Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962)

Title: Cuban Missile Crisis reconnaissance photo
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This international crisis was the closest that the two Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, came to full-scale nuclear war. In 1958 an indigenous revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro seized power from Fulgencio Batista, a U.S. client who since 1933 had been dictator of the Caribbean island of Cuba, less than a hundred miles from the American coast. Although Castro initially declared that he was not a communist, in the spring of 1959 he covertly sought Soviet aid and military protection. American economic pressure and boycotts quickly gave him an excuse to move openly into the Soviet camp. In response, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) planned to assist Cuban exiles to attack the island and overthrow Castro. Initiated under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and inherited by his successor John F. Kennedy, the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion attempt proved a humiliating fiasco for the United States. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara continued to develop plans for a second invasion, and their advisors also devised various ingenious and often far-fetched schemes to overthrow or assassinate Castro, who not unnaturally sought further Soviet aid.

In mid-1961, as the concurrent Berlin Crisis intensified and culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall, military hard-liners in the Kremlin, frustrated for several years, succeeded in implementing a 34 percent increase in spending on conventional forces. Both the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy's bellicose inauguration rhetoric that his country would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty," may have energized them. Despite claims of a missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States, in practice the strategic missile imbalance greatly favored the United States, which had at least eight times as many nuclear warheads as its rival. Even American leaders were unaware of just how lopsidedly the nuclear situation favored them, believing the ratio to be only about three to one. The recent U.S. deployment of fifteen intermediate-range missiles in Turkey, directly threatening Soviet territory, further angered Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Communist Party's general secretary, making him eager to redress the balance. It seems that he also hoped to pressure the United States into making concessions on Berlin while he rebutted communist Chinese charges that the Soviets were only paper tigers who were unwilling to take concrete action to advance the cause of international revolution. In addition, Khrushchev apparently felt a romantic sense of solidarity with the new Cuban state, which reassured him and other old communists that their cause still possessed international vitality.

Early in 1962, Khrushchev offered Soviet nuclear missiles, under the control of Soviet technicians and troops, to Castro, who accepted and oversaw their secret installation. Khrushchev apparently believed that these would deter American plans to invade Cuba. Rather optimistically, he calculated that Kennedy and his advisors would find the prospect of nuclear war over the Cuban missiles so horrifying that, despite their chagrin, once the missiles were in place they would accept their presence in Cuba.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco followed by Khrushchev's June 1961 summit meeting with Kennedy at Vienna apparently convinced the Soviet leader that Kennedy was weak and would be easily intimidated. So confident was Khrushchev that when Kennedy administration officials warned in July and August 1962 that the United States would respond strongly should the Soviets deploy nuclear or other significant weaponry in Cuba, he implicitly denied any intention of doing so. Admittedly, by this time the missiles had already been secretly dispatched, and their installation was at least a partial fait accompli. At this stage of his career, moreover, Khrushchev's behavior tended to be somewhat erratic. In any case, he miscalculated. Instead of treating the Cuban missiles as deterrent weapons, the Kennedy administration regarded them as evidence of Soviet aggressiveness and refused to accept their presence.

In October 1962, U-2 reconnaissance planes provided Kennedy with photographic evidence that Soviet officials had installed intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Cuba. When the president learned on 16 October 1962 of the presence of the missiles, he summoned a secret Executive Committee of eighteen top advisors, among them chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor, CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the president's brother and closest advisor, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to decide on the American response. President Kennedy also included senior members of the broader foreign policy establishment, including former Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

Whatever the logical justification for Khrushchev's behavior, politically it would have been almost impossible for any American president to accept the situation. The American military calculated that the missiles would increase Soviet nuclear striking force against the continental United States by 50 percent. Since U.S. officials underestimated their numbers, in reality they would have doubled or even tripled Soviet striking capabilities, reducing the existing American numerical advantage to a ratio of merely two or three to one. Kennedy, however, viewed the missiles less as a genuine military threat than as a test of his credibility and leadership. Taylor, speaking for the U.S. military, initially favored launching air strikes to destroy the missile installations, a course of action that would almost certainly have killed substantial numbers of Soviet troops, was unlikely to eliminate all the missiles, and might well have provoked full-scale nuclear war. So might another option, that of invasion by U.S. ground forces. Discussions continued for several days. Eventually, on 22 October, Kennedy publicly announced the presence of the missiles in Cuba, demanded that the Soviet Union remove them, and announced the imposition of a naval blockade around the island.

