19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Larry Holzwarth - October 9, 2018

The autumn of 1962 saw a year winding down in the United States, which had been for the most part one of peace and hope for the future. In February, astronaut John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth, and the growing promise of America’s space program – President Kennedy had established the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade – had put much of the nation under the influence of space fever. Toy rockets, missiles, and space capsules began to dominate the shelves in stores. America’s astronauts were celebrated in magazines and television programs. Americans watched with fascination on their black and white television screens as rockets lifted off from Cape Canaveral. A futuristic new television program, The Jetsons, appeared that September.

Just a few weeks later, as the Kennedy Administration prepared for its first mid-term elections, Americans were forcefully reminded that rockets and missiles had a more sinister purpose as well. An American spy plane, flying a reconnaissance mission over the island of Cuba, discovered evidence of Soviet missile installations under construction, featuring medium range and intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on American cities. For months the Soviets had been issuing denials of a military buildup in Cuba; in October the young American president had definitive proof of its existence. The question was what would be done, what could be done, to ensure their removal. His military advisers recommended bombing the sites and invading the island. The world had never been closer to nuclear war.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
A missile launch site near San Cristobal in the process of being removed in early November, 1962. US Air Force

Here are just some of the events of the thirteen days of October, 1962, which became known to history as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
The San Cristobal launch site photographed on October 27, 1962, at the height of the crisis. JFK Presidential Library

1. The Cubans and Soviets began deploying the missiles months earlier

In early 1962 the Soviets, agreeing with their Cuban allies, believed that another invasion of Cuba, larger and with greater air and naval support from the United States, was imminent. A series of meetings between representatives of Soviet and Cuban leaders Krushchev and Castro agreed to the deployment of Soviet offensive nuclear weapons on the island, supported by defensive weapons systems to protect them from American air and naval attack. Soviet secrecy was so great that not even the technicians and military support units knew where they were being deployed to, and in a deception the units were equipped with arctic gear, implying that they were to be stationed somewhere near the Aleutians. The Soviets named the deployment Operation Anadyr, the name of a river which empties into the Bering Sea.

By late July the large amount of Soviet shipping reaching Cuba and the activities of American (and British) intelligence had revealed a Soviet arms buildup in Cuba, which the Soviets vehemently denied. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1962 two separate events involving American U-2 flights in Asia caused the administration embarrassment. In one, a U-2 “strayed” over Soviet airspace and although it was not shot down, the Soviets protested and demanded an apology, which it received. In the second, a U-2 over China operated from Taiwan, was shot down, the pilot lost. Fearing another international incident as a result of a U-2, in early September American officials restricted their use over Cuba, just as the Soviet installation of the nuclear capable missiles was getting underway. Navy reconnaissance aircraft continued to photograph Soviet ships bound for Cuba, but for five weeks reconnaissance over the island was curtailed.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
President Kennedy meets with Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko, October 18, 1962. Despite the President’s jovial expression, he was by then aware of the missiles in Cuba. JFK Presidential Library

2. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the US Navy provided the first clues to Soviet activity

With new information from daily U-2 flights no longer available, analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) began a closer study of the photographic evidence available in September. One of the first clues that the Soviets were installing, or intended to install, offensive nuclear missiles was discovered by DIA when they noticed that the pattern of the launch sites for their surface-to-air missiles (SAM) was similar to those in the Soviet Union, installed to protect intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) sites. The presence of Soviet “advisors” on the island was already well known. At the same time US Navy reconnaissance photos of Soviet ships revealed the presence of shapes on their decks which resembled the fuselage of nuclear strike bombers.

Armed with the evidence of weapons with the potential of delivering nuclear weapons on targets in the United States being installed in Cuba, DIA and the Office of Naval Intelligence began pressing their civilian bosses in the Kennedy Administration to restart the U-2 surveillance flights over Cuba. The Air Force joined in the lobbying effort, arguing that responsibility for the resumption of U-2 flights should be theirs, rather than the CIA, who had operated the flights (and analyzed the data) before they were suspended. On October 9 the resumption of U-2 flights, under Air Force supervision, was authorized. For several days poor weather prevented any flights, the cloud cover over the island meant that the flight could not take any useful photos. On October 14, the weather cleared sufficiently for flights to resume.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Passport for Oleg Penkovsky, who supplied MI6 and American intelligence with valuable information regarding the organization of Soviet missile regiments and their capabilities. CIA

