The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

President Kennedy addressing the nation during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
President Kennedy Addresses the Nation at the Height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Getty Images Archive

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought Cold War superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war in one of the sternest tests of global diplomacy in history.

Spiced with open and secret communication and strategic miscommunication between the two sides, the Cuban Missile Crisis was unique in the fact that it took place mainly in the White House and the Soviet Kremlin, with little or no foreign policy input from either the U.S. Congress or the legislative arm of the Soviet government, the Supreme Soviet.

Events Leading to the Crisis

In April 1961, the U.S. government backed a group of Cuban exiles in an armed attempt to overthrow communist Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The infamous assault, known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, failed miserably, became a foreign policy black eye for President John F. Kennedy, and only widened the growing Cold War diplomatic gap between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Still smarting from the Bay of Pigs failure, the Kennedy administration in the spring of 1962 planned Operation Mongoose, a complex set of operations orchestrated by the CIA and Department of Defense, again intended to remove Castro from power. While some of the non-military actions of Operation Mongoose were conducted during 1962, the Castro regime remained solidly in place.

In July 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in response to the Bay of Pigs and the presence of American Jupiter ballistic missiles Turkey, secretly agreed with Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in order to prevent the United States from attempting future invasions of the island.

The Crisis Begins as Soviet Missiles Detected

In August of 1962, routine U.S. surveillance flights began showing a build-up of Soviet-made conventional weapons on Cuba, including Soviet IL–28 bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

On September 4, 1962, President Kennedy publicly warned the Cuban and Soviet governments to cease the stockpiling of offensive weapons on Cuba.

However, photographs from a U.S. U–2 high-altitude aircraft on October 14 clearly showed sites for the storage and launch of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) being built in Cuba. These missiles allowed the Soviets to effectively target the majority of the continental United States.

On October 15, 1962, the pictures from the U-2 flights were delivered to the White House and within hours the Cuban Missile crisis was underway.

The Cuban ‘Blockade’ or ‘Quarantine’ Strategy

In the White House, President Kennedy huddled with his closest advisers to plan a response to the Soviet’s actions.

Kennedy’s more hawkish advisers – led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- argued for an immediate military response including air strikes to destroy the missiles before they could be armed and made ready for launch, followed by a full-scale military invasion of Cuba.

At the other end, some of Kennedy’s advisers favored a purely diplomatic response including strongly-worded warnings to Castro and Khrushchev they hoped would result in the supervised removal of the Soviet missiles and dismantling of the launch sites.

Kennedy, however, chose to take a course in the middle. His Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had suggested a naval blockade of Cuba as a restrained military action.

However, in delicate diplomacy, every word matters, and the word “blockade” was a problem.

In international law, a “blockade” is considered an act of war. So, on October 22, Kennedy ordered the U.S. Navy to establish and enforce a strict naval “quarantine” of Cuba.

The same day, President Kennedy sent a letter to Soviet premier Khrushchev making it clear that further delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba would not be allowed, and that the Soviet missile bases already under construction or completed should be dismantled and all weapons returned to the Soviet Union.

Kennedy Informs the American People

Early in the evening of October 22, President Kennedy appeared live across all U.S. television networks to inform the nation of the Soviet nuclear threat developing just 90 miles from American shores.

In his televised address, Kennedy personally condemned Khrushchev for the “clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace” and warned that the United States was prepared to retaliate in kind should any Soviet missiles be launched.

“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” stated President Kennedy.

Kennedy went on to explain his administration’s plan for dealing with the crisis through the naval quarantine.

“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated,” he said. “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”

Kennedy also stressed that the U.S. quarantine would not prevent food and other humanitarian “necessities of life” from reaching the Cuban people, “as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.”

Mere hours before Kennedy’s address, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had placed all U.S. military forces on DEFCON 3 status, under which the Air Force stood ready to launch retaliatory attacks within 15 minutes.

Khrushchev’s Response Raises Tensions

At 10:52 pm EDT, on October 24, President Kennedy received a telegram from Khrushchev, in which the Soviet Premier stated, “if you [Kennedy] weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the USA.” In the same telegram, Khrushchev stated that he had ordered Soviet ships sailing for Cuba to ignore the U.S. naval “blockade,” which the Kremlin considered to be “an act of aggression.”

During October 24 and 25, despite Khrushchev’s message, some ships bound for Cuba turned back from the U.S. quarantine line. Other ships were stopped and searched by U.S. naval forces but were found not to contain offensive weapons and allowed to sail on for Cuba.

