The Brink of Nuclear War: The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis represents a historical moment when two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—were on the brink of nuclear escalation.

Nov 6, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

cuban missile crisis nuclear war


The Cuban Missile Crisis is regarded as one of the greatest confrontations of the Cold War, when the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to escalating into a nuclear conflict. It began on October 14, 1962, following the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States from Cuba. The crisis ended on October 28, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered the withdrawal of all Soviet nuclear missiles in exchange for the United States’ pledge that it would not invade Cuba and would remove American missiles from Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis only lasted 13 days, but it remains a crucial turning point in comprehending the intersections of force and diplomacy, illustrating that the latter could be applied successfully.


US-Soviet Relations Before the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Khrushchev and Kennedy Shaking Hands, 1961, via National Archives


After World War II, the ideological confrontation between the Soviet Union and Western democracies turned into an east-west competition of acquiring influence and dominance internationally. In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned about the “iron curtain” descending between the two superpowers, marking the start of the Cold War.


The Cold War was characterized by hostile confrontations, the so-called “proxy wars” between United States-led and Soviet-led blocs and alliances; the two superpowers supported the opposing sides but did not directly participate in the conflicts. This struggle for dominance was accompanied by a major arms race.


Both countries had substantially invested in their military sectors, particularly their nuclear arsenals, to prevent the other from launching an attack. By the early 1960s, as a result of the arms race, both the United States and the Soviet Union had managed to considerably develop their nuclear capabilities. Both superpowers owned the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, a nuclear weapon capable of reaching another continent.

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berlin wall construction photo
Blocking the church – Two East Germans work on a huge 15-foot wall, placing pieces of broken glass on the top to prevent East Berliners from escaping, 1961, via Rare Historical Photos


In 1961, John F. Kennedy became president of the United States. The First Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, viewed the new president as too weak to openly oppose the Soviet Union. This perception was further reinforced when Kennedy opted not to directly oppose the Soviet Union during the Berlin Crisis of 1961: after World War II, defeated Germany was divided into occupation zones. The Soviet Union controlled East Germany, and the Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain, and France) controlled West Germany. The city of Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled East Germany, was also divided. Like West Germany, it was under the Allied powers’ authority. Four million people from East Germany crossed the border of West Berlin by 1961, illustrating their dissatisfaction with the quality of life.


To address the issue, Nikita Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, intended to prevent residents from immigrating to the West. Even though the construction of the Berlin Wall concerned the United States, for Kennedy, it was “a hell of a lot better than a war.”


Following the crisis, Khrushchev declared to Soviet authorities, “I know for certain that Kennedy doesn’t have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.”


US-Cuban Relations Before the Cuban Missile Crisis

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One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16, via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


Since Cuba’s independence in 1902, the country had experienced a number of upheavals against the ruling elite, who were accused of corruption. On March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista became president of Cuba after the successful revolution. During Batista’s rule, American investors and businesses owned the majority of Cuba’s sugar plantations, commodity industries, and mines and benefitted from Cuba’s relatively friendly relations with the United States.


Over time, Batista established a military dictatorship, sparking discontent among progressive youth, the most radical of which was led by a young lawyer and aspiring politician, Fidel Castro. On July 26, 1953, he led a coup against Fulgencio Batista. The main promise of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution was to remove Batista’s dictatorship and to use the country’s resources for the well-being of the local people. American support for Batista’s administration began to weaken as it became increasingly oppressive, and by 1957, Batista could not afford to fund the army as the United States had ceased supplying him with weapons. As a result, on July 1st, 1959, Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee Cuba.


After the successful removal of Batista’s regime, Castro nationalized American businesses, including banks, oil refineries, and sugar and coffee plantations. He then severed Cuba’s previously close relationship with the United States in favor of its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, resulting in Cuba’s dependence on Soviet military and economic aid. In response, the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, allocated $13.1 million to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in March 1960 to eliminate Castro. With the help of Cuban counterrevolutionaries, the CIA managed to organize an invasion operation.


