The Cuban Missile Crisis
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The closest the world has come to nuclear war was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of the United States. U.S. armed forces were at their highest state of readiness. Soviet field commanders in Cuba were authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons if invaded by the U.S. The fate of millions literally hinged upon the ability of two men, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to reach a compromise.
Fifteen years into the cold war, the new American president and the Soviet premier met in Vienna to discuss the east-west confrontation, in particular, the situation in Berlin. They resolved nothing, and Khrushchev left the June 1961 summit thinking Kennedy was a weak president. The superpowers continued to increase their military strength. The Soviets felt threatened because the U.S. still had more missiles. More importantly, some of those missiles were based in Turkey, just 150 miles from the U.S.S.R. These increasing tensions would inevitably lead to a showdown, somewhere, sometime. That place was Cuba.
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro was aware of several U.S. attempts to oust him since he had come to power in 1959. One was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles in 1961. Another was the 1962 mock invasion of a Caribbean island by U.S. armed forces to overthrow a fictitious dictator whose name, Ortsac, was Castro spelled backwards. Castro was convinced the U.S. was serious about invading Cuba.
When Castro came to power, the U.S. stopped buying Cuban sugar and supplying oil. It also snubbed Castro when he visited the United Nations. Khrushchev, on the other hand, treated him like a friend offering to trade with Cuba. Therefore, Castro turned to the Soviets for protection from a U.S. invasion. The Soviets rushed to aid Castro, seeing an opportunity to make their presence felt closer to the United States.
These factors led to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
The crisis began on Monday, October 15, when photos taken by U-2 pilot Richard Heyser revealed SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba. Check out the Recon Room which provides an in depth look at recon during the crisis.
Kennedy was informed of the missiles at breakfast the next day. He convened his 12 most important advisors, known as EX-COMM. Most of them supported an air strike followed by an invasion. However, they weren't aware that Khrushchev, knowing communications between Moscow and Cuba were unreliable, had authorized Soviet field commanders in Cuba to use tactical nuclear missiles if the U.S. invaded.
Kennedy wanted to appear tough yet avoid military confrontation. Some advisors recommended a blockade.
No matter what action the U.S. took regarding Cuba, EX-COMM expected Khrushchev to retaliate.
To maintain secrecy, Kennedy followed his planned schedule which included campaign trips to Connecticut and the Midwest. In between trips, a U-2 flight discovered SS-5 missiles, which could reach most of the continental U.S., and Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrie Gromyko. He told him the U.S. would not tolerate offensive weapons in Cuba. Gromyko denied the Soviets had anything of the kind on the island.
On Saturday, October 20, Robert Kennedy called the President in Chicago to tell him he must return to meet with EX-COMM. The President finally agreed. Telling the press he had an "upper respiratory infection," he returned to Washington.
The next day, Kennedy asked if the Air Force could take out all the missiles. The reply was, "Only the ones we know about." The President then asked about casualties, both civilian and military. The answer was 10 to 20,000. This influenced Kennedy's decision to forego an air strike and set up a blockade around Cuba.
Another U-2 flight discovered bombers being rapidly assembled and cruise missile sites being built on Cuba's northern shore.
The press learned there were offensive weapons in Cuba and questioned Kennedy. The President asked the reporters not to break the news until he informed the American people on network television the next evening. If they denied him the element of surprise, he warned, "I don't know what the Soviets will do."
The public phase of the crisis began on Monday, October 22. When Senate leaders were told about the missiles in Cuba, they called for air strikes, but Kennedy stood firm on his decision for a blockade.
U.S. ships prepared for the quarantine. Marines reinforced the base at Guantanamo Bay. Military alert was raised to DEFCON 3. Instructions were given to be ready to launch missiles within minutes of the President's speech. You can view a video clip or see the complete text from that speech by going to the multi-media page.
In response to Kennedy's speech, Castro mobilized all of Cuba's military forces.
A low level reconnaissance mission brought back stunning pictures of missiles prepared for launch. One of the pilots, William Ecker, commented, "When you can almost see the writing on the side of the missiles, then you really know what you've got." You can go to the Recon Room to see actual recon photos from the crisis plus a video clip of this event.
The Organization of American States unanimously approved the U.S. decision to quarantine Cuba.
By the end of the day, U.S. ships at the quarantine line were prepared to destroy any ship that failed to stop at that line.
Wednesday, October 24. Soviet ships approached the quarantine line. EX-COMM wondered if Khrushchev had had enough time to instruct the ship captains.
Later that day, they got their answer. Soviet ships stopped dead in the water after receiving a radio message from Moscow. To quote Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked."
This did not mean, however, that the crisis was over.
Thursday, October 25. Military alert was raised to DEFCON 2, the highest ever in U.S. history. The military could, at a moment's notice, launch an attack on Cuba or the Soviet Union.
U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviets at the U.N. They refused to answer any questions.
Friday, October 26. The U.S. Navy searched the Soviet ship Marcula and cleared it to Cuba when they found only paper products. EX-COMM received a letter from Khrushchev in reply to Kennedy's speech. The letter clearly was painstakingly written. The Soviets would remove their missiles if Kennedy publicly guaranteed the U.S. would never invade Cuba.
Another U-2 flight revealed the Soviets were camoflauging the missiles.
Saturday, October 27. The worst day of the crisis. One U-2 flew off course into Russia; another was shot down. A second letter arrived from Khrushchev.
A U-2 on a routine mission picked the wrong star to navigate by and wandered over Russia. In trouble, the pilot alerted the rescue station which dispatched F-105s. Unknown to the American pilot, the fighters carried nuclear tipped missiles. If the Soviets had interpreted this as a final reconnaissance mission before a nuclear attack, this could have touched off a nuclear war.
Another U-2, attempting to get updated pictures of the missile sites, was shot down over Cuba on orders of a Soviet commander on site. The orders had not come from Moscow. This worried Khrushchev. Due to poor communication, similar incidents could occur again, without his consultation.
Khrushchev's second letter to Kennedy raised the price for removing the missiles. In addition to a public statement about not invading Cuba he also wanted U.S. missiles removed from Turkey. This suggested that hard-liners had pressured Khrushchev. EX-COMM debated how to handle this letter. Robert Kennedy suggested they ignore it and respond only to the first.
Sunday, October 28. Khrushchev announced over Radio Moscow that the Soviets would dismantle their nuclear missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev could have insisted that the U.S. respond to the greater demands in the second letter, but he did not. By backing down, Khrushchev ruined his career but prevented nuclear disaster.
Poor communication contributed to the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, there was no direct and immediate link between the American and Soviet leaders. Once the crisis entered its public phase on October 22nd, it took Kennedy and Khrushchev seven days to reach a compromise. They used various written communiques and television and radio speeches to negotiate with one another. This somewhat unreliable and indirect form of communication nearly led to nuclear war. If Khrushchev had not agreed to remove the missiles, the U.S. would have invaded Cuba within days. In that event, the Soviets would have launched their battlefield nuclear weapons. Then Kennedy would have had no choice but to launch U.S. missiles at Cuba or, more likely, the Soviet Union. Realizing how close they had come to disaster, Kennedy and Khrushchev established the "hot line" between the White House and the Kremlin so they could speak directly.
Nine months after the crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an agreement to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. This marked the beginning of what seemed to be a new willingness to cooperate and communicate. However, on November 22nd, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Eleven months later, Premier Khrushchev was removed from office by Communist hard liners. One can't help but wonder what would have happened if these two men had stayed in power. Perhaps the same two people who had brought us so close to nuclear war, changed by that experience, could have brought us far from it.
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