JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union participated in a 13-day political and military standoff in. At the center of the standoff: the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba. In a TV address on October 22, President JFK notified Americans about the missiles presence and explained his decision to enact a naval blockade around Cuba. He made it clear the United States was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to national security. Following this news, many people feared the world was on the edge of nuclear war. However, disaster was avoided when the United States agreed to Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev’s offer to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the United States promising not to attack Cuba. In addition, President Kennedy secretly agreed to remove United States missiles from Turkey.

After seizing power in the Caribbean island nation of Cuba in 1959, leftist revolutionary leader Fidel Castro aligned himself with the Soviet Union. Under Castro, Cuba grew dependent on the Soviets for military and economic aid. During this time, the U.S. and the Soviets were engaged in the Cold War, an ongoing series of larger political and economic clashes. The two superpowers plunged into one of their biggest Cold War confrontations after the pilot of an American U-2 spy plane made a high-altitude pass over Cuba on October 14, 1962. The American spy plane photographed a Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile being assembled for installation. President Kennedy was briefed about the situation on October 16, and he immediately called together a group of advisors and officials known as the executive committee or ExCom. For nearly the next two weeks, the president and his team wrestled with a diplomatic crisis of epic proportions, as did their counterparts in the Soviet Union. For the American officials, the urgency of the situation stemmed from the fact that the nuclear-armed Cuban missiles were being installed so close to the U.S. mainland–just 90 miles south of Florida. From that launch point, they were capable of quickly reaching targets in the eastern U.S. If allowed to become operational, the missiles would fundamentally alter the complexion of the nuclear rivalry between the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which up to that point had been dominated by the Americans.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had gambled on sending the missiles to Cuba with the specific goal of increasing his nation’s nuclear strike capability. The Soviets had long felt uneasy about the number of nuclear weapons that were targeted at them from sites in Western Europe and Turkey, and they saw the deployment of missiles in Cuba as a way to level the playing field. Another key factor in the Soviet missile scheme was the hostile relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. The Kennedy administration had already launched one attack on the island–the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961–and Castro and Khrushchev saw the missiles as a means of deterring further U.S. aggression. Despite the enormous tension, Soviet and American leaders found a way out of the impasse. During the crisis, the Americans and Soviets had exchanged letters and other communications, and on October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for a promise by U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba. The following day, the Soviet leader sent a letter proposing that the USSR would dismantle its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile installations in Turkey.

Officially, the Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first message and ignore the second Khrushchev letter entirely. Privately, however, American officials also agreed to withdraw their nation’s missiles from Turkey. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (1925-68) personally delivered the message to the Soviet ambassador in Washington, and on October 28, the crisis drew to a close. Both the Americans and Soviets were sobered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The following year, a direct “hotline” communication link was installed between Washington and Moscow to help defuse similar situations, and the superpowers signed two treaties related to nuclear weapons. The Cold War was far from over, though. In fact, another legacy of the crisis was that it convinced the Soviets to increase their investment in an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. from Soviet territory.

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