Cuban Missile Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union risked nuclear confrontation in an event known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Summary of Event

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. Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War;Cuba U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Nuclear weapons;brinkmanship [kw]Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 22-28, 1962) [kw]Missile Crisis, Cuban (Oct. 22-28, 1962) [kw]Crisis, Cuban Missile (Oct. 22-28, 1962) Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War;Cuba U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Nuclear weapons;brinkmanship [g]Caribbean;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [g]West Indies;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [g]Cuba;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [c]Cold War;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [c]Military history;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] [c]Government and politics;Oct. 22-28, 1962: Cuban Missile Crisis[07400] Bundy, McGeorge Castro, Fidel Dobrynin, Anatoly Fyodorovich Feklisov, Alexander Keating, Kenneth B. Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Cuba[Cuba] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;diplomacy Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War McNamara, Robert Rusk, Dean Scali, John

In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Cuba[Cuba] and the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Cuba (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 hatched several assassination Assassinations and attempts;Fidel Castro[Castro] plots against Castro, and he sanctioned the CIA to conduct sabotage raids upon Cuban sugarcane fields, railroad bridges, and oil tanks through Project MONGOOSE []Project MONGOOSE .

All of these attacks, however, backfired. Threatened with continuous military invasions and the loss of trade, Castro turned toward the Soviet Union for support. Foreign aid;Soviet Union 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 Russia 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 U-2 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 Taylor, Maxwell 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.

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 Fyodorovich 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 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.

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 mid-sea. 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.

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The first real thaw in the crisis occurred on Friday afternoon, October 26, when John Scali, diplomatic correspondent of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), received a call from Alexander Feklisov (his Soviet State Security Committee, or KGB, cover name was Alexander Fomin), an official of the Soviet embassy who was also a KGB colonel and a personal friend of Khrushchev. At lunch, Feklisov 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, Feklisov 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 Feklisov’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.

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 William Averell Harriman Harriman, William Averell , 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 Feklisov and to ignore Khrushchev’s demand, but at the same time, Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. 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 airspace; 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.

Significance

On the morning of Sunday, October 28, Moscow radio carried the following announcement 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. Cuban Missile Crisis Cold War;Cuba U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cuban Missile Crisis Nuclear weapons;brinkmanship

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allison, Graham T. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. A scholarly study exploring the bureaucratic decision-making process during the crisis. Attempts to explain Kennedy’s actions through the use of certain theoretical models.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blight, James G., and David A. Welch. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill & Wang, 1989. Uses key interviews with policy makers, including coverage of the 1987 Cambridge Conference at which key players from both sides reconvened to discuss the crisis. Foreword by McGeorge Bundy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dinnerstein, Herbert S. The Making of a Missile Crisis, October, 1962. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Provides an exemplary overview of Soviet perceptions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Study of the social aspects of the crisis, and how the near-disaster affected the American psyche. Discusses public opinion and civil defense.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 1969. New ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. The president’s brother details the day-to-day activities of the Ex Comm during the crisis. Includes a new foreword.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2002. Updated 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Focuses on the complex relationship between the two countries during the Cold War. Includes discussion of various treaties and agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munton, Don, and David A. Welch. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. A brief but good historical outline of the crisis. Includes a map of the region, illustrations, a bibliography, and an index. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nathan, James A., ed. The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Addresses the crisis from the Soviet, U.S., and Cuban perspectives, using several newer archival sources to provide fresh and innovative perspectives on the crisis. A somewhat challenging study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Kendrick. Kennedy, Macmillan, and the Nuclear Test-ban Debate, 1961-63. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A history of U.S. and British negotiations to ban the testing of nuclear weapons and to control the global arms race that included the Soviet Union. Part of the Studies in Military and Strategic History series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Kennedy’s Quest For Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Chapter 5 provides a concise overview of the crisis and Kennedy’s views on Cuba throughout his presidency.

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