Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba during the Cold War. In Russia, it is termed the "Caribbean Crisis," (Карибский кризис, Karibskiy krizis) while in Cuba it is called the "October Crisis." The crisis ranks with the Berlin Blockade as one of the major confrontations of the Cold War, and is often regarded as the moment in which the Cold War came closest to a nuclear war.

In Havana, there was fear of military intervention by the United States in Cuba. In April 1961, the threat of invasion became real when a force of CIA-trained Cuban exiles opposed to Castro landed at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was quickly terminated by Cuba's military forces. Castro was convinced the United States would invade Cuba. Shortly after routing the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Castro declared Cuba a socialist republic, established formal ties with the Soviet Union, and began to modernize Cuba's military.

The United States feared any country's adoption of communism or socialism, but for a Latin American country to openly ally with the USSR was regarded as unacceptable, given the Russo-American enmity dating from the end of the Second World War in 1945.

In late 1961, Kennedy engaged Operation Mongoose, a series of covert operations against Castro's government which were to prove unsuccessful.. More overtly, in February 1962, the United States launched an economic embargo against Cuba.

The United States also considered direct military attack. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay presented to Kennedy a pre-invasion bombing plan in September, while spy flights and minor military harassment from the United States Guantanamo Naval Base were the subject of continual Cuban diplomatic complaints to the U.S. government.

By September 1962, Cuban observers fearing an imminent invasion would have seen increasing signs of American preparations for a possible confrontation, including a joint Congressional resolution authorizing the use of military force in Cuba if American interests were threatened, and the announcement of an American military exercise in the Caribbean planned for the following month (Operation Ortsac).

The climax period of the crisis began on October 8, 1962. Later on October 14th, United States reconnaissance photographs taken by an American U-2 spy plane revealed missile bases being built in Cuba. The crisis ended two weeks later on October 28, 1962, when President of the United States John F. Kennedy and United Nations Secretary-General U Thant reached an agreement with the Soviets to dismantle the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a no invasion agreement and a secret removal of the Jupiter and Thor missiles in Turkey.

Kennedy, in his first public speech on the crisis, given on October 22 1962, gave the key warning,

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
This speech included other key policy statements, beginning with:
To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation and port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.

He ordered intensified surveillance, and cited cooperation from the foreign ministers of the Organization of American States (OAS). Kennedy "directed the Armed Forces to prepare for any eventualities; and I trust that in the interest of both the Cuban people and the Soviet technicians at the sites, the hazards to all concerned of continuing the threat will be recognized." He called for emergency meetings of the OAS and United Nations Security Council to deal with the matter.

U.S. atomic advantage

In 1962, the United States had more than eight times as many bombs and missile warheads as the USSR: 27,297 to 3,332. Before being arrested on the crisis's first day, GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky was a British-American spy. Historian Melman notes, "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 way too many drinks with Western agents during several trips to western Europe"; the Soviets concluded 'that the U.S. then possessed decisive advantage in arms and intelligence, and that the USSR no longer wielded a credible nuclear deterrent.'

Not having matched the American bomber capability, the Russians had instead developed missiles. After the Sputnik satellite was launched, the U.S. shifted from manned bombers to missiles, previously a low-priority, to develop Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

John von Neumann’s computer modeling rendered U.S. missiles and nuclear warheads light and economical. The heavy (276-ton), bulky Soviet R-7 Semyorka ported a (3-ton), 3-megaton warhead ; the lighter, smaller (130-ton) U.S. Atlas ported a (1.5-ton) 3.8-megaton warhead . In October 1960, Soviet rocket scientists were killed in the Nedelin catastrophe; it delayed the Soviet R-16 ICBM program for a year. During the Caribbean Crisis, the USSR had only four R-7s and few R-16s deployed in vulnerable surface launchers, while the U.S. had 142 Atlas and 62 Titan I ICBMs, mostly in hardened underground silos.

Moreover, in July 1960, the U.S. could launch -range Polaris SLBMs from submerged submarines, while the Soviet submarine fleet had only some 100 short range V-1-type cruise missiles which could be launched only from submarines that surfaced and lost their hidden submerged status.

