Cuban Missile Crisis
The History Cat Classroom
"You Were Almost Never Born...Or You Would Have Had Something Like Three Eyes and Glowed in the Dark."
The Cuban Missile Crisis
October 27, 1962, very nearly went down in history as the day that nearly triggered a nuclear apocalypse. On this day, the United States and the USSR came close to pushing the nuclear launch button not once, but three times! For half a century the United States and the Soviet Union had been engaged in history’s most insane game of chicken; complete with military threats, spy games and nuclear-tipped shenanigans that on several occasions came close to wiping out all of humanity. For those who were alive to witness it Black Saturday was by far the most terrifying day in human history. Fifty years later the Cuban Missile Crisis is just another blurb in some history textbook but what is difficult to impress on the general population is just how close we came to World War III. As then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said, "I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see." He was on the inside and knew the gravity of the situation.
In order to understand the Cuban Missile Crisis we need to understand a few things about the state of international relations after the Second World War. We won. However; one of our "allies," the USSR led by Joseph Stalin, decided that it wanted to export the idea of Communism and the name Boris to the rest of Europe. We had spent a great deal of blood and capital freeing Europe from dictatorship so we were disinclined to allow the commies to take more than they already absconded with i.e. the Truman Doctrine.
By the 1960's the Soviets were frustrated in their attempts to keep people enamored with life under Communist domination. They had replaced the Jack-Booted Thugs of Nazism with Ushanka-wearing, AK-47 toting Commie Automatons. Neither was a good choice for most in Eastern Europe so they fled to the west in ever-increasing numbers. This precipitated the Berlin Crisis in 1961. If you could get to East Germany and make your way to Berlin, you could take a train to West Germany and bask in the glories of the Marshal Plan. When the Berlin Wall went up the Soviets looked to see how the United States would react. There were tense moments and tanks did face off but cooler heads prevailed and a hot war did not occur.
The Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), may have felt emboldened to have gotten away with blocking off east and west. But the USSR was not in a state to really threaten the United States as much as we thought they might be able to. There was a "missile gap" but it was in the favor of the United States. We thought the Soviets had large numbers of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). That fact, combined with the very real superiority in soldiers, artillery and tanks put fear into the hearts of the American military and politicians (At least those not named Chief of Staff of the US Air Force Curtis LeMay). It was in the best interest of the Soviets to keep America thinking they had many Nuclear weapons but in reality, they had to get their intermediate (1,200 mile range) and medium (2,800 mile range) missiles much closer to America to do any more than annoy caribou and Atlantic Salmon. Plus, the United States had nuclear missile bases in Turkey and Italy which were geographically very close to Mother Russia. Maybe the USSR could try the same tactic in the western hemisphere? The Revolution that had placed Fidel Castro into power in Cuba made that idea a reality.
Since 1959, the United States had watched as Fidel Castro’s Cuba accepted more and more influence and military aid from the Soviet Union. A Communist state ninety miles from Florida was just about the last thing that America wanted. Would other Central or South American nations follow? The Central Intelligence Agency, with the support of President Eisenhower, began training Cuban exiles in the hopes of inserting them back into Cuba and starting a counter-revolution. The debacle known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961) was thrust onto the plate of the newly minted President John F. Kennedy. When Eisenhower left office he showed Kennedy the button to call in Marine One and gave him the plans to the Bay of Pigs. Who can blame Kennedy for paying more attention to calling in Marine One? The Bay of Pigs was unsuccessful, in part, due to last minute vacillation on the part of Kennedy who withdrew air and naval support. When the operation failed it demonstrated three things. First, Kennedy looked weak. Second, the United States was willing to invade Cuba. Third, Cuba was important to America. Maybe Khrushchev thought he could use Cuba as a pawn to either eliminate US missiles from Western Europe and Turkey? Or, he may have wanted a realistic first strike capability against the continental United States. With a weak and inexperienced American president, it just might work.
The Soviet Union began shipping surface to air missiles, Mig-21 fighter planes, Il 28 medium bombers, and aircrew, as well as soldiers and engineers (gleefully called “Agricultural or Irrigation Engineers) all to set up and protect medium to intermediate range nuclear capable ballistic missiles and nuclear tactical rockets. As an aside, a nuclear tactical rocket is used for shore defense. Basically, you shoot and scoot or die in the resulting really, really close nuclear explosion. They might as well be nuclear hand grenades or a hug activated nuclear suicide vest.
