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To the Brink of Nuclear War - The Cuban Missile Crisis

Updated on January 26, 2014

"It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the President's Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night."

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara encapsulates the tension an entire world endured during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event forms a key moment within the Cold War as it reveals how close two superpowers came to nuclear catastrophe. Its origins lie within the opposing ideologies between the United States and communism and the escalating arms race, while its impacts provided a major turning point in the Cold War, leading to a period of relaxed tensions known as détente.

While the arms race was not the immediate cause of the Cuban missile crisis it's influence was critical in establishing the conditions for the crisis to occur. Without the arms race the crisis could not have happened, and in the aftermath of events the nature of the arms race was changed for the years to come. Only the United States had succeeded during WWII in developing nuclear weapons. Due to this reason historian Alperovitz suggests that the Americans only dropped the atomic bomb in Japan to send a message to Stalin. This message was to demonstrate their position of power.


Short and Long term causes:

From this the arms race developed with the USSR determined to equal the nuclear monopoly held by the United States, and in 1949 the USSR developed their first atomic bomb. The nuclear weapons race continued as innovative developments meant a psychological advantage. For the years preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the USSR went head to head in developing newer and more destructive weapons. While the United States was the first to develop the hydrogen bomb, the USSR were the first to successfully test their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and, by 1962, these missiles became the focal point of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus the arms race forms a long term cause.

The United States’ reaction to Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba forms the immediate cause of the missile crisis. As early as 1823 America considered the Caribbean its own backyard. Under the Monroe Doctrine this sphere of influence was a source of trade and wealth, and in Cuba, just a short distance from the United States' coast, American businessmen controlled the majority of Cuba's sugar and oil industry. With living conditions poor, America saw the necessity in supporting the autocratic regime of Fulgencio Batista who seized power in 1933.


Fidel Castro leads Cuba:

Attempts were made to keep Batista in power and subsequently ensure Cuba remained anti-Communist and a source of wealth for the United States. This failed when Fidel Castro led a revolution in 1959. Although not Communist, rather more Cuban nationalist, Castro's agenda both angered and frightened the United States. The revolutionary nationalised $1 Billion in American investment. As a consequence President Eisenhower imposed a strict trade embargo on Cuba. The Soviet Union filled this trade void which pushed Cuba into the hands of the socialist camp.

Kennedy backs down from retaliation:

Angering the United States was their loss of Cuba as a sphere of influence and source of wealth. What frightened the United States; however, was a revolutionary left-leaning government so near to its coast. This intensified the mutual fear and suspicion Americans had of communists. In an attempt to remove Castro from the Caribbean island, Cuban exiles were trained by the CIA to lead a resistance movement and restore US dominance in the region. In April 61, Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, authorised the invasion, however withdrew American military support to avoid Soviet retaliation in Berlin.

Members of Castro's militia group
Members of Castro's militia group | Source

Bay of Pigs disaster:

The President wanted the world to be convinced it was purely Cuban rejection of a tyrannical leader and thus rejection of communism by the people of the Caribbean. The invasion ended in disaster for the Kennedy administration. Castro's Soviet made tanks stopping the 1,500 exiles no more than a quarter mile inland. The failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs had disastrous consequences for the United States. The fiasco pushed Castro further to the left where soon after he declared Cuba a communist nation.

Fearing further American threats of invasion Castro turned to Khrushchev for military support and as a consequence the missile crisis eventuated. At this stage Khrushchev was surely threatened by the United States' military presence. Over a million US troops were stationed in more than 200 foreign bases. Furthermore, garrisoned along soviet borders was a further three and a half million allied troops and nuclear warheads positioned in Italy, the United Kingdom and Turkey - to which Khrushchev acknowledged "are aimed at us and scare us." Khrushchev’s bold idea to react to Castro's pleas of support involved placing Ballistic Missiles on the Caribbean Island.

Khrushchev's intentions:

The Soviet Premier, in his memoirs, outlines his actions in placing missiles in Cuba. He writes "In addition to protecting Cuba, our missiles would have equalised what the west likes to call the Balance of Power. They had surrounded our country with missile bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you." Cold War historian John Gaddis, however, argues that Khrushchev’s decision to place missiles in Cuba was irrational and characteristic of him not thinking things through. Gaddis questions Khrushchev’s motives as solely deterrence commenting “He could hardly have expected the Americans not to respond, since he had sent the missiles secretly while lying to Kennedy about his intentions to do so.”