The year before the crisis, the Premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, had bluffed Kennedy with the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba program, the greatest nuclear explosion in history. Taking advantage of the new Cuba-USSR alliance, Khrushchev was in a position to install nuclear missiles with a range encompassing major American cities. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had been briefed by the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, on the actual nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union; the "gap" was less than he had been suggesting during the campaign. One theory was that the USSR was outgunned. However, the proximity of a Cuban emplacement would reduce the warning of any launch to little or none.

In 1961, the U.S. deployed 15 Jupiter IRBMs (intermediate-range ballistic missiles) at İzmir, Turkey, aimed at the western USSR's cities, including Moscow. Given its range, Moscow was only 16 minutes away. Yet, Kennedy gave them low strategic value, given that a SSBN submarine provided the same magnitude of threat, and from a distance.

Khrushchev publicly expressed anger and personal offense from the Turkish missile emplacement. The Cuban missile deployment — the first time Soviet missiles were outside the USSR — was his response to U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey. Previously, Khrushchev had expressed doubt to the poet Robert Frost about the readiness of the "liberal" U.S. to fight over tough issues.

Secret deployment of Soviet missiles on Cuba

This political and military atmosphere, coupled with the fear that the Americans might invade Cuba, led Khrushchev to agree to supply surface-to-air missiles and surface-to-surface cruise missiles (for coastal defense) to Cuba in April 1962. He followed this with a decision, in May 1962, to install nuclear missiles (under Soviet control) in Cuba. By late July, more than sixty Soviet ships had arrived in Cuba, some carrying military material.

Operation Anadyr was the code name used by the Soviet Union for their strictly secret operation of deploying ballistic missiles, medium-range bombers, and a regiment of mechanized infantry in Cuba to create the Soviet force intended to prevent the invasion of the U.S. military forces. Anadyr included a military deception campaign intended to mislead Western intelligence forces: personnel were issued Arctic equipment and trained for cold weather, and the operation itself was named for the Anadyr river in the northern part of the Russian Far East. The ballistic missiles were shipped to Cuba on merchant ships.

In all were planned to deploy 60,000 troops, three R-12 missile regiments and two R-14 missile regiments. Troops were transferred by 86 ships, that conducted 180 voyages from ports Baltiysk, Liepāja, Sevastopol, Feodosia, Nikolaev, Poti, Murmansk. Between June 17 and October 22 there were transferred 24 launching pads, 42 R-12 rockets, including six training ones, some 45 nuclear warheads, 42 Il-28 bombers, a fighter aircraft regiment (40 Mig-21 aircraft), two Anti-Air Defense divisions, three mechanized infantry regiments, and other military units - some 47,000 troops in total.

American early reports

In Paris while on honeymoon, CIA director John McCone was told by French intelligence that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba. He warned Kennedy that some ships were missile-laden; however, the President — in consultation with his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — concluded that the Soviets would not do so. Kennedy's government had received repeated Soviet diplomatic disclaimers that there were neither Soviet missiles in Cuba, nor plans to install any, and that the USSR was uninterested in provoking an international confrontation that would affect the United States House of Representatives elections in November.

In late August, a reconnaissance flight photographed a new series of SAM sites being built, but on October 4, 1962, Kennedy told Congress that there were no offensive missiles in Cuba. The same day, Robert Kennedy met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In that meeting he stated American concern about nuclear missiles in Cuba. The ambassador assured him that they were defensive and that the military build-up was insignificant. Days later, another reconnaissance flight photographed the building of a submarine pen disguised as a fishing village. On September 11, the Soviets publicly stated that they had no need to install nuclear weapons outside the USSR, including in Cuba. That day, Khrushchev personally communicated to Kennedy that there would be no offensive weapons installed in Cuba.

U-2 flights and discovery

The first consignment of SS-4 MRBMs (medium range ballistic missiles) arrived on the night of September 8, followed by a second on September 16. The Soviets were building nine sites — six for SS-4s and three for SS-5s with a 4,000 kilometer-range (2,400 statute miles). The planned arsenal was forty launchers, a 70% increase in first strike capacity. The Cuban populace readily noticed it, with over one thousand reports reaching Miami, which U.S. intelligence considered spurious.

