Cuban Missile Crisis

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 was a critical point in the Cold War. American spy planes discovered the Soviets had installed missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba with enough range and power to destroy much of the southeastern U.S. President John F. Kennedy was advised to send in the military to take out the missiles, but instead demanded that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) remove them. A naval blockade around Cuba guaranteed no more missiles would enter. After a few tense days a compromise was reached. The Soviets publicly removed all the missiles, the U.S. promised never to invade Cuba, and (secretly) the U.S. removed similar American missiles that had recently been installed in Turkey, near the Soviet border.

The Cubans refer to the "October Crisis," while the Soviets called it "the Caribbean crisis." This naming highlights three different views: (1) The Cubans see this as one of many crises; (2) The Soviets view it as a confrontation that took place in the Caribbean (thus deemphasizing Cuba's importance); and (3) the United States perceives this as a multidimensional time bomb with international consequences including the future of Berlin.[1]


Frustrated by the rearmament of West Germany and the success of NATO, the Kremlin concocted a new strategy in the early 1960s in its quest to help capitalism self-destruct: encourage civil wars of "national liberation" in the third world. The Communist logic, following Lenin, was that the economic health of capitalism depended on its exploitation of the wealth of the Third World. Without that exploitation capitalism would finally collapse. Russia would give military and diplomatic support to anti-colonial, anti-capitalist pro- Communist movements. The new slogan of the left across the globe was that America--run by and for the benefit of giant corporations--had succeeded fascism as most dangerous agent of imperialism. Moscow's recent break with Beijing meant that it had to compete for influence among leftists: the winner would be the one seen as more anti-American. Third world proxy operations appeared to be much cheaper and safer than direct confrontation with NATO.


Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's first important opportunity to employ the strategy came in 1962, when the US seemed on the verge of rolling back the first pro-Communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba. Fidel Castro rubbed Americans the wrong way. In the first months after the bearded guerrilla captain came to power in 1959, Washington was willing to overlook reports that he was a true Marxist-Leninist, not merely some agrarian reformer. By 1960 Cuba had become a Soviet satellite; presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower planned and President John F. Kennedy ordered the CIA to destabilize his regime. In April, 1961, 1,400 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, expecting the populace would rise up and throw out Castro's dictatorship. The exiles were armed, trained and directed by the CIA. Kennedy allowed the CIA to make one attack on Castro's small air force, but inexplicably canceled the necessary second strike. The invasion immediately came to grief; the exiles became prisoners (later they were ransomed in exchange for medicines.) Embarrassed, Kennedy cut off dollar trade with Cuba, while the CIA stepped up its sabotage; rumors abounded about a new invasion, this time by the Marines. The rumors were in fact disinformation designed to frighten and weaken Castro. The economic blockade tightened.

As a loyal Democrat who had learned the "lesson" of Korea, Kennedy believed in the containment strategy, and rejected rollback. Furthermore the Bay of Pigs fiasco had taught the young president a bitter lesson: no matter how much he personally empathized with the sufferings of the Cuban people (who were fellow Catholics), he needed to act in terms of a cold-blooded analysis of the American national interest. The CIA threats were not a prelude to rollback but a substitute.

Possible range of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba

Havana and Moscow

Military aid

Since 1960 the Soviets had sent over $250 million worth of war matériel to Cuba, including 394 tanks and self-propelled weapons, 888 automatic and antiaircraft guns, 41 warplanes, 13 ships, 13 radio locators, 308 radio sets, and 3,619 trucks and tractors. The Soviets also provided technical training for Cuban crews including 300 crews for tanks and self-propelled weapons, 130 crews for artillery batteries, 20 crews of defensive artillery batteries, 42 pilots for the MiG-15, and 5 pilots for the fighter MiG-19A. Another 107 Cuban pilots and 618 sailors had been trained in Soviet military schools; meanwhile, 178 Cuban military specialists—including 62 pilots, 55 tankers, and 61 artillery technicians—had been trained in Czechoslovakia. Obviously it was far too little to defeat an American invasion that seemed imminent.[2]

Sending nuclear weapons

Havana and Moscow, however, were fearful. Without consulting his strategists, Khrushchev personally concocted a reckless scheme; Cuban leaders, terrified for their own safety, eagerly accepted it. The weapons were to remain under Soviet, not Cuban, control. Fidel Castro rejected warnings that acceptance of the missiles would make Cuba a helpless pawn of the Kremlin, and he ordered his intelligence agencies to stop studying the matter.[3] Beginning in July, 1962, Khrushchev sent in 70 ships loaded with a billion dollars' worth of munitions--including 42 IL-28 nuclear bombers (without the bombs), 24 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile complexes [SAM], and 42,000 troops. Most ominously, he delivered 42 medium-range (1100 mile) SS-4 ballistic missiles (MRBMs) with nuclear warheads, and began loading 24 intermediate-range (2200 miles) SS-5 IRBMs. They could hurl H-bombs to any target from Washington to the Panama Canal. Besides deterring an invasion, they would help redress NATO's lead in strategic weapons; above all the missiles on America's doorstep would enhance Soviet prestige across the world.

