Fourteen days in October 1962 when John F. Kennedy went eye ball to eye ball with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Russians are discovered installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba when an American U-2 RECON spy plane returns with intelligence photos catching Khrushchev red-handed. Khrushchev categorically denied it until Adlai Stevenson, an American statesman, showed the photos to the United Nations. This angered Khrushchev to the point that he took his shoe off and pounded on the table in an effort to gain attention.

President Kennedy, in a televised address on October 22, 1962, announced the discovery of the installations and proclaimed that any nuclear missile attack from Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union and would be responded to accordingly. He also imposed a naval blockade on Cuba to prevent further Soviet shipments of offensive military weapons from arriving there.

The stand-off lasted for a day or two after the United States blockade against Cuba. Khrushchev backed down and removed the missiles.

Source: Most of this information comes from recollections of my father. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis we were stationed at Dobbins AFB in Marietta, Georgia, near the Third Army Headquarters. He recalls lots of flying time in the C-47 Gooney Bird taking Army VIP's down to Key West, Florida. The Army moved a lot of troops down there during the crisis. Nike missiles were installed in preparation to shoot down any Russian missiles should they appear over the horizon. Most of his work that he did while stationed there is still classified.

While Army brats wore dog tags in case the world went up in smoke and we needed some identification, a couple of Navy brats living across the street, twins Kevin and Ken, disappeared overnight. I asked at the bus stop that morning and was told their family were given eight hours notice to bug out.

The Cuban Missile Crisis Highlights

1962.

- Monday, October 15
A U-2 high level reconnaissance jet records pictures of nuclear missile sites being assembled in Cuba.

- Tuesday, October 16
Military advisors hands the pictures to President Kennedy, two options discussed: air strikes and the blockade.

- Wednesday, October 17
The military discovers that the missile could reach as far as Washington state.

- Thursday, October 18
The Soviets completely deny that they have nuclear missiles in Cuba.

- Friday, October 19
Kennedy continues on a campaign trip in the Mid-west maintains secrecy of the discovery.

- Saturday, October 20
Kennedy cancels the campaign trip because of an upper respiratory infection and to discuss Cuba.

- Sunday, October 21
Kennedy discusses in detail with his advisors the two major plans of action a quarantine or an air strike.

- Monday, October 22
Kennedy addresses the nation saying that he is going to start a quarantine on Cuba.

- Tuesday, October 23
Kennedy orders a low level reconnaissance mission to examine the sites closer.

- Wednesday, October 24
Soviet ships stop at the quarantine line, military alert raised to DEFCON 2 (Defense Condition Two).

- Thursday, October 25
Pictures shown at the U.N. proving that there are missiles in Cuba.

- Friday, October 26
A Soviet ship is cleared through the quarantine because it was not carrying any missiles.

- Saturday, October 27
The only casualty is taken when a U-2 is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. A U-2 is almost shot down over Russia when it strays into Soviet airspace.

- Sunday, October 28
Soviets agree to move missiles out of Cuba if the U.S. makes a public statement not to invade Cuba.

Some fun facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis...

One of Kennedy's primary advantages over the Soviet Union was that he was in possession of a series of reports from a spy named Col. Oleg Penkovskiy, who had 'defected' to the CIA and remained in Moscow to provide information. Penkovskiy's reports had, for several months, indicated unequivocally that the Soviets were, in fact, nowhere near as advanced in their missile technology and deployment as American analysts and policy makers had thought them to be. One of the major motivations Khruschev had for the risky deployment was that he was being threatened by internal enemies for having failed to achieve strategic parity with or dominance over the United States and NATO. While this alone would not necessarily have doomed him, he had been for some time bolstering the Soviet position through brash assertions of nonexistent forces.

While it is true that the U.S. had already figured this out to some degree via the pre-Francis Gary Powers debacle through U-2 overflight intelligence, it was at the time one of those situations where 'we know, they know we know, we know they know we know, but the rest of the world doesn't really know.' The exposure of the Soviet Union's weak hand, as evidenced in its withdrawal from (as has been noted above) no more than an achievement of parity, nailed some of the final brads into Nikita's political coffin.

