The Cuban Missile Crisis Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Cuban Missile Crisis

8 Conversations

Fidel Casto in a crowd

To understand the Cuban Missile Crisis, one must understand Castro himself. Fidel Castro was a lawyer who studied at the School of Law at the University of Havana. He was a revolutionary from the beginning, joining attempts to overthrow many different countries. He tried twice in Cuba. On 26 July, 1953, he led about 160 men in a stupid and suicidal attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in the hope of sparking a popular uprising. It failed and almost all of his men were killed. He was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He got out in 1955 on political amnesty. On his next attempt, 2 December, 1956, he landed 80 armed men on the coast of Oriente province, Cuba, from the yacht Granma. All were killed or captured except for him and nine others. They retreated into the Sierra Maestra of Southwestern Oriente province where he waged guerrilla warfare against dictator Fulgencia Batista's forces. With Castro's support and forces growing, along with a string of victories against the government, Batista fled the country and Fidel became Premier in 1959.

Before he took over, Castro had written about many anti-communist ideals such as:

...nationalism [of industries] is, at best, a cumbersome instrument. It does not seem to make the state any stronger, yet it enfeebles private enterprise.

He had supported freedom of speech and the press, but after he obtained power, he seemed to forget these issues. In fact, he seemed to forget all of his promises and did an about-turn on most of them. He set up collective farms instead of redistributing the land as he had said. It appears to some that the only reason that he turned Communist was that he needed a way of holding onto his power.

Towards the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, the US had no particular policy towards Cuba; there was a sort of wait and see attitude. The Americans did not give them any aid, nor did they deny it from them (Cuba did not ask for any). By February of that year, the US didn't have to wait any more. Two of Castro's cabinet members, his president and several leading members of his original coup force resigned in protest of increasing influence from the Soviets. In that same month, he signed a trade agreement with the USSR indicating that Russia would buy Cuban sugar. In June 1960, the Cubans expropriated British and American oil refineries, and in retaliation, the US suspended its import of Cuban sugar. July was a very busy month, followed by a long pause in the build up of hostilities. The Russians sent arms to Cuba from the then Czechoslovakia, Khrushchev announced that the USSR would launch its missiles at any country that tried to invade Cuba, and America kept working on isolating Cuba.

The Kennedy Years

John F Kennedy became President in 1961. Upon entering office, the ball on Cuba got rolling. The first thing he did in regard to Cuba was create the 'Alliance for Progress'. This programme used the Organisation of American States (OAS) to promote fundamental social and economic reforms throughout all of Latin America. This programme was in direct response to 100 million dollars' worth of Soviet aid and propaganda that was being put into the area. Alliance for Progress was not as successful as it could have been in making reforms. It was, however, extremely effective in stopping Communism and it was a very powerful tool when America urged the OAS to expel Cuba from its body in January of 1962.

President Kennedy inherited a plan from the Eisenhower Administration that entailed training Cuban revolutionary exiles for a reinvasion of Cuba. Kennedy had three choices:

  • Cancel it all, which would have probably got him impeached by the Republicans and Southern Democrats.

  • Carry out the invasion with the full military support of the US, which would have caused nuclear war with Russia and was plainly out of the question.

  • Let the Cubans invade without United States air or ground support. While risky and stupid, if the Cubans in Cuba would rise up, it might work.

So on 17 April, 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion was launched. The invasion forces fought for three days on a one day supply of ammo and suffered only minor casualties whilst inflicting a lot of damage for a 1500 man force. This invasion was a total disaster though. It weakened the Kennedy Administration's political influence, caused many criticisms of the CIA, and eventually lead to the establishment of a Senate Oversight Committee focusing on the CIA. It also cost the United States taxpayers $53,000,000 in food and medical supplies to get the prisoners of war back.

On 4 September, 1961, Senator Robert Kennedy (RFK) met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In this meeting, RFK stated his country's concern about the number of weapons that were in Cuba. The Ambassador assured Kennedy that they were strictly defensive and that the military build-up was of absolutely no significance. A few days later, US spy planes discovered a fairly sizeable sub pen being constructed under the guise of a fishing village. The USSR, on 11 September, stated publicly that there was no need for the distribution of nuclear weapons to anywhere outside the Soviet Union including Cuba. That same day, a personal communiqué was received from Khrushchev to the President stating in no uncertain terms that there would be no offensive weapons placed in Cuba.

The Crisis

A nuclear missile and three flags

It was a Tuesday morning, just after 9am on 16 October, 1962. President John F Kennedy phoned his brother, Robert Kennedy, and asked him to come to the office. Inside the Oval Office, RFK was informed that U-2 photographs had picked up signs of nuclear missiles and of a missile base being built just outside San Cristobal, Cuba. JFK then called a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (referred to as Ex Comm1) for an in-depth briefing on Cuba from the Intelligence Community. Upon completion of that briefing, Ex Comm began discussing their options. There was no contingency plan for a strategy such as this. The entire Intelligence Community was sure that the Russians would never put nuclear missiles in Cuba because they had never done so with any other of their satellite nations. The only reason this one could be different was its proximity to the USA. They came up with three plans:

  • A surgical air strike taking out all of the missiles.

