Cuban Missile Crisis
Low-level photograph of nuclear missile construction site at San Cristobal, Cuba, 25 Oct 1962.
In October 1962, the world held its collective breath while the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of full-scale nuclear warfare. Recent disclosures show that the prospect of annihilation was even closer than most participants realized.
At issue was the discovery that the Soviets were installing nuclear weapons in Cuba, which had been subject to an ongoing campaign of harassment, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Operation Mongoose's sabotage and subversion activities, and plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Although the U.S. had nuclear missiles in foreign countries pointing at the Soviet Union, particularly in Turkey, U.S. officials were adamant that a Communist nuclear beachhead not be established in the Western hemisphere.
President Kennedy convened the so-called ExComm meetings in tight secrecy, and participants debated what course of action to take. Most advised air strikes followed by an invasion of Cuba to take out the missiles. After much deliberation, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade of Cuba coupled with demands that the Soviets withdraw the missiles, and also private communications with Khrushchev to try to defuse the tensions.
The strategy worked, and the missiles were withdrawn. Part of the arrangement reached was that Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba, contingent upon UN inspections proving the missiles were actually removed (Castro refused to allow this). He also made assurances that the missiles in Turkey, which were becoming obsolete anyway with the advent of a nuclear-armed submarine fleet, would be quietly removed at a later date.
Many hawks in the U.S. were furious over Kennedy's failure to seize the event as a justification for invading Cuba and removing Castro. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay told Kennedy that this was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," referring to the British government's failure to confront Hitler over his invasion of Poland. What neither Kennedy nor LeMay knew was that Soviet field commanders in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons at their disposal, and an invasion would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear response.
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