Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a major cold war confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to install ballistic missiles in Cuba although they had made a promise to the U.S. that they would not (Chayes). When the U.S. discovered the construction of missile launching sites, President John F. Kennedy publicly denounced the Soviet actions, demanding that they remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba.
When this did not work, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Cuba, threatening that the U.S. Days would meet any missile launched from Cuba with a full-scale retaliatory attack later, Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba went home. Khrushchev soon agreed to dismantle the missile sites. The U.S. ended its blockade within a month, and shortly after, all missiles and bombers were removed from Cuba.
In 1962, the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of the world came dangerously close to nuclear confrontation when the Soviets in an unprecedented secret move had started to establish a major offensive military presence in Cuba (Mills). This potentially lethal incident brought policy makers on both sides to debate their use of diplomacy and military force.
Had it not been for the decisions of the two antagonistic countries, the U.S. And the Soviet Union, the world may have entered the third World War — a nuclear war.
Basically, the Cuban Missile Crisis began when the U.S. discovered that the Soviet Union was building missile sites in Cuba in an effort to close the missile gap. The Soviets had promised the U.S. that they would not put nuclear weapons in Cuba. However, they decided to take a chance, hoping that the U.S. would not find out until it was too late. Their plot almost worked.
When a U.S. U-2 spy plane discovered the missile sites, the nuclear weapons were nearing completion (Schlesinger). The whole world watched in anticipation as President John F. Kennedy decided on which action the U.S. would take, knowing that his decisions could lead to the third World War.
Kennedy’s decision was a tentative one, as the Bay of Pigs invasion of the previous year had been a huge failure. The Bay of Pigs invasion had been the U.S.’ attempt to remove Fidel Castro from the Cuban presidency.
The U.S. armed and trained thousands of Cuban exiles to take part in this plan. U.S. officials hoped that the Bay of Pigs invasion would lead to Castro’s removal from office by his own people, rather than the U.S. However, the U.S. did not provide adequate air cover for the troops. Out of about 2000 troops, 300 were killed and the rest were imprisoned. Kennedy did not want to attempt something like this again, so he decided to initiate a naval blockade (Mills).
The U.S. Point-of-View
If the U.S. had not discovered the missile sites before the weapons were complete, the U.S.S.R. would have had the advantage of a first strike capability, meaning that it would have had the opportunity to strike first and disarm its opponent (the U.S.).
If the Soviets had active nuclear missile bases in Cuba, they could have attacked the U.S.’ air bases before the U.S. could retaliate. Since Cuba is so close to the U.S. coast, the Soviets could conduct strikes against B-52 bases virtually undetected by U.S. radar, eliminating the U.S.’ ability to retaliate.
As a result, by the time the U.S. realized it was being attacked, it would have been too late to do anything about it. Its ability to counter-attack would be gone and the U.S. would be forced to surrender to Soviet terms.
A country that has first strike capability can start a war at any given time. However, a country that lacks first strike capability is most often unwilling to start a war. This was the root of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U.S. believed that placing Soviet missiles in Cuba would give the Soviets first strike ability. This would critically endanger U.S. national security. Therefore, Kennedy decided that the threat must either be eliminated or all nuclear material must be withdrawn from Cuba (Smoke, p. 36-37).
According to writer Richard Smoke, the Soviets would try anything to gain power. Their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, viewed the placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba as the best way to breach the missile gap with America. The Soviets felt it was worth the risk of a World War to attempt to gain first strike capability.
According to Smoke, the Soviets’ plan was close to success. However, a U.S. U2 spy plane located the top-secret missile sites in Cuba right before they were complete (Smoke, p. 44). Kennedy’s initial decision was to use conventional weapons to demolish the bases. However, he changed his mind and decided to use this option as a last resort.
Instead, Kennedy’s first action was to make a public declaration that the Soviets must immediately remove the missiles from Cuba. The Soviets did not do this. Kennedy wrote a letter to Khrushchev, saying that he assumed neither country wanted to bring the world to nuclear chaos in which it was clear no country would win. Kennedy’s next plan of action was to initiate a naval blockade, preventing Soviet ships from entering Cuba.The President then addressed the nation (Mills, p. 242).
Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba….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 full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” (Mills, p. 242-3).
During this speech, the Pentagon sent the military alert to DEFCON 3, which is the highest military alert short of all-out war (Hersh, p. 355). An enormous military force assembled with more than one hundred thousand troops prepared for attack. Nuclear weapons were placed on international bombers, targeting the Soviet Union (Hersh, p. 356).
The following day, pilots flew over Cuba, taking pictures of two operational medium-range ballistic missile sites. Surveillance planes located twenty-five Soviet ships and six submarines heading for Cuba. Khrushchev told Kennedy that the blockade would be ignored, and the Soviet ships would continue to deliver the missiles. Khrushchev threatened that America’s actions were starting a nuclear war (Mills, p. 243).
The U.S. discovered several Soviet ships heading toward the blockade. If they did not stop, the U.S. planned to attack them. The Soviet response could have been horrific. However, the U.S. received word that the some of the Soviet ships were stopping and heading back.
The U.S.blockade stopped its first Soviet ship shortly after. After U.S. troops boarded the ship, they found no nuclear weapons and let it proceed. Meanwhile, Khrushchev was insisting to Kennedy that he wanted the U.S. And Russia to have a peaceful rivalry and not start a war. Finally, President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and stopped the blockade
This gave the Soviets an easy way out without humiliation. However, the situation had a negative effect on Khrushchev’s political career. Within two years, he was voted out of office (Berry, p. 93).
