Mar 15, 2021

Thirteen Days on the Brink of War: The Cuban Missile Crisis

On the morning of October 14, Major Richard Heyser entered the Cuban airspace in a U-2, the preferred reconnaissance plane of the United States Air Force (USAF) during the Cold War, for a routine surveillance run over Cuba. After an uneventful six minutes - during which 928 photos were captured - Heyser exited the Cuban airspace and set course for McCoy Air Force Base near Orlando, Florida.

Immediately upon landing, the photos were sent into the Naval Photographic Interpretation Centre, where America’s worst fears were confirmed: The Soviet Union was placing Nuclear Medium-range Ballistic Missiles warheads in Cuba, just 90 miles away from America’s borders.

By October 16, the photos were on President John F. Kennedy’s desk, and the United States and the Soviet Union would suddenly be locked in a confrontation that would bring them to the brink of war: The Cuban Missile Crisis. 

The photos sent U.S. Generals and policymakers scrambling. Only a year before, the USSR and the United States had been embroiled in the Berlin crisis, resulting in the city’s partition and erection of the Berlin Wall. Heaven knew what the Soviets would demand next, given the leverage of missiles in Cuba. After being briefed about the situation, President Kennedy called together a meeting of the nine members of the National Security Council and five key advisors, known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council or simply ExComm. 

By October 17, the ExComm came up with three different possible avenues for the United States to pursue. Either do nothing and live with the situation, organize a naval blockade to prevent further shipments from the Soviet Union, or lastly, take military action. 

The Joint Chiefs of Staff were convinced that the missile had to be taken out immediately and called for airstrikes or a full-scale invasion, based on the assumption that the Soviets would not interfere. This shows how close the crisis came to being dangerously mishandled, as, since the beginning of the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union was shipping combat soldiers to Cuba in checkered shirts to pose as civilians. It was estimated by the Central Investigative Agency (CIA) that 6,000 to 8,000 troops were stationed in Cuba when in reality the true number was around 40,000.

Surprisingly, publicly released tapes of the meetings reveal that JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy was the most reckless of the advisors, repeatedly calling for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.”

Fortunately, John F. Kennedy wisely ruled out any military option, stating, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong.” 

Kennedy ultimately decided to go ahead with the naval blockade, terming it as a quarantine, since the public announcement of a blockade requires a declaration of war under international law. To approve a naval blockade in international waters, Kennedy received the endorsement of the quarantine from the Organization of American States (OAS), under the framework of the defense provisions of the Rio Treaty, which allowed for naval blockades against offensive weapons in the hemisphere with approval from member states. 

On October 22, Kennedy delivered a nationally televised broadcast, revealing the existence of nuclear missiles in Cuba, calling for their removal, and announced the establishment of a naval quarantine around the island until the Soviets dismantle the missiles. 

Till then, most Americans had been, for lack of a better term, slightly complacent with regard to the Soviet Union, since the general perception was that though allies in Europe were under the constant threat of nuclear warfare, the general population of Americans wasn’t under direct threat. The illusion shattered spectacularly as Kennedy highlighted the gravity of the situation. 

Immediately after the address, most Americans, nervous and scared about the prospect of nuclear war, rushed to stores and supermarkets hoarding food and gas and even spent the next few nights sleeping in bomb shelters. The war had been brought to America’s borders. 

Hostilities Erupt as World Edges Closer to War

The United States and the Soviet Union had reached an impasse. Due to the blockade, the Soviets could not send shipments or supplies to Cuba, but nothing had been done to defuse the situation surrounding the nuclear missiles still aimed at the United States. Days of tension followed as the world held its breath on the possibility of another World War. 

On October 26, Khrushchev sent a private letter to Kennedy for resolution of the crisis - the missiles would be removed if the U.S. would give a guarantee to not invade Cuba and accept Fidel Castro’s communist regime. 

However, two separate incidents took place on October 27 that could have derailed negotiations. A Soviet B-59 submarine near Cuba had lost contact with Moscow for several days before and was unaware of the escalating crisis taking place. American warships enforcing the blockade dropped charges on the side of the submarine as a warning and the crew, oblivious of the situation assumed that war had broken out. Unknown to the Americans, the B 59, carried a nuclear-tipped torpedo. The Second Captain, Vasili Alexandrovich however dissented and forgo the permission to fire. After a while, the submarine resurfaced and headed back to U.S.S.R unscathed. This is the closest the world has ever been to a nuclear weapon being used. 

