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Perhaps no single event in the history of the cold war presented as great a challenge to world peace and the continued existence of humankind as the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The outcome of the crisis has been linked to the development of a direct
Teletype “hotline” between Moscow and Washington, D.C., the initial stages of superpower détente, and the ratification of a bilateral atmospheric testing ban on nuclear weapons.
Leading up to October 1962
Despite the failed U.S. effort to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy continued to make Castro’s removal a primary goal. In November 1961, Kennedy initiated Operation Mongoose, a covert operations plan designed to incite dissident Cubans against Castro. Perhaps as a result, Castro, who enjoyed the Soviet Union’s political and military backing, began receiving regular covert shipments of Soviet arms, ostensibly for defensive purposes only.
Soviet Nuclear Missiles in Cuba
On October 14, 1962, a U2 spy plane, flying a routine Strategic Air Command mission over Cuba, snapped a series of photographs that became the first direct evidence of Soviet medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. These missiles clearly constituted an offensive weapons buildup on the island.
On the morning of October 16, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy presented a detailed analysis of the photographic evidence to Kennedy at an Oval Office briefing. Just before noon, Kennedy convened the first meeting of fourteen administration officials and advisers. The group became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm.
Time was of the essence. ExComm members received estimates that the Soviet missiles could be at full operation within fourteen days, with individual missiles readied within eighteen hours under a crash program. Most missiles were determined to be SS-4s, with a range of approximately 1,100 nautical miles (1,266 statute miles). This placed major American cities, including Dallas and Washington, D.C., within range of a strike. Later, photographic evidence concluded that several SS-5s, with a range of 2,200 nautical miles, were also included in the Soviet arms shipments.
For the next seven days, ExComm debated the merits of three general approaches to the developing crisis, all while keeping a tight public lid on the Cuban discovery. The first was a surgical airstrike targeting as many missile sites as possible. The second was an air strike followed by a U.S. military invasion of Cuba. The third was a blockade of Soviet ships thought to be carrying additional materials in support of the offensive weapons program.
In an attempt to allow diplomatic approaches an opportunity to work, Kennedy opted for the blockade, which was termed a quarantine so as to avoid warlike denotations.
On October 22, in anticipation of a Cuban and/or Soviet reaction to the quarantine, the joint chiefs of staff placed U.S. military forces worldwide on DEFCON 3 alert. At five that afternoon, Kennedy met with seventeen congressional leaders from both major parties to discuss the situation. The president received some support for the quarantine, but notable exceptions included Senators J. William Fulbright and Richard B. Russell, both of whom believed that the strategy would not compel the Soviets to abandon their missiles.
By six that evening, Secretary of State Dean Rusk met with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, and presented the ambassador with an advanced copy of Kennedy’s address. At seven, Kennedy addressed the American public in a seventeen-minute speech. His major objective, in addition to calling public attention to the Soviet missiles in Cuba, was to outline the U.S. response—the quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s reply to Kennedy’s speech arrived on the morning of October 23. Premier Khrushchev’s letter insisted that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were defensive in nature, and that the proposed U.S. response constituted a grave threat to world peace.
Kennedy was concerned that Berlin, which was divided into segments of East and West at the end of World War II, would become a focal point for Soviet retaliation. As such, he directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop plans for protecting Berlin in the event the Soviets mounted a quarantine around the city.
By the evening of October 23, Kennedy and ExComm had new worries much closer to home. Earlier in the day, the CIA began tracking several Soviet submarines unexpectedly moving toward Cuba. This made the Navy’s job of conducting the quarantine more complicated, as it now had to track the changing position of the Soviet subs in order to ensure the safety of its own vessels.
The quarantine, which received the unanimous backing of the Organization of American States, went into effect at 10:00 a.m. on October 24.
Early morning intelligence on that day suggested that sixteen of the nineteen Soviet cargo ships identified as Cuban bound were reversing course. The remaining three, however, were nearing the quarantine line, including the Gagarin and Komiles. Naval intelligence reported that one of the Soviet subs had taken a position between the two ships. Kennedy, though wishing to avoid conflict with the sub, authorized the aircraft carrier USS Essex to take whatever defensive measures were necessary against the submarine. This was perhaps the most dangerous moment of the cold war, as both superpowers were armed and mere moments from turning the war hot. Just prior to any armed hostilities, however, both Soviet ships stopped dead in the water, and eventually reversed course.
