Cuban Missile Crisis
The world faces nuclear war over Soviet nuclear missiles placed in Cuba
author Paul Boșcu, October 2017
The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the pivotal events of the Cold War. The world was brought to the brink of war when the Soviets, in retaliation for US missiles in Turkey, placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The CIA found out about the Soviet activities in Cuba and president John F. Kennedy demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Soviet warheads. In the end, war was narrowly averted by an agreement between the US and Soviet governments.

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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.

Afterwards, Castro and the Americans continued to engage in a war of hostile diplomacy. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly, and the Castro regime moved towards adopting a one-party Communist system. The Soviet Union became Cuba’s main trading partner.

The Soviet Union had initially been cautious in its relationship with Cuba. Its experience with revolutionary regimes that had come to power without its support indicated that these governments often pursued independent policies and were, at best, difficult to control. It was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States that finally convinced the Soviet Union to take a chance in developing closer relations with Cuba. It appeared that the revolutionary government in Cuba now had a chance to succeed given that there was virtually no opposition left on the island.

The Cuban Missile Crisis officially began on the 16th of October 1962, when US president John F. Kennedy first learned of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Facing a direct threat to US national security, Kennedy convened a group of his closest advisors to determine the best course of action. A week later, on the 22nd of October, he informed the American people of his decision in a nationally televised speech. From that moment on, the world waited anxiously to see whether this harrowing confrontation between the Cold War rivals would end in a nuclear Armageddon.

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.

Although US leaders had always thought of Castro as a communist, the Cuban leader insisted that he never sought an alliance with the Soviet Union until he was forced to do so by American actions. ‘While the US press and the world news agencies were telling the world that Cuba was a red government, a red danger ninety miles away from the United States, that Cuba was a government controlled by the communists, the revolutionary government had not even had a chance to establish diplomatic or trade relations with the Soviet Union,’ he declared. ‘However, hysteria is capable of everything.’ Following the American attempts to destabilize the Cuban government, Castro formally declared himself a communist.

President Kennedy responded to Castro’s alignment with the Soviet Union by issuing Executive Order 3447, which placed a permanent embargo on all trade with Cuba. He also arranged for Cuba to be expelled from the Organization of American States. At this point, Khrushchev decided to expand Soviet military aid to Cuba to include nuclear weapons.

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.

Even though the Cubans had not requested them, the Soviets began installing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Cubans had urged them to announce to the world that they were placing missiles in Cuba but the Soviets decided to install them in secrecy.

As Cuban leader Fidel Castro became more closely aligned with the Soviet Union, many US officials feared that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would use the alliance to establish a military presence in the western hemisphere.

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.

‘I had the idea of installing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them,’ Khrushchev recalled. ‘The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at [them]; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.’

CIA director John McCone received an intelligence report about suspicious activity in Cuba. It appeared that a large shipment of Soviet military personnel and equipment had recently arrived on the island. A week later, an American U-2 spy plane captured photographic evidence that the Soviets had installed surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down high-altitude aircraft.

Kennedy sent one of his closest advisors, speechwriter Ted Sorensen, to the Soviet embassy to demand an explanation. Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin claimed that the military build-up was strictly for defensive purposes. He explained that Castro had requested Soviet military aid to help ensure his personal safety and protect Cuba from a US invasion. He also reassured American leaders that Khrushchev would not attempt to place offensive weapons in Cuba or take other steps that would ‘complicate the international situation or aggravate the tension in the relations between our two countries.’

Kennedy issued a stern warning to Khrushchev. ‘If at any time the communist build-up in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security,’ he wrote, ‘or if Cuba should ever … become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.’

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.

Khrushchev recalled that by the time the weather cleared, ‘We hadn’t had time to deliver all our shipments to Cuba, but we had installed enough missiles already to destroy New York, Chicago, and the other huge industrial cities, not to mention the little village of Washington.’

The images showed long, narrow tubes that were the same size and shape as Soviet medium-range tactical missiles that were paraded proudly through the streets of Moscow. Although the CIA experts did not find evidence that any nuclear warheads had arrived in Cuba, they could not rule out the possibility. They also estimated that the missile installations could be operational within two weeks.

National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy delivered the troubling news to President Kennedy. Kennedy immediately called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known as ExComm, to discuss how to handle the situation. This group initially consisted of sixteen of Kennedy’s top advisors, cabinet members, and trusted government officials from the State and Defense departments. Their areas of expertise ranged from Soviet relations and diplomacy to national defense and military preparedness. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff also sat in on some meetings.

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.

During their discussion of Cuba, Gromyko claimed that all the military aid Khrushchev provided to Castro was ‘solely for the purpose of contributing to defense capabilities of Cuba.… If it were otherwise, the Soviet government would never become involved in rendering such assistance.’

Kennedy repeated his warning that any Soviet attempt to place offensive weapons in Cuba would result in serious consequences. Although Gromyko said he understood Kennedy’s message, he later described the meeting as ‘wholly satisfactory’ in a report to Moscow.

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.

The Cubans fully expected a US invasion and air attack. They expected to lose the initial battles and retreat to the mountains to wage a prolonged guerrilla war against the United States. They were ready to fight to the death and thought that the Soviet soldiers would fight and die with them.