While Brugioni concentrates deeply on the IMINT in his book, Eyeball to Eyeball, Hilsman may give a slightly broader view in his book, To Move a Nation.

On October 8, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós (1919-1983) spoke at the U.N. General Assembly: "If . . . we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves; we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ". Several unrelated problems meant the missiles were not discovered by the U.S. until an October 14 U-2 flight showed the construction of an SS-4 site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province, in western Cuba.

Planning a response

Kennedy saw the photographs on October 16; he assembled the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), fourteen key officials and his brother Robert, at 9.00 a.m. The U.S. had no plan for dealing with such a threat, because U.S. intelligence was convinced the Soviets would not install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The EXCOM quickly discussed five courses of action:
#do nothing
#use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles
#an air attack on the missiles
#a full military invasion
#the naval blockade of Cuba, which was redefined as a more restrictive quarantine.

Unanimously, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion was the only solution. They agreed that the Soviets would not act to stop the U.S. from conquering Cuba; Kennedy was skeptical, saying:

They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.

Kennedy concluded that attacking by air would signal the Soviets to presume "a clear line" to conquer Berlin. Adding that in taking such an action, the United States' allies would think of the U.S. as "trigger-happy cowboys" who lost Berlin because they could not peacefully resolve the Cuban situation.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara supported the naval blockade as a strong but limited military action that left the U.S. in control. Per international law a blockade is an act of war, but the Kennedy administration did not feel themselves limited, thinking the USSR would not be provoked to attack by a mere blockade.

On October 18 Kennedy met Andrei Gromyko, who emphasized that there were no offensive weapons in Cuba and that the USSR's involvement was in land reform and defense. Kennedy, however, had significant information on Soviet capabilities from the US-UK defector-in-place, Oleg Penkovsky. Specifically, Kennedy knew that Soviet ICBMs were developing slowly, and that the Soviets would benefit by placing shorter-ranged SS-4 Sandal (NATO reporting name; actual Soviet designation R-12 Dvina) and SS-5 Skean (NATO reporting name; actual Soviet designation R-15 Chusovaya) intermediate-range missiles in Cuba, much as the US had PGM-19 Jupiter in Italy and Turkey and PGM-17 Thor IRBMs in the United Kingdom. US ICBM deployment was proceeding well enough that the US IRBMs were obsolete, and Kennedy could use them as bargaining chips.

By October 19, frequent U-2 spy flights showed four operational sites. The 1st Armored Division was sent to Georgia, and five army divisions were alerted for maximal action. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) distributed its shorter-ranged B-47 Stratojet medium bombers to civilian airports and sent aloft its B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers. While both types were on alert to be ready to attack, the key point of the B-52 airborne alert is that a bomber in the air is invulnerable to an attack on its base. Dispersing the B-47s presented the presumed enemy with a much harder mission of attacking every airfield containing bombers.

Another ExComm war meeting showed that air attacks would kill 10,000 to 20,000 people. Another spy flight discovered bombers and cruise missiles on Cuba's north shore, and Kennedy authorized the blockade of Cuba. When the press questioned him about Cuban offensive weapons, Kennedy told them to suppress their reports until after he addressed the nation; that evening he told Britain and other allies.


In customary international practice, a blockade stops all shipments into the blockaded area, and is considered an act of war. Quarantines are more selective, as, in this case, being limited to offensive weapons. While the original U.S. Navy paper did use the term "blockade,"
This initially was to involve a naval blockade against offensive weapons within the framework of the Organization of American States and the Rio Treaty. Such a blockade might be expanded to cover all types of goods and air transport. The action was to be backed up by surveillance of Cuba. CNO's scenario was followed closely in later implementing the quarantine.
Admiral Anderson's paper, by differentiating between the quarantine of offensive weapons versus all materials, indicated that a classic blockade was not the original intention. Since it would take place in international waters, President John F. Kennedy obtained the approval of the OAS for military action under the hemispheric defense provisions of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (i.e., the Rio Treaty). Latin American participation in the quarantine.
Latin American participation in the quarantine now involved two Argentine destroyers which were to report to the U.S. Commander South Atlantic [COMSOLANT] at Trinidad on November 9. An Argentine submarine and a Marine battalion with lift were available if required. In addition, two Venezuelan destroyers and one submarine had reported to COMSOLANT, ready for sea by 2 November. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago offered the use of Chaguaramas Naval Base to warships of any OAS nation for the duration of the quarantine. The Dominican Republic had made available one escort ship. Colombia was reported ready to furnish units and had sent military officers to the U.S. to discuss this assistance. The Argentine Air Force informally offered three SA-16 aircraft in addition to forces already committed to the quarantine operation.