Realizing that a diplomatic resolution to the crisis was imperative, Kennedy and senior ExComm advisers began to consider offering the Soviets a missile trade. Specifically, if Khrushchev pulled his missiles out of Cuba, the United States would dismantle and remove its Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
Raising the Stakes
October 25 found the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, publicly confronting the Soviet ambassador, Valerian Zorin, in front of the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union had, until this date, denied that offensive Soviet missiles were in Cuba. At this point, Stevenson showed the council, and the world, several reconnaissance photographs of the Cuban missiles.
This triumph was short-lived. By five that evening, CIA director John McCone reported to ExComm that some of the Cuban missiles were now operational.
By the morning of October 26, Kennedy was convinced that only an invasion of Cuba could succeed in removing the missiles. ExComm initiated preliminary civil defense measures for the American Southeast, while the State Department began to devise plans for establishing a new civil government in the wake of Castro’s deposing. By that afternoon, the U.S. military was poised to conduct a land invasion. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advised Kennedy to expect heavy American casualties in the campaign.
At six that evening, the State Department received a letter from Khruschev proposing that the U.S. declare it would not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets dismantling the missiles. Later that evening, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s closest adviser and brother, held another in a series of private meetings with Dobrynin. It was at this meeting that Kennedy, with the president’s approval, began to specifically discuss the option of a Turkey-for-Cuba missile trade.
Any positive momentum from this meeting stalled on the morning of October 27. A second letter from Khruschev arrived at the State Department around eleven. This letter replaced the noninvasion pledge with the requirement of a complete removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. This raised the stakes for the Kennedy administration, as any public agreement on the Jupiter missiles would appear as a quid pro quo, with the U.S. forced to develop its security and foreign policies under severe threat.
The situation deteriorated even further when a U2, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson, was shot down over Cuba around noon. Sensing that he was losing control of the crisis, Kennedy decided not to retaliate against the anti-aircraft site that fired on Anderson, much to the consternation of his military leaders.
At an ExComm meeting later that evening, the idea of responding only to the offer in Khrushchev’s first letter—the noninvasion pledge—while ignoring the terms of the second letter, was debated. President Kennedy eventually came to adopt the proposal. Robert Kennedy was sent to discuss the terms with Dobrynin, which included an agreement not to publicly disclose the Turkey-forCuba missile trade, so as to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo.
Maximum Danger Averted
President Kennedy, while hopeful that a deal would be reached, activated twenty-four Air Force units in preparation for a Cuban invasion to occur no later than October 29.
A CIA update in the early morning of October 28 claimed that all MRBM sites in Cuba were now operational. At nine that morning, Radio Moscow broadcast Khrushchev’s reply to the terms outlined to Dobrynin the night before. In it, Khruschev stated that all Soviet missiles in Cuba would be dismantled and crated. No public mention of the missile trade deal was made. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over, and a world war with nuclear weapons had most likely been averted.
Many historians generally view President Kennedy’s performance in the crisis as exemplary, and worthy of emulation by all chief executives. However, some revisionary scholars have criticized Kennedy’s interpretation of the threat posed by the Cuban missiles as an overreaction not warranted by a sober assessment of Soviet intentions and strategic goals.
Understanding the Crisis
Of the many scholarly works devoted to understanding the dynamics of the missile crisis, and its effects on policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, is Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow’s Essence of Decision (1999). This volume has perhaps the greatest continuing impact for scholars and other interested persons alike. Allison analyzes the crisis through three distinct models. Model One assesses foreign policy from the rational actor approach, which considers each state as an individual or person, and attempts to understand actor behavior according to specified risks and payoffs. Model Two examines the crisis from the vantage point of the individual agencies involved, while Model Three attempts to capture the individual interests and proclivities of the major players involved.
Allison and Zelikow use the unique exigencies presented by the crisis to suggest that the models are incompatible in understanding the strategic calculus between states. Yet their description leaves the models open to the argument that they are not able to account for the novel and immediate adaptations that events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, require of government actors. At the same time, it is not clear that there is much true difference between the models, especially two and three, as all three are steeped in the rational choice tradition. Thus, while the examination does help to shed some light on the internal dynamics inherent in government decision-making processes, the uniqueness of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the relative inability of the three models to capture the dynamics at work in both Washington and Moscow serve as a reminder of how critical, and potentially catastrophic, a period the thirteen days in October 1962 truly were.
- Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. 1999. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman.
- Brune, Lester H. 1985. The Missile Crisis of October 1962: A Review of Issues and References. Claremont, CA: Regina Books.
- Hilsman, Roger. 1967. To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Medland, William J. 1990. The Cuban Missile Crisis: Evolving Historical Perspectives. The History Teacher 23: 433–447.
- Rostow, Walt W. 1972. The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History. New York: Macmillan.
- Sorensen, Theodore C. 1965. Kennedy. New York: Harper and Row.
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