  • A complete military invasion.

  • A blockade of the island.

By Wednesday 17, McNamara was the blockade's strongest supporter. His logic was that the blockade was a strong, but limited pressure that still left the USA in control of the situation. The other options were full of holes. The air force could not guarantee 100% destruction of all the missiles, and even if they did destroy all of them, the attack would have to be conducted against all military targets in Cuba, followed by an invasion, to be of any effect. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCoS) unanimously agreed that a full out invasion was the key. They all agreed that the Russians would do nothing to stop them from taking over Cuba. JFK was sceptical saying:

They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.

Later on the 17, President Kennedy met with the Russian representative Andrei Gromyko, as had been arranged before the missiles were uncovered. Gromyko, upon arriving in the Oval Office, immediately told the President that the USA should stop threatening Cuba and that all the Soviets were doing was helping with food and land development. They were also sending them a few 'defensive' weapons. He persisted in telling the President that the objective of the USSR was to 'give bread to Cuba in order to prevent hunger in that country'. After JFK had explained to him very clearly that it would be very bad for Russia if they were to place offensive weapons in Cuba, Gromyko said his country would never become involved in doing that. Gromyko's parting words were, to the effect, that none of the defensive weapons could ever constitute a threat to the United States. President Kennedy sat back down at his desk. Inside the middle drawer were fresh photos from that morning's U-2 flight. They outlined between 16 and 32 nuclear missiles with over a 1000 mile range and several new missile sites. Also in the desk was a report from Intelligence that the missiles in Cuba had an atomic warhead potential of roughly half of the entire Russian ICBM capacity.

The Blockade

On the night of the 19 - 20, the decision was made to go for the blockade option. US allies were notified and military preparations for the blockade were taken. President Kennedy declared Defcon 2, troops were moved into Florida and the South-eastern United States; the First Armoured Division was mobilised and redeployed to Georgia; and five other divisions were placed on maximum alert. The Navy deployed 180 ships into the Caribbean, Strategic Air Command (SAC) distributed its aircraft to civilian airfields, and put its B-52 nuclear strike force into the air ready to wipe out all of the USSR, its satellite nations, and China. On Monday 22, the OAS unanimously voted for support of the blockade and it was put in place. Many of the Latin American countries even gave supplies, men and blockade ships to help America. The Russians, for their part, had hardly anything in comparison. Their ships remained dead on course, no troop movements, no missile alert and no launch of their nuclear strike force. They did however speed up construction of the missile sites and began camouflaging them.

On Wednesday 24 October, the United States announced the blockade. The blockade line was set at 800 miles then adjusted to 500 miles to give the Russians more time to think. At 10am, a report came from Navy Intelligence that two Russian ships were coming close to the Blockade line. A few minutes later, from the same place, a report came that a Russian submarine had moved in between the ships. Now this complicated matters because the original plan was to send a Cruiser in to conduct the boarding but, due to the added danger, the carrier Essex was ordered to prepare to send over boarding parties. The carrier's commander ordered all of its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and planes into the air. If the submarine refused to surface, the ASW units would drop small depth charges on it until it was forced up. If a cargo ship would not stop, then aeroplanes from the Essex would shoot out the rudders and propellers, then board it. At 10.25 a naval aide came up to CIA Director John McCone with a sealed envelope. He opened the envelope and said:

Mr President, we have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some Russian ships have stopped dead in the water.

President Kennedy ordered the ships in the Caribbean to be contacted directly and to be ordered not to interfere with any of the ships that had stopped short of the line. They were to give them every opportunity possible to turn around. Later that day, the UN suggested that the blockade should be lifted for a few weeks if Russia agreed not to send missiles to Cuba. Khrushchev agreed, but Kennedy wisely declined saying '(the crisis was) created by the secret introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba and the answer lies in the removal of such weapons'. He followed up that statement by saying that he would be happy to discuss a peaceful and satisfactory solution once those missiles were removed.

The morning the blockade was initiated, low fly-overs of Cuba were increased to eight planes, twice a day. Also, all six submarines that were heading to Cuba were harassed and forced to the surface at least once in the presence of US ships. On the 23rd, Khrushchev sent a condemning letter:

The actions of the USA with regard to Cuba are outright banditry, or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism.