3. The United States had a Soviet double agent to help with the analysis of photographs

Oleg Penkovsky was a member of Soviet military intelligence (GRU) who provided information to US and UK intelligence on Soviet operations and intelligence organizations in the west. Although a former member of MI5, Peter Wright, later claimed that Penkovsky was in fact a Soviet plant, Wright’s claims were made in a semi-fictional work, and were self-serving (one MI6 official stated that Wright had been “economical with the truth”). What is known is that during the period when U-2 flights were suspended Penkovsky, code named HERO, provided US intelligence with the information that the Soviets were installing medium and intermediate range missiles in Cuba. A Soviet mole was aware that Penkovsky was sharing classified information in the west and in order to protect their mole the Soviet KGB moved slowly, building up a case to arrest HERO without revealing their mole (American National Security Agency employee Jack Dunlap).

Penkovsky was arrested on October 22, 1962, by KGB agents, and his fate was not revealed for many years, when it was determined he had been interrogated regarding the information provided to the Americans and British before being shot. Prior to his arrest he provided hard information regarding the types and capabilities of missiles being installed in Cuba, as well as the location of the sites, which allowed the U-2 flights to be directed more efficiently and the resulting photographs more readily analyzed and their contents identified. Oleg Penkovsky is one of many unknown heroes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, whose contributions to the successful resolution of the confrontation were kept secret at the time, and to most remain unrevealed by history.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
The information provided to the President included the area of the country which would fall within range of the Soviet missiles being installed, depicted on the map. JFK Presidential Library

4. The President is informed of the Soviet buildup

The photos taken by U-2 on October 14 were delivered to the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) the following day, and by midday, using analytical techniques and the information previously provided by HERO, were identified as Soviet offensive nuclear regiments. The CIA sent the information to the State Department and the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, that evening. The President’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, was informed that evening as well, and Bundy decided to wait to inform President Kennedy, who had already retired, until the following day. For the remainder of the night various options were prepared to present to the president along with the news that nuclear missiles were less than 100 miles from America’s shores.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States arsenal of nuclear capable missiles outnumbered that of the Soviets in both ICBMs and shorter range nuclear capable Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey, where they could strike Soviet targets before they had time to react. The United States also had a weapon which the Soviets had yet to develop, the submarine launched ballistic missile, with Polaris submarines operating undetected beneath the surface of the sea, from whence they could strike with near impunity. Thus the president would have the opportunity to operate from a position of strength, though most of that advantage would be lost the moment that Soviet missiles in Cuba became operational, rendering most of the American south and east coast within range of a nuclear attack in a matter of minutes.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
President Kennedy used this map as a reference when discussing potential invasion plans of Cuba, though he was concerned over a Soviet counter assault on Berlin. JFK Presidential Library

5. Concern over Berlin was an argument against invading Cuba

After Kennedy was made aware of the situation in Cuba he immediately made it clear that the United States would not tolerate the presence of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. The question was how to accomplish their removal. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimously of the opinion that the best available option was an aerial bombardment, followed by a naval bombardment, followed by invasion by the US Army and Marines, the defeat of the Cubans and their Russian allies, and the removal of Fidel Castro. While the removal of Castro was a long expressed goal of the Kennedy administration, he was not so sure about using the military option, even when the Chiefs expressed their opinion that the Russians would do nothing to intervene in Cuba, lacking the naval capability to do so.

Kennedy wasn’t as concerned about Soviet intervention in Cuba, but he was certain that the Soviets would take the opportunity to act in one of the other hot spots of the Cold War, Berlin. A Soviet attack on Berlin in 1962 would have overwhelmed US forces unless, and possibly even if NATO forces came to their aid. The involvement of NATO would have been the trigger for a world war, and possibly an all-out nuclear exchange between the Soviets and the United States. Still, the Joint Chiefs argued for invasion, and pressed the young president to move quickly, before the Soviet missiles in Cuba were operational. Kennedy desperately sought other options under the pressure from his generals and admirals. Realizing their eagerness for military action he ordered that under no circumstances were any American planes or ships to engage any Soviet or Cuban targets.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Part of a memorandum prepared by Kennedy advisor Ted Sorensen, outlining some of the options being presented to the President. JFK Presidential Library

6. The Cuban Missile Crisis was largely over political appearances

In October of 1962 the United States had a nuclear arsenal of about 5,000 warheads which could be delivered to their target by strategic bombers, tactical bombers, ICBMs, submarine launched missiles, and intermediate and medium range missiles, as well as a few other means which had been tried experimentally. By comparison, the Soviet Union had an arsenal of about 300 warheads. The presence of the warheads in Cuba was not an alteration of the strategic balance between the two nations, especially because the United States had nuclear warheads aimed at the Soviets based in Turkey, the Jupiters. The Jupiter system was generally considered obsolete, not because the missiles were old and wouldn’t work, but because the submarine launched missiles rendered them redundant.

