Cuban Crisis: 50 years later

12 october 2012

Impact of Cuban Missile Crisis on U.S. Foreign and Defense Policies.

Artur Saradzhyan is 12th grade student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Cambridge, MA.

Resume: The Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in the debate in the U.S. policy-making community over whether the nuclear war was winnable.


The Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in the debate in the U.S. policy-making community over whether the nuclear war was winnable. Having looked into the thermonuclear abyss, the American leadership realized that they had to take actions to prevent such direct military confrontations, with the high possibility of the use of the nuclear weapons, from happening again in the future. However, while careful not to get involved in another direct military confrontation with Soviet Union again, the United States did become more assertive in using military power against Soviet Union's allies in Vietnam and elsewhere after prevailing in the Cuban missile stand-off, the 50th anniversary of which we will mark in October 2012.

Chronology of the Crisis

The crisis erupted when the John F. Kennedy administration learned in October 1962 that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear weapons on Cuba, according to transcripts and memos of the Kennedy administration available on the web site of the John F Kennedy presidential library and museum. The Soviets and Cubans began to secretly construct launch pads for Soviet ballistic nuclear missiles that could reach the United States, following the unsuccessful attempt by Washington to take down Fidel Castro in 1961, and the deployment of U.S. Jupiter ballistic nuclear missiles in Turkey also in 1961. The construction of the launch pads in Cuba, which began in August 1962, was captured by a U.S. U-2 spy plane flying over the island on October 14, 1962.

Two days later Kennedy was notified in what marked the beginning of the thirteen days during which humanity balanced on the brink of destruction.  Initially Kennedy thought it was inevitable that the United States would have to use force to get the missiles out of Cuba. According to the estimates of the U.S. intelligence the missiles were to become operational in less than a month. The president and his advisors deliberated whether to order an air strike on Cuba or even launch a ground invasion. But as the crisis evolved, Kennedy and his advisors began to consider blockade options.

On October 19, 1962 Kennedy cut short his trip to six states and returned to Washington DC, claiming to have caught a cold. Kennedy and his advisors discussed plans of a blockade of Cuba on October 20.  And by the end of that day Kennedy decided to put the naval blockade plan into action.

Initially Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denied presence of nuclear missiles on the island. However as he received more reports from the U.S. intelligence Kennedy became convinced that the missiles were on the island.

On October 22, 1962 Kennedy informed several former U.S. presidents and British leadership of the situation. Later the same day Kennedy made a televised address, in which he disclosed the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles to the public and demanded that the Soviets withdraw them. Kennedy also formalized the existence of the Executive Committee, made of his closest advisors and selected top officials, to deal with the crisis. He also ordered the U.S. armed forces to goon DEFCON 3 alert.

And on October 23, 1962 Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba to prevent more Soviet ships from reaching Cuba.  However enough shipments had reached Cuba by then to make some of the Soviet missiles fully operational as early as on October 20th already. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was also Kennedy’s brother, met Soviet ambassador to U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin on October 23, 1962 and tried to negotiate withdrawal of missiles, but Dobrynin refused to acknowledge the presence of such missiles in Cuba. Dobrynin also declared that Soviet ships would continue sailing towards Cuba regardless of the quarantine. Khrushchev also remained assertive, writing in an October 24, 1962 letter to Kennedy that he cannot agree to the “ultimatum” in the form of the naval quarantine.

Two days later, on October 26, U.S. warships formed the quarantine line, 800 miles from Cuba. Kennedy remained doubtful of such a solution to the crisis, even as the first ships were boarded. Meanwhile, Cuban leader Fidel Castro suggested to Khrushchev in a private letter to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States in case of an invasion. The Soviets initially tried to disregard the quarantine, but they also approached the U.S. side privately in hopes of resolving the crisis through intermediaries.

Eventually, Moscow started to soften its position. The Soviets acknowledged the presence of these missiles in Cuba, but attempted, on October 27, 1962 to make their removal conditional on withdrawal of the Jupiters from Turkey. Finally on October 28, 1962 Khrushchev announced that the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba in exchange for Washington's public assurances not to invade Cuba in the future. Privately, Washington also gave assurances that Jupiter missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey within a short period of time.