He also stated that Soviet ships would not follow American orders. President Kennedy replied on the 25 that it was because of the Soviet's deception that this entire crisis was started and was continuing. The next day, Friday, at 7.24 am, the American-built, Panama-registered, Soviet-chartered, liberty ship, Marcula, was boarded by armed personnel from two Navy destroyers, searched, and finding nothing contraband, was allowed to pass.

Hours later, again due to increased rates of missile construction, the President ordered the low level flights to be increased to once every two hours, the embargo expanded to oil and lubricants, leaflets to be dropped all over Cuba, and preparations were made for a provisional government of Cuba should invasion be the only course of action left.

Khrushchev's Letter

Six o'clock that evening, the famous emotional letter from Khrushchev arrived. In it, he wrote about the atrocities of nuclear war, and how he only wished to 'compete peacefully, not by military means'. He, most importantly, offered terms; there would be no more placement of missiles in Cuba and all those that existed there would either be removed or destroyed. In exchange for this, the United States would lift the blockade and pledge to not invade Cuba. This message was also transmitted through the Soviet embassy via a rather unusual courier, an ABC reporter. At around noon, Moscow time, Soviet radio transmitted a second set of terms. These ones were a trade of pledges of non-invasion and removal of missiles in Cuba, Turkey and Italy. An hour or so later the FBI reported the Soviet embassy in DC was burning all its sensitive documents, and a couple hours following that, the CIA reported that one of its U-2s, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson Jr, had been shot down over Cuba. It was now daytime in the United States and Ex Comm met yet again to discuss what the course of action should be. Many were in favour of military action but were willing to give the Russians one last chance. RFK and Ted Sorensen thought that they should respond to Khrushchev's first letter and ignore the second. They went into another room, wrote the letter and brought it back. President Kennedy re-wrote some of it and then had it sent to Khrushchev.

RFK then went to meet with Ambassador Dorbrynin. He told him that the United States didn't care about the Cuban complaints of violating their airspace and that if the Russians could not come to some type of agreement by tomorrow the USA would remove those missile sites for them. Within hours the Russians agreed to the terms in the letter. The missiles in Cuba were removed along with the blockade, the USA pledged not to invade Cuba and, a couple of months later, the missiles in Turkey and Italy were removed.

The Kennedy administration could not have done anything better in this situation. Their talent, cool judgement, and wise thinking are a tribute to American leaders. If Kennedy had listened to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ending would have been very different. President Kennedy listened to the right people and chose wisely.

Personal Perspectives

One Researcher observed:

It was an interesting time sitting in junior high classes that particular October wondering when (not whether) the Hard Rain would begin.

It's ironic to note that most of these same brilliant folks who kept us all from glowing in the dark soon had the US well down the road to tragedy in Southeast Asia.

From another comes this remarkable story:

For several days everyone at my high school thought of nothing else. We were convinced we were going to die a horrible nuclear death at any moment because Halifax, Nova Scotia, a major seaport and naval base, would have been a bullseye of a first strike target. They told us we would have a 20 minute warning. Twenty minutes to live, once the sirens sounded.

Naturally everyone talked about what they would do with those last 20 minutes of life. Knowing for certain we would all die, most planned to do things they would normally never have done. For most of the boys it was a difficult choice between stealing a car or making love. The girls weren't that interested in cars and all seemed to favour the notion of 'doing it, once'.

Nerves were raw throughout the city so some clever civil servant thought it might be a good idea to cancel the weekly 'test' of the air raid sirens which went off every Wednesday afternoon at 4pm just in case anyone did anything silly or had a heart attack. The radio and newspapers explained this and Halifax saw the first Wednesday afternoon since WW2 pass without the usual siren test.

On Thursday afternoon, some other eager beaver, wanting to make sure the sirens were not completely disabled, set them off manually. And could not shut them off as they had switched to a back-up power source.

We were idly walking toward the local YMCA where we often went to play ping pong and cards after classes. The sirens wailed. We kept walking in silence. The sirens wailed and wailed, well beyond the usual test sounding of 15 to 20 seconds. It seemed horribly obvious this was not a test! Some people broke down into tears. Others ran off toward home. No one stole a car. No one made love. No one said anything.

Nearly half an hour later, my friends and I were still knocking a ping pong ball around when someone finally pulled the power plug on the sirens, and we all realised we just might live after all.

1Ex Comm consisted of: Secretary of State, Dean Rusk; Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara; Director of the CIA, John McCone; Secretary of Treasury, Douglas Dillon; Presidential Advisor on national-security affairs, McGeorge Bundy; Presidential Council, Ted Sorensen; Under-secretary of State, George Ball; Deputy Under-secretary of State, U Alexis Johnson; General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman JCoS; Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Edward Martin; Advisor on Russian Affairs, Llewellyn Thompson; Deputy Secretary of Defence, Roswell Gilpatric; Assistant Secretary of Defence, Paul Nitze; along with others intermittently.

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