Cuban Missile Crisis History

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Cuban missile crisis remains one of the most important historical events of the twentieth century and is known as the moment when the world came the closest to World War III, most likely the nuclear one. Events of Cold War such as Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s conversion to Communism with the support of Soviet Union, the Berlin dispute, and placement of NATO missiles in Turkey and Italy led to increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. After concluding that Cuba needed his support and support of communism, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear capable missiles on Cuba to strengthen the ties between the two governments. Considering the fact that missiles were placed ninety miles from American soil, Soviet Union was willing to challenge the United States. Khrushchev’s intent was to scare American government as it previously placed missiles in Europe. Soviet missiles in Cuba could deter an American attack, just like American nuclear weapons in Europe had capabilities of deterring Soviet’s attacks.

When the United States detected placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba President John F. Kennedy and his advisors known as Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOM) were faced with the challenge of resolving the conflict. They had to come up with the plan that would be efficient enough to protect national interests without starting the Third World War or destroying humanity with nuclear weapons. Such instrument of national power as diplomacy was the most influential in a process of decision making by Kennedy’s administration.

U.S. intelligence, specifically CIA’s input, played a crucial role in the events and decisions of the Cuban missile crisis. Through intelligence and diplomacy U.S. government was able to get Soviets to back down. With the successful resolution of Cuban crisis confidence in CIA was restored after several failures prior to that: the shooting down of Gary Power’s U-2 in 1960, the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the failure to anticipate original deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Role of U.S. intelligence in Cuban missile crisis

Intelligence Failure

Prior to Cuban missile crisis U.S. intelligence was monitoring Soviet’s influence on Latin America very closely. Between January 1962 and the beginning of Cuban missile crisis in October that year CIA produced four National Intelligence Estimates and Special National Intelligence Estimates regarding Cuba’s relationship with Soviet Union and possible threat to the U.S. Such reports indicated that intelligence community was worried about spread of communism so close to American soil, however, they failed to anticipate that the Soviets were going to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. First estimate, released January 17, 1962, assessed that over the next twenty years the spread of communism was likely to grow in Latin America, but it was unlikely that Soviets would place their bases there. The second estimate, issued March 21, 1962, discounted the possibility that Soviets would defend Cuba or establish offensive military capabilities there. Third estimate, released on August 1, 1962, indicated that while Soviet military advisors, instructors, and some arms and equipment were believed to be in Cuba, the Soviet Union was likely to avoid any formal commitment to protect Cuba. The fourth estimate, issued September 19, 1962, stated that between mid-July and early September, approximately seventy ships had delivered Soviet weaponry and construction equipment. The estimate concluded that Soviet activities in Cuba were for defensive, not offensive, measures; and establishment of nuclear forces on the island would be incompatible with the Soviet policy. Because of failing to predict Soviet’s nuclear forces in Cuba, U.S. had no plan in place.

Intelligence Successes

While inability to anticipate Soviet’s placement of missiles in Cuba is considered intelligence failure, intelligence community counts the missile crisis event among its historic successes. After failing to predict the placement of Soviet nuclear forces in Cuba, the U.S. intelligence reputation was restored by its identification of the missiles and its monitoring of the Soviet military build-up. By October 19, 1962, CIA reported that two nuclear sites were operational. By October 27th, five of the six sites were assessed as ready. While U.S. intelligence on Cuba involved various types of intelligence, the most influential one was high-altitude aerial reconnaissance operations of the U-2 aircrafts. Analysis of the U-2 photography by the National Photographic Interpretation Center was crucial to the timely exploitation of the intelligence. Even though development of the U-2 was different from the CIA’s traditional approach, human intelligence remained a core business for the Agency. The largest CIA station was established at Op-Locka in Florida. It worked with the military to evaluate refugee reports from Cuba. The CIA had its agents on the island. U.S. embassy in Cuba also provided great amount of information to Washington.

Cuban Missile Crisis events demonstrated the importance of the intelligence in a decision-making process. Human, photographic, and signals intelligence played a critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. If it wasn’t for intelligence, Kennedy might have launched a military attack on Cuba, as he would not have a complete understanding of the state of missile’s readiness. If CIA had not confirmed the removal of the missiles from Cuba upon reaching the agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, then the President would have had to assume that offensive missiles remained active in Cuba. That could have resulted in aggressive attacks from American side.

Majority of the EXCOM members were initially convinced America needed to response with military action in Cuban missile crisis. At the same time Kennedy believed that such U.S. military actions would serve as justification for Soviets to invade Berlin. The EXCOM was faced with the challenge of making an important decision on how to proceed with the Cuban missile crisis. Even though initially the group agreed to move forward with some form of military retaliation, they later considered six different categories of action. First category was based on the believe not to take any action at all as American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new and their forces in Cuba would not make a difference to U.S. Second category was to take diplomatic approach and use pressure to get Soviet Union to remove the missiles. Third category entailed secret approach of offering Cuba to split with the Russians or to be invaded. Fourth category suggested full invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro. Fifth category relied on usage of U.S. Air Force to attack all known missile sites. Sixth category suggested to use naval blockade as a tool to prevent any missiles from arriving in Cuba.