As US intelligence sources gathered information, President Kennedy was persuaded that the Soviet Union and Cuba sought a major change in the politico-military balance with the United States. Kennedy demanded the withdrawal of Soviet ‘offensive missiles’ from Cuba and imposed a naval ‘quarantine’ on the island to prevent the additional shipment of Soviet weaponry. Kennedy also demanded the withdrawal of Soviet L-28 bombers and a commitment not to station Soviet strategic weapons in Cuba in the future.

Kennedy ultimately approved the US naval blockade of Cuba. To help gain international support for the plan, he decided that the blockade would only target shipments of offensive weapons; it would not prevent food or other necessities from reaching Cuban citizens. To avoid questions of international law about whether the blockade was an act of war, the president and his advisors decided to call it a ‘quarantine’ and emphasize that the measure was intended to be temporary. Then Kennedy ordered military troops and weapons to be moved to Florida and to the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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.

The Kennedy administration learned that the New York Times and other media outlets were close to breaking the story about the crisis in Cuba. To prevent the news from leaking before he made an official announcement, Kennedy personally called the editors of several newspapers and asked them to wait twenty-four hours. They agreed to his request in the interest of national security.

As the president prepared to address the nation, administration officials rushed to inform America’s allies around the world. They contacted the United Nations Security Council, the Organization of American States, world leaders, foreign embassies, and US ambassadors overseas. They also requested that all members of the US Congress return to Washington, D.C.

The president concluded with a direct appeal to his Soviet counterpart. ‘I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations. I call upon him further to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.’

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.

Some people reacted to the president’s message by leaving major cities that seemed likely to become nuclear targets and hiding out in rural, out-of-the-way areas. ‘My most vivid memory is of the “circles”—circles drawn on maps to depict how far north missiles of different sizes could travel from communist Cuba,’ recalled a man who was studying at Harvard University in Boston at that time. Others dug bomb shelters in their yards or stockpiled food and survival gear. Many people simply went about their normal routines while waiting anxiously to see what would happen.

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.

‘The action we are taking is the minimum necessary to remove the threat to the security of the nations of this hemisphere,’ Kennedy wrote. ‘I hope that your Government will refrain from any action which would widen or deepen this already grave crisis.’

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.

A ring of American ships surrounded the island of Cuba, eight hundred miles from shore. These ships were prepared to intercept all vessels approaching Cuba and search them for Soviet offensive weapons. If any ships attempted to cross the quarantine line without stopping, the US Navy had orders to disable or destroy them.

Ambassador Dobrynin informed Robert Kennedy that Soviet ships had been instructed to ignore ‘unlawful demands to stop or be searched on the open sea.’ The president’s brother sternly replied, ‘I don’t know how this will end, but we intend to stop your ships.’

Khrushchev also sent a letter of response to Kennedy’s speech in which he warned the president that he had no intention of respecting the quarantine. ‘The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind towards the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war,’ he wrote in a private letter to Kennedy. ‘Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.’

Unbeknownst to Kennedy, Soviet freighters had already delivered nuclear warheads to Cuba. One of these ships, the Aleksandrovsk, had landed only a few hours before the US blockade was put in place. The largest weapons in Cuba were one-megaton nuclear bombs, which packed the destructive power of one million tons of dynamite and were capable of leveling an area of eighty square miles. The Soviets had also placed forty thousand military troops on the island to repel a possible US attack.

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.

When the members of ExComm learned that the Soviets had chosen not to challenge the blockade, Secretary of State Dean Rusk uttered one of the most famous lines of the Cold War: ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’

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.

The forty member states of the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution calling upon Kennedy and Khrushchev to avoid war at all costs. UN Secretary general U Thant proposed that both sides stand down militarily— with the United States removing the blockade and the Soviet Union ending its arms shipments to Cuba—and work towards finding a diplomatic solution. Kennedy refused to consider lifting the quarantine, however, because he felt it would only give the Soviets more time to complete the Cuban missile installations.

Stevenson was widely known for his calm, intellectual approach to political issues. When he attended ExComm meetings, for instance, Stevenson had emerged as one of the main supporters of negotiating a deal with Khrushchev and Castro—a position that most other members of the group considered weak. ‘I know that most of those fellows will consider me a coward for the rest of my life for what I said today,’ he acknowledged, ‘but perhaps we need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war.’ Stevenson’s forceful performance before the UN Security Council thus came as a surprise to critics who believed he was not tough enough to stand up to the Soviets.

With the world watching the proceedings on television, Stevenson opened the discussion by demanding that his Soviet counterpart admit the existence of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. ‘Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?’ Stevenson thundered. ‘Yes or no—don’t wait for the translation— yes or no.’ Zorin attempted to evade the question. ‘I am not standing in the dock of an American court,’ he replied, ‘and I will not answer at this stage.’

Stevenson kept pushing the Soviet representative. ‘You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no,’ he declared. ‘You have denied that they exist, and I want to know if I have understood you correctly.’ Once again, Zorin refused to answer. ‘You will receive your answer in due course,’ he said. ‘Do not worry.’ But Stevenson was ready to expose the Soviet deception. ‘I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision,’ he stated. ‘And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.’