Several tense days ensued, in the course of which on 27 October Soviet antiaircraft batteries on Cuba shot down—apparently without specific authorization from Kremlin leaders, whom this episode greatly alarmed—a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Seeking to avoid further escalation of the crisis, Kennedy refused to follow Taylor's advice to retaliate militarily and deliberately refrained from action. After some hesitation, Khrushchev acquiesced in the removal of the missiles, once his ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, secretly obtained an unpublicized pledge from Robert Kennedy that his brother would shortly remove the missiles in Turkey. Provided that the Soviet missiles were removed and not replaced, the United States also promised not to mount another invasion of Cuba.

Recently released tapes of conversations among President Kennedy and his advisors reveal that to avoid nuclear war, he was prepared to make even greater concessions to the Soviets, including taking the issue to the United Nations and openly trading Turkish missiles for those in Cuba. In so doing, he parted company with some of his more hard-line advisors. Showing considerable statesmanship, Kennedy deliberately refrained from emphasizing Khrushchev's humiliation, although other administration officials were privately less diplomatic and celebrated their victory to the press.

Newly opened Soviet documentary evidence has demonstrated that the Cuban situation was even more dire than most involved then realized. Forty-two thousand well-equipped Soviet troops were already on the island, far more than the 10,000 troops that American officials had estimated. Moreover, although Kennedy's advisors believed that some of the missiles might already be armed, they failed to realize that no less than 158 short- and intermediate-range warheads on the island, whose use Castro urged should the United States invade, were already operational and that 42 of these could have reached American territory. A bellicose Castro was also hoping to shoot down additional U-2 planes and provoke a major confrontation. The potential for a trigger-happy military officer to set off a full-scale nuclear war almost certainly existed, retrospectively chilling evidence of the dangers inherent in these weapons.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had a sobering impact on its protagonists. Humiliation at American hands was among the factors that compelled Soviet leaders to undertake an expensive major nuclear buildup to achieve parity with the United States, reaching this in 1970. Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964 was probably at least partly due to the missile crisis. Soviet officials also felt that they had come dangerously close to losing control of the actual employment of nuclear weapons in Cuba, either to their own military commanders on the ground or even potentially to Castro's forces. Even though the settlement effectively ensured his regime's survival, Castro, meanwhile, felt humiliated that the Soviets and Americans had settled matters between them without regard for him. Before Khrushchev's fall from power, the two men were reconciled, and Soviet-Cuban relations remained close until the end of the Cold War. To the chagrin of successive U.S. presidents, however, Castro remained in power into the twenty-first century, eventually becoming the doyen among world political leaders.

The Cuban Missile Crisis tested and perhaps weakened the Western alliance. West European political leaders, including Harold Macmillan of Britain, Konrad Adenauer of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany), and most notably Charles de Gaulle of France, felt some discomfort that although Kennedy dispatched Acheson to brief them on the crisis, American officials had not consulted them on decisions of great importance to their own countries' survival. This may have been one factor impelling de Gaulle to follow a highly independent foreign policy line in subsequent years.

The crisis exerted a certain salutary, maturing effect on Kennedy, making the once-brash young president a strong advocate of disarmament in the final months before his untimely death in November 1963. His stance compelled the Soviet leadership to establish a hotline between Moscow and Washington to facilitate communications and ease tensions during international crises. The two powers also finally reached agreement in 1963 on the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which halted nuclear testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in space. From then on both superpowers exercised great caution in dealing with each other, and on no subsequent occasion did they come so close to outright nuclear war.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Ausland, John C. Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Berlin-Cuba Crisis, 1961–1964. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1996.; Beschloss, Michael R. The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.; Blight, James, and David Welch, eds. Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis. London: Frank Cass, 1998.; Blight, James, and David Welch, eds. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.; Brune, Lester H. The Cuba-Caribbean Missile Crisis of October 1962: A Review of Issues and References. Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 1996.; Frankel, Max. High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Ballantine, 2004.; Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.; Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, & Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: Norton, 1997.; Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Hilsman, Roger. The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.; Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Norton, 1999.; May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.; Nathan, James A. Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.; Stern, Sheldon. Averting "The Final Failure": John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.; Taubman, William S. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.; Thompson, Robert Smith. The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.; White, Mark J. The Kennedys and Cuba: The Declassified Documentary History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.
 

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