The United States (US) and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s superpowers after the Second World War. However, their different ideologies triggered the Cold War between them, with each state trying to have dominant influence internationally. While the US promoted capitalism, the Soviet Union encouraged their support and other countries to embrace communism. Initially, Cuba followed US policies until when the relationship between the two countries deteriorated. As a result, the Cuban president sought support from the Soviet Union, and subsequent events led to the Cuban missile crisis. An evaluation of the background and chronological events of the Cuban missile crisis can help understand the predicament and its outcomes.
The Cuban revolution that led to the change of regime contributed significantly to the crisis. Fidel Castro commanded the uprising against Fulgencio Batista and succeeded in seizing power in January 1959 (History.com Editors). Castro was not a communist at that time, and therefore, the US policymakers were eager to see the approach his administration would take. However, Castro’s radical policies and anti-US rhetoric worsened the relationship between the two countries in 1959 and 1960 (History.com Editors). The US ended its diplomatic ties with Cuba after realizing that Castro was planning to establish an alliance with its rivals, the Soviet Union. The US started preparing strategies to overthrow Castro from power and replace him with someone agreeable to them. Cuba signed multiple aid and trade agreements with the Soviet Union, and Castro received arms and weaponry as well as political support from the latter.
The Origin and Events of the Cuban Missile Crisis
The US’s failed move to overthrow Castro was the main factor that triggered the crisis. The US supported Cuban exiles to conduct the Bay of Pigs invasion to form an uprising against Castro (History.com Editors). However, the Cuban armed forces overpowered the invaders, killing some and imprisoning others. Consequently, Castro turned to the Soviet Union because he believed that the superpower could protect his government against future US aggression. The Soviet Union provided Cuba with nuclear weapons to deter any invasion attempt from the US.
Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union’s president, agreed to establish nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The two leaders signed a secret pact in July 1962 to place Soviet missiles in Cuba (JFK Library). The Soviet Union started constructing missile sites in late summer. However, when conducting routine surveillance on September 4, 1962, the US intelligence learned about the construction of the Soviets’ general arms and IL-28 bombers in Cuba. (The Office of the Historian). The US president, John F. Kennedy, publicly warned the Soviet Union and Cuba against the move, but the former and the latter disregarded it. On October 14, 1962, a US U-2 aircraft captured clearer photos of the nuclear missile sites’ construction (The Office of the Historian). The intelligence team analyzed the images and presented them to the White House on October 15, triggering the Cuban missile crisis.
The US intelligence team updated the president about the situation on October 16 after the discovery of the deployment of a nuclear missile in Cuba by the Soviet Union. He immediately summoned the executive committee (ExComm.), which comprised his advisors and government officials (History.com Editors). Kennedy and his team took a week to deliberate on various options and courses of action the US would take to resolve the crisis. The US’s options were the invasion of Cuba, an airstrike against the missile bases that the Soviet Union was constructing, blocking Cuba deliveries from the Soviet Union, and taking no action (Bitesize). The issue was urgent because the establishment of nuclear missile sites in Cuba was a significant threat to the US.
The US president and ExComm wanted to address the issue as soon as possible since the installation of nuclear-armed Cuban missiles was close to the south of Florida, 90 miles from the US mainland (History.com Editors). The weapons could quickly reach strategic targets in the eastern part of the US. The team also believed that the missiles in Cuba could alter the complexion of nuclear rivalry, which was dominated by Americans, between the two superpowers if allowed to be operated.
Although the Soviet Union leader, Khrushchev, was protecting Cuba against US aggression, he has another goal to establish nuclear missile sites in the country. He wanted to increase his country’s capability to execute nuclear strikes against the US. The Soviets were uncomfortable with an increased number of nuclear weapons targeted them from Turkey and Western Europe (History.com Editors). Thus, the positioning of missile sites in Cuba was a Soviet leader’s strategy of leveling the playing ground.
The US president and ExComm resolved that their administration would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. A major challenge they faced was organizing the removal of the weapons without initiating conflict and possibly nuclear war between the superpowers. While some ExComm members deliberated on a full-scale invasion of Cuba and launching bombing attacks on the sites, President Kennedy decided to take a more calculated approach (History.com Editors). First, he decided to establish a blockade using US Navy to ensure that Cuba was not receiving more military equipment and missile deliveries from the Soviet Union. Second, he issued an ultimatum for removing missiles that were in Cuba.