At 7 p.m. October 22, President Kennedy delivered a televised radio address announcing the discovery of the missiles.

Crisis deepens

Only an hour later, at 11:24 a.m. a cable drafted by George Ball to the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey and the U.S. Ambassador to NATO notified them that they were considering making an offer to withdraw missiles from Turkey in exchange for a withdrawal from Cuba. Later, on the morning of October 25, journalist Walter Lippman proposed the same thing in his syndicated column. For many years this has been interpreted as a trial balloon floated by the Kennedy administration, although the historical record suggests this is not the case.

At the time the crisis continued unabated, and that evening TASS reported on an exchange of telegrams between Khrushchev and Bertrand Russell, where Khrushchev warned that the United States' "pirate action" would lead to war. However this was followed at 9:24 p.m. by a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy which was received at 10:52 p.m., in which Khrushchev stated that "if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States", and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as "an act of aggression" and their ships will be instructed to ignore it.

On the night of October 23, the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructed Strategic Air Command to go to DEFCON 2, for the only time in history. The message, and the response, were deliberately transmitted uncoded, in order to allow Soviet intelligence to capture them. Operation Falling Leaves quickly set up three radar bases to watch for missile launches from Cuba. The radars were experimental models ahead of their time. Each base was connected with a hotline to NORAD control.

At 1:45 a.m. on October 25, Kennedy responded to Khrushchev's telegram, stating that the U.S. was forced into action after receiving repeated assurances that no offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba, and that when these assurances proved to be false, the deployment "required the responses I have announced... I hope that your government will take necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation."

At 7:15 a.m., the USS Essex and USS Gearing attempted to intercept the Bucharest but failed to do so. Fairly certain the tanker did not contain any military material, it was allowed through the blockade. Later that day, at 5:43 p.m., the commander of the blockade effort ordered the USS Kennedy to intercept and board the Lebanese freighter Marcula. This took place the next day, and the Marcula was cleared through the blockade after its cargo was checked.

At 5:00 p.m. Dean Rusk announced that the missiles in Cuba were still actively being worked on. This report was later verified by a CIA report that suggested there had been no slow-down at all. In response, Kennedy issued Security Action Memorandum 199, authorizing the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR (which had the duty of carrying out the first air strikes on the Soviet Union).

The next morning, Kennedy informed the executive committee that he believed only an invasion would remove the missiles from Cuba. However, he was persuaded to give the matter time and continue with both military and diplomatic pressure. He agreed and ordered the low-level flights over the island to be increased from two per day to once every two hours. He also ordered a crash program to institute a new civil government in Cuba if an invasion went ahead.

At this point the crisis was ostensibly at a stalemate. The USSR had shown no indication that they would back down and had made several comments to the contrary. The U.S. had no reason to believe otherwise and was in the early stages of preparing for an invasion, along with a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union in case they responded militarily, which was assumed.

Secret negotiations

At 1:00 p.m., John Scali of ABC News had lunch with Aleksandr Fomin at Fomin's request. Fomin noted that "war seems about to break out" and asked Scali to use his contacts to talk to his "high-level friends" at the State Department to see if the U.S. would be interested in a diplomatic solution. He suggested that the language of the deal would contain an assurance from the Soviet Union to remove the weapons under UN supervision and that Castro would publicly announce not to accept such weapons in the future, in exchange for a public statement by the U.S. that they would never invade Cuba. The U.S. responded by asking the Brazilian government to pass a message to Castro that the U.S. would be "unlikely to invade" if the missiles are removed.