The presence of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, if allowed to remain, didn’t alter the strategic balance between the superpowers as much as it affected the political balance, a fact which Kennedy admitted and explained after the crisis was resolved. The majority of the staff of advisors which he gathered to assist him, and which he named the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) agreed with his assessment (EXCOMM was the NSC and five additional advisers, including Bobby Kennedy). Kennedy had already promised the American people that should Cuba acquire the means to attack the United States, “the United States would act”. Kennedy was thus cornered by the need to redress the situation in Cuba without endangering Berlin.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
EXCOMM meeting of October 29, 1962, as it was becoming apparent that a peaceful solution to the crisis was at hand. JFK Presidential Library

7. The American people were unaware of the crisis for its first week

On October 18, 1962, the Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with the President, during which he informed Kennedy that the concerns expressed by the Americans over the summer about the installations of SAMs were unfounded, and that the missiles were for defensive purposes only. Kennedy chose not to inform the Soviet minister that he knew he was lying. Instead he met again with EXCOMM and the Joint Chiefs, who continued to push for an invasion, and absent that action a bombing attack on the missile sites. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay assured Kennedy that a bombing mission would eliminate all of the missile sites in one strike. By October 19, at least four of the sites were labeled as operational by analysts.

On October 21, still brushing aside arguments for invasion, Kennedy came down in favor of a blockade of the island by the US Navy. Since technically a blockade is an act of war according to international law, Kennedy opted to call the operation a quarantine, ordering the US Navy to stop all ships approaching Cuba and deny passage to any containing any military stores. Because the quarantine was designed to take place in international waters, where during peacetime ships can only be stopped under extraordinary circumstances, Kennedy quietly obtained the endorsement of the Organization of American States for the operation. The next step was to inform the American people, and the rest of the world including the Soviet Union, that the Americans were about to engage in using their Navy to stop the Soviets on the high seas.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
President Kennedy signed a proclamation establishing a naval quarantine of Cuba before going on television to inform the American people of the situation and the actions taken by their government. JFK Presidential Library

8. Kennedy addresses the nation on the situation in Cuba

On October 22, the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to inform him of America’s knowledge of the Soviet activity in Cuba and the details of the impending quarantine. Kennedy called former president Eisenhower to brief him, with Eisenhower informing the President that he could expect Berlin to be used as a bargaining chip. That evening Kennedy went on national television to announce the Soviet missile buildup and the quarantine, warning that any attack launched from Cuba would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union, and that the United States would launch a “full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union”. Thus Kennedy placed nuclear war on the table in the dispute with the Soviets over Cuba. Kennedy also announced that the United States would not deny “the necessities of life” to Cuba, “as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948”

Kennedy’s speech, and diplomatic efforts in nations around the world, received a widely varying response. The Chinese announced that they stood with the Cuban people. The Turks responded to a diplomatic feeler about removing the Jupiter missiles from Turkey by stating that they would “resent” such an arrangement. US military forces around the world went to an elevated alert status. The US Navy began deploying ships to the Caribbean and the Atlantic approaches, with USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser, assigned as the flagship for the quarantine force. Soviet ships continued on their courses for the island of Cuba. In West Germany support for the American action was nearly universal while in DeGaulle’s France the authenticity of the evidence Kennedy had presented during his speech was openly questioned by several newspapers.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Nikita Kruschev sent this blustering letter to President Kennedy in response to the announced quarantine, of which he was informed by the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Wikimedia

9. The Soviets accuse the United States of piracy

On October 24 the Soviet Union’s news agency and propaganda arm of the Soviet government, TASS, broadcast the content of a telegram sent by Nikita Kruschev in which the Soviet premier warned the United States against attempting to stop Soviet ships on the high seas, accusing Kennedy and the Americans of contemplating outright piracy. In another message, Kruschev wrote to Kennedy, “The Soviet government considers the violation of the freedom of navigation in international waters and air space to constitute an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear missile war”. Kruschev went on to warn the President, “To be sure, we will not remain mere observers of pirate actions by American ships in the open sea. We will then be forced on our part to take those measures we deem necessary and sufficient to defend our rights.”