The Americans learned about the presence of missiles in their neighboring after the week of deliberation between the president and the ExCom. On October 22, 1962, the president, through television broadcast, informed the citizens about the dangerous weapons and explained his decisions (Campus 2). Moreover, he accentuated the US planning to utilize military force if needed to counteract the perceived national security threat, spreading fear of war across the world. No one could have imagined the two superpowers engaging in the war following the experience during the first and second world wars. Their conflicts could have involved their allied countries and caused the death of people and destruction of economies.
The US president communicated about the issued Soviet Union leader. On the same day, he declared his actions; the president sent a letter to Khrushchev informing him that his country would not allow offensive weapons to Cuba (The Office of the Historian). He also needed that the Soviets disassemble the sites from the country and carry their weapons. According to the Office of the Historian, direct and indirect communication between the two superpowers throughout the crisis followed the letter. The negotiation between the two leaders resulted in a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Two days later, after the US president announced his plans, the government started implementing them, which was the most crucial moment of the unfolding missile crisis. On October 24, 1962, the US naval vessels blocked Soviet ships heading to Cuba (The Office of the Historian). A military confrontation could have occurred if the Soviets attempted to breach the blockade. Khrushchev responded to the US president on the same date, indicating that the blockage was an act of aggression and would order the ships to proceed. Nevertheless, the US only allowed ships with no offensive weapons to enter on October 24 and 25 (The Office of the Historian). The US placed its forces at DEFCON 2 after their intelligence noted that the missile sites were about to be operative, indicating that strategic air command war was looming since there was no sign of ending the crisis. However, the actions that followed alleviated the possibility that the US and Soviet Union got into the war.
The continued communication between the US president and the Soviets leader gave hope for ending the crisis. On October 26, 1962, the US president indicated that attacks on Cuba seemed to be the only option for removing the missiles (The Office of the Historian). However, he insisted diplomatic channel would be successful if given more time. A report from John Scali, ABC News correspondent, about the Soviets’ plan to withdraw their weapons from Cuba dramatically changed the crisis (The Office of the Historian). Nevertheless, they demanded that the US should not invade the island. While the White House staff convened to assess the validity of the information, President Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev in the evening. Khrushchev indicated that the conflict between the two superpowers would immerse the world into thermonuclear war, causing a nuclear holocaust (The Office of the Historian). The message was similar to what the reporter has said earlier, giving more hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
The events that occurred a day later diminished the hope for resolution. President Kennedy received another message on October 27, in which Khrushchev indicated that any deal had to include eliminating the US Jupiter missile from Turkey (The Office of the Historian). On the same day, the US president and his team prepared to attack Cuba after the country’s U-2 surveillance jet was shot down over Cuba (The Office of the Historian). The US president informed Khrushchev that they would not attack Cuba if the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles under United Nations’ supervision.
The US secretly agreed to Khrushchev’s conditions in the second letter. The US Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, informed the Soviet Ambassador to the country that they were scheduled to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev publicly announced that his administration would dismantle and remove Soviet missiles from Cuba on October 28, 1962, ending the crisis (Office of the Historian). Nevertheless, the Soviets removed the IL-28 bombers from Cuba on November 20, 1962, while the US did the same to Jupiter missiles in Turkey in April 1963 (The Office of the Historian). Indeed, the crisis would have been a threat to the world’s security if it had remained unresolved.
Consequences of the Crisis
While the Cuban missile crisis outcomes were a victory for the involved countries, it impacted involved leaders differently. According to the Office of the Historian, the US president benefited from the approach he adopted towards the issue. He emerged as a great leader with outstanding statesmanship following his calm but firm stance during the negotiations. Soviet officials considered Khrushchev a reckless decision-maker who could not lead the country, forcing him into retirement. Castro was frustrated because he was not involved in the negotiations regarding dismantling the nuclear missile sites constructed in his country. Consequently, the two superpowers started to reconsider their nuclear arms race, leading to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Bitesize. “Events of the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 – Flashpoints – Hungary, Berlin, Cuba – National 4 History Revision – BBC Bitesize”. BBC Bitesize. n.d. Web.
Campus, Leonardo. “Martin Luther King’S Reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis”. European Journal of American Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1-59.
History.com Editors. “Cuban Missile Crisis”. HISTORY. 2019. Web.
JFK Library. “Cuban Missile Crisis”. Jfklibrary.Org. n.d. Web.
The Office of the Historian. “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962”. History.State.Gov. n.d. Web.