At 6:00 p.m. the State Department started receiving a message that appeared to be written personally by Khrushchev. Robert Kennedy described the letter as "very long and emotional". Khrushchev re-iterated the basic outline that had been stated to Scali earlier in the day, "I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear." At 6:45, news of Fomin's offer to Scali was finally heard and was interpreted as a "set up" for the arrival of Khrushchev's letter. The letter was then considered official and accurate, although it was later learned that Fomin was almost certainly operating of his own accord without official backing. Additional study of the letter was ordered and continued into the night.

Crisis continues

Castro, on the other hand, was convinced an invasion was soon at hand, and he dictated a letter to Khrushchev that appeared to call for a preemptive strike on the U.S. He also ordered all anti-aircraft weapons in Cuba to fire on any U.S. aircraft, whereas in the past they were ordered only to fire on groups of two or more. At 6:00 a.m. on October 27, the CIA delivered a memo reporting that three of the four missile sites at San Cristobal and the two sites at Sagua la Grande appeared to be fully operational. They also note that the Cuban military continued to organize for action, although they were under order not to initiate action unless attacked.

At 9 a.m. Radio Moscow began broadcasting a message from Khrushchev. Contrary to the letter of the night before, the message offered a new trade, that the missiles on Cuba would be removed in exchange for the removal of the Jupiters from Turkey. Throughout the crisis, Turkey had repeatedly stated they would be upset if the Jupiter missiles were removed. At 10 a.m. the executive committee met again to discuss the situation and came to the conclusion that the change in message was due to internal debate between Khrushchev and other other party officials in the Kremlin. McNamara noted that another tanker, the Grozny, was about out and should be intercepted. He also noted that they had not made the USSR aware of the quarantine line and suggested relaying this information to them via U Thant at the UN.

While the meeting progressed, at 11:03 a.m. a new message began to arrive from Khrushchev. The message stated, in part, "You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But... you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Turkey, literally next to us... I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive... Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States ... will remove its analogous means from Turkey ... and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made." The executive committee continued to meet through the day.

That morning, a Lockheed U-2 piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, USAF had departed the U-2 forward operating location at McCoy AFB, Florida. At approximately 12:00pm Eastern Standard Time, the aircraft was shot down by an S-75 Dvina (NATO designation SA-2 Guideline) SAM emplacement in Cuba, increasing the stress in negotiations between the USSR and the U.S. It was later learned that the decision to fire was made locally by an undetermined Soviet commander on his own authority. Later that day, at about 3:41 p.m., several U.S. Navy RF-8A Crusader reconnaissance aircraft on low-level photoreconnaissance missions were fired upon, and one was hit by a 37 mm shell but managed to return to base. At 4 p.m. Kennedy recalled the executive committee to the White House and ordered that a message immediately be sent to U Thant asking if the Soviets would "suspend" work on the missiles while negotiations are carried out. During this meeting, Maxwell Taylor delivered the news that the U-2 had been shot down. Kennedy had earlier claimed he would order an attack on such sites if fired upon, but he decided to leave the matter unless another attack was made. In an interview 40 years later, McNamara remembers:

We had to send a U-2 over to gain reconnaissance information on whether the Soviet missiles were becoming operational. We believed that if the U-2 was shot down that—the Cubans didn't have capabilities to shoot it down, the Soviets did—we believed if it was shot down, it would be shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air-missile unit, and that it would represent a decision by the Soviets to escalate the conflict. And therefore, before we sent the U-2 out, we agreed that if it was shot down we wouldn't meet, we'd simply attack. It was shot down on Friday [...]. Fortunately, we changed our mind, we thought "Well, it might have been an accident, we won't attack." Later we learned Khrushchev reasoned just as we did: we send over the U-2, if it was shot down, he reasoned we would believe it was an intentional escalation. And therefore, he issued orders to Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, to instruct all of his batteries not to shoot down the U-2.

Drafting the response

Throughout the meeting, Kennedy suggested they take up Khrushchev's offer to trade away the missiles. Unknown to most members of the EXCOMM, Robert Kennedy had been meeting with the USSR Ambassador in Washington to discover whether these intentions were genuine. The EXCOMM was generally against the proposal because it would undermine NATO, and the Turkish government had repeatedly stated they were against any such trade.