As US Air Forces elevated their readiness posture to yet another higher level, with nuclear armed B-52 bombers on continuous airborne alert, a curious and little reported event occurred, or rather didn’t occur. The Soviets did not set a higher level of readiness. Soviet air patrols saw no increase in flights, air combat patrols remained at the levels where they were before the announcement of the quarantine, and no mass deployment of Soviet naval ships and submarines occurred. Nor was there any increase of activity by Soviet units in East Germany and Berlin. Despite the bluster of the Soviet premier to the American President, the Soviet forces remained in place, though some Soviet naval ships which had already been bound for Cuba continued on their course for the island.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
A forgotten aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that ships of Latin American navies, including Argentina and Venezuela, supported the US quarantine of Cuba. US Navy

10. The Russian sailor who saved the world

Those who argue that the Cuban Missile Crisis was exaggerated as regards how close the world came to a nuclear war don’t know the story of Vasili Arkhipov, commander of a Soviet diesel submarine flotilla in the Caribbean during the crisis. Arkhipov was also serving as second in command of the submarine B-59, the vessel on which he was deployed, as a result of the vagaries of the Soviet command system. B-59 was armed with nuclear torpedoes. When US Navy vessels attempted to force it to the surface during the quarantine, the Soviets, who had been out of radio contact with their superiors and weren’t sure if the United States and the Soviet Union were at war, decided to attack the American task force, including the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Captain Savitsky and political officer Ivan Maslennikov agreed to the use of nuclear torpedoes, in accordance with Soviet doctrine requiring the two senior officers to concur.

In ordinary circumstances, that would have been enough, but the presence of the flotilla commander aboard changed the circumstances. Arkhipov refused to concur. The argument aboard B-59 became heated as the Americans continued to bombard the submarine with practice depth charges, annoying but not lethal. Arkhipov was adamant, and ordered the vessel to surface and establish radio contact with fleet headquarters, as it was clear to him that the Americans were not trying to sink the submarine. The Soviets did surface, and learning that there was no war returned to their base, where Arkhipov, a veteran of the K-19 tragedy (where he had been second in command) was reprimanded for humiliating the Soviet navy. Vasili Arkhipov’s judgment likely saved the world from a nuclear war, though he is all but forgotten today.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
All of the Joint Chiefs supported military action but Curtis LeMay – seated closest to the President – did all he could to start one, and continued to argue for invasion after the crisis was averted. CIA

11. LeMay encourages the President to take military action

Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay virulently opposed the naval quarantine imposed by President Kennedy and argued vigorously for bombing missions to destroy the missiles already installed in Cuba. Even after the crisis was averted through diplomatic means, LeMay argued for an attack on Cuba anyway, destroying the missile sites as the Russians were in the process of dismantling them and removing Castro from power. LeMay continuously clashed with President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara throughout the crisis, insisting that American bombers were sufficient to resolve the situation and that the Soviets would not respond with military action. In his assessment of Soviet resolve he was wrong, as subsequent events proved. Had Kennedy followed LeMay’s recommendations, a nuclear attack would have occurred on the United States.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, review of formerly classified documents under their control revealed that the missile sites in Cuba had been given the authority to launch their weapons at the discretion of local commanders if they were deemed to be under attack. Even the provocative reconnaissance missions ordered by LeMay – without presidential authorization – were sufficient to allow the site commanders to launch their weapons, more than twenty of which were operational. Each of the Soviet warheads installed and ready to launch were equivalent to 50 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb. LeMay’s opposition to the president was so strong that Robert Kennedy warned the Soviets during negotiations that failure to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the crisis could result in the Pentagon taking action without presidential authorization, in effect executing a coup within the United States government.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Original proclamation establishing the naval quarantine, signed by President Kennedy on October 23, 1962. JFK Presidential Library

12. The quarantine takes effect without incident

On October 25 two ships bound for Cuba were allowed to pass through the quarantine line, though neither vessel was flying the Soviet flag. One of them, a Lebanese flagged freighter, was stopped by the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., named for the president’s elder brother who had been killed during World War II. Its manifest revealed it was not carrying military materiel, and it was allowed to pass. Later the following day Kennedy ordered low level reconnaissance flights to be conducted over Cuba every two hours, to monitor the status of the missile installations and other Soviet and Cuban activity. He also ordered preparations for an invasion to continue. The Chiefs of Staff initiated a timetable for an invasion which was deliberately designed to reach a point of no return, which once reached would prevent a cancellation by higher authority, a feature of which Kennedy was uninformed.

