The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the world close to a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The political positions adopted by both sides nearly prevented a resolution, but at the last moment, a compromise was found and nuclear war averted.Putting ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear weapons into Cuba salved the insecurities of two men. Although John F. Kennedy had claimed that the U.S. lagged behind the Soviet Union in nuclear capabilities when he campaigned for the presidency, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev knew otherwise. By the summer of 1962, Khrushchev also was certain that the Americans knew the same thing. Soviet missiles could reach Europe, but American missiles located in Turkey could strike almost anywhere in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev feared that the imbalance would tempt the U.S. to launch a first strike.

Fidel Castro harbored his own concerns. He had already withstood the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and President Kennedy made little effort to conceal his continued desire to see Castro deposed. Cuban intelligence had uncovered documents dating to April 1962 that described a plan to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro through Operation Mongoose, which ironically was scheduled for October 1962. Thus when Khrushchev proposed that the Soviet Union should install missiles in Cuba aimed at the U.S., Castro agreed.

Construction of missile sites began in mid-July 1962. By August, increased shipping activity between the Soviet Union and Cuba had come to the attention of American intelligence. On August 10, John McCone, director of the CIA, told Kennedy that, in his opinion, the Soviets intended to install medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba.

On August 29, a U-2 spy plane on reconnaissance over Cuba brought back evidence that surface-to-air (SAM) missiles had been installed at locations in Cuba. While not themselves offensive weapons, their installation indicated Cuba’s strong desire to defend those locations. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin advised Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was one of President Kennedy’s closest advisors, that the installations were entirely defensive in nature. But in fact, MRBMs began to arrive 11 days later.

Continued reports of Soviet missiles in Cuba prompted the decision to send another U-2 to take a closer look on October 9. Bad weather delayed the flight until October 14. The photographic evidence was analyzed and in addition to the SAMs, six larger missiles, 60 to 65 feet in length, were identified. It was clear to analysts on the 15th that those missiles were likely to have nuclear capability.

Kennedy was informed of the situation during his breakfast on the 16th. He quickly convened the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EX-COMM). That hand-picked group of 12 men would advise Kennedy throughout the unfolding crisis. They included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Presidential Counsel Ted Sorenson, Undersecretary of State George Ball, Deputy Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Edward Martin, Adviser on Russian Affairs Llewellyn Thompson, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze.

Kennedy wanted to maintain complete secrecy. He did not want the Soviets to know how much he knew and he also didn’t want to panic the American public. So for the next four days, Kennedy maintained his announced schedule of public appearances. On the 17th, the president flew to Connecticut in support of Abraham Ribicoff’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat. On the same day, another U-2 flight revealed the existence of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) that would be able to strike nearly anywhere in the continental United States.

On the 18th, Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The missiles were not directly brought into the discussions by either side. Gromyko again denied that the Soviet Union was doing anything in Cuba except assisting in that country’s defense. Kennedy re-read his statement from September 4, in which he had said that offensive weapons in Cuba would not be tolerated. That evening, Kennedy received a recommendation from EX-COMM to blockade Cuba rather than launch a military strike. Kennedy agreed, but instructed his speechwriter, Theodore Sorenson, to prepare two speeches: One would announce the blockade and the other an invasion.

Kennedy continued to appear in public as though nothing were happening. On the 19th, he flew to the Midwest for a series of campaign appearances. Meanwhile, back in Washington, his brother Robert continued intense discussions with EX-COMM. The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to exercise the military option, but consens