In October 1962, the United States and Soviet Union came to the brink of war. Fifty years later, many of the once-classified documents and photos show just how close both sides came to a nuclear exchange.
On October 16, President John F. Kennedy was shown aerial reconnaissance photos taken by a Lockheed U-2 flying high above Cuba. The photos suggested that up to 32 Soviet medium range ballistic missiles were in place on the island, and more were being assembled. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent more Soviet offensive weapons from reaching the island. He also ordered a build-up of U.S. forces in the southeast—quietly, so as not to alarm Americans.
The Soviet Union had its own concerns about missiles: In western Turkey, U.S. Jupiter missiles, installed under NATO auspices, were pointed toward Moscow. In the course of a 13-day standoff, each superpower tried to make the other blink. The United States deployed missiles along the highway to Key West, Florida, and placed a fleet of F-100Ds on standby at Homestead Air Force Base, just 90 miles off Cuba. Soviet ships laden with new arms floated steadily toward Cuba to challenge the blockade.
On October 28, the crisis was over. Radio Moscow announced that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles after Washington pledged not to invade Cuba. Privately, Kennedy also agreed to remove the already-obsolete Jupiters from Turkey on the condition that this part of the deal remain secret. In the end, both sides ended up getting what they wanted.
Crusader over Cuba
During the Cuban crisis, an RF-8A Crusader flies “Blue Moon Mission 5010,” a classified reconnaissance flight to confirm the presence of missiles. The photo is part of a film reel captured by the second Crusader pilot in the formation.
The U.S. Air Force and Strategic Air Command compiled a map showing known missile installations in Cuba, potential targets of a U.S. invasion by land, and the need for further aerial photographs. The U.S. Naval Air Station at Guantanamo Bay is in the far southeast of Cuba.
At an undisclosed base of the U.S. Strategic Air Command experts interpret the aerial photos provided by secret flights over Cuba, adding captions and insight for presentation to the President and security council.
Air Force photos revealed a battery of 57mm anti-aircraft guns assembled in the countryside near the Soviet missile site at San Cristobal.
Sagua La Grande
This aerial photo, with labels added by personnel at the National Photographic Interpretation Center, shows the medium-range ballistic missile site at Sagua La Grande, Cuba, on October 23, 1962.
F-100D Super Sabres
Early in the missile crisis, the U.S. relocated more than 30 F-100D Super Sabres to Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida, parked in an irregular pattern on the field to be fueled and on constant alert to scramble towards Cuba.
Meanwhile in Turkey
At Cigli Air Base in Turkey, U.S. Jupiter missiles stood ready to strike the Soviet Union. Moscow used the missiles as a bargaining chip with the U.S., demanding that they be removed before the Soviet removal of their own missiles from Cuba.
During the crisis, Soviet minister of foreign affairs Andrei Gromyko (far right on couch, gesturing) along with deputy minister Seyemenov (left) and ambassador of the USSR Dobrynin (center) meet with President Kennedy, seated in his famous rocking chair. Kennedy held extensive aerial intelligence about the missiles, but did not reveal his hand to the Soviets.
Strategic Air Command prepared this chart to show President Kennedy and his security council the potential flight range of Soviet missiles installed in Cuba.
In this aerial reconnaissance photo of San Cristobal, Cuba, soldiers are completing a bunker that is most likely meant to guard against a nuclear retaliation by the United States.
After the crisis, on November 6, 1962, U.S. reconnaissance aircraft returned to Cuba to verify that the Soviet Union kept its promise to dismantle and load the missiles for removal. In this photo, an RF-101 Voodoo from the 363rd tactical reconnaissance wing at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, flew over Port Casilda, Cuba. Its shadow can be seen on the dock (lower right).