On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy told the nation we were preparing to go to war with the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted from October 14 – 28, 1962.
I was fifteen, in tenth grade, and remember it clearly.
In the 1960s, nuclear war was on everyone’s minds.
Mutually-assured destruction (MAD) was our safety net.
If you launch nuclear missiles, we’ll launch nuclear missiles and together we will wipe out the world, so let’s not do that.
We were eye-to-eye in a Cold War with the Communist U.S.S.R, or Soviet Union, almost immediately after the end of World War II.
The Soviets had grabbed all of Eastern Europe immediately after the war’s end and, though we weren’t up for a fight over it, despite the fact that the war had started in Europe over Germany’s invasion of Poland, we were wary of the U.S.S.R.’s seeming intent to continue expanding their influence around the world.
It came to a head in Cuba, in October, 1962.
The U.S.S.R. wanted a foothold in the Americas and we were rightly concerned.
Cuba is only 90 miles off the shore of Florida.
It started when we, under NATO auspices, put nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at Moscow.
Then, we tried to overthrow Fidel Castro in the failed Bay of Pigs attempt in April 1961.
Castro, Prime Minister of Communist Cuba, had taken power in 1959 when he overthrew Fulgencio Batista, who had himself taken over in a military coup in 1952, then was elected President, with no opposition, in 1954.
In May, 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, thinking President Kennedy weak after the Berlin Wall had been erected with no counter-response and fearful of our lead in missile production, decided to put nuclear missiles in Cuba.
If this worked, he could then try to evict Americans from West Berlin, trading the end of missile presence in Cuba for the end of American presence in West Berlin.
Castro, fearing additional attacks on Cuba from the U.S., which we were indeed planning, agreed.
By July, 1962, Soviet missile site construction experts were arriving in Cuba to do site surveys, reporting back that the missile sites could be hidden by palm trees.
Ground observers reported surface-to-air missile sites at eight locations by August 1962.
On August 10, 1962, CIA Director John McCone warned Kennedy that the observed antiaircraft missiles in Cuba were likely there to protect planned ballistic missiles.
On September 7, in response to increased concern by the U.S. that offensive Soviet weapons were being shipped to Cuba, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. claimed that they were only defensive weapons.
On September 11, 1962, Khrushchev warned that an attack on Cuba or Soviet ships carrying supplies to Cuba would be considered an act of war.
On September 11, October 13 and October 17, the U.S. received continued assurances from the Soviets that they were not shipping offensive nuclear missiles to Cuba.
On September 8 and September 16, the first batches of intermediate range Soviet missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, with a 1,200-mile range, arrived in Cuba.
On October 7, 1962, the Cuban President, Osvaldo Dorticos, warned at the U.N.,
“If … we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves.”
While the activity on the ground did not go unnoticed by the Cuban population, many of whom sent reports to the U.S., it was the long trucks that couldn’t make the turns in small towns that worried U.S. intelligence.
Defensive weapons could have made the turns. Only offensive weapons could not.
On October 14, 1962, we sent a U-2 spy plane to photograph the suspected missile sites.
On October 15, 1962, the CIA interpreted the photos taken by the U-2, identifying medium-range missile sites and briefed Kennedy the next day.
He and his National Security Council and advisors decided they had six options:
- Do nothing. Despite Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric about the missile gap, the U.S. had a decided advantage over the Soviets in missile capability – 5,000 U.S. to 300 Soviet warheads
- Diplomacy. Try to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles
- Warning. Send a message to Castro about the grave danger he was in by allowing missiles in his country
- Blockade. Block any new missiles from getting to Cuba
- Air strike. Attack all known missile sites
- Invasion. Invade Cuba and overthrow Castro.
The U.S. military favored the invasion option. They did not believe Khrushchev would defend Cuba.
Kennedy believed the Soviets would retaliate in West Berlin.
On October 18, 1962, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs met with Kennedy and personally assured him that the weapons were defensive in nature only.
By October 19, 1962, our U-2 flights had found four operational missile sites.
On October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the nation:
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargo of offensive weapons, be turned back.”
“This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.”
On October 23, 1962, Kennedy signed the Proclamation for Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba in the Oval Office.
A blockade was considered an act of war.
A quarantine against offensive weapons was justified under the Rio Treaty of reciprocal assistance of the North and South American hemisphere.
South America was enlisted to help and Argentina and Venezuela sent ships to help with the quarantine.
On October 23, 1962, we notified Turkey that we might withdraw our missiles there to resolve the Cuban missile crisis, and this is what we eventually did.
On October 24, 1962, Khrushchev sent a telegram to Kennedy saying the blockade was considered an act of aggression and their ships were going to be instructed to ignore it.
