Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (American Ways Series)
But it was a gamble based on 17 years of nuclear experiences going back to Hiroshima. A review of his reasoning reveals the historical roots of his thinking and its crude mimicking of United States nuclear policies. By , nuclear weapons played a major role in U. This included how each nation tested and deployed them, how they figured into diplomatic exchanges, and how strategists and generals promoted their use in war. This state of affairs tempted Khrushchev to bet that their secret deployment to Cuba would solve many of his problems. But the attempted deployment also motivated Kennedy to demand their removal lest their existence, even if unused, destroy his presidency.
Soviet Premier Khrushchev responded to President Kennedy on October 24, stating that You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The plan was bizarre, vintage Khrushchev, a wild gamble that promised a huge payoff for both his domestic and foreign policies. He had thought of it himself, and so he pushed it through the presidium, manipulating the doubters with alternating displays of reasonableness and combative confidence. He began by enlisting the support of the equally facile enthusiast, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, his minister of defense. A military mind with no political sense, Malinovsky told a visiting Cuban delegation: "There will be no big reaction from the U.
And if there is a problem, we will send the Baltic Fleet. Khrushchev had become consumed after the April Bay of Pigs invasion with the need to protect Castro's communist government. Moreover, there was the reputation of the Soviet Union to consider. And how would everybody look at us afterwards? The Soviet Union is such a great country but could not do anything except make empty proclamations, threats and speeches in the U.
Thinking about Cuba in these terms had the effect of shifting it from the periphery to the center of Soviet priorities and, in Khrushchev's mind, inextricably linking Soviet leadership of the Socialist world to the survival of Castro's government. That conundrum appeared to be insoluble until Khrushchev alighted on the idea of emulating U.
I came to the conclusion that if we organized everything secretly, even if the Americans found out about it, they would think twice before trying to liquidate Castro once the missiles were operational. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, would have recognized: a Soviet version of brinksmanship, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Khrushchev's calculations were both irresponsible and realistic. He assumed that while the United States could destroy most of his missiles before they could be launched, he also knew that the United States could never be certain that it could destroy them all.
That, he reasoned, provided Cuba with a second strike, an idea that had been promoted for almost a decade by America's nuclear strategists. When Khrushchev reflected on the balance of U. The proximity to his country of U. But if his Cuban ploy succeeded, he thought, "the Americans would share the experience of being under the [nuclear] gun. Khrushchev's assessment of U. Khrushchev's plan began simply enough. Missiles that could devastate a few United States cities would be secretly shipped to Cuba, and when they were ready to fire, he would announce their presence.
But as the process of organizing the mission evolved, the plan took on a life of its own. Simplicity gave ground, one decision at a time, to increasing complexity, as military planners added requirement upon requirement.
One Step from Nuclear War | National Archives
For purposes of deception, the enterprise was designated Anadyr, the name of a well-known river in the frozen far northeast of Siberia. The missiles carried warheads ranging from kilotons TNT equivalent to 1 megaton.
This array of nuclear firepower would provide almost total coverage of the United States. So we also needed infantry.
Of course, those troops also had to be protected, especially against an air attack, and so antiaircraft batteries were added. Then, Khrushchev recalled, "we decided that we needed artillery and tanks in case of a landing assault. The crisis that resulted from this deployment was a deadly confrontation between three countries, their governments, and their leaders. At its core, however, it was a Shakespearian drama between two men. Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev and John Fitzgerald Kennedy made all the critical decisions: the decisions that led to the crisis, the decisions that shaped the crisis, and the decisions that ended the crisis—peacefully.
Fidel Castro played a significant, but decidedly secondary, role. The crisis reached its apogee on Saturday, October 27, three days after the U. Navy deployed an armada of nearly ships along a blockade arc miles north of Havana.
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By this time—five days after Kennedy's speech—it was apparent to Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro that the military activities of each passing day exponentially increased the danger of an incident escalating out of control. Along with potential clashes on the quarantine line, tension had been increased by the well-publicized buildup of U.
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The three contending leaders became acutely aware, and worried at least Khrushchev and Kennedy were , that at any moment events could slip from their control. Over the past week, Castro had become increasingly enraged, apparently beyond worry. Well informed about U. In response to Kennedy's speech, he ordered general mobilization and commanded his antiaircraft batteries to shoot down U. Certain that he could do little to prevent an assault, he became grimly fatalistic, determined to confront the inevitable head-on regardless of the consequences.
