The Cuban Missile Crisis
Throughout the history of the United States there have been many important and critical events that have affected the country, but one of the most important is The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This was one of the most terrifying moments the United States has faced because this was the closest the world had ever came to nuclear war. Many people feared it was the end, but fortunately, after compromise and negotiation from President John F. Kennedy and Premier Kita Khrushchev, war was prevented.
The two main causes of this terrifying crisis were the soviet’s insecurity and fear of Cuban invasion. Khrushchev had always known the about the missile gab between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he knew the U.S. had more missiles capable of striking the entire Soviet Union, unlike the Soviet missiles that were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe. This issue made Khrushchev feel insecure and boxed in by his enemies which drove him to the crisis. The second of the two major causes was Cuba’s fear of invasion from the U.S.
“Since he had come to power in 1959, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro was aware of several U.S. attempts to oust him. First, was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA backed Cuban exiles in 1961. Second, was a U.S. military exercise in 1962. The Armed Forces conducted a mock invasion of a Caribbean island to overthrow a fictitious dictator whose name, Orstac, was Castro spelled backwards. Additionally, the U.S. was drafting a plan to invade Cuba (operation Mongoose). The mock invasion and invasion plan were devised to keep Castro nervous. Finally, the CIA had also been running covert operations throughout Cuba trying to damage the Castro government. Consequently, Castro was convinced the U.S. was serious about invading Cuba.” (Library think quest)
With both the Soviets and Cuba feeling inferior to the U.S. the buildup of the Crisis began. “Why shouldn’t the Soviet Union have the right to do the same as America?” (Library think quest) This quote by Khrushchev begins the idea he conceived of putting missiles in Cuba. To start proposing his plan to Castro he promoted a station Chief in Cuba Alexander Alexeev to approval of the plan. At first Castro didn’t reject the idea openly and gave it some consideration but what really pushed him to agree to it was his belief in believing that it would be better to risk a great crisis, than wait for an invasion. At that point Castro and Kruschev were both in agreement which began the start of the most terrifying thirteen days that the U.S. would face.
On October 16, 1962 President John F. Kennedy awoke to his usual breakfast and still in his pajamas was informed of the pictures taken depicting the missiles that Cuba was harboring. Realization that the soviets had been deceiving the president for several months was now clear; the President immediately took charge and scheduled two meetings for that morning. The photos of the missiles were described by Professor Paul H. Nitze as “extremely serious” he writes: “From their shapes and dimensions the missiles were identified as SS-4s seen previously in Moscow May Day parades. Their capabilities had been known, including the fact that their operational range for the delivery of Nuclear Warheads included Washington D.C.” (Nitze, Cosmos) During the immediate meetings that morning the president decided on immediate action Roger Hilsman writes “The president decided immediately to put Cuba under virtually continuous air surveillance. From that time on, there was hardly an hour of daylight that did not see a U-2 over some part of Cuba. .” (Hilsman, Cuban)
On Wednesday October 17th ExCom met and started going over what the Soviet’s motives could be with the use of the missiles. Many questions arose during the meeting, they wondered if the Soviet motives included using the missiles for a surprise attack similar to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or that the Soviet’s believed that the U.S. was about to attack them or their ally Cuba. Finding out the Soviet’s motives was extremely critical because the Soviet’s at anytime could use those missiles as a surprise attack. During this time the Soviet’s did not know that the U.S. had discovered the missiles, so there had to be major secrecy while they figured out what to do next. They approached several ideas on how to handle the very delicate situation going on, some of the strategies that they decided on for dealing with the crisis were:
“Do nothing. The United States should ignore the missiles in Cuba. The United States had military bases in 127 different countries including Cuba. The United States also had nuclear missiles in several countries close to the Soviet Union. It was therefore only right that the Soviet Union should be allowed to place missiles in Cuba. 2) Negotiate. The United States should offer the Soviet Union a deal. In return for the Soviet Union dismantling her missiles in Cuba, the United States would withdraw her nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. 3) Invasion. Send United States troops to Cuba to overthrow Castro’s government. The missiles could then be put out of action and the Soviet Union could no longer use Cuba as a military base. 4) Blockade of Cuba. Use the United States Navy to stop military equipment reaching Cuba from the Soviet Union. 5) Bomb Missile Bases. Carry out conventional air-strikes against missiles and other military targets in Cuba. 6) Nuclear Weapons. Use nuclear weapons against Cuba and/or the Soviet Union.” (Spartacus)
When discussing these strategies President Kennedy and his advisers had to be very careful and take into consideration how the Soviet Union and Cuba would react to decisions made by the United States.
