The Cold War: Cuban Missle Crisis

Figure 1.--.

The most dangerous point of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy's handling of the crisis has been generally hailed as a triumph of presidential leadership, although his miteps upon assuming office may have contributed to the crisis. . The Soviert Union secretly began installing balistic missles in Cuba capable of hitting Atlantic coast American cities. American surveillance photographs detected the missle sites and President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade to prevent further deliveries. The President considered an invasion if the Soviets did not remove the missles. This was the closest the two sides came to nuclear war. American stategists were astounded that Khrushchev would take such a risk. Khrrushvhev later claimed in his memoirs that it was to protect Cuba. Many scholars dismiss this as a cover story. It was an effort to jump-start Soviet military capabilities. A massive prodution of misskles was inter-continental missles was planned, but was still largely on paper. THE CIA understood this. Assessing the Soviet Union's strategic capability hd been the major purpose of the U-2 flights. Khrushchev who was skilled at buster thought he could bluff. He had met the new amerixcan president in Vienna and was unimpressed. Khruschchev was a high-stake gambler, but not demented. His peasant shrewdness in the end led him to back down. [Tauubman] We know now that the world came much closer to a nuclear exchange than was no at the time. Russian forces in Cuba had tacticl nuclear weapons and probably would have used them if the Unitd states had invaded. Also U.S. destroyers assigned to the blockade were forcing Soviet submarnes around Cuba to the surface. Two of the submarines involved came very close to using nuclear-tipped torpedos. Either action could have very possibly resulted in full-scale nuclear exchange.

Nuclear War

The most dangerous point of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Missle Gap

A key issue in the 1960 presidential election was a missle gap that Senator Kennedy charged the Eisenhower Administration had let develop between America and the Soviets. America has been unnerved by Sputnik and well-publicized failures in the Americam missle program. PrimierNikita Khruschchev claimed that Soviet industry was churning missles out like sausages. The dangers of such a gap was one reason President Eisenhower authorized the U-2 flight thjat resulted in the shoot down of Francis Gary Powers and the collapse of the Geneva Summit. There was indeed a strategic gap in 1962, but it was not in favor of the Soviet Union. American air and missle bases ringed the Soviet Union. Every Soviet city was within range of American nuclear weapons. In addition, the vaunted Soviet missle program had not yet succeeded in producing useable devlivery platforms. Khruschchev's son was a missle engineer fully informed on the Soviet missle program. After Khruschchev made the statement about churning out missle like sausages, his son who knew it was not true asked him about it. He was told not to worry because they were not churning out saudages eaither. [Taubman] The Soviet missle porogram was deeply flawed. The caustic fuel corroded the tanks, the missles were inaccurate, and targetting data was not availabkle. [Frankel] Estimates vary, but at the time the United States could deliver something 17 times more nuclear weapons than the Soviets. [Frankel] As a result, Soviet military commanders were demanding hugely expensive new oprograms to bridge the strstegic ballanmce with the United States.

Bay of Pigs


Premier Khrushchev had a penhant for flashy gestures and propaganda stunts.

Vienna Meeting

Cuban Gambit

Khruschchev in the West as a result of the Missle Crisis and his crude behavior was portrayed as both wreckless an power mad. Newspapers at the time described the introduction of missles by the Khruschchev as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and another example of Soviet expansionism. For some time this confused me because it was the same man who denounced Stalin, initiated the De-Stalinization program and began dismantling Stalin's Gulag. Assessments of Khruschchev's reforms vary. Solzhenitsyn writes that they were abandoned before they could become effective. [Solzhenitsyn, pp. 296-297.] While this may well be true, it is undeniable that the Khruschchev did initiate major reforms. The two actions appear inconsistent. In fact, they were not. Khruschchev desired to address the domestic economic situation and improve life for Soviet citizens by transferring resources to the domestic economy. Yet this effort would be limited if he had to divert resources to the new strstegic forced that were being demanded by the military. Thus he saw setting up already existing medium-range missles in Cuba as a low-cost way of at least partially bruging the strastegic gap.

