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Cuban Missile Crisis

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The Cuban Missile Crisis was a time of tension between the Soviet Union, the United States and Cuba during the Cold War. In Russia, it is known as the Caribbean Crisis (Russian: Карибский кризис, Karibskiy krizis). Cuba calls it the October Crisis. It was a proxy conflict around Cuba. It happened when the Soviet Union (USSR) began building missile sites in Cuba in 1962. Together with the Berlin Blockade, this crisis is seen as one of the most important confrontations of the Cold War. It may have been the moment when the Cold War came closest to a nuclear war.[1]

There was a coup in Cuba in 1959. In it, a small group of people led by Fidel Castro took power. The new government of Cuba took over some American businesses. The American government refused to buy anything from Cuba after that. The US embargo against Cuba began February 7, 1962. In 1962, the American government was worried that the USSR would attack America from Cuba, because Cuba is near enough that the missiles could reach almost any city in America. Cuba was then a Communist country, like the Soviet Union.

In October 1962, American ships blocked Soviet ships carrying missiles from going into Cuba. The Soviets and Cubans agreed to take away the missiles if America promised not to attack Cuba. America later removed some missiles from the country of Turkey, near the Soviet Union. However, it is not decided if anyone "won". The USSR lost China's support over it.

The crisis

The Americans feared that the Soviet Union would expand communism or socialism. The United States and the USSR had been political enemies after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The United States felt it was not right that a country in the Caribbean openly allied itself with the Soviet Union. This would also make the Monroe Doctrine useless. This doctrine kept powers in Europe from getting involved in South America.

In late 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched a number of secret operations against Castro's government. These operations were named Operation Mongoose. They were unsuccessful.[2] In February 1962, the United States launched an economic embargo against Cuba.[3]

In September 1961, the Cuban government thought the United States would invade. They thought this because there was a resolution by the Congress of the United States. This resolution allowed the use of military force if the interests of the United States in Cuba were threatened.[4] The United States also announced a military exercise in the Caribbean to be held the following month.

Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to secretly place strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba to be ready if the United States invaded. Like Castro, Khrushchev thought that the U.S. would invade Cuba soon, and that for Cuba to no longer be a Communist country would hurt his reputation around the world, especially in Latin America. He said that he wanted to confront the Americans "with more than words...the logical answer was missiles."[5]

Tensions were at their highest from October 8, 1962. On October 14, United States reconnaissance saw the missile bases being built in Cuba. The crisis ended two weeks later on October 28, 1962, when the President of the United States John F. Kennedy and the United Nations Secretary-General U Thant reached an agreement with the Soviets to destroy the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a no-invasion agreement. Khrushchev requested that the Jupiter and Thor missiles in Turkey be removed, and the United States did remove them secretly.[6]


Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

In Cuba, Fidel Castro took power from General Batista on January 1, 1959. From 1952 to 1959, Batista was a military dictator in Cuba, very right-wing with Mafia connections and the support of the Eisenhower administration. The United States was interested in Cuba because of the many businesses that they had there, even though the country was a dictatorship. The countries were also military friends. This was shown by the US base at Guantánamo Bay.

When Castro came to power in Cuba, he nationalized American companies in Cuba, meaning he took the private property from those companies and made it the property of Cuba, to use as Castro decided.[7] The United States decided to break off economic relations with Cuba[8] (which means that they would stop buying things from them). They stopped American aid going to Cuba, and stopped buying Cuban sugar (which was Cuba's main export). This was a disaster for Castro, because America bought the most Cuban sugar. However, Russia saved the Cuban economy using its vast resoruces by buying Cuban sugar for a lot of money.

Nikita Khrushchev

Castro turned to the USSR, still powerful at that time. He signed a contract with Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian chairman at the time. The contract said that the USSR would buy 1 million tons of Cuban sugar per year, in exchange for Castro's Communist support; he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist on December 2, 1961.

The reasons that Krushchev wanted to help Cuba were the following:

  • He wanted a Communist state close to United States;
  • He wanted to test the new US president, John F. Kennedy;
  • He wanted a chance to get the American missile sites out of Turkey, which was close to Russia.

The Bay of Pigs

The Eisenhower government was worried that Castro was a Communist and that this could be a threat to American economic . A timeline released by the National Security Archives shows that the US began planning to overthrow the government of Cuba in October, 1959. After the nationalization of American property on the island, Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with the revolutionary government of Cuba on January 3, 1961 and plans were made to remove the Castro government from power. The Kennedy government took over those plans later. On April 17, 1961, the CIA began an operation later called the Bay of Pigs invasion by Brigade 2506. The goal was for a group of Cubans, including some who were still loyal to General Batista, to attack Cuba and overthrow Castro. President Kennedy refused to order American troops or air raids to support the invasion.

As the group set off to attack Cuba, Kennedy grew nervous. Kennedy thought that an American attack against a Communist state could lead to a full-scale war against the USSR. Kennedy decided not to provide American military support at the last moment. This may have led to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Castro wanted to feel safe from the United States. He knew that if a second attack was made, Cuba might lose and he would be removed from power. Castro asked Krushchev for missile sites to be built on Cuba so that he could defend himself against any American threat. The USSR agreed to this and started building missile sites on Cuba. These missiles could hit any major city in the United States.