Stevenson then unveiled a series of detailed, before and after U-2 spy plane photographs of Cuba that proved the existence of Soviet missile installations. ‘We know the facts, and so do you, sir, and we are ready to talk about them,’ Stevenson concluded. ‘Our job here is not to score debating points. Our job, Mr. Zorin, is to save the peace. And if you are ready to try, we are.’

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.

Khrushchev had genuinely believed that if he managed to install the missiles secretly, then Kennedy would have no choice but to accept their presence. ‘We were not going to unleash war,’ he explained. ‘We just wanted to intimidate them, to deter the anti-Cuban forces.’

The Soviet leader sent a long, rambling, emotional letter to Kennedy in which he informally made this offer. ‘War is our enemy and a calamity for all of the peoples.… I have participated in two wars and I know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction,’ he wrote. ‘If assurances were given by the President and the government of the United States that the USA itself would not participate in an attack on Cuba and would restrain others from actions of this sort, if you would recall your fleet, this would immediately change everything.’

When Kennedy received Kruschev’s message, he felt relieved and optimistic that the two sides might be able to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis. He began discussing the details of his response with the members of ExComm.

Around that same time, an ABC News correspondent named John Scali met with a Soviet embassy official named Alexander Fomin at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C. The two men occasionally had lunch together to discuss US-Soviet relations. As it turned out, Fomin’s real name was Alexander Feklisov, and he was actually a Soviet spy working for the KGB security agency. Historians are not sure whether Feklisov was acting on his own or on Khrushchev’s behalf, but he suggested a very similar plan to end the crisis.

Feklisov asked Scali whether his contacts in the State Department would promise never to invade Cuba in return for the Soviets dismantling the Cuban missile installations under UN supervision. ‘I said I didn’t know but that perhaps this is something that could be talked about,’ Scali wrote in a memo to a friend in the Kennedy administration. ‘He said if Stevenson pursued this line, Zorin would be interested. Asked that I check with State and let him know. He gave me his home telephone number so I could call him tonight, if necessary.’

Influential New York Herald Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann published his own list of suggestions for negotiating an end to the missile crisis. Lippmann argued that Kennedy should offer to remove the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev agreeing to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba. He explained that Turkey was comparable to Cuba because ‘this is the only place where there are strategic weapons right on the frontier of the Soviet Union.’ He also claimed that the exchange could be made without disrupting the equilibrium between the superpowers. ‘The Soviet military base in Cuba is defenseless, and the base in Turkey is all but obsolete,’ Lippmann opined. ‘The two bases could be dismantled without altering the world balance of power.’

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.

‘I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba—a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law—then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense,’ Castro wrote. ‘However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.’

The tension escalated further when the CIA informed Kennedy that some of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba appeared to be operational. The Soviets had managed to transport nuclear warheads to Cuba before the US quarantine took effect, and the Soviet troops on the island had continued working to complete the installations after the blockade was put in place. As Castro’s behavior became increasingly erratic, Kennedy found the thought of armed nuclear missiles in his hands deeply troubling.

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.

‘You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But Turkey adjoins us; our sentries patrol back and forth and see each other,’ Khrushchev noted. ‘Do you consider, then, that you have the right to demand security for your own country and the removal of the weapons you call offensive, but do not accord the same right to us?’

As the members of ExComm puzzled over the abrupt change in the Soviet leader’s position, they wondered if Khrushchev was reacting to pressure from more radical members of his government. Substantiating these concerns, ExComm received reports that officials at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., were destroying sensitive documents in case the two countries went to war.

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.

As the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy faced pointed questions about the role of religion in politics. Critics worried that he would ‘take orders from the Pope’ rather than represent the views of non-Catholic Americans. In response, Kennedy gave a famous speech promising to honor the separation of church and state. ‘I do not speak for my church on public matters,’ he declared, ‘and the church does not speak for me.’

Kennedy’s Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, was an atheist who had a strained relationship with the Vatican. As the USSR had spread communism throughout Eastern Europe following World War II, religion was repressed and many Catholic leaders were sent to prison.

In his radio broadcast Pope John XXIII said: ‘We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace. They will thus spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict. That they continue discussions, as this loyal and open behavior has great value as a witness of everyone’s conscience and before history. Promoting, favoring, accepting conversations, at all levels and in any time, is a rule of wisdom and prudence which attracts the blessings of heaven and earth.’ Some historians claim that it influenced Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba a few days later. ‘I’ve heard that [the message] got to Khrushchev,’ said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington. ‘The Pope is looking for peace, and why don’t you be the man of peace? And he said, “OK, I’ll be the man of peace.”’

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.

When the United States announced its naval quarantine of Cuba, the Soviets sent four submarines into the Caribbean to protect their freighters. The US blockade fleet discovered the submarines on radar and began dropping harmless practice depth charges in order to force them to surface and identify themselves. But the American ships were not aware that each of the Soviet subs was equipped with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo that they were authorized to use if they came under attack. As the depth charges exploded around his vessel, Soviet submarine captain V. G. Savitskiy armed his torpedo and came within seconds of launching it. If he had done so, there is little doubt that it would have resulted in a devastating nuclear war.

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.

Kennedy remained very apprehensive about the possible repercussions of an invasion. ‘We are going to have to face the fact that if we do invade, by the time we get to these sites, after a very bloody fight, [the missiles] will be pointed at us,’ the president told his brother. ‘And we must further accept the possibility that when military hostilities first begin, those missiles will be fired.’ This possibility was far more likely than Kennedy suspected. The Soviets were then in the process of transferring nuclear weapons to a site only fifteen miles from the US military base at Guantanamo Bay.

Castro had visited the Soviet generals on the island and persuaded them to switch on their air defense radar systems. Although the US Strategic Air Command knew that the Soviet anti-aircraft unit in Cuba had begun tracking flights over the island, they decided to proceed with a U-2 surveillance mission by Major Rudolf Anderson Jr.

Although the president was distressed by the escalation of the crisis, he was less certain that the order to fire upon an American plane had come from Khrushchev. He thought that the SAM could have been fired without authorization or by accident. Still, Kennedy recognized that Anderson’s death made the situation he faced even more precarious. ‘How can we send any more U-2 pilots into this area tomorrow unless we take out all of the SAM sites?’ he asked his brother. ‘We are in an entirely new ball game.’

When Major Rudolf Anderson’s spy plane flew over eastern Cuba, it appeared on the Soviet air defense radar. Realizing that the U-2 photographs would reveal the new missile sites near Guantanamo, the Soviet anti-aircraft unit immediately began seeking authorization to shoot down the plane. After trying without success to reach Issa Pliyev, the commander of the Soviet forces in Cuba, they decided on their own to fire a surface-to-air missile (SAM). It struck the plane, causing it to crash and Anderson to be killed. Anderson was the only US serviceman to die in combat during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Upon learning of this incident, the members of ExComm assumed that Khrushchev had issued the order to shoot down Anderson’s plane. They viewed it as an intentional provocation by the Soviet leader, and they insisted that Kennedy allow US forces to retaliate. The US military Joint Chiefs of Staff demanded immediate authorization to destroy the Soviet air defense system in Cuba. After all, they argued, the Soviets had just fired the first shot.

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.

Kennedy offered to make ‘an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem along the lines suggested in your letter of October 26th’. Kennedy also hinted that the United States would be willing to consider making future concessions if the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba promptly. ‘The effect of such a settlement on easing world tensions would enable us to work towards a more general arrangement regarding “other armaments,” as proposed in your second letter, which you made public,’ he wrote.

Speechwriter Ted Sorensen recalled that the president was willing to remove the missiles from Turkey ‘because they were outmoded, anachronistic, and could be replaced by Polaris submarines in the Mediterranean.’ But the members of ExComm also felt strongly that ‘we could not take them out at the point of a gun, we could not take them out under threat, we could not take them out unilaterally, because they were NATO bases.’

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.

‘Because of the plane that was shot down, there is now strong pressure on the president to give an order to respond with fire if fired upon,’ Kennedy declared. ‘If we start to fire in response - a chain reaction will quickly start that will be very hard to stop.’ Dobrynin left the meeting filled with dread. ‘Kennedy was very upset; in any case, I’ve never seen him like this before,’ the Soviet ambassador reported to Khrushchev. ‘[He] persistently returned to one topic: time is of the essence and we shouldn’t miss this chance.’

‘The great tragedy was that, if we erred, we erred not only for ourselves, our futures, our hopes, and our country,’ Robert Kennedy noted, ‘but for the lives, futures, hopes, and countries of those who had never been given an opportunity to play a role, to vote aye or nay, to make themselves felt.’

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.

Although a formal US pledge to desist from invading Cuba would not be made, an ‘understanding’ came to govern US-Soviet relations over Cuba. The Soviet Union was not to deploy strategic weapons in Cuba nor to use it as a base of operations for nuclear weapons. The United States, in turn, would not seek to overthrow Castro’s government. Thus the Cuban missile crisis was a major victory for the US government, since it publicly humiliated the Soviet government over the central question of the day, and yet it also sealed the end of US influence in Cuba.

The members of ExComm were thrilled to hear the news. ‘It was a very beautiful morning, and it had suddenly become many times more beautiful,’ recalled National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. ‘We all felt that the world had changed for the better.’

From the time the US Navy established its quarantine of Cuba, the world waited anxiously to find out whether the tense confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would erupt into war. The two sides exchanged a flurry of messages over the next few days—through both formal and informal channels—and experienced several dangerously close calls as a result of misunderstandings, misinformation and mistakes. In the end, though, neither US president John F. Kennedy nor Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted to be the one to start a nuclear war, so they worked together to negotiate a deal to end the crisis peacefully.

‘I have received your message of October 27,’ the Soviet leader wrote on the 28th. ‘The Soviet Government… has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.’ Khrushchev relayed the order to his troops in Cuba, and they began taking apart the missile installations that day. The Kennedy administration prepared to recall the US fleet from the Caribbean and quietly made plans to remove the American missiles from Turkey by the 1st of April, 1963.

President Kennedy was relieved and grateful to have achieved a peaceful resolution to the crisis. ‘I feel like a new man,’ he told his brother. ‘Thank God it’s all over.’ Later, the president informed Congressional leaders that the United States had ‘won a great victory’ and ‘resolved one of the great crises of mankind.’ Across the country and around the world, people were ecstatic to learn that the world was no longer facing an imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon.

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.

The Cubans felt betrayed by the Soviets but there was nothing they could do to stop the removal of the missiles. Relations between the Soviets and Cuba would be strained until August 1968 with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Since the Soviets did not consult with him before making the final agreement, Castro felt angry. ‘Cuba does not want to be a pawn on the world’s chessboard,’ he declared. ‘I cannot agree with Khrushchev promising Kennedy to pull out his rockets without the slightest regard to the indispensable approval of the Cuban government.’

In response, Castro set forth several demands that had to be met before he considered the crisis to be over. He called for an end to the US economic embargo of the island, an end to all subversive activities of the United States, an end to US support of Cuban exiles attempting to overthrow its government, respect for Cuban territory and airspace and the return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. These demands were ignored by the United States.

Khrushchev tried to explain his reasoning in a letter to Castro. ‘Had we… allowed ourselves to become carried away by certain passionate sectors of the population and refused to come to a reasonable agreement with the US government, then a war could have broken out,’ he stated. ‘Millions of people would have died and the survivors would have pinned the blame on the leaders for not having taken all the necessary measures to prevent the war of annihilation.’

Although Castro was upset about losing the Soviet weapons, he still recognized the importance of maintaining a strong alliance with Khrushchev. Six months after the crisis ended, the Cuban leader made an official visit to the Soviet Union to strengthen trade relations between the two countries. Cuba remained economically dependent on its communist ally for decades, and by the late 1980s its commitment to Castro was costing the Soviet government $6 billion per year.

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.

When President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reached a deal to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union stepped back from the brink of nuclear war after thirteen harrowing days. Yet tensions remained high for several more weeks while the two superpowers figured out how to implement the agreement and ensure that the other side was complying with its terms.

‘Cuba is still heavily armed on the fourteenth day; most of it is under Soviet control,’ said historian David G. Coleman. ‘This is not a crisis that simply evaporated... There was still a very serious situation on the ground, and the [Kennedy] administration was uncertain how to deal with it.’

Since the Soviets had initially lied about placing offensive weapons in Cuba, Kennedy wanted proof that the missiles were being removed. But Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who was still angry about not being consulted, refused to allow United Nations (UN) inspectors to enter the country. His stance forced the United States to rely on aerial surveillance for verification, which made administration officials nervous that another American reconnaissance plane might be shot down.

‘Anti-aircraft batteries were still firing on low-level US surveillance planes,’ Coleman noted. ‘The thought was, in the White House and elsewhere, that the Soviets could probably be trusted not to shoot down another plane, but [with] the Cubans, all bets were off.’ Khrushchev initially argued that the deal only applied to nuclear rather than conventional weapons. He eventually agreed to withdraw the bombers from Cuba, though, because he increasingly came to view Castro as unstable and potentially capable of starting a war with the United States. Once the Soviets made this final concession, Kennedy lifted the US naval blockade of Cuba.

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.

During the week between the US discovery of the missiles and the president’s address to the nation, ExComm secretly spent countless hours discussing various options and seeking input from people in different branches of government to ensure that the president could make informed decisions. Over the course of these meetings, the consensus gradually shifted from an invasion of Cuba to a naval blockade. ‘If our deliberations had been publicized, if we had had to make a decision in twenty-four hours,’ the president’s brother wrote, ‘I believe the course that we ultimately would have taken would have been quite different and filled with far greater risks.’

‘What guided all [President Kennedy’s] deliberations was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev, not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their national security or national interests so committed them,’ Robert Kennedy recalled. ‘No action is taken against a powerful adversary in a vacuum. A government or people will fail to understand this only at their great peril. For that is how wars begin—wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.’

Although some historians have questioned the objectivity of Kennedy’s account, claiming that he portrayed his brother in the most heroic light possible, the Cuban Missile Crisis was undoubtedly a triumph for President Kennedy. When the crisis ended, many Americans viewed him as a strong leader who had stood up to Khrushchev and Castro and defended democracy against the threat of communism.

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.

‘The withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba loomed much larger than the American non-invasion pledge,’ according to historian Jeremi Suri. ‘Instead of bolstering the international prestige of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev discredited Moscow’s commitment to its allies.’

Although Khrushchev’s actions were widely viewed as weak at the time, later scholars have reassessed his contributions to world peace. Many historians have praised the Soviet leader for agreeing to remove the missiles despite the negative impact of this decision on his personal pride, his political career, or his nation’s Cold War standing. They give him a great deal of credit for doing whatever was necessary to avoid a nuclear war. The redemption of Khrushchev’s reputation as a statesman came too late to prevent him from losing his position as leader of the Soviet Union, though.

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.

Kennedy reflected on the positive developments in US-Soviet relations—as well as the challenges still remaining—in an address to the United Nations General Assembly: ‘Today we may have reached a pause in the Cold War—but that is not a lasting peace. A test ban treaty is a milestone—but it is not the millennium. We have not been released from our obligations—we have been given an opportunity. And if we fail to make the most of this moment and this momentum—if we convert our newfound hopes and understandings into new walls and weapons of hostility—if this pause in the Cold War merely leads to its renewal and not to its end—then the indictment of posterity will rightly point its finger at us all. But if we can stretch this pause into a period of cooperation—if both sides can now gain new confidence and experience in concrete collaborations for peace—if we can now be as bold and farsighted in the control of deadly weapons as we have been in their creation—then surely this first small step can be the start of a long and fruitful journey.’

