The Cuban Missile Crisis

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At this time in 1962, the U.S. was in the thick of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here’s a brief recap of what exactly happened during those thirteen days.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where at any given moment, you and everyone you know could be wiped out without warning at the push of a button. This was the reality for millions of people during the 45-year period after World War II, now known as the Cold War. As the United States and Soviet Union faced off across the globe, each knew that the other had nuclear weapons capable of destroying it. And destruction never loomed closer than during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

In 1961, the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Cuba’s new communist government. That failed attempt was known as the Bay of Pigs, and it convinced Cuba to seek help from the U.S.S.R. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was happy to comply by secretly deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba, not only to protect the island, but to counteract the threat from U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey. By the time U.S. intelligence discovered the plan, the materials to create the missiles were already in place. 

At an emergency meeting on October 16, 1962, military advisors urged an airstrike on missile sites and invasion of the island. But President John F. Kennedy chose a more careful approach. On October 22, he announced that the the U.S. Navy would intercept all shipments to Cuba, but a naval blockade was considered an act of war. Although the President called it a quarantine that did not block basic necessities, the Soviets didn’t appreciate the distinction.

Thus ensued the most intense six days of the Cold War. As the weapons continued to be armed, the U.S. prepared for a possible invasion. For the first time in history, the U.S. Military set itself to DEFCON 2, the defense readiness one step away from nuclear war. With hundreds of nuclear missiles ready to launch, the metaphorical Doomsday Clock stood at one minute to midnight. 

But diplomacy carried on. In Washington, D.C., Attorney General Robert Kennedy secretly met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. After intense negotiation, they reached the following proposal. The U.S. would remove their missiles from Turkey and Italy and promise to never invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba under U.N. inspection. The crisis was now over. 

While criticized at the time by their respective governments for bargaining with the enemy, contemporary historical analysis shows great admiration for Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s ability to diplomatically solve the crisis. Overall, the Cuban Missile Crisis revealed just how fragile human politics are compared to the terrifying power they can unleash.

For a deeper dive into the circumstances of the Cuban Missile Crisis, be sure to watch The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis – Matthew A. Jordan

Animation by Patrick Smith