For thirteen days in October 1962, the world held its breath as Soviet nuclear missiles made their way towards Cuba, defying American demands.
In 1962, Fidel Castro’s new communist regime was three years old. Castro had been working to align Cuba with the powerful Soviet Union, which saw an opportunity to nurture a communist state a stone’s throw from the American border. The Cold War was in full swing, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy had politically defined himself in opposition to the Castro regime.
Fuel for the fire
The usual American-Soviet tension escalated in the months leading up to October 1962. First, hoping to intimidate the Soviets, the United States deployed nuclear Jupiter missiles to Turkey. General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev already felt threatened by weapons pointed at the U.S.S.R. from Western Europe. He thought that if American nuclear weapons were moving to Turkey, too, perhaps the Soviets should level the playing field.
The U.S.S.R. would deploy missiles to Cuba to help deter any future invasions by the United States and to counter American missiles in Turkey.
Then, the Cuban government discovered an American plot to overthrow Castro’s government. It was the second such attempt, coming less than a year after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. These two events—the discovery of covert American aggression in Cuba and the deployment of nuclear missiles to Turkey—led Castro and Khrushchev to strike a secret arrangement: the U.S.S.R. would deploy missiles to Cuba to help deter any future invasions by the United States and to counter American missiles in Turkey. Nobody predicted that this series of decisions made by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba would lead to the edge of nuclear war.
Construction on the Cuban missile sites began in late summer 1962. Less than a month later, they were spotted by a U.S. reconnaissance flight. On September 4, U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued a statement to the nation. He conveyed that there was no evidence that the Soviet Union had “significant offensive capability” in Cuba. “Were it to be otherwise,” he said, “the gravest issues would arise.” It was a clear warning to the Soviet Union and Cuba. The Soviets ignored the message and continued to build the missile sites.
The American blockade
On October 1, the Soviet Union secretly sent four submarines to Cuba, each loaded with 15-kiloton nuclear torpedoes. Three weeks later, the United States declared a naval “quarantine” of Cuba—the Navy would block any ships entering or leaving Cuba. Kennedy insisted that the United States would not allow weapons to arrive in Cuba; Khrushchev responded that the blockade itself was an act of aggression. Soviet ships continued on their path to Cuba. Construction continued on the Cuban missile sites.
Around this time, the Soviet submarines arrived in Cuban waters with orders to protect incoming Soviet vessels. All four submarines had the authorization to launch their nuclear torpedoes without contacting the Kremlin.
The United States told the Soviet Union that they were going to drop practice depth charges, or underwater explosives, in waters around Cuba. The goal was to flush out the Soviet submarines—the practice depth charges were not actually destructive. But some of the Soviet submarines were cut off from the Kremlin and not informed about the explosives. Their commanders assumed they were under attack. They debated launching their nuclear torpedoes—but hesitated. If they hadn’t, they would have started a nuclear war.
The Soviets had another secret. They had deployed nine tactical missiles to Cuba, undetected. Soviet field commanders in Cuba had the power to launch them at will.
On October 26, President Kennedy was still pushing for a diplomatic resolution. Privately, he worried that a military strike was the only way forward. Then, ABC news correspondent John Scali reported to the White House that he had been approached by a member of the Soviet embassy. The emissary told him that the Soviets would remove all missiles from Cuba if the United States agreed not to invade. Later that evening, a message came from the Kremlin, validating the emissary’s message. If the United States agreed not to attack, the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba.
The next day, things looked like they might unravel. Another message arrived from the Kremlin: Khrushchev demanded the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey as part of the deal. That same day, a U.S. reconnaissance jet was shot down over Cuba by the Soviets. Kennedy and his advisors began planning an attack.
The Soviets would remove all missiles from Cuba if the United States agreed not to invade.
But they also kept diplomatic channels open. Kennedy ignored Khrushchev’s second letter and only responded to the first. That night, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a secret meeting with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. He told Dobrynin that the Americans would remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey soon, but that the American public couldn’t see it as part of the agreement.
Khrushchev accepted the terms. On October 28, he issued a public statement declaring that he would dismantle the Soviet missiles and remove them from Cuba. And so the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. The Jupiter missiles were removed from Turkey the following spring.
The crisis was a wake-up call for both the United States and the Soviet Union—both sides were shaken by what felt like a brush with nuclear annihilation. Afterward, a hotline between the White House and the Kremlin was installed, with the goal of avoiding dangerous miscommunications. The crisis also led to the two countries adopting the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which aimed to slow down the arms race.