Cuban Missile Crisis

October 1962 confrontation between the Soviet Union, Cuba and the United States

The Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis, the Caribbean Crisis, or the Missile Scare, was a 13-day (October 16–28, 1962) confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning American ballistic missile deployment in Italy and Turkey with consequent Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. The confrontation is often considered the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

President John F. Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense| Robert McNamara deliberate during the crisis.

Quotes edit

... a surprise attack would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world. ~ Robert F. Kennedy
  • To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.
  • My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead--months in which our patience and our will will be tested--months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

    The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are--but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high--and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

    Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right- -not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

  • If... we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves; we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ.
  • We must respond to this reckless gesture with a joint decision. Otherwise, the Soviet Union will move on to ever more flagrant violations of the requirements for international peace and freedom, until we will be left with no other options but complete capitulation or the outbreak of a nuclear holocaust.

About Cuban Missile Crisis edit

Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, US President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was "between 1 in 3 and even," and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. ~ Graham T. Allison
  • Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, US President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was "between 1 in 3 and even," and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The US 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. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.
  • Khrushchev had backed off; he had not only accepted the blockade but also removed his missiles, under threat of attack and without any compensating concession by JFK (except what I and most Americans assumed to be a meaningless promise not to invade Cuba). Harry Rowen had shared my confidence that the chance of nuclear war erupting from this confrontation was extremely low. I presumed President Kennedy and his lieutenants on the ExComm shared that confidence as well. Indeed, my notes reveal that sometime during that second week of the crisis, Harry had remarked to me, “I think the Executive Committee puts the chance of nuclear war very low, though they still may overestimate it by ten times. They may put it at one in a hundred.” He himself, he told me, would have said the odds were “one in a thousand.” But the day after the crisis ended, on Monday, October 29, he informed me that his boss, Paul Nitze, had just told him that he had put the chance of some form of nuclear war, if we had struck the missiles in Cuba, as “fairly high.” And his estimate of the risk, Nitze thought, was the lowest in the ExComm. Everyone else, he believed, put it higher. Harry had asked him what odds he would have given. Nitze’s answer: “One in ten.” I remember vividly my reaction that Monday to this news from Harry. It came in two parts. First, puzzlement: Why would they put the risk that high? Nitze, of all people, was familiar with the new intelligence estimates. Could it be that he and the others, like the public at large, had not really absorbed the implications of the new intelligence, or didn’t fully believe it? But then came a second reaction, slightly delayed: “One in ten?! Nuclear war … And we were doing what we were doing?!”
    • Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions from a Nuclear War Planner (2017)
  • What we had been doing, on recommendations of the What we had been doing, on recommendations of the ExComm, included the following: the blockade itself, at the risk of armed conflict with Soviet warships; forcing Soviet submarines to surface; high-level and low-level reconnaissance flights over Cuba; a large-scale airborne alert with significant risk of accidents involving nuclear weapons; continuing reconnaissance, even after several planes were fired on and one shot down on Saturday; and full preparations (if they were wholly a bluff, they fooled us) for invasion and airstrike. With the exception of the dangerous airborne alert, every one of those actions was illegal under international law, a violation of the U.N. Charter (unless as an act of war sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council). More significantly, every one of them threatened at least conventional armed conflict with the Soviet Union. I myself had accepted the general wisdom that the stakes in this confrontation, in global political terms, were quite high: enough to justify certain risks. I was prepared to support non-nuclear threats, willing even to take some risks of conventional war. I was, in short, a Cold Warrior working for the U.S. Defense Department. My emotions Saturday night on the thought of an unnecessary missile trade made that as clear as could be, not least to myself. But to be willing to take an estimated 10 percent chance of nuclear war?! … In order to avoid a public trade of the Turkish missiles? Who were these people I was working for? Were they all insane?
    • Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions from a Nuclear War Planner (2017)