In the modern world, people tend to take instantaneous communication for granted. When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, however, the first communications satellite had been launched into orbit only a few months earlier, international telephone service was unreliable, and the Internet did not yet exist. As a result, the important diplomatic messages that President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev exchanged during the nuclear standoff encountered many dangerous delays.

After the crisis ended, both sides decided that faster communications were needed to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war. Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an agreement to establish a ‘hot line’ teletype link between Moscow and Washington. The hot line bridged the ten thousand miles between the two capitals using both radio circuits and landline cables, with relay points in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. When it became operational, this permanent, direct communication channel made it possible for the two countries to exchange emergency messages within minutes.

Other than test messages, the first use of the hot line came in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. The Soviets used the line during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in 1967. The US Sixth Fleet and the Soviet Black Sea Fleet both operated in the Mediterranean Sea during this conflict, so the superpowers kept each other informed of their movements in order to prevent misunderstandings.

The line was used in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani war, in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war, in 1974 during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and several times during the Reagan administration with the Soviets asking about the 1983 Lebanon war and the Americans asking about the martial law in Poland. More recently in October 2016 the line was used by the Obama administration to reinforce the fact that president Obama would consider any Russian interference in Election Day a grave matter.

Over the years, the hot line played a dramatic role in many feature films based on US-Soviet Cold War relations, such as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. It was usually imagined as a red phone, although the devices were not red and did not use telephone lines. In 1986 the hot line technology was updated from teletype to fax machines, and in 2008 it became a secure computer link for leaders of the two nations to exchange e-mails over the Internet.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko on the 5th of August 1963, almost exactly eighteen years after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Atmospheric testing, in particular, concerned many scientists because the explosions created dangerous radioactive fallout that could contaminate the environment. Although the treaty allowed underground testing, it placed new restrictions on the practice to limit fallout. It also committed signatories to work towards complete disarmament and an end to the nuclear arms race.

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.

Great Britain, France, and China had developed nuclear weapons technology, bringing the number of nuclear powers in the world to five. The basics of atomic science were widely understood, however, and key ingredients like plutonium were becoming easier and cheaper to obtain and process. As a result, many other nations seemed poised to achieve nuclear capability. If countries with volatile histories and longstanding border disputes became capable of attacking each other with nuclear weapons, then the risk of a global nuclear war would increase substantially.

The treaty also established safeguards to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and encouraged signatories to cooperate in the development of peaceful nuclear technology. Although the treaty was considered an important step towards world peace, its impact was limited by the fact that France and China refused to sign it, as did a number of non-nuclear states. At least three of these states (India, Pakistan and North Korea) later developed nuclear weapons.

The 1970s also yielded major treaties aimed at slowing down the arms race between the superpowers. The Cold War competition to build huge stockpiles of ever more powerful weapons was extremely expensive, and it took a toll on both the US and Soviet economies. These considerations encouraged President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to convene a summit meeting in Moscow in May 1972 to discuss ways to end the competition, control military spending, and improve relations.

The Moscow Summit resulted in two major arms control measures. Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), which froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at current levels. They also signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which restricted each country to a total of two hundred ABMs divided among two sites. ABMs were defensive weapons used to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles and thus reduce the damage from a nuclear exchange. They contributed to the arms race by forcing the Cold War rivals to stockpile enough nuclear warheads to overcome the other country’s defensive capabilities.

President Gerald R. Ford continued Nixon’s policy of détente. At a summit in Vladivostok, Russia, he and Brezhnev agreed on the basic framework for a second SALT. Although SALT II was never officially ratified, both nations voluntarily adhered to the new limits it placed on strategic weapons for many years.

Ford and Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Accords in August 1975. This major diplomatic agreement was intended to promote security in Europe and reduce tensions between US allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Soviet bloc countries in the Warsaw Pact. The thirty-five signatory countries agreed to recognize the national boundaries that were established after World War II, and work cooperatively in the areas of economics, science, technology, and the environment.

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 Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 in an effort to defend that nation’s communist government against mujahideen rebels. The US government opposed the invasion and—along with Saudi Arabia and several other countries—provided funding and weapons to assist the rebel forces. US president Jimmy Carter also threatened to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow unless the Soviets withdrew their forces from Afghanistan. Critics argued that a boycott was an ineffective form of political protest and only harmed the athletes who were scheduled to compete. Nevertheless, Carter followed through with the threat.

Reagan approved massive increases in military spending in order to build up American armed forces. Even though this strategy had the potential to provoke a confrontation with the Soviets, Reagan felt that it would pay off in the long run. He believed the pressure to keep up with advances in US weapons technology would take a toll on the Soviet economy and force Soviet leaders to seek substantial arms control agreements.

Reagan raised the stakes of the Cold War by describing the decades-long struggle of capitalism versus communism as a battle between good and evil. He promised that America’s freedom, democracy, and moral values would triumph over the Soviets’ ‘evil empire’ and relegate communism to the ‘ash heap of history’. In an attempt to hasten the demise of communism, the Reagan administration provided financial and military support to anti-communist resistance movements—including some that were accused of terrible human rights violations—in their efforts to topple Soviet-backed governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Although many scientists claimed that the SDI was not feasible, the proposed technology had the potential to fundamentally change the balance of power between the Cold War rivals. If successfully completed, the defensive system would neutralize Soviet offensive missiles and disrupt the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

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.

