Cuban Missile Crisis

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Cuban Missile Crisis

The world has never come closer to the brink of nuclear war than it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, one of the most dramatic episodes in U.S. diplomatic history.

The crisis began on October 14, when photographs taken during a reconnaissance flight over Cuba by a U.S. U-2 spy plane revealed that the Soviet Union--America's Cold War adversary--had secretly started building bases for medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on the island, located less than 90 miles from the U.S. coast. [Slideshow] Scholars still debate why the Kremlin took this provocative step. Some argue that the Soviets wanted to protect their ally Cuba from the United States, which had tried various means to topple Fidel Castro following his assumption of power.

The "ExComm" Deliberates

President John F. Kennedy learned the news 2 days later and met with his top advisers--later dubbed the Executive Committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council--to decide how to respond. Since the missiles, if operational and equipped with nuclear warheads, could quickly destroy targets within the United States, Kennedy and his advisers agreed that the weapons presented a grave threat and needed to be removed. The ExComm debated how best to do so. At first, Kennedy and the ExComm favored a military response, with options ranging from airstrikes on the missile bases to an all-out invasion of Cuba. The military alternative lost favor, however, as ExComm members became more and more concerned that it could provoke a Soviet response that might lead to a general war. Such worries gained greater credence when the Central Intelligence Agency reported that some Soviet MRBMs in Cuba were already operational, probably armed with nuclear warheads, and capable of reaching targets in the United States.

The Quarantine

Ultimately, Kennedy elected not to shoot the missiles out. The President, during an ExComm meeting held on October 20, instead chose to surround Cuba with a naval blockade, called a quarantine for international legal reasons. The blockade, designed to squeeze the missiles out and prevent the Soviet Union from introducing more weapons or warheads into Cuba, offered several advantages over a military strike. While signaling Washington's determination, it was flexible, offering Kennedy and his advisers the option of increasing pressure on Moscow to remove its missiles if need be. The President's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, argued at an October 19 ExComm meeting that a blockade, unlike a military attack, allowed Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev "some room for maneuver" as well.

The crisis and the White House response remained secret until October 22, when President Kennedy, in a nationally televised address, informed the American people about the missiles and announced the quarantine of Cuba. [listen to JFK's speech] The public waited as the world seemed poised on the brink of nuclear war. [Slideshow] How would Moscow react? Would the Kremlin launch a nuclear strike on cities in the United States? Would the Soviets obey or challenge the blockade?

The Crisis Averted

Answers came 2 days later, October 24, when several Soviet ships turned back from the quarantine line. When he learned the news, Secretary of State Dean Rusk poignantly said, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." Then, the Soviets, through numerous channels, including a letter from Khrushchev to President Kennedy on October 26, proposed a solution. The Soviet Union would remove its missiles if the United States lifted the blockade and pledged not to invade Cuba. A second letter from Khrushchev arrived the next day adding a new condition: a swap of the Soviet missiles in Cuba for the U.S. Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey, located on the Soviet Union's border. Meanwhile, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba and its pilot killed, one of several events that threatened to escalate the crisis.

In an October 27 letter to the Soviet Premier, President Kennedy deliberately ignored Khrushchev's second letter and accepted the terms outlined in his first--removing the missiles in exchange for lifting the blockade and issuing a noninvasion pledge. Privately, however, the Attorney General assured Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin that the United States would remove its obsolete Jupiters from Turkey. On October 28, Khrushchev replied positively to Kennedy's letter, thereby peacefully ending a potentially catastrophic crisis. [Slideshow]

The Cuban Missile Crisis has long been remembered as a lesson in effective diplomacy and crisis management. Kennedy and his advisers responded cautiously but firmly to the Soviet emplacement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, opting for a flexible blockade rather than a potentially escalatory military alternative. While that characterization is accurate in many respects, evidence about near misses, accidents, and unauthorized actions recently has come to light suggesting that the crisis came dangerously close to spinning out of control. Given the tensions of October 1962, the downing of a U-2 over Cuba or the straying of a U.S. aircraft over Soviet airspace-- both of which actually happened--could have been interpreted by either side as a deliberate provocation requiring a military response.

In any event, the chastened superpowers pulled back from the nuclear brink in the wake of the crisis. Within a year, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the first international agreement on nuclear weapons. And the superpowers installed a "hotline" to improve communication between the White House and the Kremlin.

Source: The Cuban Missile Crisis. US Department of State. 17 April 2010 .

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