Another fun fact: when told on Oct. 19th or 20th (pre-blockade announcement) to deploy his naval group immediately, a U.S. navy commander asked his superior "Against what?" He was told that that was still on a need-to-know basis. Frustrated, he asked which way he was to go once clearing his East Coast anchorage and harbor point; the answer was "Turn right."

(Note: The following is opinion!)

Still, it was right and proper for Kennedy to oppose the Soviet maneuver. To fail to do so would have indicated either that the U.S. hadn't the political will to back its claims, and/or that the Monroe Doctrine (a dearly-held bit of U.S. rhetoric) had no weight. Given the problems already existant in the U.S. from COMINTERN and the various propaganda and intelligence arms of the Communist Party, such an indication could have caused internal chaos as the subversive elements already active would have regarded this as a 'green light.'

When John F. Kennedy was faced with the evidence of nuclear weapons in Cuba, there were several courses of action he could undertake, each with their own pros and cons:

  • A full scale-invasion of Cuba
    Pros
    - Would guarantee the elimination of all the missiles
    - Could possibly lead to the overthrow of Fidel Castro

    Cons
    - Would take more than a week to put together, and it would be obvious what the U.S. was planning to do.
    - Would place thousands of American lives at risk
    - An extreme response that would damage U.S. reputation

  • A series of air strikes attempting to take out the missile installations
    Pros
    - Could be ordered and executed at a moments notice.
    - Places less lives in danger than the invasion plan

    Cons
    - Even hundreds of sorties would not be able to take out all the missiles. Forcing either a diplomatic solution or a ground mop-up operation to ensure they had all been destroyed.
    - Still not totally safe, as the Soviets had also installed SAM sites and MiG fighter jets to protect the missiles

  • A blockade of the island to prevent more weapons from coming in and attempting to negotiate with the Soviets about removing the missiles.
    Pros
    - Puts the least amount of lives at risk
    - Could be undertaken with relative speed
    - The U.S. looks like the good guy

    Cons
    - Relies on convincing the Soviets to pull out the missiles and might lead to extending the crisis even longer.
    - Giving major concessions might be seen as a victory for the Soviets.
    - Seeking a diplomatic solution might be seen as a sign of weakness.
    - Possibility of a major incident, such as a ship full of medicine tries to run the blockade (even though it would have been allowed to go if searched) and then is sunk by U.S. forces, killing many innocents on board.

It was not as though President Kennedy could just ignore the missiles in Cuba, not only were they a danger to the people of the United States, but the mere existence of a crisis was also a threat to the people of Berlin. The city of Berlin lay inside Soviet-controlled territory and construction of the Berlin wall had begun one year earlier, splitting the city in half. The plight of the people of Berlin was always close to the minds of the people in the Kennedy administration, especially since they could all recall the Berlin blockade that had taken place only 12 years earlier. Kennedy himself had also written a book in 1940 entitled Why England Slept about the failure of appeasement the need for military response against totalitarian regimes.

Berlin was one of the major possible flashpoints during the Cold War, and in the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis there had been rumblings in the intelligence community that the Soviets were going to make a major move on Berlin before the end of 1962. Many of Kennedy’s advisors felt that the movements in Cuba were just a precursor or a feint for a larger operation. They feared that Nikita Khrushchev was angling for a reason to attack: If the Americans ignored the missiles or showed any weakness, then Khrushchev would see this as an opening to attack Berlin. If the Americans staged an assault on Cuba that destroyed Russian missiles and killed Russian missile crews, then Khrushchev could use that as a pretense to attack Berlin. If Berlin is attacked then…

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: Well, when we’re talking about taking Berlin, what do we mean exactly? Does he take it with Soviet troops?
President Kennedy: That’s what it would seem to me.
McNamara: We have U.S. troops there. What do they do?
General Maxwell Taylor: They fight
McNamara: They fight, I think that’s perfectly clear.
President Kennedy: And they get overrun
McNamara: Yes, they get overrun, exactly.
Unidentified: Well, you have a direct confrontation.
Robert Kennedy: Then what do we do?
Taylor: Go to general war, if it’s in our interest.
President Kennedy: You mean nuclear exchange?
Taylor: Guess you have to.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk: You’d have to start at least with tactical nuclear weapons if he tried to attack Berlin.

