Cuban Missile Crisis: Five Things You Didn’t Know

Welcome to 1962. Slick back your hair, grab a scotch, and don’t forget to triple check that route to the nearest Fallout Shelter. It is October after all, the month in which the US and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than any other time in history. The nation held its breath as President John F. Kennedy faced off with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in waters just offshore of Cuba.

Earlier in the month, a U-2 spy plane over Cuba captured images of nuclear missile launch sites being built by the Soviets. Given the proximity to the US and the already looming threat of the Soviet Union, President Kennedy knew that he could not let this stand. After secretly conferring with a group of advisors (nicknamed ExComm), Kennedy announced the establishment of a naval blockade on all further armament shipments to Cuba. In a speech to the nation on October 22, Kennedy called for the removal of missiles already in Cuba and the destruction of all launch sites.

Over the next week, Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba were locked in a stalemate with US warships in the Caribbean. Faced with the very real possibility of nuclear war, Kennedy decided to approach Khrushchev with a deal to end the standoff peacefully.  Publically, Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba if the Soviets withdrew their missiles. Privately, Kennedy promised to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey within six months. Thirteen days after the start of the Crisis, Khrushchev accepted the offer and called back Soviet ships.

The Crisis was over and the nation could breathe again. But while Don Draper and company were dancing to the Monster Mash (don’t judge, it was a graveyard smash), others were beginning to see that the situation in Cuba was more intense than even President Kennedy was aware. After declassification of top-secret information and years of analysis by scholars and government officials, the reality of how close the world actually came to nuclear war is startling.

Here are five things we now know about the Cuban Missile Crisis:

1. One Soviet officer’s reluctance saved the world from nuclear war. On October 27, American destroyers forced a Soviet submarine to surface near the quarantine line using depth charges. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the sub was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo. The Soviet commander believed that war had started and prepared to fire. Fortunately, authorization from three other officers was needed. Two were in favor. One was not. 

2. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended sinking a US ship and blaming the Cubans in order to create national support for a US invasion of Cuba. The JCS sent Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a list of possible courses of action to garner support for an invasion of Cuba entitled Operation Northwoods. These recommendations were for planning purposes, intended to provide a guide for crafting a single plan.  Recommended actions included sinking a ship near the entrance of Guantanamo Bay and conducting funerals for mock-victims; blowing up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blaming Cuba; developing a Communist Cuban terror campaign by fostering “attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding.” The text of the memorandum can be seen here.

3. Previous actions toward Cuba by the US government played a big role in creating the Crisis. Events outside of the immediate crisis had more of a driving effect than previously realized.  The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and Operation Mongoose (a project created to seek ways to topple Castro) led the Soviets to believe that Kennedy was determined to get rid of Castro.  In part as a way to protect an ally, Khrushchev decided to send nuclear weapons to Cuba. 

4. On October 27, the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets actually deployed nuclear weapons capable of destroying US naval bases. In the early morning hours of October 27, the Soviets deployed nuclear cruise missiles within 15 miles of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Kennedy had no idea. 

5. A US spy plane accidentally entered Soviet airspace during the Crisis creating potential for the use of nuclear air-to-air missiles. On October 27, a U-2 spy plane took a wrong turn and entered Soviet airspace. MiG fighters were sent to shoot the plane down and nuclear-armed US fighter-interceptors were sent to escort the spy plane home. Fortunately, the MiG fighters did not reach the U-2. President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara were not informed until an hour and a half into the event. 

So many seemingly little incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis could have unintentionally led to nuclear war. Whether through luck, or smart diplomacy by world leaders, we were able to head off nuclear destruction.

This blog post was authored by Ploughshares Fund intern Jessica Sleight. Special thanks goes out to Kingston Reif and Martin Hellman for their respective papers on lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Photo by CHUCKage