That afternoon, October 26, the KGB station chief in Washington, Alexander Feklisov, invited an ABC News reporter, John Scali, to have lunch. Feklisov delivered a feeler to the newsman, offering an opportunity for a diplomatic solution to be delivered to the State Department. In response, the State Department sent a message to Castro through the Brazilian government promising that there would be no invasion of Cuba should the Soviets remove the missiles and the Castro government publicly announce that it would allow no further Soviet offensive weapons on the island. That evening a lengthy message from Kruschev was transmitted to the State Department, though it was clearly intended to be a personal message to President Kennedy from Premier Kruschev. It followed up on the meeting with Scali, proposing a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Fidel Castro in Washington in 1959. Like Curtis LeMay, Castro wanted war and violated Soviet orders by shooting at American reconnaissance airplanes. Library of Congress

13. Castro plans to oppose an invasion of Cuba

As the United States and the Soviets probed each other diplomatically, the leader of the nation at the center of the dispute between the two superpowers, Fidel Castro, took steps to defend his country. Castro had opposed the installation of the Soviet missiles, and had only been persuaded when the Soviets promised additional financial and military support for his regime. By October 26, alarmed by the increased American flyovers of the missile sites in Cuba, as well as over Cuban military installations, Castro was convinced that an invasion of the island was at hand. He urged the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive missile strike on the United States, before the missiles installations could be destroyed by bombing, or captured by ground forces as part of an invasion.

Kruschev’s message to Kennedy on October 26 had offered the removal of the Soviet missiles in exchange for a promise from the United States that it would not invade Cuba. In the morning of October 27, another message arrived, allegedly from Kruschev, which abrogated that of the evening before, and offered to remove the missiles in Cuba in exchange for the United States removing the Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. The Turks had already announced their opposition to such a move. As the message was being discussed by EXCOMM, which considered that it indicated internal dissension in the Kremlin, yet another message arrived from Kruschev reiterating the quid pro quo of exchanging the missiles in Cuba for those in Italy and Turkey. At the same time, Soviet ships drew nearer to the quarantine line in the Caribbean Sea.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
As U2 flights continued to provide Kennedy and his advisors with valuable information, Castro ordered one shot down, infuriating his Soviet allies who were trying to de-escalate the crisis. JFK Presidential Library

14. The Cubans shot down another U-2

In the morning of October 27 a U-2 operated by the Air Force from McCoy Air Force Base in Florida was shot down as it flew a photo-recon mission over Cuba. Later that afternoon several US Navy low-level reconnaissance aircraft were fired upon as they flew over their objectives on the island. The decision to fire on the American aircraft was assumed by EXCOMM to have been made by Soviet commanders of defense units in Cuba. Much later it was revealed that the decision had been made by the Cubans, specifically Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, who wanted to escalate the crisis to encourage the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive strike. Kennedy had previously informed his advisers that should any American planes be shot down he would order a bombing strike against the missile sites.

When the president was informed of the loss of the U-2 (he was not told of the attacks on the Navy aircraft) LeMay forcefully reminded him of his earlier decision. Kennedy, who was aware of the progress of the back door negotiations, demurred. Later it was learned that Kruschev had ordered the Soviet commanders in Cuba not to shoot at American aircraft, but Kennedy was not aware of that decision at the time. Kennedy’s refusal to authorize the Air Force to launch retaliatory attacks enraged LeMay, who informed the President that he had authorized his pilots henceforth to return fire if attacked. It was LeMay’s reaction to the president’s decision which moved Bobby Kennedy to warn of the possibility of rogue elements in the Pentagon acting on their own, removing the potential for a diplomatic solution.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Anatoly Dobrynin, seen here with Henry Kissinger in 1974, suggested to Bobby Kennedy that the President ignore Kruschev’s second letter and respond to his first. Wikimedia

15. Robert Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador

The offer to exchange missile sites in Turkey and Italy for those of the Soviets in Cuba was seen as a possible solution to the crisis, though Turkey opposed it and several NATO members were hesitant, as it was seen as blackmail which weakened the Alliance’s authority. As representatives of both nations met officially to discuss solutions to the crisis Bobby Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin met unofficially on October 27. The suggestion was made for the Americans to ignore Kruschev’s second message, offering to trade missiles in Cuba for those in Italy and Turkey, and respond only to his first message, which offered to remove the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a promise that the Americans would not invade and depose Castro.