It must be made clear the several different ways that the Crisis could have led to a major nuclear exchange. Not only was there the Berlin scenario, where any sort of military attack on Berlin would have triggered an immediate nuclear response, but also the possible response by the Russian missile teams in Cuba once they realize they’re under attack. Would the Russian teams just decide to launch the missiles in a last ditch effort? How would the Soviet government react to a surprise air strike or invasion in Cuba? Would they just see it as the beginning of a general conventional attack and decide to launch their ICBMs?

President Kennedy chose to take the blockade option. Choosing to call it a “quarantine”, all ships attempting to enter Cuba were stopped and searched by the American military. If the ships carried any weaponry, they were not allowed to pass. Negotiations were opened with the Soviets with the implicit threat that if they did not proceed smoothly, air strikes would commence to take out the missiles. A SAM site also shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba, only adding to the tension.

The Soviets initially demanded that the United States remove nuclear missile installations that had been placed in Turkey in the 1950s. After several tense days of negotiation the Soviets officially agreed to dismantle the missiles under the watch of U.N. weapons inspectors, while asking only that the United States agreed to never again invade Cuba. Unofficially, the U.S. had also agreed to pull their Jupiter missiles out of Turkey, but one of the stipulations of this decision was that it was never to be broadcast. The Jupiter missiles were dismantled in April 1963, under the guise of the U.S. upgrading their European arsenal. At the same time, an American Polaris missile submarine took up residence in the Mediterranean.

In the end, President Kennedy made the right decision. When faced with real evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the American President chose not a military solution that would have caused the deaths of thousands of people and mired the U.S. in a difficult occupation of another country, but instead ended the situation peacefully.

Quotes from: The Kennedy Tapes, Ernest R. May and Phillip D. Zelikow, editors. W.W. Norton Publishers, 2001.

This is an essay I wrote for a history course at the University of York.



To what extent was the Cuban missile crisis a success for Khrushchev?

In 1962 the world came to the brink of nuclear war, as the United States found out that the Soviet Union had emplaced nuclear weapons in Cuba. If launched, the missiles could have annihilated several major American cities. The Kennedy administration put Cuba under blockade, and contemplated an invasion. The crisis was ended when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles on the condition that the United States pledge not to invade Cuba and remove their Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

The purpose of this essay is first to analyse the reasons for the Soviet Union sending the missiles to Cuba and second to assess how successful Khrushchev was in attaining his goals. I shall argue that the two major reasons for the Soviet action was to redress the imbalance in nuclear capability between the Soviet Union and the United States and to protect Cuba from American invasion. I adopt the position that Khrushchev failed in meeting his first objective, but was successful in the second. The missile crisis was also a success for the Soviet Union in an unexpected way - the Soviet Union's position as the other superpower was acknowledged even though it was militarily inferior to the United States.

1. What did Khrushchev try to achieve by emplacing nuclear weapons in Cuba?

In 1962 the Soviet Union's position vis-à-vis the United States was in decline. The United States had recently learned that the Soviet Union's supposed superiority in nuclear weapons was a myth. Not only did this mean that the Soviet Union had lost the image of nuclear superiority, but that the United States had gained it (Taubman, 2003). Moreover, the gap was widening in the United States's favour as American armaments programmes based on this assumption were continued (Kahan & Long, 1972).The Soviet Union would have considerable difficulty in reaching parity. The situation was particularly difficult for Khrushchev personally, since he had wanted the Soviet Union to rely on the threat of their intercontinental missiles - which in reality were virtually non-existent (Taubman, 2003). He needed an alternative.

Positioning missiles in Cuba presented the Soviet Union just such an alternative. The capability of the Soviet Union to strike at the United States would be significantly enhanced, especially since the Soviet Union had plenty of medium-range nuclear missiles which could reach Dallas, Texas or Washington, DC, if launched from Cuba (Taubman, 2003). Khrushchev wrote:

"In addition to protecting Cuba, our missiles would have equalized what the West likes to call the 'balance of power'. The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you..."(quoted in Nogee & Donaldson, 1988)

Taubman points to Khrushchev's view on nuclear deterrence - he thought the Soviet Union only needed a few nuclear weapons to deter the Americans. Khrushchev uses the example that even one nuclear bomb launched on New York would leave most of the city destroyed(Taubman, 2003) - surely a prospect to make the United States think twice about attacking the Soviet Union. Emplacing nuclear weapons and missiles in Cuba gave the Soviet Union the capability to launch such an attack, and meant the Soviet Union would not have to spend its resources on developing intercontinental missiles, but could concentrate on producing much cheaper medium-range missiles (Allison, 1971).

