Cuban Missile Crisis

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Image:Cubacrisis 17 Oct 1962.jpg
USAF spy photo of one of the suspected launch sites

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States regarding the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The missiles were ostensibly placed to protect Cuba from further planned attacks by the United States after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and were rationalized by the Soviets as equivalent to the U.S. placing deployable nuclear warheads in the United Kingdom, Italy, and, ultimately most significantly, Turkey. The crisis began on October 16, 1962 when U.S. reconnaissance data revealing Soviet nuclear missile installations on the island were shown to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and ended twelve days later on October 28, 1962, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that the installations would be dismantled. The Cuban Missile Crisis is often regarded as the moment when the Cold War came closest to escalating into a nuclear war. Russians refer to the event as the "Caribbean Crisis," while Cubans refer to it as the "October Crisis."



Fidel Castro took power in Cuba after the Cuban revolution of 1959 and soon took actions inimical to American trade interests on the island. In response, the U.S. stopped buying Cuban sugar and refused to supply its former trading partner with much-needed oil.<ref>The Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Room</ref> The U.S. government became increasingly concerned about the new Cuban government, and this became a major focus of the new Kennedy administration when it took office in January 1961.<ref name="thousand"> A Thousand days:John F Kennedy in the big white House Arthur Schlesinger Jr 1965 </ref> In Havana, one of the consequences of this was the fear that the U.S. might intervene against the Cuban government. This fear materialized in April 1961 when Cuban exiles, trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, staged an invasion of Cuban territory at the Bay of Pigs. Although the invasion was quickly repelled, it intensified a buildup of Cuban defense that was already under way. U.S. armed forces then staged a mock invasion of a Caribbean island in 1962 called Operation Ortsac. The purpose of the invasion was to overthrow a leader whose name was, in fact, Castro spelled backwards. Although Ortsac was a fictitious name, Castro soon became convinced that the U.S. was serious about invading Cuba.<ref>Cuban Missile Crisis Causes</ref> Shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro declared Cuba to be a socialist republic and entered close ties with the Soviet Union leading to a major upgrade of Cuban military defense. In February 1962, the U.S. began an economic embargo against Cuba.<ref>Proclamation 3447--Embargo on all trade with Cuba The American Presidency Project </ref>

U.S. nuclear advantage

The United States had a decided advantage over the Soviet Union in the period leading up to the crisis. For example, by the close of 1962 the United States had a dramatic advantage in nuclear weapons with more than 300 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a fleet of Polaris missile submarines. The Soviet Union for its part had only four to six land-based ICBMs in 1963, and about 100 short-range, primitive V-1-type cruise missiles that could only be launched from surfaced submarines. The Soviet's R-16 ICBM program had a major set back in October 1960 when the Nedelin catastrophe wiped out a large part of the technical team setting the project back by a year.

Few in Washington, D.C. seriously believed that a few dozen or so ballistic missiles in Cuba could change the essential fact of the strategic balance of power: the Soviet Union was hopelessly outgunned. It is now known conclusively that the United States had around 8 times as many nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union in 1962: 27,297 warheads to the USSR's 3,332.<ref>Template:Cite web</ref> Before his arrest on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky had served as an intelligence agent for the Americans and British; he was also a colonel in Soviet Intelligence. Melman notes that "the proceedings of his trial in April 1963 revealed that he had delivered 5,000 frames of film of Soviet military-technical information, apart from many hours of talk with western agents during several trips to western Europe". Melman argues that top officers in the Soviet Union concluded "that the US then possessed decisive advantage in arms and intelligence, and that the USSR no longer wielded a credible nuclear deterrent". (Melman, 1988: 119)

In 1961, the U.S. started deploying 15 Jupiter IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missiles) nuclear missiles near İzmir, Turkey, which directly threatened cities in the western sections of the Soviet Union. These missiles were regarded by President Kennedy as being of questionable strategic value; an SSBN (ballistic submarine) was capable of providing the same cover with both stealth and superior firepower.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had publicly expressed his anger at the Turkish deployment, and regarded the missiles as a personal affront. The deployment of missiles in Cuba — the first time Soviet missiles were moved outside the USSR — is commonly seen as Khrushchev's direct response to the Turkish missiles. Khrushchev had previously expressed his doubts to the poet Robert Frost about the "liberal" United States' readiness to fight over tough issues.

Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil, with a range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 statute miles), could threaten Washington, D.C. and around half of the U.S.'s SAC bases (of nuclear-armed bombers), with a flight time of under twenty minutes. In addition, the U.S.'s radar warning systems oriented toward the USSR would have provided little warning of a launch from Cuba.

The United States established three radar bases under Operation Falling Leaves; one of which was in Thomasville, Alabama. The radars were experimental models ahead of their time. Each of the three bases scanned different atmospheric zones above Cuba watching for missile launch. Each base was connected with a hotline to NORAD control.

Missile deployment

Khrushchev devised the deployment plan in May of 1962, and by late July, over sixty Soviet ships were en route to Cuba, some of them already carrying military material. John McCone, director of the CIA, had recently been on honeymoon to Paris where he had been told by French Intelligence that the Soviets were planning to place missiles in Cuba, and so he warned President Kennedy that some of the ships were probably carrying missiles; however, the President—along with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (his brother), Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—concluded that the Soviets would not try such a thing. Kennedy's administration had received repeated claims from Soviet diplomats that there were no missiles in Cuba, nor any plans to place any, and that the Soviets were not interested in starting an international drama that might impact the U.S. elections in November.

U-2 flights

Image:Cuban missiles.jpg
RF-101 Voodoo reconnaissance photograph of San Cristobal MRBM launch site.

A U-2 flight in late August photographed a new series of SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites being constructed, but on September 4 1962 Kennedy told Congress that there were no offensive missiles in Cuba. On the night of September 8, the first consignment of SS-4 MRBMs was unloaded in Havana, and a second shipload arrived on September 16. The Soviets were building nine sites — six for SS-4s and three for SS-5s with a range of 4,000 kilometres (2,400 statute miles). The planned arsenal was forty launchers, an increase in Soviet first strike capacity of 70%. This matter was readily noticed by the Cuban population, and perhaps as many as a thousand reports of such reached Miami, and were evaluated and then considered spurious by U.S. intelligence [1].

A number of unconnected problems meant that the missiles were not discovered by the U.S. until a U-2 flight of October 14 clearly showed the construction of an SS-4 site near San Cristobal. The photographs were shown to Kennedy on October 16 [2]. By October 19 the U-2 flights (then almost continuous) showed four sites were operational. Initially, the U.S. government kept the information secret, telling only the fourteen key officials of the executive committee. The United Kingdom was not informed until the evening of October 21. President Kennedy, in a televised address on October 22, announced the discovery of the installations and proclaimed that any nuclear missile attack from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union and would be responded to accordingly. He also placed a naval "quarantine" (blockade) on Cuba to prevent further Soviet shipments of military weapons from arriving there. The word quarantine was used rather than blockade for reasons of international law (the blockade took place in international waters) and in keeping with the Quarantine Speech of 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Kennedy reasoned that a blockade would be an act of war, and war had not been declared between the U.S. and Cuba. However, Nikita Khrushchev claimed that the blockade was illegal, and ordered ships to bypass the quarantine. Later, a U-2 flight was shot down by an SA-2 Guideline SAM emplacement on October 27, causing negotiation stress between the USSR and the U.S. Khrushchev had not given the order, and Castro had used the freedom of using SAM missiles. However, Kennedy did not destroy the site, as he claimed to do, if such an incident happened. Kennedy's contradictory decision probably averted nuclear war.

U.S. response

With the news of the confirmed photographic evidence of Soviet missile bases in Cuba, President Kennedy convened a special group of senior advisers to meet secretly at the White House. This group later became known as the ExComm, or Executive Committee of the National Security Council. From the morning of October 16 this group met frequently to devise a response to the threat. An immediate bombing strike was dismissed early on, as was a potentially time-consuming appeal to the United Nations. They were eventually able to put out the possibility of diplomacy, narrowing the choice down to a naval blockade and an ultimatum, or full-scale invasion. A blockade was finally chosen, although there were a number of conservatives (notably Paul Nitze, and Generals Curtis LeMay and Maxwell Taylor) who kept pushing for tougher action. An invasion was planned, and troops were assembled in Florida. However, U.S. intelligence was flawed: they believed Soviet and Cuban troop numbers on Cuba to be around 10,000 and 100,000, when they were in fact around 43,000 and 270,000 respectively [3]. Also, they were unaware that 12 kiloton-range nuclear warheads had already been delivered to the island and mounted on FROG-3 "Luna" short-range artillery rockets, which could be launched on the authority of the Soviet commander on the island, General Issa Pliyev [4], in the event of an invasion. Though they posed no threat to the continental U.S., an invasion would probably have precipitated a nuclear strike against the invading force, with catastrophic results.

