The Cuban Missile Crisis was a thirteen-day period during the Cold War where mankind came closest to total nuclear annihilation. During the crisis, the US raised the level of alert to DefCon2. This was just one stage away from signaling nuclear war. Nuclear disaster was only averted thanks to a combination of good luck and cautious statesmanship. This is the story of how the crisis unfolded and was narrowly averted.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, there were two remaining superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. For the next forty-five years these two geo-political giants would face off across the globe in what is known as the Cold War. Unlike previous conflicts, this was a war of brinkmanship, subterfuge and proxy wars. It was also a global competition overshadowed by the knowledge that both superpowers had the nuclear capacity to annihilate their opponent.
In December 1958 Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement successfully ousted the Cuban military dictatorship headed by President Batista. The revolutionaries went on to replace this government with a socialist state. In 1961 anti-Castro Cuban exiles, backed by the US government, had attempted to overthrow the socialists in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The invasion was a failure and pushed the Cuban government to request support from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s leader Nikita Khrushchev welcomed the request and deployed secret nuclear missiles to Cuba. This served the Soviet Union’s wider political strategy in two ways. Providing nuclear missiles would help prevent Cuba from being invaded. It also served as a counterbalance to the United States deployment of nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey. Clear photographic evidence of missile sites in Cuba were revealed by a US U-2 spy plane. Unfortunately, by the time the United States discovered the Soviet Union’s plans, material was already in Cuba to arm the nuclear missiles.
In October 16th, 1962, an emergency meeting of advisors to US President John F. Kennedy was convened. This group was known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM). The advice provided to President Kennedy was an air strike on the missile site locations in Cuba followed by an invasion of the island. After deliberation President Kennedy decided on a more cautious approach in the form of a naval blockade. The blockade was to be referred to as a “quarantine”. This is because a blockade would be viewed by the Soviet Union as an act of war. On October 22nd, the quarantine went into effect. The US Navy would not permit any more weapons from being delivered to Cuba. President Kennedy also insisted that the existing nuclear weapons should be dismantled and sent back to the Soviet Union.
In response to the quarantine, Premier Khrushchev sent a letter to President Kennedy stating that United States actions were an act of aggression that pushed the world towards nuclear war. This would signal the start of the tensest six-day period of the crisis and in fact of the entire cold war. The United States insisted that the nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. The Soviet Union and Cuba in response declared that the missiles were purely defensive and would remain in place. At the same time the Cuban government continued to arm the nuclear missiles.
On October 27th, 1962, a U-2 spy plane over Cuba was shot down by a Soviet Missile. Also, on the 27th a nuclear Soviet submarine was hit by a depth charge from a US Naval ship. The submarine was too deep to communicate with the surface. Consequently, the commanders of the submarine believed that war between the US and USSR had already begun. The three most senior officers on the submarine had to vote whether to launch a nuclear strike. In order to launch a nuclear torpedo this decision needed to be unanimous. The Captain and Political Officer both agreed to the launch. Disaster was only averted because the second in command refused.
While nuclear war was narrowly averted the danger was far from over. The United States moved to DefCon 2 which was the state of defense readiness only one step removed from nuclear war. This was the first time in history that the United States had moved to DefCon2. While preparations for a potential nuclear war were underway, in the background negotiations continued to take place. US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met in secret with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. After an intense period of negotiations an agreement was reached. The United States would remove the nuclear Jupiter MRBMs in Turkey and Italy. They would also agree not to invade Cuba in the future. In return the Soviet Union would publicly announce its dismantling and removal of offensive weapons in Cuba. It would also submit to verification of the removal by a United Nations inspection team. Ambassador Dobrynin cabled Moscow stating that the USSR needed to act quickly as there was only a small window of opportunity to avert disaster. The next morning at 9 am a message was sent by Khrushchev saying that nuclear missiles would be removed from Cuba. The crisis was now over.
The quarantine would formally end on November 21st, 1962, after light bombers and offensive missiles had been removed from Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis had highlighted the vulnerabilities created by not having a direct line of communication between the leaders of the US and USSR. During the crisis, nuclear war had almost occurred because of miscommunications. To prevent this from happening in the future, a direct Moscow to Washington hotline was put in place. Agreements in the following years would reduce tensions between the two superpowers, although longer term both the US and USSR would continue to build their nuclear arsenals.
Following the crisis both Kennedy and Khrushchev were publicly attacked from within their own countries, for their perceived lack of aggression. However, the widely held contemporary view is that the rational and cautious statesmanship exhibited by these two leaders was that which prevented all out nuclear war.