The official Soviet reason for positioning missiles in Cuba was the protection of Cuba. The United States had attempted to topple the Castro regime in the Bay of Pigs incident, and the Soviet Union had every reason to believe that the United States would invade again. There were signs of this. Kennedy authorized attempts to assassinate Castro (Gaddis, 1997). The United States conducted a large military exercise in the Caribbean in the autumn of 1962, and Congressmen called for an invasion. Cuba could hardly have resisted a major assault by the United States (Allison, 1971).

Cuba was the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere, and its survival was important for Soviet prestige. A successful defence of Cuba could project a powerful image of the Soviet Union to other countries in Latin America (Langley, 1968), perhaps suggesting that the United States could no longer enforce the Monroe Doctrine. The Soviet Union needed other countries to think it and communism were making advances(Zubok & Pleshakov, 1996); a successful communist revolution in America's backyard could surely be used to back this up.

Allison criticizes this explanation by arguing that if the Soviet Union feared an invasion of Cuba, surely conventional military forces would have been at least as good a deterrent as nuclear weapons, comparing such a possibility to the presence of American troops in Berlin(Allison, 1971). However, surely the American capability to launch nuclear attacks was at least as big a deterrent on the Soviet Union as American troops in Europe; and similarly the Soviet capability to annihilate American cities would have been a powerful deterrent against an American invasion of Cuba. Even if Soviet troops in Cuba might discourage the United States from invading, nuclear missiles in Cuba offered a much stronger guarantee of this.

While Khrushchev was probably genuinely concerned about the success of communism and the Cuban revolution (Zubok & Pleshakov, 1996), he also had a personal reason to defend Cuba - if an American invasion was successful, he might be personally accused of losing Cuba (Taubman, 2003). Khrushchev's domestic situation was already relatively weak, since he had come under criticism because of his foreign policy and especially his exploitation of the non-existent "missile gap" (Kahan & Long, 1972). These factors surely contributed to Khrushchev's willingness to take the huge risks involved in sending missiles to Cuba.

2. To what extent did Khrushchev achieve his goals?

If, as I have argued, a major reason for Khrushchev to decide to send nuclear weapons to Cuba was to redress the strategic imbalance between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Cuban missile crisis was a failure for him. His agreement to withdraw the missiles meant that the cheap way of reaching strategic parity had to be abandoned - if the Soviet Union still wished to pursue this goal it would have to commit vast resources to developing intercontinental missiles, as indeed it did (Kahan & Long, 1972).

Soviet prestige on the international stage was harmed by the crisis. It was Khrushchev, not Kennedy, who had backed down. The one concession the Soviet Union was able to get from the Americans - the withdrawal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey - did nothing to alleviate this since it was kept secret at the insistence of the United States (Boyle, 1993). The American promise not to invade Cuba was never officially confirmed (Cohen, 1993; Taubman, 2003).

The crisis worsened Khrushchev's domestic situation, too. His relations with the military were already strained, and these were exacerbated by the events in Cuba. Khrushchev's order that all missiles should be put on the decks of ships so that the Americans could count them was particularly harmful (Zubok & Pleshakov, 1996). It has been argued that the Cuban missile crisis was one of the factors which eventually led to the ousting of Khrushchev (Boyle, 1993).

If one accepts the defence of Cuba as a reason for the Soviet Union sending missiles to the country, then the Soviet Union was successful in this respect. The United States agreed not to invade Cuba (although this was not formally confirmed), and kept its promise (Boyle, 1993). Khrushchev had something of a point when he wrote:

"The aim of the American aggressors was to destroy Cuba. Our aim was to preserve Cuba. Today Cuba exists. So who won? It cost us nothing more than the round-trip expenses for transporting the rockets to Cuba and back."(quoted in Gaddis, 1997)

Of course, as Gaddis points out, Khrushchev did not send the missiles to Cuba only to bring them back a few weeks later (Gaddis, 1997); the Soviet Union achieved its goal but not in the way it had envisioned.