Intelligence failure and response

Kennedy believed Soviet assurances that there were no missiles--and warned Moscow there had better be none. A breakdown in data gathering prevented the CIA from convincingly refuting Moscow's cover story. An off-year election campaign was underway, and the White House loudly denied charges by Republican Senator Kenneth Keating from New York that the Soviets were installing nuclear weapons in Cuba to threaten the U.S. and Kennedy was covering it up.[4]

The United States Intelligence Board (USIB) met regularly before the crisis. At its critical September 19, 1962, meeting it decided that the intelligence contained no evidence that the Soviets had sent nuclear missiles to Cuba, and it unanimously concluded that on balance they would not do so in the future.[5] Kennedy trusted the USIB and repeatedly denied there were Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba. There is no evidence, Kennedy insisted, "of any significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance."[6]

Intelligence photo showing Soviet IRBM missile site in Guanajay Cuba Oct 23 1962

The first real warnings came from NSA, not CIA. Signals intelligence indicated an increased level of military activity in Cuba in 1960 and 1961. had Intercepts of blank shipping manifests to Cuba and increasing amount of tactical radio chatter suggested that Cuba was receiving both Soviet weapons and personnel. Since some of the weapons could be used offensively, [7]

As a result of the SIGINT warning, reconnaissance photography not violating the Cuban border was ordered, using the high-altitude U-2 aircraft, now flown by the United States Air Force, took photographs that were analyzed by the National Photointerpretation Center (NPIC), a joint CIA-military analytic group. Dino Brugioni, deputy to NPIC director Art Lundahl, wrote the book Eyeball to Eyeball, [8] describing the intensified imagery intelligence triggered by a U-2 reconnaissance plane on October 14.

Kennedy was stunned, and immediately assembled a high-level emergency group, called "ExComm" ("the Executive Committee of the National Security Council"), to immediately propose a solution. It considered military action almost inevitable. Although the president and his brother Robert Kennedy (1925-68), the Attorney General, distrusted men in uniform, they brought in a close friend General Maxwell Taylor (1901-87), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The other chiefs distrusted Taylor's dovish viewpoint and his inability to articulate their urgent advice. The Pentagon's civilian voice on ExComm was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. McNamara largely ignored his generals and admirals and generally took a dovish position. ExComm decided that the SS-4 and SS-5s would not upset the strategic balance of power, but nevertheless represented a challenge to American prestige; they had to be removed, even at the risk of threatening war. When Navy Secretary Paul Nitze was added to ExComm, he forcefully argued the services' viewpoint that the missiles were highly destabilizing.

The U.S. could tolerate a gradual evening out of the strategic balance if it took several years and so permitted political adjustments as it proceeded and at least tacit understandings, if not formal ones, on a whole range of matters including arms control. What Washington could not accept was a swift, sudden, and secret shift in the strategic equation by using a new threat of nuclear weapons that would cause massive political and diplomatic upheaval.[9]


At the time, Moscow had only a few intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US from Soviet launch pads, plus 150 long-range bombers. By contrast America had far more weapons capable of reaching the Soviet homeland. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) had 200 ICBMs (126 Atlas, approximately 60 Titan I, and 20 solid-fueled Minuteman I), plus 2,000 B-47 medium and B-52 long-range bombers; the Navy had 144 UGM-27 Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). In early 1962, an Air Force squadron of 15 PGM-19 Jupiter medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) became operational in Turkey; two squadrons were deployed in Italy but due for retirement. "They have surrounded us with bases on all sides!" grumbled Khrushchev. The ExComm heard that Jupiters were "obsolete"; lacking good military advice they concluded they were therefore worthless. Like the SS-4 and SS-5s, the Jupiters were set up in the open and burned kerosene and liquid oxygen. All three systems were obsolescent in comparison to solid-fuel missiles that could be launched from underground silos or submarines, but all were perfectly capable of delivering 1.5 megaton warheads (one megaton = one million tons of TNT). A Jupiter on alert could be launched on 15 minutes notice; the SS-4 and SS-5s probably needed four or five hours to launch.[10] Missiles in Cuba could knock out much of the US bomber force, and if Kennedy permitted the first 40 to stay, Khrushchev could have shipped hundreds more.