On October 25, 1962, at 1:45 AM, Kennedy responded to Khrushchev’s telegram, saying the U.S. was forced into this position because the Soviet Union’s repeated assurances that missiles in Cuba were only defensive had proved false.
On October 25, 1962, at 7:15 AM, the U.S. tried to intercept a Soviet ship, but they did not believe it had military materiel and allowed it through. Later in the day, they intercepted, boarded and checked a Lebanese ship, but it had no military materiel.
On October 25, 1962, U.S. Ambassador to the U. N., Adlai Stevenson, confronted the Soviet Ambassador in an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Stevenson showed the photographs as evidence of offensive missiles in Cuba and exhorted the Soviet ambassador to respond, at one time pushing him by saying “Don’t wait for the interpreter. What do you have to say?”
The Soviet Ambassador did not respond.
Also on October 25, the Soviets turned around 14 ships rather than try to get through the blockade.
On October 26, 1962, we went to DEFCON 2, the only time in U.S. history, with B-52s in the air and B-47s disbursed to airfields, made ready to take off on 15 minutes’ notice.
145 intercontinental ballistic missiles were on ready alert. 161 nuclear-armed interceptors were put on 15-minute alert status. 23 nuclear-armed B-52s went into orbit within striking distance of the Soviet Union.
Low-level flights over Cuba were increased from two a day to two an hour.
Except for the missiles in Cuba, however, the Soviets were reported not to be gearing up for a war footing.
At 1PM on October 26, an ABC News correspondent met with a Soviet spy who wanted to see if the U.S. would be willing to promise not to invade Cuba if the missiles were removed.
The U.S. asked Brazil to communicate such a promise to Castro, saying the U.S. wold be “unlikely to invade” if the missiles were removed.
At 6PM, a telegram from Khrushchev to that effect arrived at the U.S. State Department. If we promised not to invade Cuba, they would have no more need of missiles.
On October 27, 1962, the CIA reported that five of the missile sites in Cuba were operational.
At 9 AM on October 27, 1962, Radio Moscow broadcast a message that the missiles in Cuba would be removed if the U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy were removed.
At 11 AM Khrushchev delivered the same message as the radio broadcast directly to the U.S.
You are worried about missiles in Cuba. We are worried about missiles in Turkey and Italy. Let’s pledge to remove them, respectively, with U.N. Security Council inspections as guarantee.
On the morning of October 27, 1962, a U.S. U-2 aircraft was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot. Several reconnaissance planes were shot at.
We learned later that Khrushchev had understood that if our U-2 planes were shot down over Cuba we would consider it an escalation by the Soviets, because the Cubans were not capable of shooting down the U-2s.
He had ordered his Soviet Cuba commander not to shoot down the U-2s. It was discovered later that an unknown commander, acting on his own, had ordered the shooting.
Kennedy decided to wait, to see if it was an accident, though he had earlier pledged to retaliate on any missile site that shot down one of our U-2s.
Later in the day, the U.S. Navy dropped signaling depth charges at the blockade line on a Soviet submarine, forcing them to surface.
We learned later that the submarine was armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
Firing them required the unanimous agreement of the three officers in charge. One objected and the torpedoes were not fired.
On the evening of October 27, 1962, Kennedy, along with his advisors, and after meetings between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador, drafted and sent a letter responding to Khrushchev’s first proposal.
If they would stop sending missiles to Cuba, we would have no reason to invade and they would have no reason to keep their missiles in Cuba any longer, with an oral understanding that if the missiles were not removed, we would not hesitate to take military action to remove them.
No mention was made of Turkey in the letter, but Kennedy, in private discussions with the Soviets, agreed that if the missiles were removed from Cuba, we would also remove our missiles from Turkey and Italy.
At 9 AM, October 28, Khrushchev broadcast a message on Radio Moscow,
“the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as ‘offensive’ and their crating and return to the Soviet Union.”
Kennedy responded immediately with a statement that we would not invade or allow our territory to be used as a launchpad for an invasion of Cuba, or interfere in internal Cuban affairs.
With the blockade still in place, we monitored progress. Between November 5-9, 42 missiles were loaded onto eight ships and returned to the Soviet Union.
The blockade was lifted November 20, 1962. U.S. forces returned to DEFCON 4 on the same day.
The last U.S. missiles in Turkey were taken apart by April 24, 1963 and removed.
The Moscow-Washington hotline, the famous red phone, was established in 1963 so the Kremlin and the Pentagon could talk to each other directly to avert future crises.
It was never red and never a telephone, but rather first a teletype, then a fax, and is now a secure email link.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru