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Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The crisis began on October 15, 1962 and lasted for thirteen days. It is regarded by many as the moment where the Cold War was closest to becoming a real war.


Soviet Strategy

The Soviet government realized in 1959 that any future war would be largely nuclear, and in that same year the Strategic Rocket Forces were founded. The Soviet government became increasingly militaristic in the face of Kennedy's rearmament program. In response, the Soviets decided to install nuclear weapons in Cuba, a Caribbean nation off the coast of Florida which had recently established a nationalistic government under President Fidel Castro; Cuba's government sought Soviet Union support after the collapse of it's relations with US due to the expropriation of US properties in Cuba and a subsequent CIA backed attempt of invasion of Cuba known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Soviet reasoning was two-fold -- first, to defend this new Communist state from American or American-sponsored invasion, and second, to shift the nuclear balance of power away from the US.

American missile sites in Turkey

The US had recently begun to deploy missiles in Turkey, which directly threatened the western sections of the Soviet Union. Soviet technology was well developed in the field of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), as opposed to ICBMs. The Soviets did not believe they could achieve parity in ICBMs before 1970, but saw that a certain kind of equality could be quickly reached by placing missiles in Cuba. Soviet MRBMs on Cuba, with a range of around 1,000 miles, could threaten Washington DC and around half of the US SAC bases with a flight time of under twenty minutes. In addition, the US radar warning system was oriented towards the USSR and would provide little warning of a launch from Cuba.

Nikita Khrushchev had devised the plan in May of 1962, and by late July over sixty Soviet ships were en-route to Cuba, with some of them carrying military material. John McCone, director of the CIA, warned Kennedy that some of the ships were probably carrying missiles but a meeting of John and Robert Kennedy, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara decided that the Soviets would not try such a thing.

Picture of one of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba

The U-2 flights

A U-2 flight in late August photographed a new series of SAM missiles sites being constructed, but on September 4 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 longer-ranged SS-5s (up to 2,000 miles). The planned arsenal was forty launchers, an increase in Soviet first strike capacity of 70%.

A number of unconnected problems meant that the missiles were not discovered by the Americans until a U-2 flight of October 14 clearly showed the construction of an SS-4 site near San Cristobal. By October 19 the, then almost continuous, U-2 flights showed four sites were operational. Initially, the US government kept the information secret, telling only the fourteen key officials of the executive committee. Britain 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 on Cuba to prevent further Soviet shipments of military weapons from arriving there.

The American response

The officials discussed the various options - an immediate bombing strike was dismissed early on, as was a potentially time consuming appeal to the UN. The choice was reduced to either a naval blockade and an ultimatum, or full-scale invasion. A blockade was finally chosen, although there were a number of hawks (notably Paul Nitze, Douglas Dillon and Maxwell Taylor) who kept pushing for tougher action. An invasion was planned, and troops were assembled in Florida (although with over 40,000 Russian soldiers in Cuba, complete with tactical nuclear weapons, the proposed invading force would have been in trouble).

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 US, but similar missiles aimed at the USSR were in place in Britain, Italy and Turkey. Then there was the Soviet reaction to the blockade - would a conflict start out of escalating retaliation?

Kennedy spoke to the US people (and the Soviet government) in a televised address on October 22. He announced the naval blockade as a quarantine zone of 500 miles around the Cuban coast, warned that the military was "prepare[d] for any eventualities," and condemned the Soviet "secrecy and deception." The US was surprised at the solid support from its European allies and also from much of the remaining international community.

The case was conclusively proved on October 25 at an emergency session of the UN, during which US ambassador Adlai Stevenson showed photographs of Russian missile installations in Cuba, just after Soviet ambassador Zorin had denied their existence.

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 American government. On October 26, they offered to withdraw the missiles in return for a US 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 US missiles from Turkey in addition to the demands of the 26th. The crisis peaked on October 27, when a U-2 was shot down over Cuba and another U-2 flight over Russia was almost intercepted. At the same time, Soviet merchant ships were nearing the quarantine zone. Kennedy responded by publicly accepting the first deal and sending Robert to the Soviet embassy to accept the second in private - the small number of Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be removed. The Soviet ships turned back and on October 28 Khrushchev announced that he had ordered the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. "We went 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 crisis was a tactical victory for the Soviets but a strategic loss. They had been seen backing down, and the attempt to gain strategic parity had failed, to the anger of the Soviet military commanders. Khrushchev's fall from power a few years later can be partially linked to Politburo embarrassment at both Khrushchev's backing down from the Americans and Khrushchev's creation of the crisis by deciding to install missiles in Cuba in the first place.

American military commanders were not happy with the result either. Curtis LeMay told the President that it was "the greatest defeat in our history" and that they should invade today. But the event brought much needed stability to the US-USSR strategic relationship.

The events of the Crisis are dramatized in the movie Thirteen Days (2000), directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp.

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