ExComm debated four options: vigorous diplomatic protest might "talk" the missiles out. Second, a "sea" solution would blockade Cuba and squeeze them out. Third, the "air" solution (Op-Plan 3-12) would use tactical air power to shoot them out. Finally the menace could be ended once and for all by the land option. Op-Plan 3-14 would land one Marine and five Army divisions (with three more in reserve) and seize the entire island within two weeks. US casualties were predicted to be 18,000-19,000. The Joint Chiefs recommended the air solution, but ExComm perhaps misunderstood what a "surgical strike" would entail. Finally Robert Kennedy vetoed the air solution, saying it would be too much like Pearl Harbor in reverse. The sea option was chosen; it would not require any casualties, and it would block the arrival of nuclear warheads. (Unknown to Washington, 42 nuclear warheads were already in Cuba.)[11]

Public Alert

On October 22, John Kennedy went on television with perhaps the scariest message Americans had ever heard: the Navy would turn back ("quarantine") all military shipments to Cuba, and the US would immediately attack the Soviet Union (presumably with nuclear weapons) if any of the missiles were launched from Cuba to the USA.[12]

When Moscow failed to respond he privately gave the Kremlin a 48 hour ultimatum to remove all the missiles; to allow Khrushchev to save face he secretly suggested a trade for the Jupiters. The next step would either have been a complete blockade, or perhaps the air strike option. People were terrified but rallied behind the president.[13]

Eyeball to eyeball, Khrushchev blinked. He obeyed the quarantine/blockade, and on October 28 agreed to dismantle, crate and remove the missiles, and never to station offensive forces on the island. In return, Kennedy lifted the quarantine/blockade, secretly removed the Jupiters, and publicly promised the US would never invade Cuba (a promise still in effect).


The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous point in postwar history; neither side wanted to escalate the conflict, but both realized that it could get out of control, especially if local commanders made some mistakes. Kennedy demonstrated firmness in crisis, and avoided serious losses in the midterm elections. Ignoring the military chain of command, he established the pattern of command-post micromanagement over military matters that Lyndon Johnson after 1964 expanded during the Vietnam war. Kennedy's refusal to consult Congress enhanced the "imperial presidency." Conservative Republicans, dissatisfied that Castro had escaped the noose, rallied behind Senator Barry Goldwater and editor William Buckley. They redirected the GOP to an aggressive rollback policy of the sort represented by the rejected invasion option. Realizing how close they had come to war, Kennedy and Khrushchev became much friendlier in public. They signed a test ban treaty that eliminated nuclear testing above ground or in space; the treaty was primarily designed to hobble China and other countries trying to build their first bombs. Defense of the US no longer relied on field armies, but on a triad of strategic forces: 1,054 land-based ICBMs, 650 submarine-based SLBMs, and 400 B-52 bombers.

The Kremlin vowed never again would Communism be humiliated by raw American nuclear superiority. Khrushchev was overthrown and replaced with a less volatile, more systematic hardliner, Leonid Brezhnev (1906-82). Russia built its own 10 submarines and SLBM, and speeded manufacture of ICBMs; by 1971 it had caught up with the US. The US response was to add multiple warheads (MIRV) to each missile; the number of strategic warheads thereby doubled from about 5,000 in the 1960s to about 10,000 after 1976.

Kennedy's removal of the Jupiters in Turkey, and his refusal to consult with any allies during the crisis, raised doubts in Germany about America's commitment to Berlin, led France to pull its forces out of NATO, and ruined a proposed multilateral nuclear force. The Europeans, increasingly prosperous, felt sufficiently well protected. They were annoyed when Washington wanted them to assume a larger fraction of defense costs, yet never consulted in critical emergencies. The Western alliance survived, but had been sorely wounded.

Castro, was now immune from an American invasion, though the dollar embargo continued. He kept taking Moscow's subsidies until 1992, but independently launched an adventuresome program of subverting pro-capitalist governments throughout Latin America and Africa. Tens of thousands of Cuban combat troops and military advisers were sent shore up left-wing regimes as distant as Angola and Ethiopia, and as close as Nicaragua and Grenada. Hundreds of thousands of people would die in civil wars supported by Castro, and it would take the US three decades and tens of billions of dollars to finally (in 1992) neutralize his efforts.

As of 2008 the economic blockade of Cuba remains in effect.