When Kennedy found out about the missile sites on October 16,[9] by sending a United States Navy U-2 Spy Plane to take pictures of Cuba,[10] he saw the missile sites and thought the worst: that Cuba was preparing to attack the United States.

Kennedy's options

The United States was angry when they found out about the missile sites. Kennedy's advisers did not believe that the missiles were completely ready at the time they first saw the pictures, but they guessed that the missiles would be ready in less than two weeks (this is where the movie and book, 13 Days, get their name). This meant that Kennedy had to act fast. His options were not clear at first, so he started EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) so they would give him some options. The options basically were:

Options Pros Cons
Do nothing Avoids any immediate war Kennedy would look weak to the USSR and the rest of the world. Leaves active nuclear missiles very close to the USA.
Attack Would destroy some missile sites. Lots of soldiers would die and Cuba could launch nuclear missiles at the US, killing millions of people and thus causing a war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Diplomatic pressure Would avoid a war and maybe convince USSR to remove the missiles USSR would probably not give up and it could end up making them look like they held more power than the US or its allies.
Blockade No casualties. Would make it difficult for the USSR to send military equipment (e.g. missiles) and other supplies. The missile sites that were already in Cuba would still be there. A blockade is also an act of war and could start a real war against the USSR.

On October 20, Kennedy chose to blockade Cuba to stop all ships going there rather than listen to his advisers (who wanted to attack).[11]

Khrushchev's options

The USSR's first ships arrived at the blockade on October 25 and were turned away.

Nikita Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy on October 26. Kennedy's advisers said that the letter looked like it had been written by Krushchev himself and not his official writers who would normally do it. They also said that it looked like it was written by a man who was under stress. In a paper called "Forty Years After 13 Days," Robert McNamara quoted a part of the letter from Krushchev:

Everyone needs peace; both capitalists, if they have not lost their reason, and still more, communists.
War is our enemy and a calamity for all people.
If indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and I know that war ends only when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.
I should like you to agree that one cannot give way to pressures; it is necessary to control them.
If people do not show wisdom, then in the final analysis they will come to a clash, like blind moles, and then reciprocal extermination will begin.
If you have not lost your self-control, then Mr. President we and you ought not now to pull on the end of a rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot.
And what that will mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what terrible forces our countries possess. Let us not only relax the forces pulling on the end of the rope; let us take means to untie the knot. We are ready for this.

—Nikita Kruschev[12]

Krushchev was saying that he would remove the missile sites if President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba. An invasion of Cuba would make Krushchev look bad and could also lead to a nuclear war. This was the reaction that Kennedy wanted.

The very next day, a second letter was sent from Russia to Kennedy. This one looked more official than the first. It also said that the US must take its nuclear missiles out of Turkey if they wanted Russia to take their missiles out of Cuba. It would have been a fair trade because the US missiles in Turkey were close enough to Russia that they could reach most of the important cities and Cuba was close enough to the US that the Russian missiles would reach most of the important US cities. The problem for Kennedy was that he could not publicly agree to remove the US missiles from Turkey because Turkey would then not be protected and would not be happy.

Another problem was that Kennedy and his advisers did not know if Krushchev was still in power. They thought that someone in the Russian government might have overthrown Krushchev. They thought this because the second letter was so much different than the first. Kennedy decided to send a secret message to Krushchev saying that they would remove the missiles from Turkey in a few months as long as they did not tell the public about it. Kennedy then sent an official letter to Krushchev agreeing to the conditions of the first letter and not mentioning the second.

Krushchev agreed to the secret message.

On November 1, the missile sites were removed and the problems were over.

Khrushchev goals in the crisis had various results:

  1. A communist country was closer to the United States. Cuba came out of the crisis still a communist country.
  2. Kennedy was pushed in the crisis. In the end, his desire for peace was important to ending the crisis.
  3. The missile sites in Turkey were removed, but not in the way that Khrushchev had wanted.

The United States saw Kennedy as the hero who had fought Communism and won.

Other pages


  1. B. Gregory Marfleet (2000). "The Operational Code of John F. Kennedy During the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Comparison of Public and Private Rhetoric". Political Psychology 21 (3): 545.
  2. Franklin, Jane, [excerpts from The Cuban Missile Crisis - An In-Depth Chronology],
  3. The American Presidency Project. "Proclamation 3447–Embargo on all trade with Cuba".
  4. Cuban resolution,October U.S. Public Law 87-733, S.J. Res. 230
  5. quote in Weldes, J. - "Constructing National Interests: The United States and the Cuban Missile Crisis" University of Minnesota Press, 1999 p.29
  6. Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996), p. 228
  7. A Thousand days: John F. Kennedy in the White House Arthur Schlesinger Jr 1965
  8. Proclamation 3447--Embargo on all trade with Cuba The American Presidency Project
  9. "Revelations from the Russian Archives".
  10. "Interview with Syndey Graybeal -29. Jan 1998".
  11. The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 18-29, 1962, audio recordings
  12. Cuban Missile Crisis documents on Arms Control Association

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