Forty-nine years ago, the United States and the USSR stood on the brink of a full-scale nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was coming to a head.
After intelligence analysts reviewing surveillance photographs spotted medium-range missile sites being constructed in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy convened a group of his closest advisers at the White House on Oct. 16, 1962 to discuss a response. According to an article on George Washington University’s National Security Archives website, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara outlined three possible responses:
- Political: Approach Cuban President Fidel Castro, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. allies and try to defuse the situation diplomatically.
- Pressure: Openly declaring increased surveillance and a blockade against offensive weapons entering Cuba.
- Military: An attack on Cuba beginning with an air attack against the missile sites.
But McNamara cautioned Kennedy that the last option could result in “nuclear escalation.”
“I don’t believe we have considered the consequences,” McNamara said. “I don’t know what kind of a world we live in after we’ve struck Cuba, and we, we’ve started it… How, how do we stop it at that point?”
On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy went on national television and announced his decision to “quarantine” Cuba with a naval blockade and demand the bases be dismantled and the missiles removed.
For the next six days the nations faced off, teetering on the brink of nuclear conflagration. And although there was great angst over the situation at the time, the nations were even closer to war than most people realized.
U.S. documents declassified in 1989 and more documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union show that U.S. officials mistook a number of Soviet political and military actions as deliberate “signals” from the Kremlin when, in fact, Khrushchev had not cleared them. And the White House was unaware that CIA and military officials had begun threatening operations, including dispatching covert sabotage teams into Cuba.
“This combination of unauthorized military and covert actions, misinterpreted military and political signals, and significant failures in intelligence—all of which threatened to set a war in motion—not only challenges earlier depictions of this event as a model of a ‘controlled crisis’ but calls into question the fundamental assumption that severe international crises can, in fact, be ‘managed’ at all,” states the GWU article.
On Oct. 28, Khrushchev announced his government’s intent to dismantle and remove all offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba, confirming acceptance of discussions from previous days in which the United States verbally agreed to abandon any plans to invade Cuba and remove missiles from Turkey. That afternoon, workers began dismantling the Cuban missile sites.
In the public’s mind, the crisis had been defused, and there was a collective sigh of relief. But there is much more to the story.
Declassified documents show the crisis has its roots in the 1959 deployment of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, which the Russians viewed as a provocation. Those documents also lend credence to Khrushchev’s claim that the primary Soviet motivation was to protect Cuba from a U.S. invasion.
There was a secret plan, termed Operation Mongoose, that included sabotage, infiltration and psychological warfare activities with military exercises and contingency operations for a possible invasion to overthrow the Castro government that was tacitly approved by Kennedy in March 1962. Then there’s the fact that Kennedy never officially “formalize(d) through the U.N.” a noninvasion pledge, despite repeated requests by Khrushchev.
Conventional wisdom holds that the crisis ended as a “win” for the United States. But the USSR embarked on a massive nuclear buildup, finally reaching parity with the United States in the 1970s with the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the United States.