  • Blight, James G. and David A. Welch, eds.Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Byrne, Paul J. The Cuban Missile Crisis: To the Brink of War (Snapshots in History series) (2006)
  • Coleman, David G. "The Missiles of November, December, January, February . . .: The Problem of Acceptable Risk in the Cuban Missile Crisis Settlement," Journal of Cold War Studies 9.3 (2007) 5-48 in Project Muse, examines developments after Oct. 1952, esp. regarding domestic politics
  • Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Diez Acosta, Tomás. October 1962: The "Missile" Crisis as Seen from Cuba. (2002). 333 pp.
  • Frankel, Max. High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2004). 224 pp.
  • Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (2000) online edition
  • Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (1997), Russian perspective online edition
  • Garthoff, Raymond. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Revised to Include New Revelations from Soviet & Cuban Sources (1989) excerpt and text search; also online edition
  • George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2003). 238 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Hilsman, Roger. The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy. (1996) online edition
  • Munton, Don, and David A. Welch. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History (2006)
  • Nathan, James A. Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2000). 215 pp. excellent introduction
  • Polmar, Norman and John D. Gresham. DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Quirk, Robert E. Fidel Castro (1995) biography by leading American scholar
  • Scott, L. V. Macmillan, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: Political, Military and Intelligence Aspects. (1999) 251 pp. add British perspective
  • Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. (2005). 238 pp. Focus on ExComm meetings excerpt and text search; also online edition
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Tierney, Dominic. "'Pearl Harbor in Reverse': Moral Analogies in the Cuban Missile Crisis," Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2007, pp. 49-77 in Project Muse; JFK said at the time air strikes against would be morally analogous to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
  • Weisbrot, Robert. Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence. (2001). 275 pp.


  • Allison, Graham. "Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis." The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sep., 1969), pp. 689-718, famous poltiical science article uses three models, the rational actor (the state is treated like an individual), organizational behavior model (the agencies involved have their own procedures), government politics (result comes after negotiations among actors) in JSTOR
  • Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, (2nd ed. (1999), 440pp
  • Chang, Laurence, and Peter Kornbluh. "Introduction" to Chang and Kornbluh, eds. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (1998) [ Introduction online
  • Garthoff, Raymond L. "Foreign Intelligence and the Historiography of the Cold War," Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2004, pp. 21-56 in Project Muse
  • Jones, John A., and Virginia H. Jones. "Five Perspectives on the Cuban Missile Crisis," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8.1 (2005) 133-144 in Project Muse
  • Lebow, Richard Ned. "Domestic Politics and the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations Reevaluated," Diplomatic History, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Fall 1990), pp. 471–492

Primary sources


  1. James G. Blight and Philip Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers After the Missile Crisis (2002) pp. 247-8
  2. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. (1997) p. 166.
  3. James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, eds.Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1998) online p. 141
  4. Keating's correct information came from dissident Cubans. Max Holland, "A Luce Connection: Senator Keating, William Pawley, and the Cuban Missile Crisis," Journal of Cold War Studies 1.3 (1999) 139-167 in Project Muse
  5. USIB had five reasons, all mistaken. The likelihood of discovery was high. Second, they knew the U.S. would react strongly. Third, the missiles would reduce but not end Soviet strategic inferiority. Fourth, Moscow had never in the past sent nuclear weapons outside their own borders. Finally, Castro was not seen as trustworthy or stable by the Kremlin. Ergo, there would be no missiles. CIA director John McCone, dissented but had no counter evidence. McCone, a businessman, had no expertise in intelligence, Cuba or the Kremlin, and undercut his credibility be departing for a month-long honeymoon as the crisis began to escalate; his warnings were ignored. Roger Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy. (1996) p. 32-33.
  6. Quoted in Time Sept. 14, 1962
  7. Johnson, Thomas R. & David A. Hatch (May 1998), NSA and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Retrieved on 2007-10-07
  8. Brugioni, Dino A. (Updated edition (October 5, 1993)). Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Random House. ISBN 0679748784. 
  9. Roger Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy. (1996) p. 96
  10. NATO asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to install the Jupiters as a response to the Soviet's deployment of MRBMs and IRBMs aimed at Western Europe. Kennedy had decided these missiles were useless and provocative and wanted to remove them. He therefore was eager to secretly trade them to get rid of the missiles in Cuba. Roger Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy. (1996) p. 97
  11. for the minutes of the meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, see online
  12. Since "blockade" implied a war, the new term "quarantine" was used to indicate a partial blockade of only military items.
  13. Alice L. George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2003).