Soviet ships sail to Cuba:

Khrushchev had also dispatched short range missiles to Cuba, only useful against an American invasion, so what was he thinking? Surely he didn’t want to engage in nuclear war, after all, Soviet weapons were outnumbered up to seventeen to one. Gaddis offers this irrationalism to an emotional connection to Cuba, while comparing him to a “petulant child playing with a loaded gun.” Nevertheless, just the thought of one or two missile being launched against the United States would, when the missiles were revealed to him, scare Kennedy.

In July 1962 sixty five ships sailed for Cuba with ten carrying military equipment. Although it was Khrushchev’s hope to establish the missiles before the Americans found out, a U-2 Spy Plane photographed their construction on the 14th of October. The CIA informed Kennedy that they would be operational within two weeks. His swift action in convening Excomm or the Executive Committee of the National Security Council was due to a number of reasons. In just a short amount of time the missiles would be operational and have enough range to reach every major city on the American mainland with just one exception, Seattle in the Northwest. The flight time of these missiles meant up to 80 million Americans could be killed within just 17 minutes.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles had the potential to travel huge distance and provide strike capability from the other side of the world
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles had the potential to travel huge distance and provide strike capability from the other side of the world | Source

The intermediate range missiles or the SS-4s possessed firepower 80 times the size of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Although the consensus among Excomm was that the missiles must be removed from Cuba, there was disagreement by the means such would be achieved. This group of senior officials are now broadly considered to have been in one of two groups, the Hawks, who were mainly the Joint Chiefs and military representatives who wanted a full scale invasion of the island and the doves who wanted a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Kennedy ordered every sitting of EX COMM to be taped.
Kennedy ordered every sitting of EX COMM to be taped. | Source


The first meeting of Excomm was a critical moment in the course of events as it established how the United States would approach the situation. Discussed first was the idea to place surveillance on Cuba and employ a blockade to stop offensive weapons reaching the island. The most popular course of action among Excomm focused on military parameters, starting with an air strike to eliminate the missiles, followed by a full scale invasion. Gaddis offers the idea that this was the only war plan Eisenhower’s administration had left behind. In action it required the use of well over 3,000 nuclear weapons simultaneously. Kennedy, in instructing his advisors to expand their options may well have averted nuclear war.


Kennedy Addresses the Nation:

The president’s public announcement was certainly a critical moment within the crisis because if Khrushchev misinterpreted the United States’ actions and overreacted, nuclear war may have resulted. Before the announcement the Soviets were unaware that the United States knew of the missiles in Cuba and as Excomm continued to meet, Kennedy could not be convinced that an air strike would destroy 100% of missiles before the Soviets could retaliate. The President booked airtime on all American TV stations for Monday the 22nd of October. Even at this stage Kennedy was unsure of what course of action he would take.

He instructed two different speeches to be written, one declaring air strikes and another declaring a naval blockade. The President decided to enact the blockade, rather calling it a quarantine to avoid an act of war. This was a significant moment within the crisis as it provided a way out for Khrushchev unlike a military assault would, but also put the US in a position to increase pressure if the Soviets threatened. In his address to the nation Kennedy declared “the purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere”, continuing to confirm a “strict quarantine of all military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated.” (Each of you have extracts from Kennedy’s speech which effectively shows the United States’ perspectives on events)

Kennedy Addresses the Nation
Kennedy Addresses the Nation | Source


Fearing the Soviets might overreact, Kennedy raised his military’s alert to DEFCON 3 and had several hundred Intercontinental missiles prepared for firing. Publicly, Khrushchev responded aggressively declaring it “a violation of international law”, referring to the Americans as pirates on the sea. However, also fearing that the Americans may overreact, he ordered five ships carrying missiles to turn back to the Soviet Union. This formed a significant moment in the crisis as it publicised the events, increased tensions and consequently forced citizens into a state of panic.

The following day tensions again increased as the Soviet Foreign minister continued to deny the existence of offensive weapons in Cuba for the United States was yet to release the photographic evidence. Excomm met at 10.00am on the 24th, the same time the quarantine took effect. With orders given to use necessary force to stop ships crossing the quarantine line, it appeared that some of the Soviet ships had stopped dead in the water. Tensions still, however, intensified as missiles were still being constructed in Cuba. Later that night, in response to Khrushchev’s telegram to the President in which he refused to back down declaring to “use necessary measures to protect [their] rights”, Kennedy initiated DEFCON 2. This was America’s highest military alert in history. Nuclear war seemed inevitable unless one of the leaders was prepared to back down.