In a curious respect the missile crisis can be seen as successful from the Soviet perspective in a way the Soviet Union did not intend. Having come to the brink of nuclear war and mutual destruction, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought detente. The "hot line" set up between the White House and the Kremlin(Cohen, 1993) can be seen as a mutual acceptance of both countries' special status. Another example of this was the nuclear test-ban treaty signed in 1963 (Lafeber, 1980; Gaddis, 1990). After the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided confronting each other directly, but put considerable effort into fighting each other indirectly for instance in Vietnam and Afghanistan (Cohen, 1993).

Gaddis argues that after the crisis there emerged a new international system and "a different kind of Cold War"(Gaddis, 1997). The Soviet Union achieved diplomatic and political parity with the United States, even though it clearly lacked the military capability to back this up. It should be pointed out that this did not mean that Khrushchev had achieved his goal regarding the strategic imbalance. His objective was to change the military situation - to enhance the Soviet Union's ability to launch nuclear attacks against the United States. Of course, this would then translate to a diplomatic advantage. What happened was that the diplomatic advantage was gained, but the United States retained a much greater capacity to attack the Soviet Union than vice versa. Khrushchev's decision to send missiles to Cuba was made in the context of the "old" Cold War, but it ended up changing this context, not enhancing the Soviet Union's position in the old conflict.

3. Conclusion

The conventional perception of the Cuban missile crisis as a total failure for the Soviet Union and a total success for the United States is, I think, incorrect. The crisis was not a clear Soviet triumph, however. The fact that the missiles were withdrawn from Cuba makes this clear. The successes the Soviet Union did have came about in ways that were not anticipated. In a broad strategic sense the outcome of the crisis was a success for the Soviet Union. However, for Khrushchev himself it was almost certainly a failure.


Bibliography

Allison, Graham T.; 1971. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Boyle, Peter G.; 1993. American-Soviet Relations From the Russian Revolution to the fall of Communism (Routledge, London)

Cohen, Warren I.; 1993. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume IV: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

Gaddis, John Lewis; 1990. Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An Interpretive History (McGraw-Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Gaddis, John Lewis; 1997. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, Oxford)

Kahan, Jerome H. & Long, Anne K. "The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Study of its Strategic Context" in Political Science Quarterly , Vol. 87, No. 4

Lafeber, Walter; 1980. America, Russia, and the Cold War 1945-1980 (John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, USA)

Langley, Lester D.; 1968. The Cuban Policy of the United States: A Brief History (John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY, USA)

Nogee, Joseph L. & Donaldson, Robert H.; 1988. Soviet Foreign Policy since World War II (Pergamon Press, Oxford)

Taubman, William; 2003. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (The Free Press, London)

Zubok, Vladislav & Pleshakov, Constantine; 1996. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War From Stalin to Khrushchev (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a unique event in world history. It gains this status by being the climax of the period in human history when the threat of the complete annihilation of humanity was an everyday reality. The intrinstic importance and profundity of this event seems belied by descriptions of the banal bureaucratic and tactical happenings which constituted it. This is until you realize that its profundity lies entirely in the fact such processes could, if they'd gone wrong, have obliterated mankind.

It all began in May 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev took the decision to send medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) to Cuba. It's not possible to entirely know his objectives, but we make pretty accurate guesses. The missiles actually made very little difference to the balance of power in strategic terms, i.e. the ability of the USSR to deliver nuclear damage to the USA. The USSR still couldn't carry out a debilitating first strike, and its strike capacity wasn't massively increased by the move. Rather, it was more a political affirmation of Soviet power, an attempt by the Soviets to demonstrate they were on equal global political parity with the USA. If America could station missiles in Turkey, so the Soviet logic went, then the USSR had a right to station missiles in Cuba. This option was even more attractive because it would help Cuba defend itself.

The Castro regime held a special place in the heart of many Bolsheviks. It was the only country on the planet to have gone Communist and enter the Soviet bloc without the imposition of the Red Army. It was also the only Communist nation in the Western Hemisphere. Only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the Cuban regime was a sure signal to the Soviets that nowhere in the world was safe for capitalism any longer. They were especially keen that the flower of the revolution in Cuba not be squashed by the Americans, who had attempted to overthrow the Castro regime at the Bay of Pigs.

The Soviet military build-up in Cuba was not limited to strategic weapons. Also involved were 50,000 Soviet troops, Il-28 nuclear bombers, nuclear submarines and 100 tactical nuclear weapons (used on the battlefield). Clearly this couldn't proceed unnoticed, and even before the 15 October discovery of the MRBM launch sites the US knew something was afoot. However, sadly a partisan issue was made out of it. Republicans in Congress angrily denounced Kennedy's acquiesence in the Soviet military build-up, and JFK continued to deny the magnitude of the deployment. Indeed, its full scale would not be known until the opening of Soviet archives in the 1980s. This is lucky, because had the scale been known then the crisis would undoubtedly have been more serious - the withdrawal of the tactical nukes, for example, would be almost impossible to verify. Mistrust might have stymied an agreement.

The Soviet infiltration operation had been carried out with honed skill, as befitted a military that had now spent over fifteen years creeping where it was not wanted. However, it was nigh on impossible to hide the missile bases from U-2 RECON planes. Combining pictures taken with base construction manuals leaked by Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, America's premier Cold War spy, a positive identification could be made of the MRBM sites only hours after the photographs were taken. They also allowed the Americans to see that the bases were not yet operational, giving crucial time to act. This was the first miracle of the crisis, meaning that rather than leaping straight to offensive action the administration sat down and considered its options.

The strategy eventually decided upon was a blockade of Cuba, to which the Soviets responded with nothing more than a political offensive by denouncing it in their propaganda. As the blockade had the approval of the Organization of American States, Soviet denunciation proved ineffective. This blockade went into effect on 22 October, and many Soviet ships immediately turned back or changed course. The Russians were not keen on the thought of the Americans capturing a ship with their latest military equipment onboard, and nor were they willing to escalate the incident by commencing military action - especially when the MRBM bases were not operational.

The reality was that Soviet leader Khrushchev was in a bit of a bind. He had taken this risk partly to appease those in his inner circle who believed he was too soft on the West. This meant if he was going to back down he'd need an excuse, or he risked being overthrown by hard-liners. Some members of the Soviet Presidium (analagous to a Western Cabinet) had fallen for their propaganda in believing the USA was planning a decisive and cataclysmic confrontation with the Communist world - and they wished to steal a march by striking first. Khrushchev, by a process largely closed to us, managed to overrule those who were willing to risk local or general war over Cuba.

He was helped by faulty intelligence he received suggesting the US was planning to invade Cuba on the night of 26 October. This threw the reality of the situation into sharp focus for the Soviet side, as an invasion of Cuba was bound to result in general war. At this point he ordered a stand down and started pushing hard for a diplomtaic solution. It seems that the local commander who ordered the shooting down of the U-2 RECON on 27 October had sour grapes, but luckily this didn't lead to any further escalation.

Khrushchev's demands were telling - first, a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba and secondly, the withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Turkey. This second demand was kept secret from the world, so it appeared to most that the Soviet leader had merely backed down (the non-invasion pledge wasn't considered a significant gain, because most of the world realized the USA wasn't going to invade Cuba anyway). In fact, the Soviets had gained a small quid pro quo, but that this outcome was seen as unfavourable was shown by Khrushchev's overthrow shortly afterward.

To conclude, all diplomatic histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis make it sound like the outcome was always safe. It's often stated that Kennedy and Khrushchev held the fate of the world in their hands, but anyone who has seen Dr. Strangelove might pause to think otherwise. The crisis put power in the hands of multiple men, and fate herself, to bring about nuclear war. One example is illustrative. Before the crisis, the CIA was running a program called Operation Mongoose designed to destabilize the Cuban regime by aiding exiles with an axe to grind. On 7 October one such group of exiles decided, entirely on its own authority, to blow up a factory. What if they had attacked a missile site?

Luck played a decisive role in this encounter, which made the introduction of those red telephones afterward even more comforting. Both powers had come so close to the nightmare of nuclear holocaust that they blinked, woke up as if from sleepwalking, and pondered how they'd got in such a state. We wouldn't be here today if this defining moment in the history of the world had gone even slightly wrong.


Further reading

The story of the crisis is told well in James A. Nathan, Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Westport CT, 2001) and more briefly in Norman H. Finkelstein, Thirteen Days/Nineteen Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1994).

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