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Cuban First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and President of the State Council Fidel Castro(L) and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a four-week official visit to Moscow, 1963, via CGTN


Newly-elected President John F. Kennedy launched Operation Mongoose, usually referred to as the Bay of Pigs invasion, on April 17, 1961. The main aim of the operation was to overthrow Castro’s communist regime and install a non-communist government, as outlined by Kennedy.


After Castro’s victory, Cuban exiles in the United States formed a counter-revolutionary military unit, Brigade 2506. The brigade became the armed wing of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (DRF), aiming to bring down Fidel Castro. The CIA sponsored the Brigade and its military training in Guatemala. The operation on the southwestern coast of Cuba began on April 17, 1961.


The Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), led by Castro, showed unexpected resistance and managed to repel the invasion in just three days. Thus, the Bay of Pigs Invasion proved to be a failure of American foreign policy. It cemented Castro’s role as a national hero and widened the gap between the two former allies, pushing Cuba closer to the Soviet Union.


Discovering Missiles in Cuba & the Start of the Crisis

John F Kennedy signs an introduction of the delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba by Robert Knudsen, 1962, via the Times


In 1959, the United States deployed 30 nuclear missiles in Italy and 15 in Turkey as part of its strategy to contain the Soviet Union and deter a potential Soviet attack on Europe. In April 1962, the American “Thor” and “Jupiter” missiles deployed in Turkey were activated. The Soviet Union evaluated this action as a major threat to its security.


In May 1962, the Soviet Union initiated Operation “Anadyr” (the code name is a reference to the Anadyr River in the Bering Sea in Russia, as well as the name of the former Soviet bomber base). Nikita Khrushchev ordered the stationing of nuclear missiles in Cuba and the transfer of 40,000 Red Army fighters. The alleged American intervention in Cuba was cited as the key reason. The real motive, however, was to restore the strategic balance that the United States had broken by deploying missiles in Italy and Turkey.


By the summer of 1962, the Soviet military buildup seemed conspicuous, and the CIA activated U-2 spy planes to fly over Cuba in August. By the end of the same month, the CIA confirmed the construction of the Soviet missile launch sites in Cuba, near Pinar del Ro Province. After just several months, in October, the National Photographic Interpretation Center identified the Soviet intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba. The SS-4 and SS-5 models were of great importance from these missiles as, if activated, they could reach key American cities, including Washington DC, in minutes.


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CIA reference photograph of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (SS-4 in US documents, R-12 in Soviet documents) in Red Square, Moscow, via National Security Archives


On October 16, President Kennedy was promptly briefed about the concerning developments in Cuba. Kennedy secretly established the Executive Committee, or ExComm, a group of key governmental representatives. ExComm consisted of the key political, military, and diplomatic advisers tasked with elaborating on the United States’ response regarding the Soviet military activities in Cuba. The ExComm provided the President with three possible solutions: an urgent military attack and an overthrow of the Castro government, a naval blockade, or conducting diplomatic negotiations.


The discussion to develop the foreign policy response to the Soviet actions in Cuba was tense and difficult. Kennedy rejected the military invasion as he tried to avoid a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union. The United States could not rely on just diplomatic negotiations either, as relations between the two countries were already strained. Consequently, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade, or “quarantine,” as he referred to it, starting on October 21.


American ships were stationed around Cuba. It aimed to restrain the further accumulation of Soviet military supplies in Cuba as well as demolish the Soviet nuclear installations. The naval blockade of Cuba was referred to as the “quarantine” since a blockade is considered an act of war, and Kennedy was eager to maintain peaceful relations with the Soviet Union to negotiate a missile withdrawal without further escalating the confrontation.


However, Kennedy’s calculations proved wrong. Nikita Khrushchev perceived the “quarantine” as an American ultimatum. He referred to the United States’ imposed blockade as an “open violation of international law under the UN Charter.” The onset of the missile crisis was apparent.