US ambassador to UN confronts Soviet Ambassador:

Still attempting to avoid war Kennedy had the US ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confront Soviet Ambassador Zorin on the 25th of October in an exchange that has gone down in history books. Here, Stevenson presented the photographic evidence that proved the Soviet Union had been placing offensive weapons in Cuba and had indeed been lying to the world about doing so. America gained the upper hand in the crisis as world opinion shifted in favour of the United States.

In a significant development resolution seemed closer by the 26th with a letter sent by Khrushchev offering a compromise. In this he offered to remove offensive weapons in Cuba if the United States declared never to invade. This letter is considered to have been written by Khrushchev himself, emphasizing his desire for peace. Hopes were dashed the next day with the arrival of a second, more demanding letter. Becoming known as Black Saturday, the 27th was perhaps the most critical of all days and is considered the closest humankind came to nuclear war. Khrushchev, most likely influenced by Soviet hardliners, made a further condition - the United States must remove missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of missiles in Cuba.


A deal is struck:

Kennedy was stuck, as removing the missiles from Turkey would fragment NATO relations and thus cause political suicide so near an election. The hawks amongst Excomm again pushed for military action; however, Kennedy argued that starting a nuclear war instead of accepting a trade over Turkey was “an insupportable position”. The President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, who was chair of Excomm proposed the idea to respond positively to the first of Khrushchev’s letters and ignore the arrival of the second more demanding letter.

While this was the public compromise, Robert Kennedy met with the Soviet Foreign Minister to propose a secret deal where the United States would secretly dismantle their missiles in Turkey within months of the crisis. It was stressed it must not be made public in order to sustain their political position. The following day, Sunday 28th of October, Khrushchev agreed to the terms. The crisis was over.


The Cuban Missile Crisis had many short and long term consequences:

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a defining moment within in the Cold War as its consequences shaped the remaining years of the conflict. It influenced a period known as detent, a more permanent relaxation of tensions. In the wake of the crisis both superpowers claimed a victory. For the soviets, Khrushchev stressed they had achieved an agreement that the United States wouldn’t invade Cuba and thus it was a win for his diplomacy. However, in actual fact, the crisis began the criticism of his political judgment that led to his downfall in 1964. Kennedy, on the other hand, gained a massive popularity boost where his political party won their biggest majority in twenty years.

In the immediate aftermath of events, both the USA and the USSR realised the need for better communication. This was emphasized by the time delays in sending and receiving messages that resulted in misunderstandings. A ‘hotline’ telephone link was established between the Kremlin and the Whitehouse which proved effective for future crises.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty:

Possibly the biggest impact caused by the missile crisis was the realization of mutually assured destruction which served as the greatest deterrent of war for the years to come. The assumption behind it, Gaddis explains that if no one could be sure of surviving a nuclear war, there would not be one. He continues to present the idea that the weapons each side developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to one another. The missile crisis forced the realsisation that the time had come, if not for international control of nuclear weapons, at least for agreement on how to manage them. This resulted in the Limited Test Ban Treaty which abolished nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Following this, in 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevented the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries.

The thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis were filled with fear and tension, where an entire world sat on the brink of falling into nuclear abyss. While long standing differences in ideologies and the arms race caused the crisis between the superpowers, just a mere thirteen days impacted the nature of the Cold War for the years to come. The Cuban Missile Crisis therefore forms a significant turning point within the Cold War which transformed the future of man.

National Secretary Advisor McGeorge Bundy writes of the crisis “having come so close to the edge, we must make it out business not to pass this way again.”

John F. Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis Address to the Nation:

Delivered 22 October 1962

Good evening, my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up 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

…Only last Thursday, as evidence of this rapid offensive build-up was already in my hand, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko told me in my office that he was instructed to make it clear once again, as he said his government had already done, that Soviet assistance to Cuba, and I quote, "pursued solely the purpose of contributing to the defence capabilities of Cuba," that, and I quote him, "training by Soviet specialists of Cuban nationals in handling defensive armaments was by no means offensive, and if it were otherwise," Mr. Gromyko went on, "the Soviet Government would never become involved in rendering such assistance”...

To halt this offensive build-up 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. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948…

…I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in a historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man. He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction by returning to his government's own words that it had no need to station missiles outside its own territory, and withdrawing these weapons from Cuba by refraining from any action which will widen or deepen the present crisis, and then by participating in a search for peaceful and permanent solutions…

…Our goal is not the 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.

Thank you and good night.


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