On Oct. 15, 1962, U.S. intelligence workers analyzing photos taken by a U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building medium-range missile sites in Cuba. Seven days later, President John F. Kennedy gave a televised address to announce the discovery to Americans and to proclaim that he was ordering a naval “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from transporting offensive weapons to the islands. The President made it clear that America would not stop short of military action to end what he called a “clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”
For the next 13 days, Americans believed that nuclear war with the Soviet Union–a war that would leave major U.S. cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles incinerated–was about to break out any second.
The discovery of missile sites was actually the culmination of a dance that had been taking place for some time between the Soviets–who apparently had been itching to get the U.S. to “discover” the sites–and the Americans–who, despite reports by Cuban defectors and U.S. intelligence that the Soviets were up to something–had forbade U-2 planes from flying over and photographing the western part of Cuba for weeks.
For days, Kennedy was pushed hard by the Joint Chiefs and the CIA to invade Cuba. Declassified documents and audio recordings Kennedy secretly had made of Oval Office conversations reveal that the U.S. may have been much closer to a military coup than nuclear war sparked by the Soviets.
The Joint Chiefs and the CIA had been quite unhappy with Kennedy since the Bay of Pigs debacle. Eager to eliminate the threat of a Soviet stronghold so close to the U.S., the Joint Chiefs had proposed a plan in 1962 called Operation Northwoods which called for setting off false flag events that could be blamed on Cuba. In addition to staging attacks on the U.S. base at Guantanamo with the use of friendly Cubans in uniform setting off explosives in and around the base, Operation Northwoods suggested the development of a Communist Cuban terror campaign in Miami, sinking a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida, and blowing up a planeload of American college students over Cuba.
But Kennedy rejected the plan outright and eventually fired Joint Chiefs Chairman General Lyman Lemnitzer when he wouldn’t stop advocating for a Cuban invasion.
During the height of the missile crisis, Marine Corps Commandant General David Shoup and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay were recorded badmouthing Kennedy after he and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had left the room.
But LeMay wasn’t afraid to confront Kennedy to his face. In the book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, David Talbott writes:
[LeMay] decided to violate traditional military-civilian boundaries and issue a barely veiled political threat. If the president responded weakly to the Soviet challenge in Cuba, he warned him, there would be political repercussions overseas, where Kennedy’s government would be perceived as spineless. “And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way too,” LeMay added. With his close ties to militaristic congressional leaders and the far right, LeMay left no doubt about the political damage he could cause the administration. “In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time,” he told Kennedy.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy conducted backchannel negotiations with the Soviet leadership that eventually ended the crisis. The Soviets agreed to dismantle the missiles and all offensive weapons in Cuba in exchange for an American promise not to invade the island and that U.S. missiles would be removed from Turkey.
In his memoirs, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote that a Soviet fear that the U.S. military was about to stage a coup against President Kennedy–which was confirmed by Robert Kennedy during their backchannel conversations—led to the Soviets to agree to end the conflict.
“We could sense from the tone of the message that tension in the United States was indeed reaching a critical point,” Khrushchev wrote.
Many believe that Kennedy’s stands against the CIA and Pentagon over three events—the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the buildup in Vietnam—led to his assassination at the hands of the CIA.