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Cuban Missile Crisis

John F. Kennedy’s greatest triumph as President of
the United States came in 1962, as the world’s two largest superpowers, the
Soviet Union and the United States, edged closer and closer to nuclear war. The
Soviet premier of Russia was caught arming Fidel Castro with nuclear weapons.

The confrontation left the world in fear for thirteen long days, with the life
of the world on the line. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet
Union, employed a daring gambit. He secretly ordered the placement of Soviet
nuclear weapons in Cuba. Earlier the Soviet premier had promised Soviet
protection to Cuba (“Cuban” 774). This was the first time any such
weapons had been placed outside of Eurasia (Hersh 345). Several explanations for
his actions have been offered by historians. One factor in Khrushchev’s
decision was a strategic one (Hersh 346). A year earlier, the United States had
placed several medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey (“Cuban 774). The
missiles were just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, within sight of
Khrushchev’s summer home (Hersh 346). President Kennedy had earlier ignored his
advisors and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey. Another factor was a threat by
the US to one of the Soviet Union’s satellite countries, Cuba (Hersh 346). The
United States had, in the past, attempted to kill Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba
(Brinkley 1047). In July of 1962, the United States found out that nuclear
missile shipments were being made to Cuba. United States U-2 spy planes flew
over the island, bringing back reports of construction and ballistic missiles
(“Cuban” 744). The CIA found that five thousand Russian military
technicians were in Cuba, and various military weapons were being unloaded onto
the island. When U-2 activity was increased, reports showed the presence of SAMs
(surface-to-air missiles) and torpedo boats with ship-to-ship rockets (Mills
233). On September 4, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with Robert Kennedy
to discuss a message from Khrushchev. According to the message, the military
buildup was defensive in nature and not militarily threatening. Robert F.

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Kennedy informed the ambassador that the United States would closely watch all
military activity in Cuba and warned of severe consequences should the Soviets
place offensive weapons (Mills 233). President Kennedy apparently did not
believe the message. He asked Congress for the authority to mobilize over
100,000 reservists into active duty. The Soviets response was that they could
fire rockets from Russia just as easily as from Cuba. Offensive missiles in
Cuba, they argued, were therefore unnecessary for an offensive base(Mills 234).

Furthermore, the United States had over 3,000 nuclear warheads and nearly 300
missile launchers, opposed to the Soviet Union’s 250 warheads and 24 to 44
missile launchers (Hersh 343). Still, John Kennedy thought that Cuba could
become a base for military operations at any given moment. The United States had
to be prepared to face it (Mills 234). At this point in the crisis, John McCone,
the CIA director, was regularly sending President Kennedy reports of missiles
capable of launching a nuclear warhead being sent to Cuba. According to McCone,
medium-range ballistic missiles(MRBMs) would be next (Hersh 348). U-2’s were
sent to scout the west end of Cuba. On October 14, the CIA reported that
construction had begun for MRBMs (Mills 235). Despite the increased state of
readiness in the US, many people did not realize that the Soviet Union had done
nothing on its home territory during the crisis. Its fleet of ICBM launchers
were not mobilized and neither were Soviet reserves. There were not even any
threats against Berlin (Hersh 343). Regardless of what the Soviets said, the
United States was still far ahead in the nuclear arms race. ICBM’s were
expensive to build and the Soviet Union did not have an abundance of money.

Installing the smaller missiles in Cuba was much cheaper than building more
ICBMs. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy would not oppose the building of the
missile bases in Cuba because the United States President had not opposed
Khrushchev in the past (Mills 236). Not only did he secretly place the missiles
in Cuba, but Khrushchev used Georgi Bolshakov and others to tell President
Kennedy that missiles were not being shipped to Cuba. The Soviet premier was
cautious to avoid a direct lie, even though he was clearly deceptive.

Eventually, Kennedy chose to believe Khrushchev over the CIA reports that were
being dropped on his desk. Excom, the Executive Committee of the National
Security Council, was secretly called. These were hand-picked advisors of
Kennedy. The newest U-2 reports were shown and explained. Ninety miles off the
coast of Florida, missiles were being prepared (Hersh 348). Finally, on October
16, Kennedy realized that Khrushchev had been continuously lying to him. The
President could have been humiliated by Khrushchev. He, however, turned the
tables, and chose to humiliate the Soviet premier instead (Hersh 344-5).