On October 16, 1962 EXCOMM conclusion that missiles would not be ready for few more days stopped policy makers from making a decision to start an attack. Such information provided additional time to make a proper decision. EXCOMM also concluded that military operations would only succeed if the Soviet sites were not operational. In case they would become operational, Soviets would respond back with more aggressive attacks. For Kennedy’s administration striking missile sites was no longer an option as it would lead to a nuclear war and would affect not only America but the whole world. Attacks of missile sites by U.S. could also serve as a justification for USSR to take over Berlin.
No longer considering airstrikes as a first choice, Kennedy decided to start a naval blockade of Cuba to stop Soviets from bringing any missiles to the island. On October 21, 1962 Kennedy launched the blockade of Cuba. All ships from any destination, if found to contain offensive weapons, were not allowed to enter Cuba and were supposed to be turned back. It lasted for couple of days. More than fourteen Soviet ships were forced to turn around. Even though the blockade was quite successful in preventing arrival of more missiles on construction sites, it was not successful at getting rid of previously stationed missiles in Cuba. On October 26, Kennedy held a meeting with EXCOMM, where he suggested that blockade was not that successful in resolving the existing situation. He believed that invasion was the only resolution of the conflict at that point.

The President was convinced by EXCOMM members to avoid aggressive actions, and instead to continue using military pressure to resolve the conflict. Kennedy agreed and significantly increased the frequency of low-level flights over the island.

On October 27th, American U-2 aircraft was shot down by missile from Cuba. Kennedy was advised by military leaders to launch air strikes attacks as a response to Soviets shooting down American aircraft. The President was skeptical of the fact that Russian leader was behind the attack. He decided to use diplomacy as an instrument of national power to resolve the conflict, and so did Khrushchev. The Soviet leader realized that the Cuban crisis was getting out of control, there was more tension, and America was ready to attack. While shot down of the U-2 aircraft was an unfortunate event in U.S. history, it was a moment that led to realization of Soviet and American leaders that they needed to stop the crisis and reach some sort of agreement. It was a moment in world history that possibly prevented the World War III from happening. Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement. They decided to trade missiles. According to agreement, Soviets would remove offensive weapons from Cuba while America would remove missiles from Turkey and would agree not to invade Cuba.

In Cuban missile crisis the instrument of national power that worked the best was Kennedy’s diplomacy. In that conflict the President considered to use two possible instruments of national power: diplomatic and military. He did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that America discovered the missiles. Kennedy met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem. Such decision not to confront Soviet Union bought some time for his administration and allowed to make a better decision. Kennedy was a strong believer that diplomacy approach in Cuban crisis should have been the first one to try out. If it failed, the United States could have still moved to other means of resolving the conflict. His diplomatic approach could be seen through correspondence with Khrushchev in an attempt to resolve the conflict. In their telegrams both leaders expressed understanding of severity of the conflict and a need to resolve it before any further escalations would happen between two superpowers. Kennedy had numerous opportunities to invade Cuba or to launch airstrikes on Soviet missiles, but he decided to wait and resolve the conflict peacefully. If it wasn’t for Kennedy’s diplomacy, the world could have experienced a tragic nuclear war in 1962.


Both Kennedy and Khrushchev took every measure to avoid full conflict despite pressures from their governments. Kennedy was able to achieve a policy victory in Cuban missile crisis due to him being able to prioritize the instruments of national power and choosing to use diplomacy instead of aggressive military approach. He used naval blockade as a medium between the options of not taking any actions and a full-scale attack. The President used military as a tool of diplomacy and not as a tool of aggressive respond to the crisis. As a result, he challenged communism and peacefully resolved the conflict.

Cuban missile crisis was one of the most dangerous events in the world’s history. It was the time when human kind came the closest to a large scale nuclear war. While Kennedy did a great job in resolving the conflict peacefully, he came very close to starting a war. It was a mistake and a big risk from Kennedy’s side, considering the type of offensive weapons that were placed in Cuba and severity of damage they could have done to the world. Instead of making the decision to start naval blockade the President could have started diplomatic negotiations with Khrushchev as soon as missiles were discovered by U-2 aircrafts.

Several events of Cold War were leading up to the Cuban missile crisis. One of them was Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. It was a bad foreign-policy decision of Kennedy’s administration which could have been replaced by more peaceful approach to Castro’s regime. It left Cuban and Soviet interests in Cuba insecure and threatened by America. Kennedy’s attempt to invade Cuba in 1961 could be one of the reasons why Soviet Union placed missiles on the island. Another possible reason could be that Soviets were trying to use placement of missiles in Cuba not as offensive weapons but as leverage to get U.S. to remove missiles in Turkey. In such case Kennedy’s attempt to hide the fact that U.S. knew about the missiles and his secret meetings with advisers were unnecessary. Soviet Union would have expected America to discover the missiles and to start negotiations on trading off similar equipment in Europe.

Kennedy’s decision to start naval blockade was successful only in terms of preventing new offensive weapons from coming to Cuba. It did not resolve the issue of existing missiles that were placed by Soviet Union. The blockade also brought more tension, as Khrushchev considered such action to be a breach of international law. Instead of launching the blockade Kennedy could have started diplomatic negotiations sooner.

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Cuban Missile Crisis History. (2021, Mar 15). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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