Gorbachev’s perestroika (‘restructuring’) economic program reduced central government control over businesses and improved conditions for workers. Meanwhile, his glasnost (‘openness’) social policies loosened government censorship of the media and gave Soviet citizens the right to express their opinions freely. Gorbachev also released many political prisoners, eliminated some travel restrictions, and announced initiatives to increase the use of computers and technology.

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty required both parties to eliminate all of their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals and eliminate an entire category of weapon.

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.

In a famous speech delivered on the 12th of June 1987, Reagan insisted that communism was doomed to failure and urged Gorbachev to speed up the pace of reforms: ‘In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor… In Europe, only one nation and those it controls refuse to join the community of freedom. Yet in this age of redoubled economic growth, of information and innovation, the Soviet Union faces a choice: It must make fundamental changes, or it will become obsolete. Today thus represents a moment of hope. We in the West stand ready to cooperate with the East to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a safer, freer world.’ Reagan gave this speech at the Berlin Wall, which served as a potent symbol of communist repression and the Cold War division of Europe. He concluded by issuing a direct challenge to Gorbachev: ‘If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization… Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

The Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan after nine years of war. Gorbachev then informed leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries that he was abandoning the Brezhnev Doctrine and would no longer use military force to protect communist regimes. When a series of worker strikes and protests broke out in Poland, that nation’s communist government responded by inviting leaders of the Solidarity labor movement to a meeting. The historic Round Table Talks resulted in a peaceful transition to democracy. Poland quickly recognized Solidarity as a political party, held free elections, and installed the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe.

The winds of change swept across the Soviet bloc over the next few months, as communist regimes were replaced by democratically elected governments in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. These events encouraged many citizens of East Germany, where the communist government of Erich Honecker had resisted making meaningful reforms, to escape across the border to other countries. Under pressure from Gorbachev, and with hundreds of thousands of protesters marching in East German cities, Honecker resigned.

On the 9th of November 1989, the East German government shocked the world by announcing that the nation’s borders were now open. Not daring to believe it was true, citizens on both sides of the Berlin Wall approached the barrier cautiously. To their amazement, they found that the fearsome East German border guards were allowing people to cross freely. Before long, thousands of people gathered along the length of the wall to celebrate. Some of them brought hammers and chisels to begin the process of dismantling the wall, which had symbolized the Cold War for nearly half a century.

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.

On the 2nd of December 1989, when Gorbachev met with President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit, the two leaders officially declared their rivalry to be over. According to one of Gorbachev’s aides, they ‘buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean’. In 1990 Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reconcile the differences between the superpowers.

Many Soviet citizens struggled with unemployment and food shortages. In addition, Gorbachev’s social reforms had enabled opposing political parties to form, which created turmoil in the Soviet government and diminished his control. While Yeltsin and his supporters demanded faster political and economic reform, conservative communists tried to stop or even reverse the changes.

The demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe encouraged the smaller republics that made up the Soviet Union to demand their independence. Some of the democratic uprisings turned violent, and in January 1991 Gorbachev responded by sending Soviet tanks into the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Determined to prevent the Soviet Union from breaking apart, hard-line communists planned a coup in August 1991 to remove Gorbachev from power. Although this effort was unsuccessful, it showed the weakness of his position and pushed Yeltsin to the forefront of Soviet politics.

Russia and the former Soviet republics agreed to form a loose association called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to promote cooperation in the areas of trade, finance, and security. Unfortunately, the transition to independence and democracy did not proceed smoothly for all of the communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, border disputes, ethnic conflicts and civil wars have affected many of these nations, including Albania, Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia.

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.

Nuclear proliferation expert Kingston Reif wrote in 2012: ‘the implications of this near miss with disaster still resonate. As long as nuclear weapons exist—and right now approximately 22,000 of them can be found in nine countries—the risk of cataclysm remains. We lucked out in 1962. We may not be so lucky next time.’

The relationships between the main players in the Cuban Missile Crisis have also evolved over the years—sometimes in unexpected ways. Two decades after the Cold War ended, the cooperative relationship that had been forged between the United States and the Russian Federation grew more confrontational and distinctly colder. At the same time, however, US-Cuba relations suddenly thawed, and the two countries announced a historic agreement to restore the diplomatic ties that had been severed in the 1960s.

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.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991 resulted in the removal of around 80 percent of the strategic nuclear weapons then in existence over the following ten years. In 1996 the former rivals were among 183 nations that signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all civilian or military nuclear explosions. The treaty did not take effect, however, because the United States and several other nations failed to ratify it.

US and Russian leaders signed the New START agreement on the 8th of April 2010. This treaty required further reductions in the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles, with the goal of totally eliminating these weapons of mass destruction at some point in the future.

As of January 2014, the US stockpile included 4,650 nuclear weapons— about half of which were operational, with the remainder kept on reserve. This total marked a decrease of 85 percent from the peak level of 31,250 possessed in 1967. Still, the continued existence of these weapons—along with Russia’s similarly sized arsenal—makes another nuclear confrontation between the two nations possible.