President Kennedy directed Excom to devise several possible courses of action,
and Kennedy would decide which to follow (Mills 236). The next meeting of Excom
raised more questions. The members of Excom wanted to know why was the Soviet
Union building missile bases in Cuba. Several ideas were brought forward. They
hypothesized that he could be trying to get the US to remove the missiles that
were placed in Turkey. Another theory is that Castro was alarmed at Republican
insistence to invade Cuba and had asked for military assistance. “One
member of Excom quoted an old Russian adage: ‘If you strike steel, pull back. If
you strike mush, keep going.'” He implied that if President Kennedy didn’t
respond, Khrushchev would think he could get away with other things (Mills 237).

By October 17, U-2 reports showed that anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two
medium-range ballistic missile sites and would be ready within seven days.

Construction for intermediate-range missile sites was already under way and
would be operational by December. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a member
of Excom, suggested that the United States place a naval “quarantine”n
Soviet Ships on the way to Cuba. This was to serve as a warning to Khrushchev
(Mills 238). The members of Excom that wanted an air strike were against the
proposal. Those in favor of immediate, pre-emptive airstrikes argued that the
missiles that were already on the island would not be affected by the blockade.

They could not promise the success of an air strike, however. It would be
extremely difficult to bomb all the sites, and if even one site was missed, it
might mean nuclear war. The Pentagon suggested a massive bombing to destroy all
kinds of military equipment, and perhaps even Castro himself (Mills 238).

Arguments were raised, and debate continued. Some felt an invasion was called
for, while others opposed air strikes. On October 18, photographs revealed that
construction on the missile bases was occurring at a faster rate than originally
thought. The first medium-range missile site would be completed within the next
day and a half. The missiles were targeted at several U.S. cities. It was
estimated that almost eighty million Americans would be killed, just minutes
after the firing of the missiles (Mills 238). Kennedy had decided not to bring
up the issue of the missiles in a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister
Andrei Gromyko, and listened to his comments. Gromyko said that the few Soviet
defenses that existed were set up to defend from possible American attack. Later
the President was reported saying, “I was dying to confront him with our
evidence. It was incredible to sit there and watch the lies coming out of his
mouth” (Mills 239). According to recently declassified files in Moscow,
Khrushchev had sent over 100 nuclear warheads into the Caribbean island, in case
of American attack. Approximately 42,000 Soviet soldiers were ready to launch
the nukes within a few hours notice. The Soviet commander in Cuba, General Issa
Pliyev, was prepared to use every one of those warheads, should the United
States invade Cuba. Neither of the Kennedy brothers had any idea that Cuba was
ready to launch nuclear warheads at the first sign of an invasion (Hersh 355).

During the meeting with Gromyko, the members of Excomm were attempting to agree
on a plan. Most leaned towards the strategy of a naval blockade. In case the
blockade failed to get Khrushchev to remove the missiles, military action could
act as a backup plan. A few fears were voiced, however, such as the possibility
of Castro executing the Bay of Pigs prisoners, or Soviet air strikes, if the
blockade failed (Mills 340). The day after the meeting with Gromyko, President
Kennedy went to campaign, and left the Excom members to sort out their feelings
and come up with a plan. They began to have second thoughts about the blockade,
and some even pushed for a military strike. Robert Kennedy opposed the military
strike, explaining that this was not a fight for survival, it was a fight to
uphold America’s ideals and heritage. Saturday, October 20, Robert called his
brother and told him the result. It was the president’s choice; Excom could not
reach a decision (Mills 241). JFK soon returned to the White House, and again
heard all the plans. United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai
Stevenson, proposed giving up a naval base at Guantanamo, or pull the Jupiter
missiles from Turkey. Both suggestions were rejected. There were too many
problems with the air strike proposal. The Commander-in-Chief of the United
States ordered the blockade to begin (Mills 242). By Sunday, America’s allies
knew of the situation, special briefings were given to members of the
Organization of American States (OAS), and Congressional leaders were requested
to return to Washington. On Monday, President Kennedy addressed the nation. Two
letters were delivered to Khrushchev in Moscow, just thirty minutes before
Kennedy’s address. One was a copy of the speech, the other was a letter from JFK
himself. He wrote that he assumed that Khrushchev knew better than to drive the
world to nuclear chaos in which it was clear no country would win. At 7 PM,
October 22, the President spoke to the nation (Mills 242). “Good evening,
my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest
surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba….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 full retaliatory response upon the Soviet
Union” (Mills 242-3). As the President began his speech, the Pentagon moved
the military alert to DEFCON 3, the highest military alert short of all-out war
(Hersh 355). The largest US force since D-Day was assembled in Georgia and
Florida. Over one hundred thousand troops stood ready, bombers of the Strategic
Air Command flew the skies, and 180 ships were in the Caribbean (Mills 243).

