Cuban Missile Crisis

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Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy was informed about the deployment of Soviet medium-range missiles on Cuba shortly after 8 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1962.  His first reaction on hearing the news from National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was to accuse the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev of a double-cross.  “He can’t do this to me,” he sputtered.

Thus began the celebrated “13 days” that brought the world closer than ever before — or since — to a nuclear war, a period now remembered in the West as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The crisis peaked on Oct. 27, “Black Saturday,” when a series of startling events, including the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Cuba, suggested that neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy fully controlled their own military machines.  The presidential aide and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. described the October 1962 confrontation as the “most dangerous moment in human history.”

Khrushchev’s motivations in sending nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba in the summer of 1962 have been the subject of great debate.  Kennedy administration officials argued afterward that the Soviet leader acted for global strategic reasons.  Prior to the missile crisis, the United States had around 3,500 nuclear warheads capable of reaching the Soviet Union, a 10-1 advantage over the Soviet Union.  By building missile bases in Cuba capable of lobbing 60 nuclear warheads into the United States, Khrushchev would be able to redress this military imbalance somewhat, although it would have left him far short of  achieving first strike capability.

In memoirs written after his ouster as Soviet leader in 1964, Khrushchev claimed that he was primarily motivated by the desire to defend the Cuban revolution, and his ally Fidel Castro, from aggression by the United States.  The Kennedy administration had supported an abortive invasion of Cuba by right-wing exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and had launched a campaign of sabotage against the Castro regime, known as Operation Mongoose.  As Khrushchev later wrote, “One thought kept hammering away in my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba?  It will be a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism.”

Khrushchev also had more personal reasons for wanting to get even with Kennedy, whom he regarded as an inexperienced leader young enough to be his son.  The United States had stationed medium-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey, across the Black Sea from Khrushchev’s summer retreat in Sochi. Complaining that there were “U.S. missiles aimed at my dacha,” the Soviet premier thought it was “high time America learned what it feels like to have her own land and her own people threatened.”


The first Soviet missiles arrived in Cuba on Sept. 9, as part of an extensive military buildup that included the deployment of surface-to-air missiles for shooting down American U-2 spy planes, advanced MIG fighter jets and submarines equipped with nuclear torpedoes. The Soviets also sent three fully-armed combat regiments to Cuba to fight alongside their Cuban allies.  Khrushchev intended to keep the missile deployment secret until early November, when he would travel to Havana and present the Americans with a military fait accompli.

The belated discovery of the Soviet missile deployment by an American U-2 on Oct. 14 threw Khrushchev’s plans into disarray, and posed a huge political challenge for Kennedy.  The president had earlier insisted that the United States could not accept the deployment of Soviet “offensive” weapons in Cuba.  He now had to find a way to get Khrushchev to back down, even at the risk of nuclear war.

Fortunately for Kennedy, he knew that the Soviet missiles were not yet operational.  That gave him a breathing space of a few days to privately consider his options with an ad hoc group of his closest advisers.   The Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, included his brother Robert, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and the presidential speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. 

The uniformed military, including Taylor and Gen. Curtis LeMay, the legendary Air Force chief, were unanimously in favor of air strikes followed up by an invasion.  What they did not know at the time was that the Soviet forces on Cuba were equipped with 98 tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipe out an American invading force or the United States naval base at Guantánamo.  The use of these weapons on Cuba could quickly have escalated to an all-out nuclear war.

At first, Kennedy also favored air strikes against the missile sites, but changed his mind after being informed that it was impossible to guarantee complete success.   He then embraced a plan originally suggested by McNamara for a naval blockade around Cuba, as a way of demonstrating American resolve while allowing time for negotiations with Khrushchev.  The president went on television at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 to announce the blockade, which he described with the more innocuous-sounding term, “quarantine.”

Like Kennedy, Khrushchev initially adopted a bellicose position when he heard about the American action. He talked about using tactical nuclear weapons against an American invading force, and wiping out Guantánamo, but he also took steps to avoid a confrontation.  He ordered Soviet ships carrying missiles and other military equipment to turn around before the quarantine came into effect at 10 a.m. on Oct. 24.  The missile-carrying ships had been heading back to the Soviet Union for some 30 hours when Rusk claimed to have uttered the memorable line, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and the other side just blinked.”

The most dangerous moments of the missile crisis came not from the supposed “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev on Oct. 24, but from events spiraling out of control three days later on “Black Saturday.”

In addition to the U-2 shot down over Cuba, another American U-2 on a routine air sampling mission to the North Pole blundered into Soviet air space.  The Soviets sent up MIG fighters to try to shoot the intruder down; the Alaska Air Defense Command responded by scrambling nuclear-armed F-102 interceptors.  In the Caribbean, a frazzled Soviet submarine commander considered firing his nuclear torpedo against United States destroyers attempting to bring him to the surface.

In the meantime, Soviet troops brought nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to the periphery of the Guantánamo naval base, and transported nuclear warheads to the medium-range missile sites at Sagua La Grande in central Cuba.  Convinced that an attack by the United States was imminent, Castro urged Khrushchev to consider a nuclear first strike against the United States.

That night, Kennedy sent his brother Robert to meet with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, to offer a no invasion pledge to Cuba and warn that time was running out.  Acting without the knowledge of most members of the ExComm, Robert Kennedy promised to withdraw U.S. Jupiters from Turkey within five months of a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. That part of the deal remained secret for many years.

Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of Soviet missiles over Radio Moscow at 9 a.m. Washington time on Oct. 28 (5 p.m. Moscow time). Like Kennedy, he had independently concluded that he was losing control over events, and needed to act quickly to bring the crisis to a close.

Early histories of the missile crisis drew heavily on accounts by Kennedy aides who praised the president for his brilliant “crisis management” and depicted Khrushchev’s climb down as an unalloyed victory for the United States. Mr. Schlesinger wrote that Kennedy “dazzled the world” through a “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.”

As more evidence became available from American, Russian and Cuban sources, scholars and participants developed a more nuanced view.  After learning that the Soviets had deployed 98 tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba to wipe out any American invading force, McNamara concluded in 2007 that crisis management was largely a myth and “it was luck that prevented nuclear war.”  

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