However, the situation was actually growing more desperate as U.S. reconnaissance flights over Cuba indicated that work on the Soviet missile sites was continuing, with several nearing completion.

US Forces Go to DEFCON 2

In light of the latest U-2 photos, and with no peaceful end to the crisis in sight, the Joint Chiefs of Staff placed U.S. forces at readiness level DEFCON 2; an indication that war involving the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was imminent.

During the DEFCON 2 period, about 180 of SAC’s more than 1,400 long-range nuclear bombers remained on airborne alert and some 145 U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles were placed on ready status, some aimed at Cuba, some at Moscow.

On the morning of October 26, President Kennedy told his advisers that while he intended to allow the naval quarantine and diplomatic efforts more time to work, he feared that removing the Soviet missiles from Cuba would ultimately require a direct military attack.

As America held its collective breath, the risky art of atomic diplomacy faced its greatest challenge.

Khrushchev Blinks First

On the afternoon of October 26, the Kremlin appeared to soften its stance. ABC News correspondent John Scali informed the White House that a “Soviet agent” had personally suggested to him that Khrushchev might order the missiles removed from Cuba if President Kennedy personally promised not to invade the island.

While the White House was unable to confirm the validity of Scali’s “back channel” Soviet diplomatic offer, President Kennedy received an eerily similar message from Khrushchev himself on the evening of October 26. In an uncharacteristically long, personal and emotional note, Khrushchev expressed a desire to avoid the horrors of a nuclear holocaust. “If there is no intention,” he wrote, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.” President Kennedy decided not to respond to Khrushchev at the time. 

Out of the Frying Pan, but Into the Fire

However, the next day, October 27, the White House learned that Khrushchev was not exactly that “ready” to end the crisis. In a second message to Kennedy, Khrushchev emphatically demanded that any deal to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba had to include the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Once again, Kennedy chose not to respond.

Later the same day, the crisis deepened when a U.S. U–2 reconnaissance jet was shot down by a surface-to-air (SAM) missile launched from Cuba. The U-2 pilot, U.S. Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson Jr., died in the crash. Khrushchev claimed that the Major Anderson’s plane had been shot down by the “Cuban military” on orders issued by Fidel Castro’s brother Raul. While President Kennedy had previously stated he would retaliate against Cuban SAM sites if they fired on U.S. planes, he decided not to do so unless there were further incidents.

While continuing to search for a diplomatic resolution, Kennedy and his advisors began planning an attack on Cuba to be carried out as soon as possible in order to prevent more nuclear missile sites from becoming operational.

As this point, President Kennedy still had not responded to either of Khrushchev’s messages.

Just in Time, a Secret Agreement

In a risky move, President Kennedy decided to respond to Khrushchev’s first less demanding message and ignore the second one.

Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev suggested a plan for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba to be overseen by the United Nations, in return for assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba. Kennedy, however, made no mention of the U.S. missiles in Turkey.

Even as President Kennedy was responding to Khrushchev, his younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was secretly meeting with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin.

In their October 27 meeting, Attorney General Kennedy told Dobrynin that the United States had been planning to remove its missiles from Turkey and would proceed to do so, but that this move could not be made public in any agreement ending the Cuban missile crisis.

Dobrynin related the details of his meeting with Attorney General Kennedy to the Kremlin and on the morning of October 28, 1962, Khrushchev publicly stated that all Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.

While the missile crisis was essentially over, the U.S. naval quarantine continued until November 20, 1962, when the Soviets agreed to remove their IL–28 bombers from Cuba. Interestingly, the U.S. Jupiter missiles were not removed from Turkey until April 1963.

The Legacy of the Missile Crisis

As the defining and most desperate event of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis helped to improve the world’s negative opinion of the United States after its failed Bay of Pigs invasion and strengthened President Kennedy’s overall image at home and abroad.

In addition, the secretive and dangerously confusing nature of vital communications between the two superpowers as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war resulted in the installation of the so-called “Hotline” direct telephone link between the White House and the Kremlin. Today, the “Hotline” still exists in the form of a secure computer link over which messages between the White House and Moscow are exchanged by email.

Finally and most importantly, realizing they had brought the world to the brink of Armageddon, the two superpowers began to consider scenarios for ending the nuclear arms race and began working toward a permanent nuclear Test Ban Treaty.