There were a number of issues with the naval blockade. There was legality — as Fidel Castro noted, there was nothing illegal about the missile installations; they were certainly a threat to the U.S., but similar missiles aimed at the USSR were in place in Europe (sixty Thor IRBMs in four squadrons near Nottingham, in the United Kingdom; thirty Jupiter IRBMs in two squadrons near Gioia del Colle, Italy; and fifteen Jupiter IRBMs in one squadron near İzmir, Turkey). There was concern of the Soviet's reaction to the blockade; it might turn into escalating retaliation.

Kennedy spoke to the American public, and to the Soviet government, in a televised address on October 22. He confirmed the presence of the missiles in Cuba and announced the naval blockade as a quarantine zone of 500 nautical miles (926 km) around the Cuban coast. He warned that the military was "prepared for any eventualities", and condemned the Soviet Union for "secrecy and deception". The U.S. was surprised at the solid support from its European allies, particularly from President Charles de Gaulle of France. Dean Acheson was specifically dispatched to Paris to brief de Gaulle. Nevertheless, British prime minister Harold Macmillan, as well as much of the international community, did not understand why a diplomatic solution was not considered.

The case was conclusively proved on October 25 at an emergency session of the UN Security Council. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson attempted to force an answer from Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin as to the existence of the weapons, famously demanding, "Don't wait for the translation!" Upon Zorin's refusal, Stevenson produced photographs taken by U.S. surveillance aircraft showing the missile installations in Cuba.

Khrushchev sent letters to Kennedy on October 23 and 24 claiming the deterrent nature of the missiles in Cuba and the peaceful intentions of the Soviet Union; however, the Soviets had delivered two different deals to the United States government. On October 26, they offered to withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. guarantee not to invade Cuba or support any invasion. The second deal was broadcast on public radio on October 27, calling for the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey in addition to the demands of the 26th. The crisis peaked on the 27th, when a U-2 (piloted by Major Rudolph Anderson of the USAF's 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing) was shot down over Cuba and another U-2 flight over Russia was almost intercepted when it strayed over Siberia. At the same time, Soviet merchant ships were nearing the quarantine zone. Kennedy responded by publicly accepting the first deal and sending Robert F. Kennedy to the Soviet embassy to privately accept the second that the fifteen Jupiter missiles near İzmir, Turkey would be removed six months later. Kennedy also requested that Khrushchev keep this second compromise out of the public domain so that he did not appear weak before the upcoming elections. This had ramifications for Khrushchev later. The Soviet ships turned back, and on October 28 Khrushchev announced that he had ordered the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The decision prompted then Secretary of State Dean Rusk to comment, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked."

Satisfied that the Soviets had removed the missiles, President Kennedy ordered an end to the quarantine of Cuba on November 20.


The compromise satisfied no one, though it was a particularly sharp embarrassment for Khrushchev and the Soviet Union because the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey was not made public. It was a secret dealing between Kennedy and Khrushchev. They were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started — though if played well, it could have looked like just the opposite: the USSR gallantly saving the world from nuclear holocaust by not insisting on restoring the nuclear equilibrium. Khrushchev's fall from power two years later can be partially linked to Politburo embarrassment at both Khrushchev's eventual concessions to the U.S. and his ineptitude in precipitating the crisis in the first place.

However, the Cuban Missile Crisis was not completely responsible for the fall of Khrushchev's power. The main reason was that revolutionaries such as Leonid Brezhnev believed that Khrushchev did not have enough "power" to handle international crises. He believed that Khrushchev had failed in dealing in the crisis. Also, Chinese propaganda triggered other movements.

U.S. military commanders were not happy with the result either. General LeMay told the President that it was "the greatest defeat in our history" and that the U.S. should invade immediately.

