“Hindsight is 20/20.” This is a very common saying. All of us can probably look back in regret at a missed opportunity, or at a situation we should have handled differently. The annals of history are no different, as demonstrated by the factors which led to World War I and World War II. Let’s look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis. Specifically, let’s focus on the events leading up to it, the infamous thirteen days of the crisis, and some mistakes that could have been avoided along the way.
From 1959 to 1962, the country of Cuba evolved tremendously. The starting point can be traced back to January 1, 1959, when revolutionaries led by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos took control of Havana. Shortly thereafter, on January 7, Fidel Castro arrived in Cuba. Castro’s overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista hailed him as a liberator to the Cuban people, as well as a hero to many Americans. He even visited the United States that April, as a guest of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Unfortunately, Cuba and United States relations quickly deteriorated. Property belonging to wealthy Cubans and foreigners (including many Americans) was being confiscated, with the intent of improving living conditions for less privileged Cubans. Accordingly, the United States implemented an embargo with Cuba in 1960, cutting off trade between the two geographically close nations. Relations between Cuba and communist nations, mainly the Soviet Union, quickly strengthened. On July 6, President Eisenhower canceled the 700,000 tons of sugar left in Cuba’s annual quota. A mere two days later, the Soviet Union agrees to purchase this sugar. In addition, China signed its first commercial treaty with Cuba on July 23, agreeing to purchase 500,000 tons of sugar per year for five years. In retrospect, it is amazing how quickly these trade changes took place.
JFK Takes Office
The year 1961 saw tensions escalate to the next level. On January 3, the United States broke offofficial diplomatic relations with Cuba. President John F. Kennedy took office on January 20; a major focus of his administration was the growing concerns of this Soviet Bloc nation located only ninety miles off the coast of Florida. The Soviet Union was equally vigilant, fearing the United States may intervene with the island nation.
These concerns proved valid, as the Central Intelligence Agency was already hard at work on a plan to remove Castro from power. On April 17, in possibly the most humiliating event of Kennedy’s presidency, fifteen hundred refugees landed at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The American government thought the Cuban population would support these “freedom fighters,” causing Castro’s regime to consequently fall. Unfortunately, that was not the case: Castro’s forces killed and captured the revolutionaries with extreme ease. In fact, the fighting lasted only three days, with Castro subsequently claiming that Cuba was now a communist country. In a failed effort, the United States had metaphorically revealed its hand to the world. Most Cubans now despised the United States for intervening, further improving Castro’s image within the country.
Obviously alarmed by the possibility of another United States attack, Castro demanded the Soviet Union offer protection to Cuba. Another motive here was retaliation. If Soviet nuclear missiles were placed in Cuba, the United States would face the same risk as the Soviet Union. After all, American missiles were already present in Turkey, in an effort to protect Western Germany from communist expansion. Placing missiles in Cuba would allow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev to even the score.
It would later be revealed that Soviet arms buildups had started in late 1960, when incoming cargo manifests would often be suspiciously blank. Cuba handled these shipments with great care and secrecy, unloading only at night and under heavy guard. Overhead flybys were also banned when this took place. American-Communist tensions continued to escalate throughout 1961 and most of 1962. Khrushchev’s memoirs would later reveal that placing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba was conceived as early as May 1962. During August and September, Soviet deliveries into Cuba increased at an alarming rate. Surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting American aircraft such as U-2 photographic reconnaissance planes were also now operational.
On September 13, Kennedy warned the Soviets that if offensive weapons were placed in Cuba, “The gravest issues would arise.” The Soviet foreign minister and other spokesmen insisted that these weapons were for defensive purposes only. The cloudless Sunday morning of October 14, however, quickly called the Soviet’s bluff. A U-2 reconnaissance plane shot photos of Soviet nuclear activity in Cuba. During the next few days, these pictures were analyzed and reanalyzed, to confirm the objects in question: medium-range nuclear weapons capable of reaching most of the United States.
On a late Tuesday morning, October 16, CIA officials met with President Kennedy in the Cabinet Room. Deputy CIA director General Marshall Carter explained October 14th’s U-2 photographs to the president. “At least fourteen canvas-covered missile trailers measuring 67 feet in length, nine feet in width,” he stated. Although not yet operational, their potential nuclear capabilities were confirmed. Attorney general Robert Kennedy would later state the dominant feeling in this meeting was surprise. The Russian government had been blatantly lying to the United States.
What should be done? This was a simple question with a complicated list of possible answers: do nothing, bring the issue to the United Nations, send secret envoys to negotiate with Castro, blockade Cuba, attack Cuba by air, invade Cuba, or offer to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey for removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. All of these options were discussed in great length, with some choices quickly making more sense than others. It was agreed that any direct action on Cuba would be internationally viewed as a surprise attack by a very large nation targeting a very small nation.
President Kennedy’s ability to rationalize the situation and remain relatively calm was remarkable. During this time, he had been reading Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August, which recounts the events leading up to World War I. President Kennedy had learned how European leaders’ misjudgments placed potential foes in a position where they could not back down. Inevitably, these actions meant that going to war was the only recourse. During this difficult time in 1962, President Kennedy did not want to push the Soviet Union into a corner. Instead, he wanted to ensure that there was room for peace and withdrawal. Robert Kennedy also elaborated on this concept stating, “No action is taken against a powerful adversary in a vacuum. A government or people will fail to understand this only at their great peril. For that is how wars begin—wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.” This level-headed approach spilled over into every action taken by the United States against the Soviet Union and Cuba.
On October 18, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson met with President Kennedy. Thompson suggested a blockade before proceeding with an air strike. A blockade was eventually agreed upon, with different parts of government offering support for various reasons. Some thought this was an ultimatum, since lack of action by Khrushchev would ultimately lead to military action; others felt this approach welcomed negotiation by the two countries.
The following day; Friday, October 19; Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss plans of the blockade. This conversation lasted much of the weekend. Although the Joint Chiefs still preferred an air strike followed by invasion, Kennedy ultimately rejected their idea, fearing it could too easily lead to nuclear war. Most agreed even a major surprise attack could not guarantee destruction of all missile sites and nuclear weapons. This fact, as well as the difficult moral position this would put the United States in internationally, were two of the deciding factors against a military attack.
On Monday, October 22, Kennedy met with congressional leaders to discuss his decision, prior to addressing the nation. Congress lobbied for a military attack, while Kennedy stood firm, stating that would not be the first course of action. Obviously bothered by the tough demeanor of those in the meeting, Kennedy realized this reaction was very similar to most of his advisors’ initial thoughts.
At 7:00 p.m., Kennedy gave his public television and radio address to the nation. Instead of blockade—a term of war—the word “quarantine” was used. Any ships bound for Cuba, regardless of nation, would be subject to search at the established quarantine line. If offensive weapons were found, these vessels would be turned back. Kennedy concluded by stating, “Let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out…but the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”
To say the days following Kennedy’s speech were tense would be a massive understatement. The American public’s reaction was understandably one of genuine concern and even panic. Food and emergency supplies were bought in masses. Newsstands were crowded with citizens anxious to learn the latest developments. Meanwhile, the United States’ armed forces were on high alert: over 100,000 troops were moved into Florida, 180 naval vessels crowded the Caribbean, and B-52s containing nuclear weapons were in the air around the clock.
During this trying time, Kennedy and Khrushchev continued to talk through diplomatic channels. Kennedy’s team and the navy watched vehemently to see if the quarantine would escalate into a nautical confrontation. In the meantime, Adlai Stevenson met with the United Nations Security Council. Soviet Ambassador Zorin, present at the meetings, dodged multiple questions from Stevenson regarding the missiles. Realizing this was getting him nowhere, Stevenson revealed the actual photos to all in attendance. If anyone thought Stevenson was being too soft, they were quickly proven otherwise.
On October 25, the tanker Bucharest was the first ship intercepted and allowed to pass the quarantine line, since it was determined to contain only oil. Many who favored letting the Bucharest pass without inspection argued that Khrushchev still needed more time to decide what he was going to do. Other ships throughout the day changed course instead of reaching the line and facing further inspection. During the next few days, numerous events occurred which could have easily escalated both countries to the next level. At one point, a United States ship fired blank shells over an approaching Soviet ship, only to receive swift reprimand. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and no retaliation took place.
Another incident took place around midnight in Duluth, where a guard at the Sector Direction Center shot at an intruder climbing the fence, and then activated a sabotage alarm. This alarm filtered out to other bases in the area, including Volk Field, Wisconsin, where the alarm had been wrongly wired. DEFCON-3 levels meant there would be no practice drills, so nuclear armed F-106A interceptors were ordered to take off when the alarm sounded, assuming World War III had begun. As the aircraft began down the runway, a speeding car signaled the planes to stop. The alarm was an error and the Duluth “intruder” was actually a bear.
A similar near disaster occurred in California, early on October 26. Once the United States reached DEFCON-3 status, all ICBMs had been fitted with nuclear warheads, except for one Titan missile scheduled to test launch that morning. Unbelievably, this missile was still tested and launched, without the Soviet Union—and presumably even many American officials—to know whether it contained a nuclear payload or not. The most publicized incident of this nature took pace the morning of October 27, when U-2 reconnaissance pilot Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. was shot down by a SAM missile over Cuba. This action could have easily led to war as well, until it was realized this was shot down by a solider not following orders. In all of these examples, it is easy to see how one misinterpretation could have put the two nations past the point of no return.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent two separate, notably different correspondences to President Kennedy. In the first letter, Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for a United States pledge to not invade the island nation. Khrushchev’s second communication that day requested more of a negotiation. In it, he agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba, but in exchange for removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. Although the missiles in Turkey were viewed as obsolete, Kennedy’s advisors did not want these missiles removed based on a Soviet demand.
Then, on October 27, Robert Kennedy secretly met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at the Soviet Embassy. The attorney general told Dobrynin that the president was offering to agree to the first letter. Naturally, Dobrynin questioned removal of the missiles in Turkey. Robert Kennedy explained in his book Thirteen Days, “I said that there could be no quid pro quo or any arrangement made under this kind of threat or pressure, and that in the last analysis this was a decision that would have to be made by NATO.” Kennedy also insisted that the missiles would be removed after this crisis was resolved, but reiterated that it would not be a public term of this offer.
Closure was reached the following morning via a worldwide radio broadcast. In this address, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, under U.N. inspection, in return for a United States pledge to not invade Cuba. He would later write, “It would have been preposterous for us to unleash a war against the United States from Cuba. Cuba was 11,000 kilometers from the Soviet Union. Our sea and air communications with Cuba were so precarious that an attack against the U.S. was unthinkable.”
To my common knowledge the Cuban Missile Crisis is the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war. A military leader has been quoted as saying, “The first nuclear war will be the last. The following war would be fought with sticks and stones.” It is certainly reassuring to be writing about this today as something that almost happened instead of something that actually did happen. Hopefully these historical events will demonstrate that war is almost always avoidable, if disputing parties try hard enough to find an alternative solution.