  • Later, Robert McNamara would reveal something of his state of mind on October 27, “the Saturday before the Sunday in which Khrushchev announced withdrawal of the missiles … and a U-2 was shot down … I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday. It was a beautiful fall day. And thinking that might well be the last sunset I saw. You couldn’t tell what was going to follow.” Could I have been that far off in my own belief that nuclear war was extremely unlikely? Could they have been right? The answer to both is yes—though for different reasons than most of them supposed. The fact is that on Saturday, October 27, 1962, a chain of events was in motion that might have come close to ending civilization. How close? A handbreadth. That is despite the fact, as I have come to believe, that both leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were determined to avoid armed conflict—that both, in fact, were prepared to settle on the other’s terms, if necessary, rather than go to war. And yet they each hoped, by threatening war, to achieve a better bargain. For the sake of a better deal they both were willing to postpone by hours or days the settlement that each was willing to make. And meanwhile, during those hours, their subordinates (unaware that they were supporting a pure bluff in a game of bargaining) were taking military actions that could unleash an unstoppable train of events, ultimately pulling the trigger on a Doomsday Machine.
    • Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions from a Nuclear War Planner (2017)
  • Just what Khrushchev intended to do with his Cuban missiles is, even now, unclear: it was characteristic of him not to think things through. He could hardly have expected Americans not to respond, since he had sent the missiles secretly while lying to Kennedy about his intentions to do so. He might have meant the intermediate-range missiles solely for deterrence, but he also dispatched short-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads that could only have been used to repel a landing by American troops—who would not have known that these weapons awaited them. Nor had Khrushchev placed his nuclear weapons under tight control: local commanders could in response to an invasion, have authorized their use. The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis. He was so emotionally committed to the Castro revolution that he risked his own revolution, his country, and possibly the world on its behalf. "Nikita loved Cuba very much, Castro himself later acknowledged. “He had a weakness for Cuba, you might say—emotionally, and so on—because he was a man of political conviction.” But so too, of course, were Lenin and Stalin, whho rarely allowed their emotions to determine their revolutionary priorities. Khrushchev wielded a far greater capacity for destruction than they ever did, but he behaved with far less responsibility. He was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun.  
  • But the Cuban missile crisis, in a larger sense, served much the same function that blinded and burned birds did for the American and Soviet observers of the first thermonuclear bomb tests a decade earlier. It persuaded everyone involved in it—with the possible exception of Castro, who claimed, even years afterward, to have been willing to die in a nuclear conflagration—that the weapons each side had developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to each other. This improbable series of events, universally regarded now as the closest the world came, during the second half of the 20th century, to a third world war, provided a glimpse of a future no one wanted: of a conflict projected beyond restraint, reason, and the likelihood of survival.
  • What kept war from breaking out, in the fall of 1962, was the irrationality, on both sides, of sheer terror. That is what Churchill had foreseen when he saw hope in an "equality of annihilation." It is what Eisenhower had understood when he ruled out fighting limited nuclear wars: his strategy left no option than an assurance of total destruction, on the assumption that this, rather than trying to orchestrate levels of destruction while a war was going on, would best prevent any war at all from breaking out.
  • Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events; indeed, sometimes the opposite is true. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, but at the time I knew only what was reported in the media. Like millions of others, I knew nothing of the intense debates in Washington and Moscow about how to handle the crisis. I had no idea that Kennedy had secret channels of communication with the Soviets or that the Soviets already had nuclear warheads in Cuba. I did not know that Fidel Castro was prepared to see his country destroyed if it brought Soviet victory in the Cold War closer. It was only much later, as the classified documents started to appear on both sides, that we got a much more detailed and comprehensive view of what was really happening.
  • I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.
  • The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2500 are at 15 minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?
  • It wasn't until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, "Mr. President, let's stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I'm not sure I got the translation right." "Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?" He said, "Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, 'What would have happened to Cuba?' It would have been totally destroyed." That's how close we were.
  • Pentagon leaders urged Kennedy to attack Cuba -- a possibly dangerous move that could have triggered a nuclear war with Moscow. Assuming nuclear weapons would not be used on the island against American invading forces, war planners expected as many as 18,500 US casualties within the first 10 days of a Cuban invasion, according to a now-declassified top secret Pentagon memo.
  • "Missile crews were placed on maximum alert," Robert F. Kennedy wrote. "Troops were moved into Florida and the southeastern part of the United States. ... The Navy deployed 180 ships into the Caribbean. ... The B-52 bomber force was ordered into the air fully loaded with atomic weapons."
    But the idea of a surprise US attack on Cuba didn't sit well with some of the President's advisers, including his brother.
    "... a surprise attack would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world," Robert F. Kennedy wrote in his book.

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