On October 20th after much deliberation and discussion the president decided on a blockade, as described by Mark J. White, he writes “After American Officials staked out their initial positions.., two key debates took place in Excom resulting in the decision to blockade Cuba. The battle between supporters of the air strike and blockade, in which the later group prevailed, was first.” (White, Cuban) The president liked the decision to blockade because it would start out as a minimal limited action and increase the pressure on the Soviets as needed, Kennedy would not, however, finalize his decision until the next day. Two days later the president made a televised speech of the discovery of the missiles and the steps that they would take to resolve the crisis. “In a televised speech of extraordinary gravity, President John F. Kennedy announces that U.S. spy planes have discovered Soviet Missile bases in Cuba. The Missile sites-under construction but nearing completion-housed medium-range of missiles capable of striking a number of cities in the United States…” (this day in history) In the speech Kennedy would give the nation, he would use the word “quarantine” instead of “blockade.” This suggestion, made by George Ball, Under Secretary of State, was an important one. A blockade, as defined under international treaties is an act of war. Quarantine, on the other hand, is merely an attempt to keep something unwanted out of a particular area. In sum, the U.S. could have its blockade but the international community would not consider it an act of war.
“The President went on to point out that for many years both the Soviet Union and the United States had recognized this fact and had deployed strategic nuclear weapons with great care, never upsetting the precarious status quo which ensured that they would not be used in the absence of some vital challenge. Our own strategic missiles, the President declared, have never been transferred to the territory of any other nation under the cloak of secrecy and deception…this secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles—in an area well know to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy—this sudden, clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil—is a deliberately proactive and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe….Finally the President described what he was going to do about it: First a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba….Second: continued and increased close surveillance of Cuba…Third: 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 by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union…….Seventh and Finally: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and proactive threat to world peace……” (Leighton)
After the President’s speech many Americans feared for their lives, everyone was terrified that it would be their last day. The Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara recalls the historical event stating “It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the President’s oval office and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.”(Shmoop) This was the most terrifying week the United States has endured, as Americans faced the possibility of nuclear attack. “For a precarious week in 1962, all Americans got a taste of life on Death Row. The Cuban Missile Crisis represented the most dangerous confrontation in almost fifty years of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, delivering the World to precipice of nuclear war.” (George, Armageddon) The Crisis scared so many people that they started practicing nuclear drills in public and private schools just in case a missile attack were to occur, many people in Florida started building shelters and stocking up on canned food and supplies. It was a frightening time for all Americans and it greatly changed the world forever. “Perhaps 10 million Americans fled their homes after President Kennedy revealed the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and threatened war to remove them. For days, the nervous nation held its breath. In some cities, wary crowds gathered outside appliance stores to get the latest news from television. Elsewhere, citizens carried newly marketed transistor radios to follow the day’s events. As anxious civilians listened for warning of a nuclear attack, troops prepared for battle, congregations bowed their heads in prayer, families stocked fallout shelters, and parents in some cities bought dog tags to make identification of their children’s bodies simpler. What Americans saw in the missile crisis was not pretty.” (George, Armageddon)
The worst day of the crisis was on Saturday October 27th when one U-2 was shot down, while another flew off course over Russia, and a low-level reconnaissance mission was shot at over Cuba. “On the darkest day of the Crisis a U-2 surveillance flight over Cuba brought the Crisis’s only combat death. A surface-to-air missile shot down the plan air force Major Rudolph Anderson, one of the first pilots to photograph the missiles in Cuba.” (George, Armageddon) On this same day Khrushchev sent two messages to President Kennedy once conciliatory and one bellicose. The first let from Khrushchev
“Early on October 28, 1962, Nikita Khrushchev announced his decision to dismantle the missiles dramatically easing tensions on both sides. Although many Americans interpreted this decision as capitulation in the face of U.S. military force, the Soviet leader did not come away empty handed: He acquired two valuable concessions-a formal agreement not to invade Cuba and a secret promise to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
The Cuban Missile Crisis forever changed the history of the United States; millions of Americans feared it was their last days on earth. This is one of the scariest moments our country has faced and the closest we have ever come to nuclear war. Who knows what could have happened if we had not reached negotiations with Russia? Thankfully everything worked out in the end, President Kennedy handled the situation very well and we avoided what could have been a fatal outcome.