Tensions between Cuba and the United States peaked during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This event brought the world close to the brink of nuclear war. The crisis began when US high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft spotted Soviet Union nuclear missiles inside Cuba that were capable of striking Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The crisis ended when Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the missiles after receiving secret assurance from Kennedy that the United States would not invade Cuba. The United States also promised to withdraw some of its nuclear missiles from Turkey, which borders the former Soviet Union.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion and other US-sponsored efforts to remove Castro from power only increased the Cuban leader’s popularity in Latin America. The attempts to unseat Castro also pushed Cuba firmly into the Soviet bloc. In the face of US economic sanctions, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for oil and other necessities as well as a market for Cuban sugar. Castro also requested Soviet financial and military aid to help him remain in power. Khrushchev was eager to provide this because he recognized the value of having a communist ally so close to American shores.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion convinced Khrushchev that the young US president was weak and indecisive and lacked resolve. The Soviet Union believed that world condemnation of the failed invasion would make it difficult for the United States to use force against Castro, at least temporarily. It was seen as a window of opportunity to alter the nuclear balance of power that was in America's favor, to win concessions from the United States over issues in Berlin and to deter a future US invasion of Cuba. The Soviet Union increased its military aid to the island and began installing medium-range nuclear rockets in Cuba.
To preserve the secrecy of the Cuban mission, the Soviets gave it the code name Operation Anadyr. Anadyr was the name of a river that flowed into the Bering Sea in the Arctic, north of the USSR. As far as ordinary Soviet soldiers and citizens knew, that was where the missiles were headed. The Soviets initially claimed that the military build-up in Cuba was for defensive purposes only. Meanwhile, the CIA gathered intelligence on Soviet activities in Cuba.
The next several weeks proved frustrating for the Kennedy administration. Bad weather in the Caribbean prevented US spy planes from getting clear photos of Cuba, so American officials did not receive any new information about Soviet activities on the island. The Soviets took advantage of the situation to make great progress on the secret missile installations. Finally, an American U-2 spy plane managed to capture clear images of the missile sites near San Cristobal, Cuba. This confirmed US suspicions that the Soviets were placing offensive nuclear weapons on the island. Kennedy was informed immediately.
Two days after learning about the Soviet missiles in Cuba, President Kennedy kept a previously scheduled appointment with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. Rather than confront Gromyko with the photographic evidence of the missile sites, however, Kennedy decided to act as if he were unaware of the recent Soviet activities. After lying about the presence of offensive weapons in Cuba, Gromyko angered Kennedy further by arguing that the Soviet Union had only stepped in to help Castro prevent a US invasion of Cuba. The president denied that the United States planned to invade Cuba.
Following the discovery of the missiles, the United States put a naval blockade in place around the island. The US referred to it as a quarantine because, according to international law, a blockade is an act of war. There was the expectation that if the United States used nuclear weapons against Cuba or was about to overwhelm the island, then the Soviets would use the nuclear weapons against the United States.
President Kennedy made a nationally televised speech that was watched by 100 million people. He told the American people that the Soviet Union had installed ballistic missiles in Cuba with the capability of launching a nuclear strike against targets in the United States. The president warned that any missile launch from Cuba against any target in the western hemisphere would be considered an act of war against the United States. He demanded that Khrushchev dismantle and remove the missile installations. Kennedy explained that he had ordered the US Navy to establish a quarantine around the island of Cuba to prevent further deliveries of Soviet weaponry.
Millions of people—both in the United States and around the world—watched on television or listened on the radio when President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech announcing that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Many of these people still remember their feelings of confusion and fear upon learning that the world was perched on the brink of nuclear war.
Shortly before Kennedy made his public address, Secretary of State Dean Rusk met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Khrushchev had not informed his ambassador of the plan to place missiles in Cuba, so Dobrynin was shocked to hear the news. Rusk gave Dobrynin an advance copy of Kennedy’s speech as well as a personal letter from the president to Khrushchev. In this note, Kennedy emphasized that the United States had deliberately shown restraint by choosing to blockade rather than invade Cuba, and he asked his counterpart to do the same.
By the time Kennedy addressed the nation, US Navy vessels were already sailing towards the Caribbean to assume their blockade positions around Cuba. The quarantine fleet eventually consisted of nearly two hundred ships. The president also took a number of other steps to prepare for a possible military confrontation. For instance, he increased the level of US armed forces readiness to defense condition 3 (DEFCON 3), halfway between peace (DEFCON 5) and war (DEFCON 1). He also increased U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba and ordered American B-52 bombers armed with nuclear warheads to remain in the air around the clock.
Two Soviet freighters, the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin, were the closest to Cuba at the time the quarantine took effect. They were escorted by a Soviet attack submarine. An American aircraft carrier group led by the USS Essex stood ready to intercept them if they approached the blockade. Rather than risk losing their valuable cargo of nuclear weapons to the US Navy, however, Khrushchev ordered the ships to turn around well before they reached the line.
