For a fortnight in October 1962, the world held its breath during a crisis over Soviet nuclear-capable missiles being erected in Cuba. On October 14th 1962, an American U-2 spy plane completed a relatively routine run over Cuba, taking a series of reconnaissance photographs (see main picture) from an altitude of 12 miles. When the film was developed, it revealed what appeared to be ballistic missiles being assembled and erected on the ground by soldiers. CIA and military analysts identified them as Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The placement of these devices in neighbouring Cuba meant the Soviets could easily launch against US cities in the south and east coast, like Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia. President John F. Kennedy was briefed about the missiles four days later, on October 18th. By the end of the day Kennedy had formed an ‘executive committee’ (EXCOMM), a 13-man team to monitor and assess the situation and formulate response options. EXCOMM’s members included vice-president Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s brother Robert, defence secretary Robert McNamara and other advisors from the military and Department of State.
During a tense few days in Washington, Kennedy and EXCOMM weighed their options. They agreed that the US could not tolerate the missiles in Cuba, since they gave the Soviet Union a first-strike capability. American cities and military installations could be subject to a nuclear attack, with only a few minutes’ warning; this might limit or endanger their ability to respond. Diplomatic pressure to force the Soviets to withdraw their missiles was also ruled out. EXCOMM advice was that the Soviets would respond poorly to belligerent language or actions. A proposed exchange, such as the withdrawal or dismantling of US missile positions in Europe, would make the Kennedy administration appear weak and would hand the Russians a moral victory. Kennedy’s military hierarchs recommended an airstrike to destroy the missiles, followed by a ground invasion of Cuba to get rid of Castro. But Kennedy – more wary of military advice since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba – wanted to avoid a military confrontation with the USSR. Instead, he authorised another option: a naval blockade of the island. The US would draw a firm line and assert its position, while seeking to avoid hostile action that might trigger a nuclear war.
Elie Abel, journalist
On October 22nd, Kennedy addressed the nation by television, announcing a ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. He also said his administration would regard any missile attack launched from Cuba as an attack by the USSR – and that the US would therefore retaliate against the USSR. Khrushchev described the quarantine as a “pirate action” and informed Kennedy by telegram that Soviet ships would ignore it. Kennedy reminded Khrushchev that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba breached an earlier promise by the Soviet government. US Navy ships began their quarantine of Cuba, allowing some small freighters through but stopping larger vessels and checking cargo; they found no military equipment. Meanwhile, American U-2s flew missions over Cuba every two hours. They reported no pause or slow-down in the assembly of the Soviet missiles.
After four days of naval quarantine, there had been no change in the situation. Kennedy came under pressure from his generals, who urged an airstrike to destroy the missiles before they became operational. At this point, a military confrontation seemed almost inevitable. As the press reported that America was on the brink of war with Cuba and the USSR, there was a palpable feeling that a nuclear strike was imminent. All levels of government hastily organised public bomb shelters, though in most cases these were inadequate, capable of sheltering barely one-third of the population. Some citizens constructed their own shelters and stockpiled tinned food and other necessities. Many gathered in prayer in their local churches. Others packed up their belongings and took extended “vacations” with family members in remote areas, where nuclear missiles were less likely to fall. Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia, citizens went about their business, largely unaware of the unfolding drama in the Caribbean.
The secret resolution
The stalemate was broken by two events on the evening of October 26th. Firstly, the White House received a backroom offer to resolve the crisis, passed to a Washington reporter by a Soviet agent. Secondly, the US State Department received a long, rambling letter, purportedly from Khrushchev. This letter promised to withdraw the Cuban missiles, provided the US pledged to never attack or invade Cuba. A follow-up message proposed a more direct exchange: the removal of the Cuban missiles, in return for the removal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy. Kennedy agreed to this, provided the deal was not revealed to the public. The arrangement was finalised on the evening of October 27th, though it almost fell through when an American U-2 was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. Kennedy resisted considerable pressure from his generals to retaliate; it later emerged the Soviets in Cuba had fired on the U-2 without authorisation from Moscow.
The Cuban missile crisis was arguably the ‘hottest’ point of the Cold War, the closest the world has come to nuclear destruction. As US Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted toward the end of the crisis, “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked”. Information revealed years later suggested that the crisis could easily have deteriorated into a nuclear exchange. Soviet officers in Cuba were equipped with about 100 tactical nuclear weapons – and the authority to use them if attacked. Castro, convinced that an American invasion was imminent, urged both Khrushchev and Soviet commanders in Cuba to launch a pre-emptive strike against the US. And during the naval quarantine, a US destroyer dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine which, unbeknownst to the Americans, was armed with a 15 kiloton nuclear missile and authority to use it. Given that several Soviet officers were authorised to fire nuclear weapons of their own accord, Kennedy’s delicate handling of the situation seems judicious. In the wake of the crisis, the Soviets reorganised their command structure and nuclear launch protocols, while the White House and Kremlin installed a ‘hotline’ to ensure direct communication in the event of a similar emergency.
1. The crisis began with the discovery by US spyplanes of Soviet missile sites on the nearby island of Cuba.
2. Unwilling to tolerate missiles so close to US soil, John F Kennedy formed a committee, EXCOMM, to remove them.
3. While considering an airstrike or invasion, EXCOMM settled on a naval “quarantine” of all Soviet ships to Cuba.
4. Kennedy also sought a resolution from Khrushchev, both directly and through unofficial back channels.
5. The crisis was eventually resolved through a secret deal, in which the Soviets withdrew the Cuban missiles in return for the withdrawal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy.