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Today, it’s hard to remember that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other, ready to fly at a moment’s notice. But for a long time, there was a possibility that between the two nations, all life on Earth could be extinguished.

And that possibility was never more real, or closer, than it was in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis.

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Brief Description

On October 14, 1962, American U-2 spy planes took photographs of what appeared to be mobile missile launchers in remote areas of Cuba, which is only 90 miles or so from Key West, Florida. It was clear, upon analysis, that the missiles on the launchers were Soviet-made medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), which could be launched without warning and strike targets in the United States, as far away as the Pacific Northwest, before America could respond. The U.S. responded to this perceived threat, and the ensuing 13-day standoff became what is known as the Cuban missile crisis.

U-2 photograph of Soviet missile sites, Cuba, October 1962
U2 pic
A Lockheed-Martin U-2


The Cold War

Soon after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union, a communist country, and the U.S.

, which was capitalist, became rivals. Each country began to build up a large nuclear arsenal. But what would’ve been a mildly destructive war between two large nations a century ago, would be much, much worse if it were fought in the 20th century, with nuclear missiles. What developed instead was a ‘Cold War’ or a ‘war by proxy,’ in which each side supported its allies against the other.With regard to nuclear weapons, an unusual system developed, a relationship known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). The idea was that if each side had the ability to destroy the other completely, this would practically guarantee peace, since (if both sides acted rationally), neither would fire first, knowing the other side would respond in kind and extinguish their opponents.

This meant that any events that would upset this balance were highly dangerous.

The Bay of Pigs

In 1959, the island of Cuba underwent a revolution. The much-hated dictator, Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown and was replaced by Fidel Castro. The U.

S. was strongly suspicious of Castro; Batista had been a strong American ally, and the U.S. was pretty certain that Castro was communist. This suspicion was confirmed on Dec.

19, 1960, when Castro openly aligned with the Soviet Union, which meant that now, a communist ally of our chief rival was directly on the U.S.’s doorstep.

What to do about this? Well, the president at the time, John F. Kennedy, promised in April 1961 not to intervene militarily to overthrow Castro. However, he did not keep his promise. Later that same month, around 1400 Cuban exiles (anti-Communists who had fled the country when Castro took over) landed on the coast of Cuba at a place called The Bay of Pigs. They had been trained and equipped by the U.S.

Central Intelligence Agency. Their goal was to lead the popular uprising against Castro they were sure would follow their arrival. What happened instead was a fiasco and a major embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.

The Cuban military stopped the exiles cold; most were captured sent back to the U.S. Castro became a folk hero in Cuba and throughout Latin America, and Kennedy had to accept responsibility for the entire mess.

A Group of Captured Cuban Exiles, Bay of Pigs, Cuba 1962
Bay of Pigs

Cuban Missile Crisis Timeline

So that was the situation in October 1962; a tense relationship with the Soviet Union, a mass proliferation of nuclear weapons, a blunder in the recent past with newly-communist Cuba, and now…missiles right off America’s shore.Kennedy faced a difficult choice: if he did nothing, then the Soviets, under Nikita Khrushchev, would be convinced that he had backed down, and they could advance their gains in other areas (perhaps Berlin, still divided between the U.

S. and the USSR since World War II). If he did what many in the U.S. military wanted, which was to invade Cuba outright and finish the job from two years earlier, it would certainly mean war; and the Soviets had promised a full retaliatory response, which would involve nuclear weapons.

The situation got much more complicated on October 17, when U-2 flights found evidence of intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), which could reach anywhere in the continental United States. The threat was now very real.What follows is an annotated timeline, describing the two weeks in which the U.S. came as close as it ever has to nuclear war.

  • October 14, 1962: American spy planes take photographs of what appear to be mobile Soviet-made missile launchers in remote areas of Cuba.
  • October 20: President Kennedy and his advisors call for a quarantine of Cuba, in which the U.

    S. Navy would block the coast and prevent any ship from reaching port. This would stop any new missiles from reaching Cuba, but it wouldn’t remove the ones already there. This was technically not an act of war (the word ‘quarantine’ was used since ‘blockade’ would be an act of war), so Kennedy could claim that he wasn’t escalating the conflict.

  • October 22: Kennedy announces the quarantine of Cuba on television. U.

    S. military forces are moved to DEFCON 3 (DEFCON refers to the ‘global defense condition’; DEFCON 5 is peace, DEFCON 1 is active war).

John Kennedy announcing the quarantine of Cuba, October 22, 1962
  • October 23: U.S. Navy ships take up position on the ‘quarantine line,’ 800 miles from Cuba.

    Kennedy receives a letter from Khrushchev calling the situation ‘a serious threat to peace and security.’ The Organization of American States (OAS), a group of Latin American nations and the U.S., approves of the quarantine, giving Kennedy some legal justification for his actions.

  • October 24: Soviet ships en route to Cuba begin to slow down or change course. U.S.

    military forces go to DEFCON 2.

The U.S. Navy ship Joseph P. Kennedy sends a boarding party to a Soviet freighter, October 1962
Russian Ship Turning from Quarantine line, October 1962
Russian Ship

Lesson Summary

In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union went to the brink of nuclear war, after Soviet-made nuclear missiles were placed in the nation of Cuba, just off the U.

S. coast. President John Kennedy instituted a quarantine of the Cuban coast to prevent the shipment of new missiles, and two weeks of diplomatic negotiation and military standoffs followed.

Ultimately, the U.S. pledged not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of the missiles from Cuba. Additionally, America pledged to remove its own missiles from Turkey, long considered a threat by the Soviets. The deal ended the standoff and reduced the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

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