In what many experts consider the closest the world has yet come to nuclear war, for 13 days in October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. In the end, the Soviet Union backed down, agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the removal of U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, and the crisis passed. The Cuban missile crisis left an enduring mark on U.S.Soviet relations, heightened U.S. resolve in other cold war conflicts, and appeared to demonstrate the viability of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction.
The long-term roots of the crisis lie in the atmosphere of mutual hostility and distrust engendered by the cold war. In the shorter term, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev hoped to use the provocation to force the United States to remove the 15 Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were within striking distance of Moscow. In addition, the botched April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba heightened revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s fears of a follow-up U.S. effort to topple his regime. The Bay of Pigs events also persuaded Khrushchev that U.S. president John F. Kennedy
An aerial view showing the medium-range ballistic missile field launch site at San Cristóbal, Cuba, on October 25, 1962. The presence of
these weapons led the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. was weak and indecisive and would back down when confronted with the reality of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Declassified documents and a series of conferences among participants from the United States, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union have confirmed that the events of October 1962 brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear holocaust than officials at the time realized.
Scholars have meticulously reconstructed the chronology of events marking the crisis. Through the summer of 1962 the Soviets built a variety of military installations on Cuba, as confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, though U.S. intelligence analysts did not believe they included nuclear weapons. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane photographed military bases around San Cristóbal, Cuba, demonstrating the existence of nuclear installations. Khrushchev, with Castro’s approval, had deployed launchers for at least
40 medium-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, capable of reaching all of the continental United States except the Pacific Northwest. For the next two days, U.S. analysts poured over the photographs. Kennedy and his national security team were briefed on their findings on the morning of October 16, the beginning of the “thirteen days.” His team devised two plans: an invasion of the island, and a naval blockade—the latter, by international law, an act of war. Kennedy opted for the blockade, announced in a televised address to the nation on October 22. The next six days were the height of the crisis. On October 28, one day before the U.S. deadline for launching an invasion of Cuba, Khrushchev agreed to remove the launchers in exchange for the U.S. removal of its missiles from Turkey. Many scholars argue that the outcome of the crisis prompted a more muscular U.S. response to perceived Communist aggression around the world, and contributed to deepened U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
See also cold war.