Significance of the Crisis: Looking into Nuclear Abyss

The Cuban missile crisis was a significant event that had a profound impact on the U.S. policy because it brought the United States and Russia to the brink of a thermonuclear war in which hundreds of millions could have been killed. Never before not only the two countries, but the entire humankind had been so close to such a devastating war that could have changed the course of history.

The two nations came so close to annihilating each other in October 1962 that President Kennedy later estimated the odds of a nuclear war “between one out of three and even”  while American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described the Cuban crisis as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

While both sides realized that the only alternative to a compromise was the one that they wanted to avoid – a nuclear war, the very logic of the crisis was pushing the both sides to such a war. Graham Allison, who is one of the greatest scholars of the crisis, wrote in his book “Essence of Decision” that if America had invaded Cuba to destroy the Soviet missiles that would have set off a chain reaction in which the Soviets would have retaliated by sieging West Berlin or striking on the U.S. missiles in Turkey, thereby escalating the conflict in what would have inevitably lead to a nuclear war.

Standard operating procedures that both sides had developed for times of crisis could have also pushed Washington and Moscow into war. For instance, NATO's then European Defense Plan allowed a subordinate commander to retaliate using nuclear weapons if he faced a considerable Soviet military aggression and could not reach the American president, according to McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to President John F. Kennedy. That defense plan would have been fraught with grave consequences if an invasion of Cuba had occurred. Imagine a U.S. commander in the fog of war that had already started in Cuba, receiving unconfirmed information that the Soviet forces were already streaming through the Fulda Gap. He would have been forced to make an immediate decision, well before he could contact the president. And it would have been completely within that commander’s authority to order a nuclear strike against the Soviets.

Another set of standard operating procedures, which could have led to war, could be found in DEFCON 3, the alert level that Kennedy ordered on October 22, 1962. DEFCON 3 required American fighters to carry air-to-air missiles equipped with nuclear warheads.  Pilots were supposed to have fired those only when ordered. However they had the physical ability to launch these missiles even without orders.  This could have led to a nuclear war on October 28, 1962, according to a book by Scott D. Sagan, one of America's best known experts on nuclear arms and strategies. On that day a U-2 was on a routine mission when it accidentally flew into Soviet airspace and Soviets scrambled fighters to intercept the spy plane. In response U.S. Air Force sent its fighters to protect the spy plane. Fortunately U-2 made its way out of the Soviet air space before the two sides' fighters had a chance to get into a dog fight. There is no evidence that suggests that any of the U.S. officials realized that the fighters, which scrambled to protect the U-2 plane, carried nuclear weapons, according to the “Essence of Decision” book.

Also in accordance with DEFCON 3, the Vandenberg Air Force base in California converted most of its test ICBMs into nuclear missiles. On October 26, 1962 the base fired one of the few remaining test missiles, which went on to fly thousands of miles into the Pacific. If the Soviets knew that Vandenberg base had converted most of its missiles into combat ready weapons, they might have thought this launch was a beginning of a nuclear strike and launched a counter-strike, Allison writes in his book.  And on October 26, 1962, U.S. Navy warships detected a Russian submarine and started to drop practice depth charges onto it in an effort to send a signal to the crew that the Soviet U-boat should surface. The charges were dropped as the submarine came close to exhausting its reserves of air. Soviet commander Valentin Savitsky grew extremely angry and ordered the vessel's nuclear torpedo to be made combat ready, according to Michael Dobbs’s “One Minute to Midnight.” Fortunately, his comrades convinced him not to engage into a fight and instead resurface, according to Dobbs.

Finally, in the morning of October 28, 1962 a U.S. early warning radar detected an apparent missile launch from Cuba. There was no time to react so the U.S. military awaited nuclear detonation in Florida. But, fortunately, it turned out that an US early warning center had carelessly run a test procedure, simulating a nuclear attack. If this accident occurred few decades later, when U.S. military already had ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike on warning, a nuclear war might have been unleashed, according to the latest edition of “Essence of Decision” that Allison co-wrote with Philip Zelikow


Consequences of the Crisis for U.S. Policy

The Cuban missile crisis marked a turning point in the debate in the U.S. policy-making community over whether the nuclear war was winnable. Prior to October 1962, an influential group of generals headed by Curtis Le May had favored a first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Kennedy White House even ordered a study on the feasibility of a military first strike on the Soviet Union.  But after the crisis it became clear that killing all the Communists would be impossible without millions of Americans dying, according to the aforementioned U.S. historian Michael Dobbs. 