If "the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it," he wrote to Khrushchev that night, "the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it. Castro's letter struck Khrushchev as yet another warning following the unauthorized destruction of the U-2 that the situation in Cuba was slipping out of control. Desperate to avoid Armageddon, or anything approaching it, he was, nevertheless, determined not to remove his missiles without receiving a quid pro quo.
Moreover, he considered the blockade an illegal, outrageous act of war. It was "outright banditry. The folly of degenerate imperialism. He appeared determined then to dare the Americans to sink a Soviet vessel. But now, three days later, circumstances changed his tone, and he anxiously remained in his office throughout the night.
He was 9, miles from Havana but only 32 minutes from an intercontinental missile launched from the United States. Kennedy, too, had been roiled for days by conflicting emotions. At times he was not sure if he was being too cautious, too aggressive, too flexible, too rigid, or simply too worried. Like Khrushchev, Kennedy wanted a peaceful resolution, but he too had a bottom line: the Soviet missiles must be removed from Cuba.
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Kennedy and Khrushchev were enemies, ideological and military adversaries, who blundered into a dangerous confrontation that neither wanted nor anticipated. Each was aware that an accident, or even a misinterpretation, could set off a nuclear conflagration. Yet the circumstances of their political and international obligations, as well as their personal interests, compelled them to press their goals despite their recognition that nothing they could achieve was worth the consequences of a nuclear war.
Yet, by this night, they had nudged each other so close to the edge of the nuclear precipice that terror had entered their calculations. The first was to combine an earlier public pledge that the United States would not attack Cuba with a secret U. The second initiative was to accept Rusk's suggestion to contact Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant and ask him to propose a missile swap dismantling of the Jupiter missiles in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles. Kennedy would accept the offer, allowing him to avoid his commitment to the Joint Chiefs to begin military actions.
But Khrushchev had looked deeper into the abyss on Saturday night, and fearful that the ally he was seeking to protect was on the verge of starting a war, he precipitously ended the crisis on Sunday with a surprise announcement over Radio Moscow. This time we really were on the verge of war. The most dangerous part of the crisis was over. What remained were negotiations related to the removal of associated weapons systems and inspection agreements which Castro refused to accept.
Looking back at the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of 50 years, it is clear that the dangers were greater than contemporaries understood: that most of the advice the President received would have led to war and that Khrushchev and Kennedy entered the crisis as adversaries seeking advantages but quickly became partners in search of a peaceful resolution.
In all of this, good luck was an indispensable ingredient. Five decades of research also reveals why, absent revision, history petrifies into myth.
The crisis was the transformative event in U. It not only assured Castro's survival the putative aim of the Soviet deployment , but it reset the unstated rules of the U. Nuclear deterrence could no longer be viewed as a stable condition that allowed governments to brandish nuclear weapons for diplomatic advantage. The crisis had exposed deterrence's fragilities, requiring that it be managed openly as a delicately balanced process. Kennedy had made the essential point in his October 22 address:.
Or, was it the 20 months from the debacle of the Bay of Pigs in April to November , when the last of the Soviet missiles and bombers left Cuba? Or, was it the 13 years since August , when the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear weapon? The crisis fits all of those definitions, but as the historical lens is widened, more complexity, more politics, more miscalculations, more unintended consequences, and more understanding enter the narrative.
Expanding the boundaries of the 13 days to Castro's revolution and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and respectively explains the circumstances that made room for the crisis but does not deal with its root cause. The root cause was the central role that nuclear weapons had come to play in the American-Soviet relationship.
Disregarding how those weapons were seen and valued by Soviet and U. The alliance structures on both sides of the iron curtain—and the role that nuclear weapons played in maintaining those structures—made the Cuban Missile Crisis a global event, despite how Khrushchev, Kennedy and Castro defined it. Kennedy immediately replied to Khrushchev that he consiedered the premier s Radio Moscow message an important contribution to peace. It frightened people everywhere. Even a diplomat as experienced as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan found the crisis "the week of most strain I can ever remember in my life.
The literal fright that the crisis engendered put an end to serious considerations of limited nuclear war. Having faced the possibility of such an outcome, most nuclear strategists recognized that a limited nuclear exchange would be more analogous to stumbling on a slippery slope than climbing the rungs of an escalation ladder.