Many agree that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war; but exactly how close did it come? The Crisis was ultimately a showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union from October 16 to October 28, 1962. During those thirteen stressful days, the worlds two biggest superpowers stood on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. The Crisis started as a result of both the Soviet Unions fear of losing the arms race, and Cubas fear of US invasion. The Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, thought that both problems could easily be solved by placing Soviet medium range missiles in Cuba. This deployment would double the Soviet arsenal and protect Cuba from US invasion. Khrushchev proposed this idea to Cuban Premier, Fidel Castro, who, like Khrushchev, saw the strategic advantage. The two premiers worked together in secrecy throughout the late-summer and early-fall of 1962. The Soviets shipped sixty medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) along with their warheads, launch equipment, and necessary operating personnel to Cuba.
When United States President, John F. Kennedy discovered the presence of these offensive weapons, he immediately organized EX-COMM, a group of his twelve most important advisors. They spent the next couple of days discussing different possible plans of action and finally decided to remove the US missiles from Turkey and promise not to invade Cuba in exchange for the removal of all offensive weapons in Cuba. On October 28, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter stating that he agreed to the terms Kennedy stated, and the crisis ended. The Cuban Missile Crisis can be blamed on the insecurity of Cuba and the Soviet Union. After the United States unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Castro and end communism in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Castro was fearful of another US invasion.
The US Armed Forces conducted a mock invasion and drafted a plan to invade Cuba to keep Castro nervous. As a result, Castro thought the US was serious, and he was desperate to find protection. This protection came in the form of sixty Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles. (Detzer 30-32, 39, 55, 68, 87) During his presidential campaign, Kennedy repeatedly stated that the US had less missiles than the Soviets, contradicting the Pentagons claim that the opposite was true. However, during the summer of 1961, when Khrushchev constructed a wall around West Berlin, the Kennedy Administration revealed to Khrushchev that the US. did, in fact, have more missiles than the Soviet Union.
What worried Khrushchev the most, though, was that the Soviet missiles were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe, but the US missiles were capable of striking the entire Soviet Union. He worried that if the Soviet Union lost the arms race that badly, it would invite a nuclear attack from the US. Khrushchev needed a way to counter the United States lead. (May 49) In April of 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came up with the idea of installing medium-range missiles in Cuba. Cuba was close enough to the United States that the Soviet missiles would be an effective deterrent to a potential US attack against either the Soviet Union or Cuba.
Castro accepted Khrushchevs offer, since it would protect Cuba and, therefore, solve Castros previous dilemma. In mid-July of 1962, the Soviet Union began its buildup of offensive weapons in Cuba. The Soviets spent most of the late-summer and early-fall of 1962 ferrying launch equipment and personnel necessary for the preparation of missiles to Cuba. Since they could not use military ships (for fear of being discovered) the Soviets used civilian vessels. However, even with this caution, their actions were detected. As the US monitored the suddenly increased shipping activity to Cuba, rumors started in Washington.
On August 10, John McCone, director of the CIA, sent the President a letter stating his belief that the Soviets were placing MRBMs in Cuba. On August 29, a U-2 on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba revealed the presence of SA-2 SAM (Surface-to-Air-Missile) sites. On September 4, to calm the Congress and public, Kennedy announced that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba, but that since they were defensive and not offensive, the US had nothing to worry about. Pressured by Congress, Kennedy ordered another U-2 flight over Cuba for October 9. However it was delayed until Sunday, October 14.
After the pictures from the reconnaissance flight were analyzed, the National Photographic Interpretation Center found what at first were thought to be more surface-to-air missile sites. A closer look, however, showed six much larger SS-4 nuclear missiles; each 60 to 65 feet long. They now knew they had a big problem. President Kennedy was informed of the missiles during breakfast the next day. It was now clear to him that the Soviets had been purposefully deceiving him for months. Kennedy immediately scheduled two meetings for that morning.
At the first one, he looked over the photos. The missiles he saw had a range of 1,100 miles and could hit major US cities including New York, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. At the time, the missiles were not yet operational, nor did they have nuclear warheads, but they soon would. At the second meeting, Kennedy hand-picked a group of his twelve most trusted government officials to advise him on the crisis. This group was referred to as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EX-COMM.
EX-COMM included Vice President, Lyndon Johnson; Secretary of State, Dean Rusk; Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara; Chairman of the JCS, General Maxwell Taylor; Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy; Secretary of the Treasury, Douglas Dillon; CIA Director, John McCone; Attorney General, Robert Kennedy; Undersecretary of State, George Ball; Special Counsel, Theodore Sorensen; Deputy Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatric; and Soviet Specialist, Llewellyn Thompson. (Fursenko 223-224) In that meeting, Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara outlined three possible courses of action the US could take against Cuba and the Soviet Union. The first was “The political course of action.” It involved Castro and Khrushchev getting together and resolving the crisis on a diplomatic level. This plan was rejected since most members of EX-COMM thought it wouldnt work. The second plan was to blockade Cuba to prevent any more offensive missiles from entering. The third plan was military action against Cuba, starting with an air attack with missiles, followed by an invasion.
Since EX-COMM falsely believed that the missile warheads were not yet in Cuba, the goal of any action they agreed on was to stop the warheads from reaching Cuba. In order to maintain secrecy, Kennedy followed his planned schedule. So far, the Soviets still didnt know the Americans knew of the missiles in Cuba, and neither did the American public. If the Soviets found out, they might hide the missiles or launch them sooner than they had wanted. If the public found out, the nation would panic.
Kennedy was in a good mood and even joked a little while in public, but became very serious when he entered his car and called a meeting with EX-COMM. Throughout EX-COMMs discussions, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Especially the Air Force strongly argued for an air strike. Before the Air Force was done, they had planned a massive air strike that would have wiped Cuba off the planets surface, had Kennedy not denied the plan. After another U-2 flight on the night of October 17, the military discovered intermediate range (IRBMs) SS-5 nuclear missiles. Not counting Washington and Oregon, these missiles could reach all of the continental US On October 18, Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrie Gromyko. This was a strange meeting.
Since EX-COMM wasnt sure if Gromyko knew of the missiles, Kennedy decided not to confront the minister on the issue. Later that evening, while a dinner was being held in Gromykos honor, EX-COMM had an important meeting. During the meeting, a majority opinion had been reached on recommending a blockade to the White House. At the White House, Kennedy liked the idea of a blockade, but couldnt decide between it or an air strike. Kennedy met again with EX-COMM on October 20 to discuss his decision. He liked the idea of a blockade because it allowed the US to start with minimal action and increase the pressure on the Soviets as needed.
On the 21st, Kennedy decided to blockade Cuba. In the speech Kennedy would give to the nation, he would use the word “quarantine” instead of “blockade.” This was an important detail. A blockade, as defined under international treaties, is an act of war. A quarantine, however, is merely an attempt to keep something unwanted out of a particular area. In this way, the US could have its blockade, but the international community would not consider it an act of war. Later in the day, another U-2 flight revealed bombers and MiGs being assembled and cruise missile sites being built on Cubas northern shore. (Brugioni 315) On Monday, October 22, within minutes of Kennedys address to the nation, almost 300 Navy ships set sail for Cuba.
Military alert was raised to DEFCON 3 and instructions were given to be ready to launch missiles. Twenty planes armed with nuclear bombs were also in the air ready to strike the USSR At exactly 7.00 p.m., Kennedy began his speech. He stated, “..I have directed that the following initial steps be taken: First, to halt this offen …