US president Barack Obama had to decide whether to allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, launch a military attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, or try to negotiate a settlement. The president attempted to resolve the problem through diplomacy. In 2014 the United States agreed to ease economic sanctions and allow Iran to proceed with limited uranium enrichment for peaceful nuclear energy purposes. In exchange, Iran agreed to submit to a strict IAEA inspection regimen to prove it was not developing nuclear weapons.

The Middle Eastern nation of Iran has long been suspected of attempting to build nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT. After conducting an investigation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in 2011 that it had ‘serious concerns’ that Iran was enriching uranium in order to produce bomb-grade fissile material. Although Iran claimed that its activities were part of a peaceful nuclear energy program, it did not cooperate with IAEA inspectors sent to verify this claim. The United Nations Security Council and a number of individual nations responded by placing economic and arms-related sanctions on Iran.

Syria is another Middle Eastern nation that has allegedly conducted research on nuclear weapons. In 2007 Israel launched an air strike to destroy what it believed was a Syrian nuclear weapons facility under construction. Later IAEA investigations uncovered traces of man-made uranium particles at the site. Compounding concerns about nuclear weapons development in Syria is the fact that the nation has been rocked by civil war and has served as a base for radical Islamist terrorist organizations like ISIS. If Syria were to succeed in building or acquiring nuclear weapons, they could easily fall into the wrong hands.

Perhaps the most serious concerns about nuclear proliferation involve North Korea. Unlike other rogue states, this communist dictatorship in East Asia has not hidden its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. North Korean leaders have argued that the country needs these weapons as a deterrent against an attack by South Korea and its biggest ally, the United States. After formally withdrawing from the NPT in 2003, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors from the country and actively began enriching uranium. Over the next decade, it extracted enough plutonium to produce up to ten nuclear warheads, and it conducted both underground nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

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.

When reformer Boris Yeltsin stepped down as president of Russia in 1999, he was succeeded by Vladimir Putin, who had served for many years as an officer in the Soviet KGB security force. Although Putin disavowed communism calling it a ‘blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilization,’ he also reversed some of the democratic changes that had been made by his predecessors. For example, Putin reestablished a strong central government in Moscow, crippled opposing political parties, and exerted censorship control over the news media.

Domestic criticism of Putin’s actions was muted because the Russian economy experienced a dramatic recovery in the early 2000s. The Russian people enjoyed a level of comfort and prosperity that was almost unprecedented. They were able to purchase homes and new cars, take vacations in foreign countries, and acquire the latest electronic devices. Putin also allowed Russian citizens to maintain much of the personal freedom they had gained under Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped preserve his popular support.

‘A raw and resentful anti-Americanism, unknown since the seventies, suffused Kremlin policy and the state-run airwaves,’ David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker. ‘Putin’s speeches were full of hostility, lashing out at the West for betraying its promises, for treating Russia like a defeated “vassal” rather than a great country, for an inability to distinguish between right and wrong… An ideology, a worldview, was taking shape: Putin was now putting Russia at the center of an anti-Western, socially conservative axis—Russia as a bulwark against a menacing America.’

While the Russian military was occupying Crimea, its citizens voted on a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Although international observers questioned the legitimacy of the vote, Putin signed a bill on the 18th of March 2014 annexing Crimea. The UN General Assembly condemned this action, and the United States and other members voted to expel Russia from the group of leading industrialized nations known as the G8.

Although the Obama administration’s response to the Ukrainian crisis focused on diplomatic negotiations and economic sanctions, some analysts worried that the heightened tensions might lead to a resumption of the arms race or even a military confrontation between the United States and Russia. ‘This danger does exist and we can’t ignore it,’ claimed former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who warned that the two sides were close to entering ‘another Cold War’.

Gorbachev went even further, noting that ‘people are talking again not only about a new Cold War but a hot one. It’s as if a time of great troubles has arrived.’ But the former Soviet leader continued to believe that diplomacy could work. ‘We have to return to dialogue,’ he stated. ‘We have to return to what we started with at the end of the Cold War.’

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.

The hands of the Doomsday Clock have changed position twenty times since the symbol was first introduced. Many of these changes have coincided with major events in the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Initially set to 7 minutes before midnight (11:53 p.m.) in 1947, the clock wound down to 2 minutes remaining (its closest point ever) in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested nuclear devices within nine months of each other.

The atomic scientists turned the hands back several times in the 1960s and 1970s to reflect the signing of arms control agreements during the détente period. As a result, the time reached 12 minutes before midnight in 1972. Although the clock wound back down to 11:57 p.m. in 1984 with the escalation of the arms race, it reached an all-time high of 17 minutes before midnight in 1991 with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the signing of new arms control treaties.

Since 2007, the hands of the Doomsday Clock have reflected other potentially harmful political and technological developments besides the risk of nuclear war, such as global climate change and cyber attacks. In 2015 and 2016, the clock was on 11:57 p.m. Interestingly, the time on the Doomsday Clock did not change to reflect the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which is widely considered to be the closest the world ever came to nuclear annihilation. Since the atomic scientists only meet twice a year, the clock cannot be set in real time as events occur. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened so quickly that it was resolved before the clock struck midnight.