The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis:  Three Perspectives: a simulation

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1The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: 
Three Perspectives: A Simulation

by Philip Brenner

American University

Teachers’ Guide

Dear Teacher,
This brief guide to the Cuban Missile Crisis can be used in three ways: (1) as a quick reference tool for students; (2) as a handout that you could use as the basis of your own presentation about the missile crisis; (3) as the basis for a quasi-simulation. The following is an outline of how I have used it as the basis for a quasi-simulation that can be run in as little as one hour and as long as several days, depending on how much preparation you want students to have as they play their roles.
I – Overview: Present the basic outline of the missile crisis. The outline could repeat or elaborate the summary overview on the next page. It is important to help students appreciate the tensions during the Cold War, and the anti-communism in the United States.
II – Divide the class into three groups: U.S., U.S.S.R., Cuba. Each group must prepare answers to the following three questions:
1) What caused the crisis?

2) What enabled the crisis to be resolved?

3) What lessons were learned from the crisis?
As the students discuss their answers within the groups, you can visit each group and help the students formulate their responses, and understand how the country they represent might have been thinking about the situation.
III – The students reassemble, still in their groups. Each group answers the first question in turn, then the second question, and then the third. As one group answers, students from the other two groups can interrupt by challenging the logic or validity of the claims a group is making. But the back and forth should not get out of hand.
IV – Follow-up: discuss with the students what is learned by seeing such a crisis from three perspectives. How might they apply that to understanding current problems, such as the nuclear standoff with Iran and North Korea today?
Please feel free to use any or all parts of this guide as you wish.
Philip Brenner July 9, 2008

1The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Perspectives

The Basic Scenario

On October 16, 1962 President John F. Kennedy was informed that the Soviet Union was building launching sites in Cuba for ballistic missiles with a range of 1000 miles. Cuba is approximately 90 miles from the United States. The missiles could have carried warheads 60 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Kennedy called together a group of advisors (informally named the EX COMM) who weighed several strategies for responding to the presence of missiles in Cuba. On October 22, Kennedy announced to the world that the United States was imposing a naval blockade around the island of Cuba -- to prevent the further shipment of missiles and of parts for the completion of the launch sites -- and he demanded that the Soviets pull out all of their offensive weapons from Cuba.

During the next five days, tension ran quite high, particularly when a Soviet boat came to the point of crossing the blockade line. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev responded to Kennedy's demands on October 26 with an impassioned letter in which he proposed that the Soviet Union would withdraw the missiles if the United States promised not to invade Cuba. The next day he sent a second, less emotional letter to Kennedy in which he added a demand: that the United States also withdraw its medium range ballistic missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally which bordered the Soviet Union. October 27 was a day that was particularly anxiety-filled, because in the morning a U.S. surveillance plane (U-2) was shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Similar surveillance flights had flown over Cuba at least twice daily without interruption since October 14. Sensing trouble, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that the President order an invasion of Cuba. That evening, Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin an ultimatum: get the missiles out in 48 hours or the U.S. will attack Cuba.

Khrushchev also feared events were spiraling out of control. In addition to ballistic missiles, the Soviets had placed “tactical” nuclear missiles in Cuba, which would have been used to stop an invasion force. The U.S. was poised to invade Cuba with 180,000 troops on October 29. If U.S. forces were hit with tactical nuclear weapons, Kennedy was sure to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. The Soviet leader saw that the Soviet Union and the United States were headed toward nuclear war.

In his meeting with Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy offered the Soviets a secret deal: the United States would withdraw its missiles from Turkey, but would not acknowledge this publicly. The public announcement would follow the lines of Khrushchev’s first letter. Khrushchev accepted this offer, and on the morning of October 28 he announced that the Soviet Union was withdrawing its missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. promise not to invade the island.

From October 24 to November 20, U.S. defense forces were at their highest stage of alert just short of actual war: DefCon 2. Even a small incident might have triggered a nuclear war. Decisions based on inaccurate information (such as the false U.S. assumption that the Soviets had not yet brought nuclear warheads to Cuba) could have been catastrophic. For this reason, many observers have said that during the Cuban missile crisis the world came closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any other time.

Suggested Overview Reading

Don Munton and David A. Welch, The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Philip Brenner, “Turning History on its Head.”

PERSPECTIVE 1: United States
In October 1962, the Soviet Union had fewer than 50 ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States. The lack of Soviet strategic capability (its shorter range missiles could only hit European countries) gave the United States significant power in the world. By placing missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union enhanced its capability of striking the United States. This suggested to the EX COMM policymakers a strategic analysis and a psychological analysis.

a) Balance of forces: The Soviet motive was to change the balance of forces in the world so that the Soviet Union would be freer to challenge U.S. interests.

b) U.S. credibility: A related motive would be to embarrass the United States, by placing missiles in the U.S. backyard, and thus undermining U.S. credibility.

c) Attack on Berlin: If the U.S. did strike at the missiles, it would give the Soviets an excuse to attack U.S. outposts closer to the Soviet Union. The one that most concerned the EX COMM was West Berlin, where the Soviet Union had built a wall one year earlier.


a) Testing JFK: Khrushchev was an adventurer who was testing the United States in general and Kennedy in particular. If the United States accepted the missiles in Cuba, it would only encourage the Soviet Union to act aggressively elsewhere.

b) Weak JFK: The EX COMM believed that Khrushchev thought Kennedy was a weak person, and that Kennedy had not been firm enough with the Soviet leader in their 1961 summit meeting in Vienna. Backing down on the missiles would add to Khrushchev's sense of a weak Kennedy.
The basic assumption of both analyses was that the Soviet Union was acting aggressively and the United States had to act swiftly, decisively, and forcefully to defend itself against this Soviet aggression.

1) Crises can be managed – if the President makes decisions through a senior small group such as the EXCOMM, which maintains the utmost secrecy in order to prevent pressure from the media and unscrupulous politicians.

2) Force and the threat of force are the most useful instruments in securing a successful outcome to a crisis. Therefore the United States must maintain military superiority over the Soviet Union.

3) The United States and the Soviet Union have a common interest in preventing nuclear war. This interest can transcend their particular ideologies and differences, and enable the two superpowers to negotiate arms control agreements which might reduce the chance of war. [The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty was a positive result of the Missile Crisis.]

Suggested Readings from U.S. Perspective

• Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision, second edition (Longman: 1999)

• Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (Signet: 1969)

Sheldon Stern, The Week The World Stood Still: Inside The Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Stanford U Press, 2005)

PERSPECTIVE 2: Soviet Union
During the 1960 U.S. Presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy had campaigned against Vice President Richard Nixon by charging that there was a "missile gap" that favored the Soviet Union and that the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration was wrong not to support the overthrow of the Castro regime in Cuba. This led to two Soviet fears when Kennedy became President: (1) the United States might attack the Soviet Union; (2) the United States might attack Cuba.

a) To emphasize the U.S. superiority, in October 1961 the Kennedy Administration acknowledged publicly that in fact the real missile gap was exactly opposite what Kennedy had charged: the United States had many more missiles than the Soviet Union.

b) Kennedy then announced he would increase the number of missiles and warheads that could be launched against the Soviet Union. By the end of 1962, the United States had ten times more missiles and warheads than the Soviet Union.

c) Soviet analysts believed the U.S. military buildup was the preparation for a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, and at least an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union.


a) In April 1961 U.S.-supported and trained Cuban exiles launched a failed invasion against Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

b) In February 1962 renewed attacks against Cuba by CIA-trained commandos seemed to indicate that the United States was prepared to act aggressively against Cuba, thereby undermining Soviet interests.

c) Soviet credibility would suffer significantly if it permitted Cuba to be invaded by the United States. The attacks, and the suspension of Cuba from the Organization of American States, appeared to be forewarning of such an invasion.


a) Missiles in Cuba would double the number of warheads or bombs that the Soviet Union could use directly against the United States, thus enhancing the Soviet’s ability to deter a U.S. aggressive attack

b) The missile also would deter the United States from invading Cuba.

c) Khrushchev's October 28 withdrawal prevented a nuclear holocaust and enabled him to say this was a Soviet victory because of JFK's no invasion pledge.


1) Crises cannot be managed. They must be prevented.

2) Military inferiority encourages risk taking by an adversary.

3) The USSR and US have some common global interests that could be negotiated.

Suggested Readings from Soviet Perspective

• Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy J. Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble (W.W. Norton, 1998)

• Raymond Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis Rev. edition (Brookings Institution, 1989


The 1959 Cuban revolution occurred without any Soviet support, and it was more than a year before the Soviet Union even began to trade with Cuba. Castro declared that the Cuban revolution was "socialist" for the first time during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. But Cuba believed the United States was intent on destroying the Cuban revolution whether or not it was linked to the Soviet Union. This led Cuba to fear a U.S. invasion and to seek ways to defend itself.


a) After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, President Kennedy authorized a new plan to overthrow the Castro regime, called Operation Mongoose. It was put into effect in February 1962, four months before the Soviets decided to send missiles to Cuba.

b) Operation Mongoose involved terrorist attacks inside Cuba: stores and factories were bombed, fields were burned, and sugar exports were contaminated. It included the start of the economic embargo against Cuba which continues today. The CIA also tried to assassinate Castro.

c) Cuba assumed correctly that these efforts were preparations for a U.S. invasion that would involve U.S. military forces. 


a) Cuba accepted the Soviet plan to install missiles in May, in order to deter a U.S. invasion and to make Cuba a defacto ally of the Soviet Union.

b) On October 22, 1962, 270,000 Cubans were armed and ready to fight to the death. The planned U.S. invasion was based on an estimate of only 100,000 armed Cubans.

c) Cuba wanted to retain old Soviet bombers after the crisis as a continued defense against future U.S. attacks, because Castro did not trust JFK's no-invasion pledge. But the United States included these on the list of “offensive” weapons to be withdrawn. Despite Soviet promises not to take back the bombers, Khrushchev agreed to Kennedy’s demands. This convinced Cuba that it could no longer trust the Soviets, which led to six years of tension between the two countries, and Cuba’s active support for revolutionary movements in Africa and Latin America.

d) Fidel Castro has said that that crisis was not resolved. Peace was achieved, but from Cuba’s viewpoint, the cause of the crisis–US aims to destroy the Cuban Revolution—continued.


1) The missile crisis was tripartite -- it involved three countries, not just the two superpowers, and each had the possibility of affecting the outcome.

2) Cuba was alone – it could not count on the Soviet Union, and it was still threatened by the United States. Its strategy was to support revolutionary movements throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to develop a coalition of like-minded Third World nations.

3) Crisis prevention is essential, but that must mean more than improved communication. Great powers must learn to respect the sovereignty of small countries, and to avoid intimidation.

Suggested Readings from Cuban Perspective

• James Blight and Philip Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Russians after the Missile Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

• Carlos Lechuga, In the Eye of the Storm (Ocean Press, 1992)

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