy's response was very reassuring... especially when Russia backed off. I was in college and remember it well.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        9 months ago from Missouri

        Readmikenow:

        Interesting comment. I like to write about events in the recent past because there is always someone that has an actual experience to share. I bet it was a scary time, one I hope we don't repeat.

      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        9 months ago

        Excellent article. Well done. I once spoke with someone once who was on one of the ships part of the blockade. He told me everybody thought this was it, war with the Soviet Union was going to happen. When the Soviet Union backed down they were permitted to celebrate, but only below deck. I enjoyed reading this.

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