For Cuba, it was a betrayal by the Soviets whom they had trusted, given that the decisions on putting an end to the crisis had been made exclusively by Kennedy and Khrushchev.

In early 1992 it was confirmed that key Soviet forces in Cuba had, by the time the crisis broke, received tactical nuclear warheads for their artillery rockets, and IL-28 bombers [5], though General Anatoly Gribkov, part of the Soviet staff responsible for the operation, stated that the local Soviet commander, General Issa Pliyev, had predelegated authority to use them if the U.S. had mounted a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Gribkov misspoke: the Kremlin's authorization remained unsigned and undelivered.[6] (Other accounts show that Pliyev was given permission to use tactical nuclear warheads but only in the most extreme case of an American invasion during which contact with Moscow is lost. However when American forces seemed to be readying for an attack, (after the U-2 photos, but before Kennedy's television address), Khrushchev rescinded his earlier permission for Pliyev to use the tactical nuclear weapons, even under the most extreme conditions.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis spurred the creation of the Hot Line, a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington D.C. The purpose of this undersea line was to have a way the leaders of the two Cold War countries could communicate directly to better solve a crisis like the one in October 1962.

The short time span of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the extensive documentation of the decision-making processes on both sides makes it an excellent case study for analysis of state decision-making. In the Essence of Decision, Graham T. Allison and Philip D. Zelikow use the crisis to illustrate multiple approaches to analyzing the actions of the state. The intensity and magnitude of the crisis also provides excellent material for drama, as illustrated by the movies The Missiles of October (1974), a television docudrama directed by Anthony Page and starring William Devane, Ralph Bellamy, Howard Da Silva and Martin Sheen, and Thirteen Days (2000), directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp. It was also a substantial part of the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, which won an Oscar.

Various commentators (Melman, 1988; Hersh, 1997) also suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis enhanced the hubris of American military planners, leading to military adventurism, most decidedly in Vietnam.

See also



Reading on the Cuban missile crisis

  • Allison, Graham and Zelikow, P. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis; New York: Longman, 1999.
  • Blight, James G., and David A. Welch. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis; New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
  • Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis; New York: Random House, 1991.
  • Chayes, Abram. The Cuban Missile Crisis, International Crisis and the Role of Law; Oxford University Press, 1974; 2nd ed., 1987.
  • Diez Acosta, Tomás, October 1962: The 'Missile' Crisis As Seen From Cuba; Pathfinder Press, New York, 2002.
  • Divine, Robert A. The Cuban Missile Crisis; New York: M. Wiener Pub.,1988.
  • Frankel, Max, High Noon in the Cold War; Ballantine Books, 2004; Presidio Press (reprint), 2005; ISBN 0-345-46671-3.
  • Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Naftali, Timothy; One Hell of a Gamble - Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy 1958-1964; W.W. Norton (New York 1998)
  • Fursenko, Aleksandr; Night Session of the Presidium of the Central Committee, 22-23 October; Naval War College Review, vol. 59, no. 3 (Summer 2006).
  • Gonzalez, Servando The Nuclear Deception: Nikita Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis; IntelliBooks, 2002; ISBN 0-9711391-5-6.
  • Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis; ISBN 0-393-31834-6.
  • Khrushchev, Sergei, How my father and President Kennedy saved the world; American Heritage magazine, October 2002 issue.
  • May, Ernest R. (editor); Zelikow, Philip D. (editor), The Kennedy Tapes : Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Belknap Press, 1997; ISBN 0-674-17926-9.
  • Polmar, Norman and Gresham, John D. (foreword by Clancy, Tom) DEFCON – 2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis; Wiley, 2006; ISBN 0-471-67022-7.
  • Pope, Ronald R., Soviet Views on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Myth and Reality in Foreign Policy Analysis; University Press of America, 1982.
  • Stern, Sheldon M., Averting the Final Failure: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings; Stanford University Press, 2003.

Reading on related topics

  • Bamford, James, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency; Anchor Books, 2002.
  • Giglio, James N. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy; Lawrence, Kansas, 1991.
  • Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot; Hammersmith, London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
  • Melman, Seymour. The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion; Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 1988.

Fiction based on the historical crisis

External links

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Cuban Missile Crisis

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