As the meeting progressed, a new plan emerged and Kennedy was slowly won over. The new plan called for the President to ignore the latest message and return to Khrushchev's earlier one. Kennedy was initially hesitant, feeling that Khrushchev would no longer accept the deal because a new one had been offered, but Llewellyn Thompson argued that he might accept it anyway. White House Special Counsel and Advisor Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy left the meeting and returned 45 minutes later with a draft letter to this effect. The President made several changes, had it typed, and sent it.

After the EXCOMM meeting, a smaller meeting continued in the Oval Office. The group argued that the letter should be underscored with an oral message to Ambassador Dobrynin stating that if the missiles were not withdrawn, military action would be used to remove them. Dean Rusk added one proviso, that no part of the language of the deal would mention Turkey, but there would be an understanding that the missiles would be removed "voluntarily" in the immediate aftermath. The President agreed, and the message was sent.

At Juan Brito's request, Fomin and Scali met again. Scali asked why the two letters from Khrushchev were so different, and Fomin claimed it was because of "poor communications". Scali replied that the claim was not credible and shouted that he thought it was a "stinking double cross". He went on to claim that an invasion was only hours away, at which point Fomin stated that a response to the U.S. message was expected from Khrushchev shortly, and he urged Scali to tell the State Department no treachery was intended. Scali said that he did not think anyone would believe him, but he agreed to deliver the message. The two went their separate ways, and Scali immediately typed out a memo for the EXCOMM.

Within the U.S. establishment it was well understood that ignoring the second offer and returning to the first put Khrushchev in a terrible position. Military preparations continued, and all active duty Air Force personnel were recalled to base for possible action. Robert Kennedy later recalled the mood, "We had not abandoned all hope, but what hope there was now rested with Khrushchev's revising his course within the next few hours. It was a hope, not an expectation. The expectation was military confrontation by Tuesday, and possibly tomorrow..."

At 8:05 p.m. the letter drafted earlier in the day was delivered. The message read, "As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals—which seem generally acceptable as I understand them—are as follows: 1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safe-guards, to halt the further introduction of such weapon systems into Cuba. 2) We, on our part, would agree—upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba." The letter was also released directly to the press to ensure it could not be "delayed."

With the letter delivered a deal was on the table. However, as Robert Kennedy noted, there was little expectation it would be accepted. At 9 p.m. the EXCOMM met again to review the actions for the following day. Plans were drawn up for air strikes on the missile sites as well as other economic targets, notably petroleum storage. McNamara stated that they had to "have two things ready: a government for Cuba, because we're going to need one, and secondly, plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure as hell they're going to do something there".

At 12:12 a.m.on October 27, the U.S. informed its NATO allies that "the situation is growing shorter... the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary." To add to the concern, at 6 a.m. the CIA reported that all missiles in Cuba were ready for action.

Ending the crisis of 1962

After much deliberation between the Soviet Union and Kennedy's cabinet, Kennedy agreed to remove all missiles set in Turkey on the border of the Soviet Union in exchange for Khrushchev removing all missiles in Cuba.

At 9 a.m. on October 28, a new message from Khrushchev was broadcast on Radio Moscow. Khrushchev stated "the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as 'offensive' and their crating and return to the Soviet Union."

Kennedy immediately responded, issuing a statement calling the letter "an important and constructive contribution to peace". He continued this with a formal letter: "I consider my letter to you of October twenty-seventh and your reply of today as firm undertakings on the part of both our governments which should be promptly carried out... The U.S. will make a statement in the framework of the Security Council in reference to Cuba as follows: It will declare that the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba, and will restrain those who would plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from U.S. territory or from the territory of other countries neighboring to Cuba."

The practical effect of this Kennedy-Khrushchev Pact was that it effectively strengthened Castro's position in Cuba in that he would not be invaded by the United States. It is possible that Khrushchev only placed the missiles in Cuba to get Kennedy to remove the missiles from Turkey and that the Soviets had no intention of resorting to nuclear war when they were out-gunned by the Americans. However because the withdrawals from Turkey were not made public at the time, Khrushchev appeared to have lost the conflict and become weakened. The perception was that Kennedy had won the contest between the superpowers and Khrushchev had been humiliated. However this is not entirely the case as both Kennedy and Khrushchev took every step to avoid full out conflict despite the pressures of people in their governments. Khrushchev would hold on to power for another two years.


