The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 epitomized the Cold War as the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
In January 1959, after a two-year guerrilla campaign, Fidel Castro (pictured), a Marxist, aided by the charismatic Che Guevara, had disposed of Cuba’s thirty-year-old dictatorship. The Soviet Union’s premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was delighted by this turn of events and that a communist coup had taken place without Soviet encouragement (or bullying).
When Castro nationalized American assets in Cuba, the US responded by placing a trade embargo against Cuba. The Soviet Union came to Cuba’s rescue and the two nations bonded, Castro aligning Cuba to the Soviet cause. When they met at the United Nations in September 1960, Khrushchev and Castro embraced. ‘I do not know if Fidel is a communist,’ said the Soviet leader, ‘but I know I am a Fidelista.’
Bay of Pigs
The US, alarmed by this communist presence in their backyard, resolved to have Castro removed from power. On 17 April 1961 a US-backed band of Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs hoping to raise a counter-uprising against Castro, despite the assurances of the new US president, John F Kennedy, five days before, that the US would not intervene militarily to overthrow Castro. The invasion failed and over a thousand Cuban rebels were captured by Castro’s forces. Kennedy was heavily criticized, and internal support for Castro deepened as Cuba became firmly anti-American.
Khrushchev decided to use his new ally. In retaliation for America aiming missiles at the Soviet Union from bases in Turkey, Khrushchev sought Castro’s permission to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to face America. In Khrushchev’s words, he wanted to ‘put one of our hedgehogs down the Americans’ trousers’, and to give the US a ‘little of their own medicine’. Castro gave his support and by the end of July 1962, the first Soviet ships had set sail for Cuba. The ships’ captains were unsure of their final destination, or what cargo they were carrying, until half way across when, in front of high-ranking security officers, they were allowed to open sealed envelopes disclosing their destination.
Photographs from an American U-2 spy-plane on 14 October confirmed previous suspicions, exposing the missile sites and the presence on Cuba of medium-range Soviet missiles, well within the range of several US cities. The official confirmation, once the photographs had been verified, sent Washington into a panic. On the 18 October, Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, met Kennedy (pictured) and tried to persuade the US president that the missiles were merely there in a defensive capacity.
By the time, on 22 October, Khrushchev realised that the Americans had uncovered his secret, 42 nuclear missiles had been put into place on the island of Cuba. Soviet officials based in Washington tried to deny their presence but the American public refused to believe them. Kennedy’s speech of 22 October, broadcast on radio and television, in which he talked of ‘indisputable evidence’, had shocked the nation. The public clambered to stock up on foodstuffs and essentials, especially in cities, unhelpfully listed by the American media, as the most vulnerable to nuclear attack.
Washington was fearful of Khrushchev (pictured) – not because they conceived the Soviet leader as a worthy opponent but because they deemed him, correctly, as erratic and untrustworthy. Although they were not to know this at the time, the responsibility of the Cuban-based missiles had been delegated to local commanders. On his part, Khrushchev underestimated Kennedy and was dismissive of the young president: ‘How can I deal seriously with a man who is younger than my own son?’ he asked.
We’ll all meet together in Hell
Direct intervention, although favoured by the US military and discussed in detail, was eventually discarded for fear of escalating the crisis into war. Instead, on 24 October, Kennedy’s administration implemented a naval blockade, or quarantine, 800 miles from Cuba, later reduced to 500 miles, to prevent the arrival of further Soviet ships carrying missiles. But the US army and its nuclear weapons remained on red alert.
There then came an exchange of letters between Kennedy and Khrushchev. In one eight-page letter, dated 26 October, Khrushchev wrote, ‘I assure you that the ships on their way to Cuba are carrying the most innocent and peaceful cargoes.’ How he hoped to get away with such bluster and lies is beyond imagination. Khrushchev warned Kennedy against maintaining the blockade, threatening the use of Soviet submarines against US ships. If it came to nuclear war, Khrushchev warned, ‘we’ll all meet together in Hell.’
The Eve of Armageddon
On 27 October, an American U-2 reconnaissance plan was shot down over Cuba killing the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, the only person killed by enemy fire during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Crisis had become even more precarious. The American public felt it was on the eve of Armageddon.
Kennedy’s generals urged him to retaliate and launch an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy, resisting, sent his brother, Robert, to negotiate with the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin. The deal they thrashed out was conveyed to and accepted by their respective masters. Khrushchev would order the withdrawal of Soviet missiles in Cuba in return for the withdrawal of the US missiles in Turkey, and, in addition, an American pledge not to attempt an overthrow of Castro. Despite this latter condition, Fidel Castro was furious at having not been consulted by the Soviets and scornful of what he saw as Khrushchev’s defeat. But the world at least had been saved from devastation.
Cut Mr K’s balls off
On 28 October, Moscow announced Khrushchev’s intention to remove the missiles from Cuba. The US, however, did not issue a public statement regarding the removal of their missiles from Turkey, so, on the face of it, the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev personally, had suffered a dishonourable defeat. To make matters worse, Soviet ships, returning home with their missiles, were shadowed out of Cuban waters by US planes and subjected to humiliating searches by US patrols. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over and Kennedy crowed that he had ‘cut Mr K’s balls off’.
Two years later, in October 1964, Nikita Khrushchev, was forced from office. He was accused, among other things, of having brought ‘the world to the brink of nuclear war… Having no other way out, we were forced to accept all the demands and conditions dictated by the US, right down to the humiliating inspection of our ships by the Americans’.
Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour and Kennedy in JFK: History In An Hour, both published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and, for the Cold War, as downloadable audio.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.