Soviet and American Intelligence Assessments

The Missle Crisis was in part the result of a collosal intelligence failure on both sides. Khruschchev was not impressed with Kernnedy with the two met in Vienna (1961). He also noted how Kennedy did not pursue the Bay of Pigs Invasion and has acquiesed with the Berlin Wall. The KGB assured Khruschchev that Kennedy would accept missles in Cuba as long as they were kept secret until after the mid-term Congressional elections (November 1962). The KGB advised Khruschchev that the elections introduced an element of incertainty and could force Kennedy to act forcefully. As a result, Khruschchev ordered that the missles be transported and set up in Cuba, but that it be done under conditions of absolute secrecy. To ensure secrecy, Cubans were kept away from the operation and supplies shipped along with the missles to ensure that the Soviet personnel were entirely self-sufficent. There are stories of stocks of butter melting in the tropical heat. The CIA also failed to accuately understand Soviet intentions. Ther CIA told President Kennedy that the Soviets would never set up nuclear missles outside Soviet territory. They had not done it up to this time and the Agency saw no reason to believe that Khruschchev would be so wreckless as to do so in Cuba. There was in 1962 a massive Soviet arms build up in Cuba. The CIA assured President Kennedy that nuclear weapons were not among the arms being shipped to Cuba. Khruschchev also believed that the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons would intimdate Kennedy. Here American intelligence would be more effective. The primarypurpose of the U-2 over-flights had been to assess the Soviet strategic capability. r And Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet double agent, had reported that the Soviet ICBM force was still largely on paper and did not yet pose an immediate threat. This time Khruschchev's bluff would be called

Fidel Castro

Tape Recordings (July 1962)

Pesident Kennedy decided to begin secretly recording coversations in the Oval Office on tape to create a detailed record of his presidency. The decsion had nothing to do with Cuba. As a result, of this dcesion, however, there is an invaluble record of the connfrences concerning the Cuban Missle Crisis. This record, however, wa not avilble to historians for many years. It is now, however, an invaluable source for historians. [Coleman] tHey can literally put the reder in the Oval Office during te most dangerous pont of the Cold War.

Congressional Mid-Term Elections

The Republicans were generally hopeful to chip away at the substntial Democratic majorities in both houses. Since the New Deal, the Democrats with a few exceptions had remained in control of Congress. The elections were important fir the Kennedy Administration. Although it had Democratic majorities in both houses, conservative Deocrats ven without potential Senate fiibusters had bottled up their legislative agenda which included Medicare, a farm bill, Civil Rights, public works, mass transitand, and other bills. Conservative southern Democrats held key leadership roles in both the House and Senate and were oten more of a problem for President Kennedy than the Reoublicans. This of course was especially the case for Civil Rights legislation. The Administration had amaster lkegislator on their team--Lyndon Johnson. But they declined to use him him in any constructive way. Kennedy urged voters to give the Democrats more seats, arguing that it could make the difference for passage of the Administration social agenda. He did not, hoever, tke on consrvative southern Democrata as President Roosevelt had done in 1938. Rather the President continue to speak out against the Republicans anf he had done in his successful presidential campaign. At one of his press conferences he described Congressional Republicans as both negative and unimaginative on domestic matters (July 23). His personal popularity seems to have helped shoft the debate in the favor iof Congressiinal Democtats who began to think that they might avoid the normal losses sustained by the president's party in these mid-term elections. The President was weakest in the south, but the Democrats there were among his critics. The Republicans primarily concentrated on foreign policy and national security issues. The raised the issue of both the Administration's will and competence to resist the Communists. This had been the very issue that Kennedy had raised in the 1960 campaign. The mishandled Bay of Pigs invasion opened Kennedy up to criticism. Since that time a flood of Cubans had sought refuge in Cuba and Castro admitted tio being a Communist. And adding to the ferment were reports of Soviet arms flowing into Cuba. Congressional Republicans charged that the Administration was weak on national security. Some Republicans, including California gubernatorial candidate and former Vice President Richard Nixon, called for a full-scale American invasion of Cuba to stop the Soviet military build up there. It is unclear how these changes ould have played out. Just weeks before the election, President Kennedy came on the television and announced that the Soviet were installing balistic missles in Cuba and ordered an embargo (October 1962). That was the beginning of the Cuban Missle Crisis, the most dangerous American-Soviet confrontation of the Cold war. Some Republicans charged that the Administration had manufactured a crisis. The Soviet decesion to withdraw the missles and the public's assessment that the President had dftly handeled the crisis undoubtedly had a major impact on the election. Americans had been terrified by the threat of nuclear war. Few incliding Administration officials themselves knew just how close they had come to a niclear holocaust. The election was held with the Cuban Missle Crisis and the President's handling of it very fresh in the minds of voters (November 6)., The Democrats only lost four House seats, far below the average losses. Their majority declined from 263 to 259. The Republicans went from 174 to 176 Repreentatives a still smll minority. And more importantly the Democrats gained four Senate seats giving them a comfotable majority of 68 Senators. One of the new Democratic senators was the President's brother Teddy. This gave the President a little more flexibility in Congress. The gubernatorial race did not change the destribtion of power with 34 Democrat and 16 Republican governors. One highly publicized race was in California. Democratic incumbent Pat Brown, defeated former Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon famiously after the election gowled at the press, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more." The 1962 mid-terms did not change the Congress sufficdmtly to have enabled President Kennedy to forward his legislative prigram. His tragic assasination, however, brought his side-lined vice-president to office. And President Lyndon Johnson would take that same Congress and produce the landmark Civil Rights Law of 1964.

Soviet Missles in Cuba

The Soviet military intervention with their new Cuban ally was sizeable. Over 40,000 men were transported to Cuba using 180 ships. Mixed in with this massive logistical flow were medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Also included while never detected were tactical battlefield weapons. The Soviets secretly began building the bases for the balistic missles. They were medium range missles capable of hitting southeastern American cities.

Surveillance (October 14)

The CIA closely foolowed the Soviet build-up on Cuba. American U-2 surveillance flightts detected the missle sites (October 14). The CIA brought aerial photographs to the White House showing that the Soviets were building missle sites in western Cuba about 90 milers from Florida.

American Reaction

President Kennedy at noon and latter in the evening quietly convened meetings with his key advisers (October 16). No public announcement was made. President Kennedy and his advisers quietly discussed how the United States should respond. Kennedy's advisers differed on the appropriate course of action. Alternatives included: full scale invasion, air strikes, a blockade, or diplomacy. Secretary of State Rusk argued that no action was needed, asking what difference a few missles made. Militaey and some Congressional leaders argued that air strikes should be directed at the missle sites and then Cuba should be invaded. Kennedy felt from the beginning that the Soviets had to remove the missles. The question was how to force them to do this. There were a variety of reasons to do this. Republican critics had complained that the Kennedy Administration was weak, pointing to the botched Bay of Pig's invasion and the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was concerned about the impact of not standing up to the Soviets. If he aquised with the missles in Cuba, he believed that it would not be long before the Soviets would challrenger the United States again in some other area. President Kennedy decided on a limited naval blockade to prevent further deliveries.

Television Address (October 22)

President Kennedy in a dramatic television address to the American people announced the blockade (October 22). He demanded that the Soviets dismantle the launching sites and remove the missles and nuclear weapons from Cuba. He declared a naval quarantine zone around Cuba. The Navy was ordered to intercept and inspect ships to determine whether they carried missles or nucklear weapons. The President considered an invasion if the Soviets did not remove the missles. This was the closest the two sides came to nuclear war.

Crsader Overflights (Octobr 23)

The U-2 photos wich alerted the CIA to the miles in CVuba were fuzzy allowing possible Soviet deninl. President Kennedy wanted incontrvertible evidence. The U.S. Navy provded just what the resudent needed--the Vought F-8 Crusader. Unarmed photo recoisance Crusader operated from carriers, but were quickly deployed to Key West. Ordering overflights was dngerous. The Soviets could viw thuis as an escalaton. The Crusader was ideally suited for the task. It was capabkle of obtaining low altitude photographs of exceoptional clarity. RF-8A was ordered to fly low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba (October 23). The fights wre hazadrous because Cuba by this time was bristling with anti-aircraft guns and missles. These were the first operational flights of the F-8 Crusader. The flights operated in several pairs of aircraft. Each pair was assigned different targets. They took off from Key West twice each day for low-level flights over Cuba. They retuned to Jacksonville. Here the film was offloaded and developed and flwn on to the Pentagon. The crystal-clear imagery confirmed without any doubt that the Soviets were setting up IRBMs in Cuba. The Crusaders would also monitor the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. The Crusader overflights went on for some 6 weeks and produced about 160,000 images.

Security Council Confrontation (October 25)

A dramatic moment occured in the UnitedbNations Security Council. American Ambassador Adlai Stevenson formally charged that the Soviet Union was introducing balistic missles in Cuba. Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin categorically denied the charge and asked for proof. Stevenson's response was classic moment of the Cold War, "I want to say to you, Mr. Zorin, that I do not have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk. And I must confess to you that I am glad that I do not! But if I understood what you said, you said that my position had changed, that today I was defensive because we did not have the evidence to prove our assertions, that your Government had installed long-range missiles in Cuba. Well, let me say something to you, Mr. Ambassador—we do have the evidence. We have it, and it is clear and it is incontrovertible. And let me say something else—those weapons must be taken out of Cuba." And Americans carried in crystal-clear surveilance photographs produced by the Crusader overflights. Images of several missle sites set up for Ambassador Zorin and the rest of the Security Council to see. Zorin was spechless. This undercut the Soviets in world public opinion. The Sovies at the time had many defenders, even in the West. Public opinion turned sharply aganst the Soviets eventhough Sovets officials continued tolie climing the missles did not exist.