Timeline of the Crisis

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“This hurts me more than it hurts you!” Cartoon shows Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as a dentist about to extract Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s teeth, drawn as missiles, by Valtman Edmund S., 1962, via Library of Congress


October 22

Kennedy unexpectedly revealed “unmistakable evidence” of the missile danger in a dramatic 18-minute televised speech. He outlined:


I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.” He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction.”


Kennedy’s speech was direct and persuasive and managed to galvanize wider international support. The United States’ response was clear: the naval blockade would serve to stop the Soviet military ships from reaching Cuba, demanding the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.


October 23

Nikita Khrushchev declined the demands in a letter that clearly outlined the Soviet position; according to the letter, the missiles in Cuba “are intended solely for defensive purposes,” and Kennedy’s concerns regarding the Soviets threatening world peace were not relevant. On the same day, however, reconnaissance images revealed that the Soviet missiles were prepared for launch.


October 24

The Soviet ships approached the quarantine line. Unexpectedly, the Soviet government opted not to breach the blockade. Kennedy received a furious letter from Khrushchev accusing him of threatening the Soviet Union. He wrote, “you are no longer appealing to reason but wish to intimidate us.”


women strike cuban missile crisis photo
Picketers representing an organization known as Women Strike for Peace carry placards outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where the UN Security Council considers the Cuban missile crisis in a special meeting, October 23, 1962, via Rare Historical Photos


October 25

American military forces were instructed to set the Defense Readiness Condition, DEFCON 2, to the highest level ever in American history.


October 26

Kennedy and ExComm were briefed that the missile bases in Cuba were operating without interruption. The naval blockade’s effectiveness was under question. The ExComm actively discussed the authorization of the Cuban invasion. However, the same day, Kennedy received Khrushchev’s letter, proposing the removal of the missile bases if the United States gave public assurances not to invade Cuba.


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National Security Council Executive Committee meeting by Cecil Stoughton, 1962, via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


October 27

Major Rudolf Anderson, an American U-2 pilot, was shot down above Cuba. War appeared imminent. Khrushchev sent another letter to ExComm with tougher demands, including the removal of American missiles from Turkey. Kennedy was against an immediate military attack on Cuba, despite the pressure from the government. He secretly met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The meeting was a success, as Kennedy agreed that the removal of missiles from Turkey was negotiable as part of a wider, comprehensive settlement of the crisis.


Later in the evening, President Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, met with Anatoly Dobrynin. They managed to reach an agreement: the Soviet Union would remove all the missiles from Cuba, the United States would refrain from invading Cuba, and Turkey would withdraw its missiles.


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In this photograph, a group protested against the blockade at San Francisco’s Civic Center, October 27, 1962, via The New York Times


October 28

Khrushchev publicly declared his decision to remove missiles from Cuba in a speech broadcast on Radio Moscow. Khrushchev’s decision was executed promptly. In the afternoon, the Soviets began dismantling the missile bases in Cuba. The two superpowers managed to step back from the brink of nuclear war.


President Kennedy called off the quarantine on November 21, and in April 1963, the United States withdrew the missiles from Turkey.


The Legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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President John Kennedy reports personally to the nation on the status of the Cuban crisis, telling the American people that Soviet missile bases in Cuba are “being destroyed,” November 2, 1962, via Rare Historical Photos


The crisis was a pivotal moment during the Cold War. The 13 days in October 1962, when it seemed that the United States and the Soviet Union were trapped in a nuclear gap, have no historical analog; thus, their results and legacy are complex and wide-ranging.


Even though the Soviet Union embarked on a massive nuclear buildup after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the long term, the crisis prompted the two superpowers to collaborate in order to minimize the risk of future nuclear confrontation.


The United States and the Soviet Union took their first steps toward nuclear arms control in the late 1960s, culminating in a summit in Glassboro, New Jersey, in 1967. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed in 1968 to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons; the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were signed in 1969.


The Cuban Missile Crisis also contributed to the improvement of communication between the United States and the Soviet Union. The so-called “hot line,” a direct communication link, was created between the two countries’ leaders, promoting collaboration efforts and thereby reducing the risk of misunderstanding during future conflicts.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.