For decades it was believed that the idea to focus on the first message had originated with Bobby Kennedy (a belief he encouraged) but in fact it was Dobrynin who persuaded Kennedy to accept the idea, which had likely originated with Kruschev. Dobrynin hinted strongly that the second message had been intended to assuage the Politburo. When Bobby presented the idea to his brother and EXCOMM, John Kennedy was skeptical, but was persuaded that there was little to lose, and a message to Kruschev accepting his initial offer was drafted, debated by EXCOMM, edited by the president, and sent to the Soviet premier. A second meeting between Scali and the KGB Chief of Station was arranged to discuss Kruschev’s likely response.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 1960. Two years later he wrote to Kruschev urging nuclear annihilation. Library of Congress

16. Kruschev received a letter from Castro urging nuclear war

Nikita Kruschev was receiving communications from more than just the Kennedy Administration. Within his own government there were numerous demands that he refuse to remove the missiles from Cuba, or that at the very least extract further concessions from the Americans to remove them. Soviet naval authorities demanded that Soviet vessels refuse to honor the American quarantine line at sea. And the continuous threat of invasion of Cuba, in which Soviet missile technicians would be at risk, compelled him to consider actions against NATO in Europe, since the Soviets lacked the capability to send additional troops and air support to Cuba in the face of the increased American naval strength in the Caribbean.

Kruschev received a letter from Fidel Castro on October 27, in which the Cuban leader urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. Castro referred to the United States as “imperialists” and wrote to the Soviet premier that the American, “aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be”. Castro’s call for a nuclear attack on the United States became known as the Armageddon Letter. It was later that same day that the Soviet submarine B 59 was averted from launching nuclear torpedoes against the American flotilla which was hounding it, and an “accidental” U-2 mission overflew Soviet airspace, causing Soviet fighters to scramble over the Bering Sea, and American F-102 fighters to scramble in response.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
President Kennedy consulted with former president Eisenhower, seen here with Kruschev in 1959, telling Ike that he intended to pressure Kruschev on Berlin. Eisenhower concurred. Library of Congress

17. President Kennedy planned to use the Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate tensions in Berlin

After the President accepted the Soviet offer to withdraw the missiles in Cuba in exchange for an open promise not to invade the island and a secret promise to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, Kennedy called former President Eisenhower. During the recorded conversation, Kennedy told the former president that he believed the Cuban setback would lead to a confrontation over Berlin by the end of November. Kennedy repeated his intentions to increase tensions over Berlin to former President Truman in a telephone conversation, reiterating the opportunity to further escalate tensions during which the United States would enjoy the full support of NATO. The president also ordered the naval quarantine continued for the time being. CIA plans to assassinate Castro continued.

As November wore on, US surveillance flights over Cuba revealed steady progress being made by the Soviets disassembling the missile sites. Under Soviet orders, the American flights were allowed to be made over Cuba unhindered by the Cuban defenses. Besides the offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Soviets had installed tactical nuclear defensive missiles, which were unknown to the Americans, and which the Soviets decided to remove as well, since the Cubans had displayed a tendency to act on their own accord in shooting at American aircraft, against Soviet orders, during the crisis. When Castro was informed of the decision in late November he protested against it, but to no avail. From that point Castro became a full vassal of the Soviet Union, unable to act independently.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Page one of Kennedy’s letter to Kruschev, October 22, 1962. The slowness of the communications between the two leaders led to the creation of the hotline following the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK Presidential Library

18. The Cuban Missile Crisis led to the creation of the Moscow – Washington hotline

As the Cuban Missile Crisis wound down following the Soviet agreement to remove the offensive missiles from Cuba, both the Soviet and American governments reviewed their performance during the crisis. Both took steps to enhance their control of their respective agencies. Kennedy was appalled at the performance of the Joint Chiefs and their desire for immediate military intervention, as well as their reluctance to accept diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Kennedy was also concerned about the delays in communication between his office and that of his Soviet counterpart, and the fact that information was received and digested by military and civilian intelligence agencies before reaching his desk, with the risk of relevant data never reaching him, or being in a interpreted state before it reached the committee he created to resolve the crisis, EXCOMM. The hotline was created in the aftermath of the crisis to improve communications between the leaders.