The United States may have missed this build-up. We had stopped U2 overflights as Soviet missile technology was proving to match the U2’s service ceiling and had downed several of our or our allies spy planes. When we did resume overflights on October 14th, 1962 the cameras revealed telltale Surface to Air Missile (SAM) arrays similar to those found around nuclear missile sites in the USSR. By October 16th President Kennedy was informed of the possibility of nuclear missiles aimed at the US from bases in Cuba. Kennedy was riding an approval rating of 70% but the numbers had been slowly declining. He could not appear to be weak. The speech he gave at the Berlin Wall did little to scare the Soviets. The Bay of Pigs made Khrushchev believe that Kennedy would “…huff and then agree…” to Soviet demands to either leave West Berlin or remove some offensive capabilities in Europe. Kennedy called on his Executive Committee or ExCom (members of his staff, cabinet and advisors) to meet and mull the options available to meet this dire threat.
The options available to Kennedy were limited and all posed some level of risk. The first and worst option was to simply do nothing. The second was to use diplomacy but the United Nations was impotent with a Soviet veto power in the Security Council and the Soviets seemed to think they could bully the Kennedy administration. Third, a secret deal could be put into effect that would somehow make both sides happy. (Spoiler Alert: This option was used but it was secret so few knew about it…you are now in the know). Fourth, and the option desired by the Joint Chiefs of Staff i.e. military was some form of invasion of Cuba. The Air Force suggested bombing, the Army suggested a Normandy-like invasion, the Navy considered shelling coastal regions, the Coast Guard made certain the Great Lakes were secure, and the Marines basically had to be told not to simply swim to Cuba with their K-bars (combat knives) in their teeth. The last option was a naval blockade of Cuba that would halt nuclear weapons ever reaching their destination. (Another Spoiler Alert: They already had nuclear weapons in Cuba).
Tense negotiations began. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met with the Soviet ambassador to the US. Diplomatic calls were made. Most of this was in secret. On October 22nd Kennedy addressed the American public and stated that any attack from Cuba would be considered and attack on the United States from the Soviet Union. We believed we could hit them if necessary, before they could hit us. Kennedy was, therefore, speaking from a position of strength, thinking that there were no missiles in Cuba. The choice Kennedy made, to “quarantine offensive weapons” utilizing a naval blockade was a decisive decision and proved to be the correct one. The Soviets were not quite ready to launch a strike and the US Navy began stopping ships in international waters proving we meant business. If the Soviets pressed the issue too far the United States had the upper hand in ICBMs. It simply was not worth it to Khrushchev. Kennedy called his bluff. But it was very close. One Soviet submarine, B-59 Foxtrot Class, was carrying a nuclear torpedo. When confronted and followed by US Naval destroyers and forced to surface, there was an apparent argument onboard as to whether or not they should fire the weapon. They did not but it came down to a few men deciding not to push some very shiny candy-like launch buttons. The US went to Defcon 2 (imminent war) but then…the Soviet ships turned around.
“How can I deal with a man younger than my son?” Khrushchev would not have to worry about that for very long. Kennedy would be the victim of an assassin’s bullet and Khrushchev would be stripped of his role of head of the party in less than two years for disgracefully saving the world from nuclear destruction. The reality is that Kennedy’s decisiveness in implementing the naval blockade along with secret negotiations that removed US missiles from Turkey in exchange for the promise to not put nuclear missiles in Cuba saved the day. Strength and diplomacy, with a little luck added, made it so that you would have to turn on a light to read this rather than utilizing the subtle glow from nuclear radiation that would have emanated from your multi-eyed head.
Why the Cuban Missile Crisis Matters
The Cuban Missile Crisis was like that scene in a horror flick when the girl hears the floorboards creak upstairs and stupidly asks “who’s there?” Everyone knows that any minute the killer is going to strike from behind a dark corner and the tension is palpable. The Missile Crisis literally marked the height of the Cold War. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the finger was taken off the nuke button. After that the Cold War seemed to thaw, even if it was only a little, because everyone had realized how close they had come to wiping out the planet. A hotline was set up between the White House and Kremlin to avoid any future misunderstandings.
America also learned first hand what it was like to be the direct target of containment. Up to this point the Cold War was something that people watched on the nightly news as American troops positioned themselves in some far-flung country like Korea. But now the threat was literally at their backdoor. But the biggest consequence to come out of the crisis was a hostile relationship with Cuba that only began to thaw in 2010 when President Obama began to lift decades long sanctions against the communist country. For nearly half a century Americans have been banned from trade or travel with Cuba, a situation that has baffled even our closest allies. Perhaps someday soon all sanctions will be lifted and Americans and Cubans can begin building closer relations.
Images of Cuban nuclear base taken from a U2 spyplane