Cuban Missile Crisis, a U.S.-Soviet confrontation in October 1962 that posed a grave threat to world peace and constituted Pres. John F. Kennedy's most serious diplomatic dilemma. The Soviet Union began shipping missiles to Cuba in late July 1962 in an attempt to strengthen Russia's position in the strategic world balance of power. The Soviet premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, believed that Kennedy lacked resolve and would not force a confrontation. By October 14, as a result of evidence secured from American U-2 surveillance flights, it was clear that medium- and intermediate-range missile sites were actively under construction.
Threat and Reaction
Kennedy faced a difficult choiceto do nothing would endanger America's role as the greatest world power; to act hastily might cast the world into a holocaust. Determined to see the missiles removed, Kennedy met secretly for four tense days with his top military and civilian advisers. Three basic alternatives were discussed: a naval blockade of Cuba, an invasion or direct air strike, or a settlement through the United Nations. Finally, the president opted for the blockade, or "quarantine."
On October 22 Kennedy publicly announced that the USSR had erected bases in Cuba to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere. He said that the United States was imposing a "strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment" en route to Cuba. The president appealed to premier Khrushchev to recall the weapons.
Soviet diplomats denied the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba and expressed shock at Kennedy's message. On October 24 Khrushchev warned that if the United States carried out its "piracy," the Soviet Union would move to defend its rights. On October 25 the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Adlai Stevenson, publicized the incriminating U-2 photographs at a UN meeting, thus calling Khrushchev's bluff. Russian denials no longer sufficed. A day later Khrushchev sent an impassioned letter to Kennedy. It said that the time had come to stop the drift toward war and that the USSR would remove the missiles if the United States agreed not to invade Cuba.
Resolution of the Crisis
Although a second letter proposing less acceptable terms arrived from Moscow a day later, the president's advisers initially ignored it and answered the first. Should this approach have failed, plans were well under way for an armed invasion of Cuba on October 30. These plans were never implemented, for on October 28 Khrushchev backed down, ordering the destruction of the Cuban sites in return for an American pledge of nonintervention in Cuban affairs. The crisis was at an end.
Khrushchev's failure cost him and the Soviet Union dearly in loss of prestige. Cuban premier Fidel Castro brooded over Russia's betrayal. The Chinese scoffed at Khrushchev's "shameful capitulation." Kennedy, however, gained stature. The missile showdown temporarily silenced Republicans critical of his Cuban policy. It also strengthened his determination to maintain peace. He realized this goal; the United States and the USSR signed a limited nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963.
In documents made available to researchers after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and in audio tapes of conversations about the crisis between Kennedy and his advisers released in 1997, it became evident that there was another, secret component to the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. In the second letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy, the Soviet leader pointed to the presence of U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, 150 miles (240 km) from the Russian border, and stipulated that he would be willing to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the removal by the United States of its missiles in Turkey. This secret trade-off was agreed to by Kennedy and kept quiet by Khrushchevuntil it came to light independently 30 years later.
Geoffrey S. Smith Macalester College
Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2d ed. (Longman 1999).
Chang, Laurence, and Peter Kornbluh, eds, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (New Press 1992).
May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis (Harvard Univ. Press 1997) [transcripts and analysis of White House recordings].
Thompson, Robert Smith, The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Simon & Schuster 1992).
White, Mark J., Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, and the 1962 Crisis (I. R. Dee 1997).