The UN Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the standoff over Cuba. US-Soviet tensions reached new heights at this meeting when US ambassador Adlai Stevenson angrily confronted Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin about the Cuban missile sites. Stevenson’s powerful presentation helped shift world opinion towards the American side in the crisis.
Khrushchev was somewhat taken aback by the strong US response to his decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. From his perspective, the missiles were mainly intended to protect Castro’s government from a possible US invasion. The Soviet Union was well within striking distance of the American nuclear weapons in Turkey so Khrushchev was surprised to find that Kennedy was willing to go to war to remove the installations from Cuba. Khrushchev decided that he might be willing to remove them in exchange for an American pledge to end the blockade and never invade Cuba. Kennedy felt relieved upon hearing this.
As Khrushchev and Kennedy made tentative moves towards a peaceful resolution, however, Castro was growing impatient, anxious, and increasingly paranoid. Castro became convinced that a US military invasion of the island was imminent. He mobilized Cuban defense forces, began sleeping in a reinforced bomb shelter, and sent a desperate letter to Khrushchev asking for Soviet protection. In his 26th of October message, known as the ‘Armageddon letter’, Castro encouraged the Soviet leader to use the Cuban missiles in a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States.
Radio Moscow broadcast a public message from Khrushchev. The aggressive tone of the message contrasted sharply with the conciliatory tone of his private letter to Kennedy from the day before. The Soviet leader demanded the removal of US missiles from Turkey in exchange for dismantling the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev repeating these demands. American officials were puzzled by this sudden change in tone. They worried that Khrushchev might be forced out of power and that the hard-line communists would be less willing to negotiate and more likely to launch a nuclear strike.
Kennedy and Khrushchev were both partizans of separation of church and state. Some observers were surprised, therefore, when the Catholic Church stepped in to play a very public role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pope John XXIII broadcast a message on Vatican Radio aimed directly at Kennedy and Khrushchev. He emphasized the grave responsibility of world leaders to resolve their differences through peaceful negotiations and to avoid war at all costs. The Pope’s message appeared in newspapers all over the world, including Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the most dangerous moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred without the Kennedy administration even being aware of it. Soviet submarine captain V.G. Savitskiy was sent to observe the American naval blockade. The Americans dropped depth charges to force the Soviets to the surface. Savitsky thought he was being attacked and he had orders to retaliate with a nuclear strike. The Soviet captain stopped at the last moment, when he realised the depth charges were harmless.
Discouraged by the lack of progress in the diplomatic negotiations, Kennedy began to question whether the quarantine was enough to achieve the desired result. He decided to make preparations for an air strike on the Soviet missile sites, along with a possible armed invasion of Cuba. The crisis escalated further when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by Soviet missile batteries. American officials urged Kennedy to retaliate by destroying the Soviet air defences in Cuba.
Under intense pressure to retaliate but deeply concerned about the consequences, Kennedy chose to make one last-ditch effort at negotiating a peaceful resolution to the crisis. At this point, Kennedy felt as if he had nothing to lose. He composed a letter to the Soviet leader. Although Kennedy was clearly signaling a willingness to consider removing the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey, he carefully avoided making a formal offer to do so. He felt that a direct missile exchange would damage Kennedy’s presidency, make America appear weak, offend Turkey and other NATO allies, and encourage the Soviets to make future secret missile installations.
The Kennedy administration kept the offer to remove missiles from Turkey top secret. In a meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin at the Soviet embassy, Robert Kennedy gave private assurances that these missiles would be removed at a later date. But he also insisted that this offer could not be part of the public agreement to end the crisis. Officially, the US government only promised to end the blockade and never invade Cuba. The attorney general also warned Dobrynin that refusing this deal would most likely result in war. Kennedy administration officials also felt grim and discouraged as they awaited Khrushchev’s response.
The world held its breath. Not since the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had nuclear warfare seemed so imminent. Poised on the edge of war, the two superpowers jockeyed over their military relationship. To everyone’s tremendous relief, however, Khrushchev immediately accepted Kennedy’s proposal. Without prior consultation with Cuba, the Soviet Union backed down, pulling out all its strategic forces in exchange for the pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba. The United States made that pledge conditional on UN verification of the Soviet withdrawal of strategic weapons, but a furious Fidel Castro refused to allow on-site inspection.
The agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a pledge by the United States not to invade the island stunned and humiliated the Cubans. The reality is that Castro and the Cubans were pawns during the missile crisis. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States consulted with them. Castro heard about the agreement to end the crisis on the radio. The Cubans were angry at the Soviets.
Many historians now consider the Cuban Missile Crisis to have been the peak of the Cold War. After coming so close to catastrophe, the United States and the Soviet Union took many steps to reduce tensions and limit the development of nuclear weapons in the years that followed. Yet the Cold War rivalry continued to influence the foreign policy of both nations over that period. The US economic sanctions against Cuba remained in place, however, as did the hostility between the neighbors.
Shortly after the last Soviet missiles left Cuba, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy began writing a book about the deliberations that took place inside the White House during the crisis. One of the most important factors that enabled them to avoid a war, Kennedy noted, was having enough time to consider and evaluate all the possible courses of action. Robert Kennedy also emphasized the importance of looking at American actions from the Soviets’ perspective. The peaceful resolution of the crisis—on terms highly favorable to the United States—increased president Kennedy’s reputation as a statesman.
Khrushchev received a great deal of criticism for his role in the crisis. Many people characterized his attempt to secretly place nuclear missiles in Cuba as a major tactical blunder. Khrushchev had seriously underestimated Kennedy’s determination to prevent the spread of communism in the western hemisphere. Khrushchev backed down from the confrontation that he had started. Since no one knew about the unofficial arrangement to remove American missiles from Turkey, Soviet hard-liners criticized the deal Khrushchev made to resolve the crisis. Khrushchev quietly stepped down and was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.
Before leaving the world stage, however, Khrushchev worked with Kennedy to take several more steps towards securing world peace. After coming so close to nuclear war, both leaders were determined to avoid antagonizing each other. As one sign of cooperation, American and Soviet officials agreed to establish a permanent ‘hot line’ direct communication link between Washington, D.C., and Moscow. Kennedy and Khrushchev took another historic step to regulate nuclear weapons by negotiating the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The treaty prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere or underwater.
The leaders who succeeded Kennedy and Khrushchev continued making progress in thawing the Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s was characterized by détente, or decreasing tensions, and it generated several new arms control initiatives. One of the major achievements of that era was the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968. Under the treaty, nuclear nations agreed not to transfer nuclear weapons or technology to other countries, while non-nuclear nations agreed not to develop or receive nuclear weapons or technology.
Following the détente period of the 1970s, Cold War tensions increased once again during the 1980s. Upon taking office, President Ronald Reagan adopted a more aggressive stance in US-Soviet relations. Reagan’s main strategy for winning the Cold War involved resuming the arms race. The most controversial element of Reagan’s escalation of the arms race was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars. As it was envisioned, the SDI would use a combination of ground and space-based systems to create a global shield to protect the United States and its allies from nuclear attack.
The expense of the renewed arms race did contribute to an economic downturn in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became general secretary of the Communist Party, implemented a series of major reforms in hopes of revitalizing the Soviet economy and modernizing communism. Once Gorbachev’s changes began to take effect, Reagan shifted his emphasis from confrontation to diplomacy. The two leaders reached a historic agreement that went beyond placing limits on weapons and actually started the process of disarmament.
Once Gorbachev introduced his social and economic reforms in the Soviet Union, citizens in other communist nations of Eastern Europe began demanding similar changes. Reagan seized upon the momentum and encouraged his counterpart to loosen his grip on the satellite nations that made up the Soviet bloc. The president believed that when citizens of these nations got a taste of freedom, they would rise up to overthrow the communist system and install democratic forms of government.
With communist governments toppling in quick succession, the main source of Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union disappeared. Yet the end of the Cold War did not solve all the problems Gorbachev faced within the Soviet Union. His economic reforms did not succeed and his social policies allowed the internal opposition to become strong. One of Gorbachev’s most vocal critics was Boris Yeltsin. On the 25th of December 1991, Gorbachev resigned from office and the Soviet Union officially dissolved into twelve independent republics. Yeltsin took over as president of the newly formed, independent Russian Federation.
Even five decades later, historians continue to analyze the Cuban Missile Crisis and use it as a benchmark to evaluate the performance of modern leaders in difficult situations. Looking back, however, it becomes clear that luck also played a role in helping the world avert a nuclear catastrophe. Although the nature of the nuclear threat has changed significantly since that time, the challenge of managing it still requires both skillful diplomacy and good luck.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US and Russian leaders negotiated a series of agreements that led to significant reductions in the size of their nuclear arsenals. In the post-Cold War era, however, the main threat of nuclear war shifted from the superpowers to ‘rogue nations’ that refused to sign, withdrew from, or simply ignored the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These nations are considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous. The governments of the rogue nations also tend to hold strong anti-American and anti-Western feelings, which has made their pursuit of nuclear weapons particularly alarming to US leaders.
As the nuclear threat shifted to new nations, the relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation reached ‘its lowest point since the post-Soviet period began in 1991’, according to former US ambassador Michael McFaul. Upon taking office, Putin abandoned most of the democratic reforms that had remained in place and established authoritarian rule. He also warned the United States that he would respond forcefully to any foreign interference in Russian affairs. The tension between the Cold War rivals increased further in 2014, when Putin responded to a pro-Western uprising in Ukraine by annexing Crimea.
In 1947—two years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II—a scientific journal called The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists came up with a powerful symbol to convey ‘how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.’ The Doomsday Clock is a clock face whose hands are set to represent the hypothetical time remaining before the end of the world. A group of eminent scientists meets twice each year to discuss global events that pose a threat to humankind and use this information to determine an appropriate setting for the clock. The closer they set the Doomsday Clock to midnight, the closer they believe the world is to catastrophe.