Kennedy suspended the naval quarantine of Cuba on November 21, 1962, following confirmation that all of the offensive nuclear missiles and their warheads, as well as the Ilyushin II 28 bombers, had been withdrawn. The following spring, the Jupiter missiles were withdrawn from Turkey. The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis weakened Kruschev’s prestige within the Soviet government, two years later he fell from power. By then John Kennedy was dead. Castro viewed the resolution of the crisis as a betrayal by the Soviets, as the negotiations to resolve it did not include him or representatives of his government, and the United States retained its naval base at Guantanamo Bay. General Curtis LeMay told President Kennedy that the peaceful resolution of the crisis was the “greatest defeat in our history”, and more than two decades later continued to insist that American forces should have invaded Cuba and overthrown Castro.

19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Soviet missiles being loaded for shipment back to the Soviet Union, November 1962. The camera also caught the shadow of the airplane in which it was carried. US Air Force

19. The impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis on US – Soviet relations

The Cuban missile crisis led to increased negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Kruschev also attempted to explore negotiations regarding the status of Berlin, the recognition of West Germany and East Germany, the recognition of the Communist government of China, and several other issues of contention between the superpowers. Kennedy was beset with the same hawks within his government, military, and Congress, who opposed any form of conciliation with the Soviet Union, and was unable to accomplish much in the way of opening talks with the Soviets in many areas. The increased American presence in Southeast Asia became another stumbling block to superpower cooperation.

The Cuban Missile Crisis humiliated the Soviets, who began an expansion of their land based and submarine based ballistic missile programs in an effort to first achieve parity with, and then exceed the United States’ nuclear arsenal. During its 13 days it featured many of the elements of the James Bond novels which President Kennedy enjoyed; the threat of the end of the world, spies and counterspies, the planting of false information, the forces of good against the forces of evil, and a rogue leader (Castro) who threatened to upset the resolution prepared by men of good intent. A Soviet naval officer prevented the eruption of nuclear war while American generals argued for it. It was the closest the world has yet come to the guiding principle of the Cold War, that of Mutual Assured Destruction.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Graham T. Allison, Philip D. Zelikow. 1971

“The Cuban Missile Crisis”. Charles Tustin Kamps, Air and Space Power Journal. Fall, 2007

“KGB: The Inside Story”. Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew. 1991

“13 Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Robert F. Kennedy. 1969

“Did Kruschev Bluff in Cuba? No”. Raymond L. Garthoff, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. July, 1988

“John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Ernest R. May, BBC History. November 18, 2013

“1962 Year in Review: Cuban Missile Crisis”. United Press International. December, 1962. Online

“JFK and Dwight Eisenhower during the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Recording, JFK tapes, October 22, 1962. Online

“Letter from Chairman Kruschev to President Kennedy”. Nikita Kruschev, United States Department of State, Office of the Historian. October 24, 1962. Online

“Thank You Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war”. Edward Wilson, The Guardian. October 27, 2012

“SAC during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Stephanie Ritter, Air Force Global Strike Command. October 19, 2012

“The Naval Quarantine of Cuba, 1962”. Naval Heritage and History Command, Naval Historical Center. 1962

“Was Castro Out of Control in 1962?” Seymour Hersh, The Washington Post. October 11, 1987

“Robert Kennedy and his Times”. Arthur Schlesinger, 2002

“Anatomy of a Controversy: Anatoly F. Dobrynin’s Meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, Saturday, 27 October 1962”. Jim Hershberg, The Cold War International History Project Bulletin. Spring, 1995

“The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Kruschev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis”. James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang. 2012

“The Dark Side of Camelot”. Seymour Hersh. 1998

“Thirteen Days, Thirty Years After: Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited”. Haruya Anami, Journal of American and Canadian Studies. 1994

“The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50”. Graham Allison, Foreign Affairs. 2012