Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the Soviet Union (the then USSR) and the United States. It is generally regarded as the most serious incident of the Cold War, when the communist East and the democratic West came closer than ever to a mutual nuclear destruction. The crisis emerged on October 14, 1962, when a U.S. Air Force–operated U-2 aircraft produced detailed aerial photographs of Soviet ballistic nuclear missiles installations being constructed in Cuba, and ended on October 28, when the United States and the USSR reached an agreement consisting of concessions on both parts. The U-2 aircraft surveillance missions provided critical information to the U.S. administration in assessing the escalating situation. This entry reviews the actions leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, recounts the intelligence gathered from the surveillance missions and the subsequent deliberation by the U.S. administration about how to respond, and concludes with a glance at how the crisis ended and how it affected future relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Between October 1960 and September 1962, the U.S. government regularly sent U-2 surveillance flights over the island. In August 1962, the U.S. government was already suspecting the deployment of Soviet weapons in Cuba, but several air reconnaissance missions in August and September failed to confirm such suspicions. In September, U.S. officials thought to redirect the satellites programmed to fly over the Soviet Union in order to cover Cuba’s territory, but the idea was rapidly abandoned as reprogramming the satellites would have caused important delays in gathering intelligence. Thus, the U.S. government continued to rely on the intelligence gathered by its Lockheed U-2 aircrafts—single-engine planes capable of flying at very high altitudes.

The Soviet missiles arrived in Cuba in September 1962 in the utmost secrecy. Having a range of 2,000 to 4,500 kilometers, they could destroy the United States within minutes from launching. The U.S. administration, however, was not aware of this deployment until mid-October, because, for reasons still unclear, between September 5 and October 14, the U-2 surveillance over Cuba decreased in intensity—a period known as the “photo gap.” On October 14, Steve Heyser flew his U-2 aircraft over the San Cristobal area and took 928 photographs of what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identified as Soviet offensive missiles. President John F. Kennedy and the Department of State were notified, and on October 16, an Executive Committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council was created to assess the situation. Among the members of the ExComm were Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor, CIA Director John McCone, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.

Aiming to remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba, the ExComm contemplated several directions of action: military attack against Cuba, including an invasion and the overthrow of Castro; diplomatic negotiations with Castro and Khrushchev; or a naval blockade to prevent further transports of Soviet military equipment and weapons to Cuba. The U.S. administration feared that a full-scale attack against Cuba could enable Khrushchev to respond with a nuclear strike or with a blockade against West Berlin. It opted, therefore, for what it called a naval quarantine. This term suggested that the U.S. government wanted to “quarantine” offensive weapons only, without intending to block all materials from entering Cuba, which might have been seen as an act of war. On October 22, President Kennedy appeared on television, declared that the construction of Soviet military bases in Cuba was an act of aggression that could not be tolerated, and announced the quarantine. The next day, he signed the proclamation regarding the interdiction of the delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba. The commanders of the U.S. warships in the Caribbean were instructed to halt and search all cargo vessels heading for Cuba. The blockade included about 200 ships and nearly 1,000 planes. Khrushchev designated the U.S. blockade as “an act of aggression” and instructed the Soviet ships to ignore it.

In the meantime, the Soviets transmitted through various official and nonofficial channels their willingness to negotiate an agreement. On October 26, Khrushchev declared that the Soviet Union was disposed to remove its weapons from Cuba under the supervision of the United Nations, provided that the United States would remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy and would declare that it would not invade Cuba. Kennedy had ordered that the missiles from Turkey be removed prior to the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but when the Soviet demand was formulated in these terms, he considered it unacceptable as it would have undermined the authority of the United States and the North American Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. administration responded that it was ready to lift the blockade and to give assurances that it would not invade Cuba, but it said nothing about the removal of its missiles from Europe. Although there is no historiographical consensus, it is considered that after much negotiation and deliberation, Kennedy agreed to remove the missiles from Europe in exchange for the USSR removing its weapons from Cuba. On October 28, in a radio-broadcast speech, Khrushchev announced that he had given the order for the returning of the Soviet weapons from Cuba to the USSR. The U.S. aerial surveillance missions confirmed that the Soviets were removing the missiles systems from Cuba. On November 20, the U.S. administration announced the end of the blockade. In early 1963, the U.S. missiles were removed from Europe.

The general perception, both in the West and in the East, was that Khrushchev had been defeated and embarrassed in this confrontation that he himself had initiated. Castro believed that the USSR had betrayed Cuba’s interests. China severely criticized Khrushchev for his Cuban “adventure” and for giving in to U.S. demands. The crisis also weakened the personal power of the Soviet leader, who, by the end of 1964, was removed from office. However, the crisis consolidated the regime of Castro, which now had guaranties against a U.S. invasion. The crisis proved that rapid, direct, and reliable communication between Moscow and Washington was necessary and of the utmost importance, and in 1963, a Moscow-Washington hotline using teletype equipment was established to ease tensions during international crises. The Cuban Missile Crisis increased the world’s awareness of the nuclear danger and made Kennedy a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament. In 1963, the two nuclear superpowers signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear test explosions in the environment.

Elena Dragomir

See also Berlin Wall ; Cold War ; Cuba ; Détente ; Nuclear War ; Surveillance During the Cold War

Further Readings

Hilsman, Roger. The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle Over Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Max, Holland and David M. Barrett. Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.

Meagher, Michael and Larry D. Gragg. John F. Kennedy: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Norris, Pat. Spies in the Sky: Surveillance Satellites in War and Peace. Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2008.