Nuclear weapons were placed on bombers in Spain, Morocco, and England. Their
target: the Soviet Union (Hersh 356). The next day, pilots flew over Cuba and
snapped photographs of two operational medium-range ballistic missile sites.

Back in Washington, evacuations were commencing. Jackie Kennedy refused to
evacuate without her husband. Robert Kennedy would not budge, either (Mills
243). Surveillance planes sighted twenty-five Soviet ships, along with six
submarines, headed for Cuba. In a message to Kennedy that night, on October 23,
Khrushchev warned that the blockade would be ignored, and the Soviet ships would
deliver the missiles. He said that America’s actions would lead to a nuclear war
(Mills 243). The Excom group found out that several Soviet ships were en route
to the blockade. If they did not stop, planes and ships from the carrier Essex
would be forced to fire. The Russian response might have included ICBM’s from
the Soviet Union, or missiles from Cuba. The president was nervous, and so were
the Excom members. Then the news came: some of the Russian ships were stopping
(Mills 244). Stevenson asked the Soviet ambassador, Zorin, in a UN Security
Council meeting whether he denied the existence of medium and intermediate range
missiles in Cuba. Zorin replied that he was not in an American courtroom, to
which Stevenson replied, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell
freezes over…and I am also prepared to present the evidence in this
room–now!” (Mills 245) The surveillance photographs taken by the spy
planes were brought in(“13” 4C). Stevenson explained that he was
trying to preserve peace, not debate (Mills 245). The blockade stopped its first
Soviet ship on Friday. Armed parties from two American destroyers boarded the
ship and searched. It was determined that it was carrying only trucks, and was
allowed to continue (Mills 245). According to photographs taken that Friday, the
MRBMs would be ready soon, and the intermediate-range missiles would be
operational by the end of November. The possibility of an air strike was raised
again by some Excom members. Unknown to Excom and the world at large, Kennedy
and Khrushchev were keeping in touch. Khrushchev insisted that he wanted the US
and Russia to have a peaceful rivalry and not begin a war. As long as America
promised not to invade Cuba, the missiles would be taken out (Mills 245). An
Excom meeting was called to order, to draft a reply to Khrushchev’s words.

However, the Soviet premier sent out a more aggressive message during the
meeting: the US was to remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey. The FBI reported that
Russian diplomats were destroying papers in New York (Mills 246). Fidel Castro
was amazingly ignored throughout this whole crisis. He was certain that the
Americans were invading and was frustrated that Pliyev refused to fire at the
U-2’s. Castro finally obtained authority to shoot the planes down (Hersh 362).

The U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed. The Pentagon insisted on an air
strike, followed by an invasion of Cuba (Mills 246). Robert Kennedy suggested
that Excom should treat the second message as if it never existed, and reply to
the first. Within an hour, the president’s reply was sent back to the Soviet
premier. The Jupiter missiles were left out of the proposal, but it accepted the
removal of the missiles under UN supervision. President Kennedy promised not to
invade Cuba and stopped the blockade. On Sunday, October 28, Khrushchev agreed.

The crisis was at an end (Mills 246). The missiles were removed and the sites
demolished. Khrushchev soon announced that he would concentrate on Russia’s
economic problems instead of international military matters. He asked for
solutions from the West in solving the Berlin dilemma. He thought that “in
the next war, the survivors will envy the dead” (Mills 246). On Christmas
Eve, 1962, over $50 million of baby food and medical supplies were sent, and the
Bay of Pigs prisoners were released. In April 1963, Kennedy had the Jupiter
missiles removed from Turkey, and four months later, Russia signed the nuclear
test ban treaty. A “hot line” teletype link now enabled instant
communication between Moscow and Washington, and the US sold extra wheat and
flour to the Soviet Union. The tide of the Cold War turned–for a little while
(Mills 247). The crisis was the closest the world had ever come to global
nuclear war and could possibly be the reason for Khrushchev’s fall in 1964
(“Cuban” 774). Those thirteen days left the world in awe of the
determination and responsibility of the United States and its young president (Hersh
342). John Kennedy summarized his dealings with Khrushchev in just five words:
“I cut his balls off” (Hersh 341).


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