Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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Kennedy had arrived at the White House in early 1961 visibly alarmed by Khrushchev’s newest bluster, a promise to give aid and comfort—though not Soviet soldiers—to support “wars of national liberation” in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Then, in April of that year, Kennedy stumbled into the fiasco of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the humiliating failure of a CIA-sponsored invasion aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. So when Kennedy and the Soviet leader met in Vienna in June 1961, Khrushchev pummeled the American leader with threats to end Western occupation rights in Berlin and then watched with satisfaction when the president acquiesced in the building of the Berlin Wall.

Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev’s taunts was to flex his own missile muscle. During his presidential campaign he had criticized Republicans for tolerating a “missile gap” in Khrushchev’s favor. Now he abandoned that pretense. As both governments knew, the Russians held only 20 or 30 intercontinental missiles, of unreliable design, and were having trouble building more. By contrast, the United States’ missile, bomber and submarine forces could strike 15 times as many Soviet targets. The Kennedy team began to boast not only of this advantage but also to hint that it might, in a crunch, resort to a “first use” of nuclear weapons, leaving Russia unable to strike American targets.

Thus stung in the spring of 1962, Khrushchev came up with a bold idea: plant medium-range missiles in Cuba and thereby put most of the United States under the nuclear gun. Without having to wait a decade for long-range missiles that he could ill afford, the Soviet leader would give Americans a taste of real vulnerability, save money for other things and strengthen his negotiating position.

Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister, embraced the idea and helped sell it to dubious Soviet colleagues. Khrushchev’s old chum and American expert Anastas Mikoyan predicted an unpleasant reaction from Washington and a tough sell in Cuba. But Khrushchev thought he could hide the buildup from Kennedy until the missiles were mounted and armed; he hoped to reveal his new poker hand in November during visits to the United Nations and Havana.

The Castro brothers were desperate for Soviet weaponry to protect them from American invaders, but they didn’t want sealed-off bases under alien control. To overcome their resistance, Khrushchev forgave Cuba’s debts, promised more economic aid and insisted his missiles would help defend the island and support Castro’s dream of inspiring other Latin revolutions.

Castro was not fooled. There were easier ways to deter an invasion; Soviet ground troops in Cuba could serve as a trip wire to bring Moscow into any conflict, or Cuba could be included in Soviet defense agreements. Castro knew he was being used, but agreed to the bases to show “solidarity,” as he put it, with the Communist bloc and to win more aid for his people.

In Washington as in Moscow, domestic politics fueled the drive toward confrontation. Through the summer of 1962, the U.S. Navy had tracked a large flotilla of ships from Soviet ports to Cuba, while the CIA heard confusing reports about sightings of military equipment on the island. Heading into a close Congressional election, Republicans saw a chance to repay Kennedy for his past attacks on their Cuba policy by mocking his tolerance for a Soviet buildup just 90 miles from Florida. But the administration’s intelligence teams detected only nonnuclear “defensive” weapons—MIG fighter planes, torpedo boats and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), which had a range of only 25 miles. Having roundly misread each other, Khrushchev and Kennedy brought this diplomatic stew to a boil.

The Making of a Crisis

Hearing the republican alarms about missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev sent his ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to Robert Kennedy with assurances that the Soviets would do nothing provocative before the American election. And when RFK complained that the buildup in Cuba was bad enough, the ambassador insisted—in innocence, it would turn out—that his government would never give another nation control over offensive weapons.

To fend off the Republicans, the Kennedy brothers hurriedly produced a statement saying that if any nation’s forces were to achieve a “significant offensive capability” in Cuba, it would raise the “gravest issues.” In a deceptive riposte, Khrushchev responded that his long-range missiles were so good he had “no need” to send big weapons “to any other country, for instance Cuba.” OK, then, Kennedy countered, if Cuba ever became “an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union,” he would do “whatever must be done” to protect American security.


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