The Cuban Missile Crisis – the Day Russia Blinked

Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev
President John F. Kennedy, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev

For 13 nerve-wracking day in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought our planet closer than it has ever been to a nuclear WORLD WAR III   It was a direct confrontation between the earth’s 2 major superpowers, United States and USSR (Soviet Union) during the so called Cold War. The worst clash since the construction of the Berlin Wall a year earlier in 1961.

The US Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 spectacularly failed to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. So in 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret agreement with Castro to place nuclear missiles on the Caribbean island to deter any future invasion. The Soviets also disliked the number of nuclear weapons pointing at them from Western Europe’s NATO and Turkey, and saw missiles in Cuba as a way to level the playing field.

So the secret construction of Soviet missile sites on Cuba began.

In September, President John F. Kennedy issued a public warning against the introduction of any offensive Soviet weapons into Cuba. Despite this, in October, a U–2 spy plane took aerial photos clearly showing construction of a medium-range ballistic nuclear missile site in Cuba. The Pentagon rushed these images to the White House on October 16th, beginning what would be called the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Cuba was a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida and the range of these missiles included Washington DC!

Kennedy quickly summoned his security advisers to the West Wing, a group called the Ex Com (Executive Committee) to consider options and a course of action.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for an immediate air strike, followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba!  Non-military advisers recommended only stern warnings and sanctions to the Soviet Union. Kennedy and ExCom all agreed that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was unacceptable. The challenge was to get them removed without triggering a nuclear world war.

In tense deliberations that stretched for nearly a week, they came up with a variety of options, including diplomacy, a bombing attack, and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. In the end, President Kennedy decided upon a middle of the road course. On Monday, October 22nd, he ordered a US Navalquarantine” of Cuba. Calling it a “quarantine” technically meant this was not a “blockade,” which assumed a State of War existed.

That same day, President Kennedy sent a strong letter to Premier Khrushchev.

In it he declaring the US would not permit offensive weapons of any kind in Cuba, demanded the Soviets dismantle the missile bases under construction, AND return all offensive weapons to the Soviet Union.   President Kennedy then went on national TV that night and informed America and the world of the threat to national security these Cuban missiles represented.  He explained the naval quarantine he had ordered, and the global military consequences if the crisis escalated. His stern message was clear:

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba anywhere in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”   

President John F. Kennedy

The Joint Chiefs of Staff moved the USA to DEFCON 3 as naval ships began to surround Cuba, preparing for a military strike. People around the globe nervously worried and waited.  WHAT WOULD THE SOVIET RESPONSE BE?  Many feared the earth was finally at the brink of nuclear annihilation and looked for the nearest bomb shelter.

Believing their country was on the brink of nuclear war, Americans began hoarding food and gas in their basements.

cuban missile crisis headline 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis Headline, October 1962

In schools around the country, teachers ran daily Duck and Cover drills in their classrooms.  In duck and cover, students drop quickly to the floor and scramble under their desks.  Then they lie curl up in a ball, face down, and cover the head with their hands.  The goal being to protect against a nuclear blast where the force of the explosion could shatter glass windows and create an immense blast of heat. 

On Wednesday, October 24th, Khrushchev responded with his own statement that the US “blockade” was an “Act of Aggression” and that Soviet ships would proceed. The crisis had reached a superpower stalemate. A crucial moment arrived later that day, when Soviet ships neared the line of US Navy vessels enforcing the quarantine outside Cuba. Any attempt to breach the blockade would spark a military confrontation that could escalate to a nuclear exchange.   But the Soviet ships stopped short of the blockade!

Meanwhile, US spy planes showed the Soviet missile sites were nearly operational. The Pentagon placed military forces at DEFCON 2—meaning war was imminent. Kennedy and the ExCom prepared for an attack on Cuba. On October 26th, Kennedy told his advisers it appeared that only a US attack on Cuba would remove the Soviet missiles, but he insisted on giving diplomacy a one last chance.

“I thought it was the last day I would ever see.”

US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

That afternoon, the crisis took a strange turn. ABC News told the White House they’d been approached by a Russian agent suggesting the Soviet Union would remove their missiles from Cuba, IF the US would not to invade the island. While the Pentagon scrambled to validate this “back-channel” offer, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a communication in the middle of the night, October 26th.  It was an emotional message raising the specter of nuclear holocaust, and proposed a resolution that matched what ABC had heard!

“If there is no intention to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

Kremlin message to the White House

The next day, Saturday, October 27th, Khrushchev sent a second message, indicating that any proposed deal must include the removal of US missiles from Turkey. That same day, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba.  35-year-old pilot Major Rudy Anderson was killed.  Kennedy decided to ignore the 2nd message and respond only to the 1st. That night, he sent a communication to Khrushchev proposing the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba under supervision of the United Nations, and a guarantee that the US would NOT invade Cuba.

It was a risky to ignore the 2nd Khrushchev message, so Attorney General Robert Kennedy (the president’s younger brother) met with Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, in Washington and said the US was planning to remove the missiles from Turkey anyway, and that it would do so soon, but this could not be part of any public statement. The next morning, October 28th, Nikita Khrushchev issued a statement that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba!!

The planet and its anxious population took a collective sigh of relief.

By the end of November 1962, the U.S. was satisfied with the removal of Soviet missiles and ended its naval quarantine of Cuba. U.S. Jupiter missiles were quietly removed from Turkey the next year, in 1963.  The Cuban Missile Crisis strengthened President Kennedy’s image both in the U.S. and internationally. It also helped turn the negative world opinion surrounding his failed Bay of Pigs Invasion a year earlier.

In an effort to prevent this from ever happening again, a direct telephone link between the White House and Moscow’s Kremlin was established in 1963, known as the famous red “HOTLINE” phone.   So a direct verbal conversation could take place between the U.S. President and Soviet Premier when needed, and avert World War III.

The tense Cold War between the East and West was far from over though, and would last another 29 YEARS, until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Of course the world’s nuclear arsenals, though greatly diminished by treaties since the 1960s, still contains thousands of warheads, and remains under the control of the U.S., Russia Federation, Britain, France, and many other countries, including China, Israel, India and Pakistan.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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