The compromise was a particularly sharp embarrassment for Khrushchev and the Soviet Union because the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey was not made public—it was a secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The Russians were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started — though if played well, it could have looked like just the opposite. 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 solely responsible for the fall of Khrushchev. The main reason was that rival politicians such as Leonid Brezhnev believed that Khrushchev did not have enough "power" to handle international crises.

For Cuba, it was a partial betrayal by the Soviets, given that decisions on how to resolve the crisis had been made exclusively by Kennedy and Khrushchev, and certain issues of interest to Cuba, such as the status of Guantanamo, were not addressed. This caused deteriorated Cuban-Soviet relations for years afterward. On the other hand, Cuba continued to be protected from invasion.

One U.S. military commander was 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.

The Cuban Missile Crisis spurred the creation of the Moscow-Washington hot line, a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington D.C. The purpose of this facility 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.

Various commentators (Melman, 1988; Hersh, 1997) also suggest that the Cuban Missile Crisis encouraged US use of military means, such as in the Vietnam War.

This Russo-American confrontation was synchronous with the Sino-Indian War, dating from the U.S.'s military quarantine of Cuba; historians speculate that the Chinese attack against India, for disputed land, was meant to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Historical notes

Arthur Schlesinger, historian and adviser to John F. Kennedy, on National Public Radio on October 16, 2002, concluded that Castro had not wanted the missiles but that Khrushchev had forced them upon Cuba in a bit of political arm-twisting and "socialist solidarity." However, Castro has said that although he was not completely happy about the idea of the missiles in Cuba, the Cuban National Directorate of the Revolution accepted them to protect Cuba against U.S. attack, and to aid their ally, the Soviet Union. Schlesinger believed that, having accepted the missiles, Castro was angrier with Khrushchev than he was at Kennedy when the missiles were withdrawn, because Khrushchev had not consulted Castro prior to deciding to remove them from Cuba.

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, 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. (Other accounts show that Pliyev was given permission to use tactical nuclear warheads but only in the most extreme case of an U.S. invasion during which contact with Moscow is lost. However when U.S. 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.)

Castro has stated that he knew during the crisis that the warheads had indeed reached Cuba, and that he had recommended their use, despite being sure that Cuba would be completely destroyed should nuclear war break out.

In October 1997, The John F. Kennedy Library released a set of tape recordings documenting the crisis for the period October 18 to October 29, 1962. These recordings were made in the Oval Office. They include President Kennedy's personal recollections of discussions, conversations with his advisors, meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of the president's executive committee.

Arguably the most dangerous moment in the crisis was unrecognized until the Cuban Missile Crisis Havana conference in October 2002, attended by many of the veterans of the crisis, at which it was learned that on October 26, 1962 the USS Beale had depth-charged an unidentified submarine which was in fact Soviet and armed with nuclear weapons. An argument broke out among the three commanders with Vasiliy Arkhipov being against their use. He is thus credited with averting the breakout of nuclear war at that moment.

In popular culture

Joe Dante's movie Matinee is set in Key West, Florida, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It portrays a B-movie producer (played by John Goodman) who brings to Key West a movie about a man turning into a giant ant due to exposure to radiation, hoping that the nuclear scare will heighten the mood.

The movie Blast from the Past portrays a family who hides in a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis, emerging over thirty years later, unaccustomed to the modern world.

The movie Thirteen Days focuses on the career of John Kennedy's associate Kenny O'Donnell (played by Kevin Costner) during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

See also



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.

It was also a substantial focus of the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, which won an Oscar.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Faria, Miguel, Cuba in Revolution--Escape from a Lost Paradise(2002); Hacienda Publishing, Macon, Georgia, ISBN 0-9641077-3-2.
  • 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).
  • George, Alice L. (2006). Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807828289.
  • Gonzalez, Servando The Nuclear Deception: Nikita Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis; IntelliBooks, 2002; ISBN 0-


  • 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; ISBN 0804748462
  • Stern, Sheldon M. (2005). The Week The World Stood Still: Inside The Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Stanford Nuclear Age Series). Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804750777.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis: Declassified (Television Program)

External links


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