In the second incident, Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down in a U-2 surveillance plane over Cuba, the only fatality during the crisis. American officials, believing that the Kremlin had ordered Castro to shoot down the planes, urged Kennedy to reconsider military options but Kennedy refused to budge. Later that day, Khrushchev in another letter, stated the Soviet Union would only stand down if the United States would remove nuclear Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey. 

To discuss the terms of an agreement, President John Kennedy sent Attorney General Robert Kennedy to secretly meet with U.S.S.R. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

The next day, October 28, marked an end to hostilities, Khrushchev announced the new order on “ dismantling of weapons which you describe as offensive and their crafting and return to the Soviet Union.” on Moscow Radio.

However, the Kennedy Administration officially accepted only the terms of the first letter from Khrushchev, and the deal to remove the Jupiter missiles in exchange for Cuban missiles was kept a guarded secret. To preserve Kennedy’s image in domestic politics and prevent the United States from looking weak for succumbing to U.S.S.R demands, the administration even threatened to abrogate the deal if the Soviets disclosed it. It was only in the late 1980s with the declassification of files and opening of archives that the truth behind the deal was revealed. The cover went so high that even Vice President Lyndon Johnson or Congress was not made aware of the trade-off. 

A declassified Soviet cable also revealed that Robert Kennedy insisted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin take back Khrushchev’s second letter, saying that the letter,” could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future.” 

Repercussions of The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Soviet Union began to dismantle the nuclear sites and missiles the very next day. The United States compiled and lifted the blockade on November 20 and completed the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey by April 1963. It was clear to both sides that better communication could have helped resolve the crisis earlier and prevented any mishap such as in response to incidents on October 27. The following year, a direct telephone link, the Moscow - Washington hotline was established to prevent future escalations. 

Kennedy was considered a hero at home, for his calm demeanor and adept crisis management of the missile scare through diplomatic channels. No doubt, Kennedy showed immense restraint while most of his advisors urged him to take military action but his administration bears a fair share of the blame for the occurrence of the Cuban Missile crisis in the first place. The crisis was not a sudden one but had been building up over the past two years. 

In 1961, the U.S. government deployed a medium-range nuclear Jupiter missile in Turkey and Italy, which could reach all major cities in the western U.S.S.R. including Moscow and Leningrad. Historian Philip Nash in a 1997 study, ‘The Other Missiles of October’ concluded that Kennedy’s deployment of Jupiter missiles was a key reason for Khrushchev’s decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. Remarkably, on the first day of the ExComm meeting on October 16, Kennedy quipped aloud, “ Why does he put these in there, though ? . . . It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles in Turkey. Now that would be goddamned dangerous, I would think.”

To which National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy simply replied,” Well, we did it, Mr. President.” 

Another major factor that prompted Premier Nikita Khrushchev was the continuous attempts made by the United States to remove Fidel Castro from power through Operation Mongoose and the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Operation Mongoose, sanctioned by the Department of Defense was a coordinated program of intelligence gathering, sabotage, the publication of anti-communist propaganda, supplying of arms to militant opposition groups, the establishment of guerrilla bases across Cuba culminating in the primary aim of removing Castro from power and establishing a government more inclined to the interests of the United States. The Soviet Union had an obligation to save a Communist ally as a superpower to save face. Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs that the purpose of nuclear missiles in Cuba was to maintain the independence of the Cuban people but did not mention any ulterior motives. Since the U.S.S.R. and America were deeply entrenched in Cold War politics perhaps the Soviets may have also wanted to demonstrate their influence in America’s neighborhood and undermine Uncle Sam’s power and the confidence America held among its allies. 

Unlike Kennedy, Khrushchev was nowhere near treated like a hero by the people or even his party comrades, ultimately leading to his removal from power two years later. Historian Jeremi Suri writes, “ The withdrawal of missiles from Cuba loomed larger than the American non-invasion pledge.”

Arguably, the only victor to emerge from the crisis was Fidel Castro, despite the continued assassination attempts made by the United States, an invasion of Cuba did not take place and allowed Castro to rule from 1959 to 2008. The crisis would also affect future agreements and change the attitude of officials of the two countries. 

The missile scare set the stage for the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which banned the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in space, and water, and later the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. It can be observed that the prospect of a direct confrontation between the two sides declined significantly over the 70s and the 80s with both anxious to avoid a repeat of the crisis.   

At the end of the day, the key takeaway from the Cuban Missile Crisis was that cooperation between foes, through diplomatic channels and negotiation ending in an arrangement that satisfies both sides is possible, reiterating that diplomacy, not confrontation is the answer.

Arnav Singh

I am a 10th Grader in High School from India and, my interests range from econ, history, and politics to coffee, sci-fi novels, and teen dramas on Netflix.

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