 Having looked into the thermonuclear abyss, the American leadership realized that they had to take actions to prevent such direct military confrontations between the two superpowers. The two superpowers would never get locked in such a direct confrontation again, choosing instead to fight proxy wars in Vietnam, Middle East and even Africa.  

Immediate actions after the crisis were characterized by efforts on both sides to ease tensions between Untied States and the Soviets and improve communications between the two counties.

In 1963 Washington and Moscow clinched the so-called Hotline Agreement, which provided for the two capitals to be connected by a direct communications line so that the leaders of the two superpowers could communicate during crisis. The importance of such communicational ability became clear during the crisis, when both leaders had to convey some of their important messages to the other side through radio broadcasts, because the negotiations through the embassies were to slow.

The two superpowers also resumed the negotiations of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. Kennedy, in his October 28, 1962 letter to Khrushchev, suggested that it was necessary to put greater efforts toward limiting nuclear arms testing  In response “the Soviet Union agreed with the United States and Britain that the improved international atmosphere following the crisis over Cuba should be seized upon to make progress toward ending nuclear testing" wrote New York Times in late October 1962.  The treaty was signed in 1963.

As the tensions between Washington and Moscow eased, in the months following the Crisis, Kennedy proclaimed in a June 1963 speech at American University that the two superpowers could co-exist peacefully, calling “for examining...   own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union.”

While careful not to get involved in another direct military crisis with the Soviet Union again, the United States did become much more assertive in using military power against Soviet Union's allies after prevailing in the Cuban missile stand-off. The Soviets 'blinked first', knowing they had fewer missiles in the nuclear arsenal. As American historian Schlesinger, who wrote a preface to Robert Kennedy’s book on the crisis, said in the diplomatic language: “The thirteen days gave the world - even the Soviet Union – a sense of American determination and responsibility in the use of power which, if sustained, might indeed become a turning point in history of relations between east and west.”

Specifically, the fact that the U.S. side had prevailed in the Cuban stand-off encouraged the Kennedy administration to be much more assertive when countering the Soviet Union’s Communist allies in Vietnam, according to American historian Seymour Hersh.  Another scholar of military industrial complex, Seymour Melman had a similar view. According to his book “Demilitarized Society.” The victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis caused U.S. policy makers to raise their ambitions and use the crisis as the justification of the nuclear arms build-up, which, according to their ideology was to become an essential part of the foreign policy towards the Soviet Union  Less than a year after the crisis, Secretary of Defense McNamara announced that the United States would triple its ICBM fleet to 1,700 by 1966. Of course, the United States attempted to keep the edge in that arms race further on.

It was the same Cuban missile crisis that contributed to the ouster of Khrushchev. Fellow members of the Soviet leadership listed the crisis among greatest mistakes made by Khrushchev during the October 1964 plenum of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which ousted Khrushchev.

The same crisis also made the Soviets double their efforts to achieve such equality with the United States, in order to avoid such a humiliation again in the future. In fact, Melman noted in his book that after 1962 the Soviet Union proceeded to build up its nuclear arsenal in order to reach nuclear parity with the U.S.  It was not until the 1970s - when the Soviet Union achieved the strategic nuclear parity with the United States - that the American supporters of nuclear build-up were forced to scale back their ambitions. But the arms race continued as both sides tried to gain advantage over each other. That arms race eventually became one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when costs of maintaining the gigantic military industrial complex became unbearable for the Soviet economy that was weakened by general inefficiency and low oil prices.

Paradoxically, the Cuban missile crisis, which precipitated Khrushchev's demise, helped Fidel Castro to stay in power for decades to come. With Kennedy assassinated in 1963 and Khrushchev dying in 1972, Castro remains the only state leader involved in the crisis who remains alive today.


The general agreement of participants and mainstream scholars of the Cuban missile crisis seems to be that the crisis was a very dangerous event that almost resulted in a nuclear Armageddon.   However, that possibility of the nuclear war seemed to terrify very few in the governments of both countries. Moreover, as demonstrated by such historians, as Hersh and Melman, the U.S. leadership’s conclusion from the Cuban stand-off was that the Soviet Union ‘blinked’ and therefore America could push Soviet Russia, in other areas of the world such as, Asia and Africa, while avoiding a direct military conflict. And America did just that.

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