For thirteen days in October 1962 the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war—and hoped for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The origins of the Crisis lie in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, during which US-supported Cuban exiles hoping to foment an uprising against Castro were overpowered by the Cuban armed forces. After the invasion, Castro turned to the Soviets for protection against future US aggression. The Soviets provided Cuba with nuclear weapons on the condition that the deal would remain secret until the missiles were fully operational.
Khrushchev claimed that his motivation for providing Cuba with nuclear weaponry was to safeguard the Cuban Revolution against US aggression and to alter the global balance of power in favor of the Soviet Union.
In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. This discovery inaugurated what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The strategic implications of these weapons were enormous: the missiles could easily reach targets in the United States.
President Kennedy did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that he had discovered the missiles. He met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem. After many long and difficult meetings, Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade, or a ring of ships, around Cuba. The aim of this "quarantine," as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. He demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites.
The Kennedy administration established a naval blockade to prevent any more missiles from reaching Cuba, and in no uncertain terms demanded the immediate removal of the missiles that had already been delivered. The danger of this approach was that if the Soviets refused to remove the missiles, the United States would be forced to escalate the crisis by authorizing air strikes over Cuba to bomb the missile sites. Contingency plans were drawn up for a full-scale invasion of Cuba and a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, in the event that the Soviets respond militarily to Kennedy’s demands.
No one was sure how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would respond to the naval blockade and US demands. But the leaders of both superpowers recognized the devastating possibility of a nuclear war and publicly agreed to a deal in which the Soviets would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. In a separate deal, which remained secret for more than twenty-five years, the United States also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Although the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, they escalated the building of their military arsenal; the missile crisis was over, the arms race was not.
The Soviet Union began to dismantle the nuclear sites in Cuba within a day of the agreement. Fidel Castro—furious with Khrushchev’s decision to give in to American demands—refused to let in any U.N. inspectors to verify the removal of the missiles. The Soviets had to resort to loading missiles on ship decks and uncovering them at sea, where they could be photographed by American planes. The United States lifted the blockade on November 20 and removed the Jupiter missiles from Turkey by April 1963. In the end, however, the removal of the missiles was a fairly meaningless gesture as the new Minuteman ICBMs had rendered the Jupiters obsolete.
The shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a highly influential factor in the success of future arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, such as the ban on atmospheric testing. As Khrushchev affirmed only days after the end of the crisis, “We fully agree with regard to three types of tests or, so to say, tests in three environments. This is banning tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water” (Hanhimaki and Westad 488). Less than a year later, the two superpowers signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which included the principles outlined by Khrushchev. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) followed in 1968.
Nevertheless, the years after the crisis also saw a massive increase in the construction of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union. The Soviet stockpile tripled by the end of the decade and peaked at over 40,000 warheads during the 1980s. This phenomenon can be explained in part by the fact that Soviet leaders felt they had little choice but to capitulate during the crisis given the comparative weakness of their nuclear arsenal. As Soviet lieutenant general Nikolai Detinov explained, “Because of the strategic [imbalance] between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union had to accept everything that the United States dictated to it and this had a painful effect on our country and our government…. All our economic resources were mobilized [afterward] to solve this problem” (Rhodes 94).
It also prompted the creation of the Moscow-Washington hotline, a direct telephone link between the Kremlin and the White House designed to prevent future escalations. Kennedy also ordered the creation of the nuclear “football” which would give him and future presidents the means to order a nuclear strike within minutes.
The crisis evoked fears of nuclear destruction, revealed the dangers of brinkmanship, and invigorated attempts to halt the arms race.
Clancy, T., & Nixon, R. (n.d.). Cuban Missile Crisis. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Missile_Crisis
Cuban missile crisis | History, Facts, & Significance. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Cuban-missile-crisis
Milestones: 1961–1968. (n.d.). Milestones: 1961–1968 - Office of the Historian. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/cuban-missile-crisis