The Qurantine

President Kennedy insisted on calling the emmbargo a quaratine, vonidering it a less provative term. It was, however, a blokade in all but name. No one knew how the Soviets would respond. The American naval forces in the Caribbean area meant that the Soviets had few alternatives. Unknown at the time was that Soviet submarines deployed around Cuba had nuclear-tipped toroedoes. At first several Soviet cargo vessels cobntinued to move toward Cuba. It was a great relief when the White House received reports that they turned back.

Defusing the Crisis

Khrushchev and Kennedy communicated through a variety of channels. Communication links at the time proved extrenmely antiquated. Finally Khrushchev wavered. He informed Kennedy that he would remove the missles (October 26). Then he sent another message trying to negotiate conditions (October 27). President Kennedy decided to ignore the second communication and replied to the first.

Removing the Missles (October 28)

Khrushchev finally agreed to dismantle and remove the missles and nuclear weapons (October 28). He also offered, without consulting Castro, on-site inspection in return for an American guarantee not to invade Cuba. Kennedy then ordered the Navy to suspend the blockade.

Ending the Crisis

The Khrushchev note is generally is seen as the end of the crisis. In fact, it ws not. The nuclear missles, bombers, and Soviet troops were still in Cuba. And unknown to both Khrushchev and Kennedy, Soviet sbmarines with nuclear armed torpedoes were sdtatiojed in the Sargasso Sea just north of Cuba. Castro was furious at Khrushchev. He believe that the Soviets had deserted him. He refused to permit the promised inspections offered by Khrushchev. Khrushchev dispatched veteran diplomat Nikolas Mikoyan to iron the probles out with roblems with Castro despite the fact tat Mikoyan's wife was dieing. Cstro refused to een see him for days. The CIA determined, however, that they could adequately monitor the dismantling of the missles sites by aerial surveilance. One historian writes, "For all the palpable sense of relief felt on 28 oCtober 1962, when Khrushchev's message was that he would order the reoval of the missles was trnamitted around the wold , many issues that had contributed to the crisis in the first place reained unresolved. Manyof these unresolved issues would dragon for months in public and in behind-the-scenes negotiations. Some would fundamentally change the cold war, ushering in anew period less threatened by by nucear crisisand opening new opportunities for EastWest détente. Some would never be resolved, producing echoes years laterfor future administration to confriont." [Coleman]

The Soviets and Cuba

American stategists were astounded that Khrushchev would take such a risk. Khrrushchev later claimed in his memoirs that it was to protect Cuba. Many scholars dismiss this as a cover story.


Khrushchchev was a high-stake gambler, but not demented. His peasant shrewdness in the end led him to back down. [Tauubman] Khruschchev recognized from the beginning that his assessment of Kennedy was flawed and that he meant business. He was actually relieved that the initial American step was only a limited blockade. There were many other options that could have been anticipated. Some advisers suggested escalating the crisis by blockading Berlin. Khruschchev dismissed this by curtly replying, that here he is trying to defuse one crisis and you want me to launch another. [Frankel]


Khruschchev was responsible for the crisis. The real historical significance of the Cuban Missle Crisis is how two leaders managed to defuse a crisis of enotrmous danger. Both had advisors who counceled escalating the crisis, advise which could have proven disastrous. One can not help to be reminded of President Bush's resopnse during the 2000 presuidential debates with Vice-President Gore. When asked about is inexperience in international affairs he explained that while he had some experience as governor of Texas, he would have advisers to rely upon. If Khruschchev and Krennedy in 1962 had relierd on their advisers, the outcome almost surely would have been very different.


President Kennedy's succesful handling of the crisis reinvigorated his presidency. And one of the of the primary outcomes of the nuclear scareover Cuba was the first, however limited, nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets. Kennedy and Khrushchevalso managed to neutralize Berlin as a potential nuclear flashpoint. And politically the public's approval of Kennedy's performance help to bolter him politically. [Coleman] It greatly aided Congressional democrats in the mid-term electionswhich occured just afew days after theCuban Missle crisis was resolved. This was critical as civil rights began to emerge as the major issue of his presidency.

Actual Danger

We know now that the world much closeer to a nuclear exchange than was known at the time. Russian forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons and probably would have used them if the Unitd states had mounted a land invasion. Also U.S. destroyers assigned to the blockade were forcing Soviet submarnes around Cuba to the surface. Two of the submarines involved came very close to using nuclear tipped torpedos. Either action could have very possibly resulted in full-scale nuclear exchange.


Colemn, David G. The Fourteenth Day: JFK andthe Aftermath of the Cuban Missle Crisis (212), 256p.

Frankel, Max. High Noon in the Cold war. Frankel was a klong time reporter for the New York Times

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Harper & Row: New York, 1973), 660p.

Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton), 876p.


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Created: 7:02 PM 11/13/2004
Last updated: 1:22 AM 11/7/2012