The Cold War/Cuban Missile Crisis

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The Cuban Missile Crisis[edit | edit source]

Summary[edit | edit source]

The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, was probably the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to initiating nuclear war. The placing of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at the United States, could have escalated into a full scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union allied with the new revolutionary government of Fidel Castro in Cuba not only because Khrushchev supported revolutions which overthrew "oppressive" capitalist regimes, but also to use Cuba strategically against the United States. It is possible that Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba within reach of almost all USA because the United States had surrounded the Soviet Union with their own nuclear missiles, especially in Turkey. By the end of October 1962, the possibility of nuclear war had been averted by negotiations between US President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, but the “winner” of the situation was not immediately clear.

However, there was another possible scenario- a Soviet first strike according to Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who used his position both in Military Intelligence and contacts with high ranking generals to determine Kruschev's alleged ambitions to spark a nuclear war. Colonel Penkovsky, who fought Hitler's armies in World War II called Kruschev "the atomic Hitler" in his warnings to MI-6 and CIA. Penkovsky gave his life to provide technical data and operating manuals on the 1000 mile range SS-4 which is widely known to have been deployed to Cuba, but also on the 2100 mile range SS-5. The SS-5's deployed to Cuba would have put almost all of the continental US within the reach of Soviet IRBM's tipped with 3 MT warheads. Thankfully, none of the SS-5's seem to have been armed, although a few of the SS-4's were armed and under local field control in case Moscow was hit in a nuclear exchange.

Background[edit | edit source]

As early as the Vienna summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in June 1961, Khrushchev defended the Cuban revolution and the legitimacy of the Castro regime. Khrushchev held that no country had the right to be involved in Cuba's internal affairs, but that, if Castro's government was not the right one, another revolution would inevitably depose Castro because the Cuban people would be dissatisfied with his regime. Already at this summit, the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in regard to Cuba can be seen. The discussion of Cuba established Khrushchev’s objectives for Cuba. He reaffirmed Soviet policy supporting nationalist movements by defending Castro’s revolution in Cuba. He also used the summit to warn Kennedy not to intervene in Cuba; basically warning the United States not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev also brought into discussion the US nuclear missiles in Turkey.

Buildup[edit | edit source]

A photo of missiles based in Cuba taken by a U2 plane.

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev wanted to avoid nuclear war at all costs. Khrushchev realized that the United States possessed far more nuclear weapons and had them strategically better deployed to strike against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union possessed far fewer nuclear missiles, and they were mainly obsolete, and very few, if any, were positioned to strike the continental United States. Khrushchev worried about the missile gap between the two superpowers and desired the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to match the US missile placement along the Soviet border. Over the summer, and into the autumn of 1962, Khrushchev sent Soviet missiles to Cuba to threaten the US border. By October 1962, the situation had escalated to the brink of war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since Kennedy and Khrushchev both wished to avoid war, the two leaders opened negotiations with the other to alleviate the tensions brought by the placement of the missiles.

Negotiations[edit | edit source]

On 26 October 1962, Khrushchev, in a private letter to Kennedy, offered to remove the Soviet missiles in Cuba in exchange for a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba. Publicly, Khrushchev blamed Kennedy for pushing the two countries closer to war with aggressive behavior towards Cuba, and for the blockade prohibiting Soviet ships from entering the Caribbean. Khrushchev’s reason for blaming Kennedy for trying to start a war was to legitimize the presence of Soviet missiles in the western hemisphere. The only way the Soviet Union could win a nuclear war against the United States would be to turn international opinion against the United States.

The following day, 27 October 1962, Khrushchev added the removal of US missiles in Turkey to his demands. Although Khrushchev desperately needed to avoid war with the United States, he criticized the United States’ hypocrisy regarding defense policy. The United States intervened in other nations’ internal affairs to protect its own interests, but denied the Soviet Union that same right. Khrushchev guaranteed the sovereignty of Turkey and pledged not to invade Turkey, but demanded that the United States pledge not to invade Cuba, and remove American missiles in Turkey in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. This arrangement would partially ease the reciprocity issue to Khrushchev’s benefit. Later on the 27th, Kennedy responded favorably to Khrushchev’s letter of the previous day. Kennedy agreed to remove the blockade and give assurances against an American invasion of Cuba in exchange for the immediate removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Kennedy’s letter to Khrushchev signalled the easing of the tensions between the two nations over the Missile Crisis. Khrushchev responded to Kennedy’s letter by agreeing to Kennedy’s terms and proposing future exchanges regarding the prohibition of nuclear weapons, disarmament, and the defusing of international tension. Essentially, Khrushchev was hinting at the beginning of the period of 'dètente', or 'peaceful coexistence'. Once again, Khrushchev stressed the removal of American missiles in Turkey as part of the agreement. To ensure that the Cuban situation did not erupt into war during the negotiations, Khrushchev wrote to Castro warning him to be patient and not to provoke war with the United States by downing U2 planes. In another letter to Castro on 30 October 1962, Khrushchev commented that the aggressor (the United States) was the loser of the Missile Crisis.

On 20 November 1962, President Kennedy announced to the press that if all Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, then the United States would "neither initiate nor permit aggression in this hemisphere.” Essentially, Kennedy was issuing his no-invasion pledge for Cuba in agreement with the Soviet Union. In April 1963, Kennedy removed the American missiles from Turkey, thus fulfilling the last of Khrushchev’s demands.

Effects[edit | edit source]

The Cuban Missile Crisis showed the superpowers that they had no option but to co-exist peacefully. It began the so-called period of 'dètente', which lasted until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This period started with the introduction of a telephone hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, called 'IWIK', and the agreement that the USA would sell grain to the USSR. It also included a series of treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the two Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and II).

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The Cold War

Introduction - Background - Strategy - Truman Doctrine - Marshall Plan - Berlin Blockade - Korean War - Hungarian Uprising - Cuban Missile Crisis - USSR under Gorbachev - USA under Reagan - Arms Race - Space Race

Cover - Contents - Study Guide

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