1962: Cuban Missile Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When Fidel Castro’s revolutionary July 26 Movement assumed power in Cuba in 1959, it marked the end of U.S. political and economic dominance over the island. Ever since the late nineteenth century, the United States, supported by loyal Cuban politicians, had enjoyed control over all Cuba’s commerce and industry. Castro, however, refused to adhere to U.S. interests, and, as a result, the United States attempted to overthrow Castro’s government through the use of covert military operations and an economic blockade.

When Fidel Castro’s revolutionary July 26 Movement assumed power in Cuba in 1959, it marked the end of U.S. political and economic dominance over the island. Ever since the late nineteenth century, the United States, supported by loyal Cuban politicians, had enjoyed control over all Cuba’s commerce and industry. Castro, however, refused to adhere to U.S. interests, and, as a result, the United States attempted to overthrow Castro’s government through the use of covert military operations and an economic blockade.

In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began organizing and training anti-Castro Cuban exiles for a potential invasion. When President John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, he agreed to continue this program, and in April, more than fourteen hundred commandos landed at the Bay of Pigs. U.S. experts believed that the people would rise up and revolt against Castro during this assault, but Castro easily quashed this rebellion. Afterward, Kennedy developed several assassination plots against Castro, and he sanctioned the CIA to conduct sabotage raids upon Cuban sugarcane fields, railroad bridges, and oil tanks through Operation Mongoose.

Cuba and the Soviet Union

All of these attacks, however, backfired. Threatened with continuous military invasions and the loss of trade, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for support. He declared himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1961, and, afterward, Soviet influence substantially increased. By 1962, the Soviet Union had stationed several military advisers in Cuba, and Kennedy feared that communist influence ultimately could undermine U.S. hegemony in Latin America if this relationship continued to grow.

In October, 1962, Senator Kenneth B. Keating of New York startled the United States by alleging that offensive missile bases were under construction in Cuba. Keating did not reveal the source of his information, but a flight by a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance airplane on October 14 substantiated his charges. Long-range nuclear missiles, which had begun arriving in Cuban ports from the Soviet Union in September, were being installed at San Cristobal on the western part of the island. An international crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions threatened the safety of the world.

After President Kennedy viewed the satellite photos on October 16, he called his key military and political advisers to the White House. The initial discussion centered on the issue of whether the missiles were fully armed and ready to fire. After concluding that the United States still had time before the Soviets attained nuclear readiness on Cuba, the president and his executive committee (Ex Comm) discussed various options. General Maxwell Taylor of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an immediate air strike. Others, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, the president’s special assistant for national security affairs, suggested that the president resort to diplomacy rather than war.

U.S. aerial reconnaissance photography of the Soviet missile installations that precipitated the crisis. (National Archives)

U.S. Blockade

By Thursday, October 18, a consensus had emerged from the discussions, and the next day, the president indicated that he favored a naval blockade as the first step. He also decided that he would announce his decision to the U.S. people on the evening of Monday, October 22. At 5:00 p.m., he briefed congressional leaders. An hour later, Soviet ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin was ushered into the office of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, where he was handed a copy of Kennedy’s speech. At 7:00 p.m., the president spoke over nationwide television and radio.

“The purpose of these bases,” Kennedy said in a calm but firm voice, “can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” The Soviet action was “a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe.”

The president then outlined the initial steps the United States would take to deal with the situation: a quarantine on offensive military equipment being shipped to Cuba; an assertion that any missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union, requiring a total retaliatory response by the United States; emergency meetings of both the Organization of American States and the United Nations to consider this threat to peace; and an appeal to Nikita S. Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union, “to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.” The quarantine was to become effective on October 24 at 10 a.m.

Confrontation

On Wednesday, October 24, the Soviet Union officially rejected the U.S. proclamation of quarantine. Late that day, however, some Soviet ships sailing toward Cuba altered course or stopped in midsea. Yet, a direct confrontation between U.S. and Soviet ships could not long be delayed, as this crisis escalated into an international war of brinkmanship. The American Strategic Air Command went to Defense Condition 2, one step away from actual war; B-52 bombers took off with nuclear arsenals; and soldiers were moved to bases in the southeast and briefed for a potential invasion of Cuba.

The first real thaw in the crisis occurred on Friday afternoon, October 26, when John Scali, diplomatic correspondent of the American Broadcasting Company, received a call from Aleksandr S. Fomin, an official of the Soviet embassy who was also a colonel in the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) and a personal friend of Khrushchev. At lunch, Fomin proposed a settlement of the crisis and asked Scali if he could find out from contacts in the Department of State if it would be acceptable. The missile bases in Cuba, Fomin said, would be dismantled and the Soviet Union would promise not to ship any more offensive missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. Scali immediately took this proposal to Rusk, who felt it was legitimate. At the same time, a personal letter from Khrushchev confirmed Fomin’s offer, but it also reminded Kennedy that the Soviet Union’s actions were simply a response to his provocative measures toward Castro’s government.

Editorial cartoon published during the crisis showing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev blaming the United States for threatening world peace, as he tows an armada of Soviet weapons intended to threaten the United States. (Library of Congress)

The next day, the situation deteriorated when Khrushchev seemed to change the proposal markedly when he demanded that the United States abandon its missile bases in Turkey. This angered Kennedy. Despite the fact that the missiles in Turkey were of little strategic value, he felt that U.S. credibility was at stake. Several members of Ex Comm, including U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman, suggested that this provided Khrushchev with a face-saving alternative. The president and his advisers decided to proceed on the basis of the meetings with Fomin and to ignore Khrushchev’s demand, but at the same time, Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to meet with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin and secretly agree to remove the missiles in Turkey if the Cuban crisis were resolved peacefully.

Other news also threatened the peace. The afternoon of October 27, a U.S. U-2 strayed over Soviet air space; it managed to return home safely, but Kennedy feared that the Soviets would view this as the first step in a preemptive strike. On the same day, another U-2 was shot down over Cuba, and as a result, most members of Ex Comm believed that a nuclear exchange was imminent.

Soviets Back Down

On the morning of Sunday, October 28, Moscow radio carried an announcement that had come from Khrushchev: “In order to eliminate as rapidly as possible the conflict which endangers the cause of peace … the Soviet Government … has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you have described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.” The Cuban missile crisis had passed, and a nuclear holocaust had been averted. The United States removed the missiles from Turkey in 1963, both nations installed a nuclear hotline between Washington, D.C., and Moscow to prevent future misunderstandings over nuclear war, and both nations began to explore talks to curtail the nuclear arms race.

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