Kennedy felt a responsibility to act firmly and quickly during the Cuban Missile Crisis for many reasons. For one, he was faced with domestic and political pressure, particularly after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Second, he knew that he had to prevent a destabilization of the balance of power.
It was of utmost importance to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba. Kennedy had to coerce Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles in order to defend the balance of power, preserve NATO, and maintain a powerful defense.
Kennedy knew that if the Soviets successfully deployed those missiles, it would lead to disaster, and he warned the Executive Committee (ExComm) on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “then they would start getting ready to squeeze in Berlin.”
Kennedy viewed the Soviet missiles in Cuba as an attempt by the Soviet Union to gain several political advantages in its global struggle with the U.S. If the Soviet project was successful, the U.S. would suffer a huge blow to its international prestige and the Soviet’s position in the Communist world would be strengthened. This would provide fuel for an eventual confrontation with the U.S. over the status of Berlin (Schlesinger, p. 811).
Kennedy’s speech compared Khrushchev’s testing of American resolve to Adolf Hitler’s testing of France and Britain before World War II. The 1930’s, he said, “taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war” (Schlesinger, p. 683).
The Cuban Missile Crisis is praised as one of the leading examples of “crisis management” and Kennedy’s decisions came to be the model for crisis management, which in Kennedy’s case, involved unprecedented sensitivity to and cooperation with the enemy in a situation in which both sides had more to lose than either had to gain.
The Soviet Point-of-View
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the first time that the world was in danger of full-scale nuclear war. When the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S. viewed this as an act of hostility that could not be tolerated.
However, many critics say that the Soviets were simply reacting the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which Kennedy used Cubans against Castro without providing the American military support they needed. Americans saw this as a great embarrassment. But to the U.S.S.R., it was viewed as an American-sponsored military offensive against Cuba, which was a communist country and Soviet ally.
The U.S., through the Bay of Pigs, had challenged both the Soviet Union and Cuban governments (Roskin). In addition to the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev was also acting against U.S. missile installations in Turkey and Italy, which he saw as a major threat to the U.S.S.R.
The missile sites in Turkey were close to the Soviet border, and were very similar to the missiles installed in Cuba by the Soviets. For this reason, it is argued that Khrushchev attempted to build missile sites simply to prevent the U.S. from having a nuclear advantage over the Soviets, which he feared would destroy the U.S.S.R.
Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev wanted to place their country at a disadvantage, so both countries, in the Cuban Missile Crisis situation, were acting to protect their respective countries (Chayes).
However, the U.S. media and propaganda created hysteria in the U.S. over the Soviet installations. The media made Khrushchev out to be a monster, labeling his actions as hostile and aggressive. Kennedy struggled to decide whether to invade Cuba to destroy the missiles or to negotiate with Khrushchev. The U.S. felt that an invasion would have meant certain war.
The media played a strong role in turning this situation into a complete crisis. Khrushchev made an effort to explain his reasons for placing the missiles in Cuba. He assured Kennedy that the action was not aggressive, and agreed remove them immediately if the U.S. missiles in Turkey were dismantled and Kennedy publicly declared that the U.S. would not invade Cuba.
However, this aspect of the situation was not publicized and the media continued to paint an image of Khrushchev as a militant tyrant. Meanwhile, Kennedy decided not to accept the Soviet’s offer. Soon, a U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba as it was surveying the missiles, which fueled Khrushchev’s aggressive image.
Kennedy did not retaliate but declared that if another plane were shot down, the U.S. would invade Cuba. Khrushchev again informed Kennedy that he would immediately dismantle the Cuban missiles provided that the U.S. declared that it would not invade Cuba and if the U.S. agreed to dismantle their missiles in Turkey.
Kennedy hesitated in agreeing to the Soviet demands, instead promising that the U.S. blockade would be lifted if the Soviets dismantled the missiles. Khrushchev finally agreed and the missiles were dismantled and taken out of Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.
Many people say that the Cuban Missile Crisis was President Kennedy’s greatest triumph. The whole world watched as the two largest superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, sat on the verge of WWIII. The confrontation that followed the discovery of the Soviet missile sites lasted for thirteen days, yet to those fearing war, it seemed much longer than that.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, Khrushchev announced that he would concentrate on his country’s economic problems rather than international military matters. He turned to the U.S. For suggestions on solving the Berlin dilemma. He believed that war was not the answer and that “in the next war, the survivors will envy the dead” (Mills, p. 246).
On Christmas Eve, 1962, a $50 million food and medical supply care package was sent, and the Bay of Pigs prisoners were released. The following spring, Kennedy removed the U.S. missiles from Turkey, and Russia signed the nuclear test ban treaty. A “hot line” Teletype link was installed to ensure instant communication between Moscow and Washington, and the U.S. imported extra wheat and flour to the Soviet Union.
The Cold War had warmed for the time being (Mills, p. 247) and it became clear that the Cuban Missile Crisis was really over. Yet the world remembered that this crisis was the closest the world had ever come to global nuclear war. The thirteen days of the crisis and the media had made Kennedy a hero in the eyes of America (Hersh, p. 342).
Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside story of the Cuban Missile
Chayes, A. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Oxford University Press, 1974.
Crisis. Random House, 1991.
Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot. Little, Brown & Company, 1998.
Mills, Judie. John F. Kennedy. Watts Franklin, 1988. http://a1055.g.akamai.net/f/1055/1401/5h/search.barnesandnoble.com/gresources/cleardot.gif
Roskin, Michael, and Nicholas Berry. The New World of International Relations. Prentice Hall. 1996.
Schlesinger, Arthur. M. A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. (Schlesinger, Arthur. M. Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978)
Smoke, Richard. Nuclear Arms Control: Understanding the Arms Race.
Walker and Company, 1988.
Cuban Missile Crisis
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