The Cuban Missile Crisis
In April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came up with the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. At the time, the Soviet Union was behind the United States in the arms race and Soviet missiles could only be launched against Europe. Unlike the Soviets, U.S. missiles, including nuclear missiles in Turkey, were capable of striking most of the USSR.
Meanwhile, Fidel Castro was looking for a way to defend his nation from an attack by the U.S. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he was convinced a second attack was inevitable.
The crisis began on October 15, 1962 when reconnaissance photographs by a U.S. spy plane revealed Soviet missiles under construction in Cuba just 90 miles away from the coast of the United States. The crisis ended on October 28.
During the tense thirteen days of the standoff, the two great superpowers faced off in stalemate. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even.” The crisis finally ended when Kennedy and Khrushchev made a secret deal. In exchange for the Soviets backing down and withdrawing their missiles, the United States would remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey and promise not to invade Cuba.
We've never been closer to world destruction than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the moment in which the Cold War came closest to a nuclear war. We owe our very existence to the levelheaded and sound judgment of President John F Kennedy who chose a quarantine around Cuba while also negotiating with Soviet leaders. All of Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff sought a full-scale air strike and land invasion.
An attack on Cuba would have been disastrous because we had located only 33 of 42 missiles and none of the nuclear warheads. We didn’t know Cuban missiles could hit forty-eight of our fifty states.
We didn’t know there were tactical nuclear weapons stationed along Cuba's shore and they were positioned to wipe out an amphibious landing of up to 180,000 American troops. The local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow.
We were also unaware that four Soviet submarines in the area were armed with nuclear weapons and that their captains had permission to use them if attacked.
US military intelligence calculated there were 110,000 Soviet and Cuban forces to repel our invasion but there were 313,000.
The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. An escalation from there might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.
Had Richard Nixon been elected president in 1960 instead of John Kennedy, many believe there would have been nuclear annihilation of much of the world. It’s highly likely Nixon would have capitulated to the wishes of senior military advisors who recommended on several occasions that Kennedy launch air strikes against the missile installations and to follow that up with a land invasion. The Cuban Missile Crisis proves the election of a U.S. president is not just about economic and social issues. It can determine our very existence and survival.