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.


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)