The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was one of the most dangerous incidents the United States and the rest of the world ever experienced. It was the closest America came to a nuclear conflict since World War II. The event pitted American President John F. Kennedy against Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as the two countries attempted to navigate the 13-day standoff without bloodshed.
The crisis began on October 14, 1962 after the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was building missiles in Cuba that would be aimed at the country. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro allied with the Soviets after he seized power in Cuba after a violent revolution. He then formed a communist government that became dependent on Russia for military and economic aid.
After the discovery, Kennedy was informed about the situation. He gathered a group of advisors called the executive committee. These individuals helped the president decide how to handle the situation over the next two weeks.
It was not just the fact that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba that caused concern for Kennedy. It was also that these would be nuclear armed projectiles that were being built on land that was located only 90 miles away from Florida, meaning that if they could be completed, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) could kill many Americans.
Khrushchev had been hoping to install missiles in Cuba to give the USSR a nuclear advantage over the United States, which would make the nation more of a power on the world stage. The Soviet government were worried about American missiles targeting Russia from sites in Turkey and Western Europe. The Soviets believed having missiles in Cuba would put them on par with the U.S.
The Soviet leader believed he could exploit the tense relationship between America and Cuba by convincing Castro to allow him to place missiles on their land. Kennedy had previously launched an invasion of Cuba in 1961, only one year before the crisis.
The moment the U.S. discovered the missiles, they realized they could not allow the Soviets to keep missiles that close to American soil. However, the problem was figuring out how to get the USSR to remove them without using military and nuclear force.
Kennedy and the executive committee considered a number of options to deal with the problem. They looked at bombing the missile sites and even thought about launching another military invasion of Cuba.
Eventually, the president and his advisors decided to use the U.S. Navy to form a blockade around the island. This means they sent a number of warships to the ocean surrounding Cuba to prevent anyone from getting in or out of the country. This was designed to prevent the Soviets from bringing more missiles and equipment to the country. He sent a message to Khrushchev, telling him to remove the weapons.
On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy notified the American public in a television broadcast about the missiles and his decision to order the blockade. He told the people he was willing to use military force to eliminate this threat if necessary.
After Kennedy’s speech, Americans were nervous about how the Soviets would respond. Many prepared for nuclear war by collecting food and gas.
A Naval Showdown
The situation between the U.S. and the USSR intensified on October 24 when Soviet ships headed to Cuba came close to the wall of American warships that formed the blockade.
If the Soviet ships had tried to break through the blockade, it would have sparked a military conflict that could have easily escalated into a nuclear confrontation. Fortunately, the ships stopped just short of trying to get through the blockade.
A nuclear war was averted for the time being, but there was still the problem of the missiles. After the close call with the blockade, the standoff continued. An American plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27, and the U.S. was preparing a military force to invade. The pilot, Rudolf Anderson, died in the incident and was the only casualty of the crisis.
Anderson’s death shook Kennedy’s team, who believed it might be impossible to escape war at that point. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, later wrote, “There was the feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling.”
A Crisis Averted
After almost two weeks, Kennedy and Khrushchev found a way to avoid nuclear war. They had been communicating throughout the entire crisis.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy offering to take down the missiles in Cuba in exchange for Kennedy promising not to invade the island. The day after, he stated the USSR would remove their installations if the U.S. agreed to remove their missiles in Turkey.
The Kennedy administration agreed to the terms of the first message while ignoring the second. But in private, the U.S. agreed to take down its missiles in Turkey.
The result of the crisis was that both America and the U.S.S.R were affected by how close the two countries came to nuclear war. The next year, the two countries established a “hot line” communication link to make it easier to avoid other situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis.