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The Cuban Missile Crisis was a major 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the installation of Soviet-supplied missiles on Cuban territory. The crisis is regarded by a substantial number of observers to be the world’s worst face-off as it nearly resulted into a nuclear war. The crisis began soon after the American government discovered that the regime in Cuba was secretly installing Soviet missiles that had the capacity to carry nuclear war heads. The missiles had the capacity to hit targets across the United States of America, a fact that resulted into constant criticism of the American government. The discovery resulted into a tense stand-off between the United States and the USSR. The American government imposed a naval blockade of Cuba as it stressed the demand that the Soviet Union remove the missiles from Cuba (Langley 36).
The crisis culminated the growing tension which existed between Cuba and the United States, following the overthrow of the Dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government in the 1959 Revolution. The revolution brought to power Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionary leader, thereby prompting tension with Washington. Before the revolution, America was significantly influential for Cuba in terms of political and economic affairs. However, upon its ascension to power, the Castro regime denied the Americans the influence they had. Castro continued to be a major concern for the Americans after he confiscated investments and property owned by foreigners and wealthy Cubans, as it attempted to implement some of the policies it considered to be capable of improving conditions for the working class, as well as the poor Cubans (Langley 30). Most of these investments and properties were owned and controlled by American companies.
Fearing that the Castro regime would eventually set up the first communist regime in the western hemisphere, the Americans applied economic blockade, and by 1960, the blockade has cut off much of the trade relations between Cuba and the United States. Castro refused to bow down to the American pressure, opting to respond by forging closer relations between Cuba and the USSR, thus, ushering in communism in the Americas. During this time, the United States and the USSR were engaging each other in the Cold War. The Cold War was an economic, diplomatic, and, at times, military struggle between capitalist and communist nations for the purpose of influencing the world both politically and economically (Freedman 15).
Castro’s constant opposition to the American influence into the affairs of Cuba and, indeed, the rest of the world aggravated the clash between the two neighbors. By 1959, the American business community in Cuba had joined the disaffected Cubans in claiming that Castro was either a communist or in the process of becoming one. Whether President Castro had favored Marxism-Leninism before the revolution is difficult to establish. Nevertheless, he did have a close association with the Cuban People’s Socialist Party (PSP). He favored PSP as it offered a solid support, as well as political organization. The People’s Socialist Party also assisted Castro with the establishment of links with the Soviet Union, a scenario that provided Cuba a valuable international ally that the Cuban regime hoped would counter the growing American opposition. Tensions between Cuba and the United States were escalated by the Castro’s decision to seize U.S. business interests in Havana and the rest of Cuba. In 1960, the American government began prohibiting the exportation of non-food and non-medical items to the Cuban market. The United States went ahead to recall the ambassador to Havana before breaking formal relations with the Castro regime. Later that year, the Americans began the training and armament of the Cuban exiles that lived in the United States in preparation for a major invasion of Cuba.
On April 17, 1961, about 1500 trained Cuban exiles entered Cuba through the southern Bay of Pigs. These exiles, fully backed by the American Government and trained and equipped by the United State’s Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA), intended to prompt a counterrevolution. This invasion failed, as most of the Cubans had already rallied behind Fidel Castro. In fact, the Bay of Pigs invasion reduced the dissenting voices on the island, a situation which consolidated Fidel Castro’s hold on power. It also eliminated any doubt regarding the socialist direction that the Castro’s revolution was taking (Freedman 17).
In May of 1961, President Castro publicly denounced the Cuban 1940 Constitution together with its democratic dogmas. In November 1961, Castro proclaimed and declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, and this move turned Cuba into a major player in the East-West Cold War. The United States of America and several of its allies were aggrieved, especially because Cuba was within a short distance from the United States. However, the communist bloc applauded Cuba, thereby welcoming her into the bloc. It is estimated that from 1959 to 1962, about 200,000 opponents of the Castro’s leadership left Cuba for the United States, Mexico, and Spain. Cuba suffered a huge loss, as over 80% of these emigrants were well-trained professionals, the majority of which have come to be known as Cuban Americans (Freedman 20).
Stunned by the decisive defeat during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Americans prepared for Operation Mongoose, and this operation was aimed at destroying Castro and his regime through a military invasion and with the support of disgruntled Cubans. American agents made several unsuccessful attempts. They also sought to discredit Castro to no avail. The American invasion into the Cuban territory never materialized, and this failure was attributable to the 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. This crisis began after Castro, secretly accepted the installation of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles on its territory. These missiles had the capacity to destroy a big part of the United States. This resulted into the Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis that nearly led the Soviet and the American governments into an all out war. After three weeks of tense negotiations, the two superpowers came to an agreement that the Soviets would uninstall the missiles, and on its part, the United States had to promise to never invade Cuba. Castro was, however, not consulted during the signing of the agreement, and this infuriated him. Nevertheless, it did free the Castro’s regime from the threat a United State’s military intervention. In the end, Fidel Castro managed to develop the social and economic policies that his revolution had promised (Freedman 15).
Castro opted for international confrontation against America as his main international principle. Confident of the USSR’s support, Castro confederated himself with several revolutionary groups from all over the world. In Africa, Castro dispatched aid and, later, soldiers to several nations. His involvement in Africa began with Ghana in 1961, then Algeria in 1962, and finally Angola in 1965. What were, initially, regarded to be humble military missions in support of the Popular Movement of Liberation in Angola (MPLA), a socialist party, escalated into a war, and this war was eventually won by the rebels. The socialist victory in Angola resulted into a worldwide recognition of the Castro’s Cuba as an important military power.
The Crisis Emerges
In 1960, Soviet Union’s premier Nikita Khrushchev initiated several plans to arm Cuba with missiles, some which could direct nuclear warheads to several parts of America. Although the plans were done secretly, Khrushchev aggravated the tensions between Cuba and the U.S., and his assumption that the Americans would disregard the matter proved to be wrong.
By 1962, it became a matter of grave concern in America that the Soviet Union was supplying dangerous weapons to Cuban territory. In September 1962, the American President John F. Kennedy warned that due to the Soviets’ actions, the gravest of issues were on the verge of arising. President Kennedy insisted that the Soviet Union should stop supplying Cuba with offensive weapons (Michael 20).
On the 14th October, 1962, American spy planes spotted some ballistic missiles on their mission over the Cuban territory. On the 16th October, the American intelligence authorities presented President Kennedy with photos indicating a number of nuclear missile installation bases that were under construction. The photographs suggested that there would have been preparations for, at least, two categories of missiles: the medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) that had the capacity to travel for over 1100 nautical miles, i.e. about 2000 km, as well as the intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) that could reach targets within 2200 nautical miles, i.e. about 4100 km. These missiles did, indeed, placed most U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles within the range of nuclear missiles attack. President Kennedy was also made aware of presence of nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba.
President Kennedy indicated that the world faced a situation which could potentially result in grave consequences. However, the president appreciated that his government had not formulated a choice of appropriate actions that could stop the aggressive tendencies that the Soviets and Cubans had initiated. He feared that should America attack Soviet installations in the Cuba, it could trigger a global nuclear war, a scenario that could lead to a great loss of lives. President Kennedy also thought that he would be risking a major war by disregarding the situation.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, an American promise of defending the West Berlin was becoming increasingly challenging. Following the victory of the allied forces during the Second World War, Berlin, the capital of Germany, had to be divided into an Eastern section and a Western section. East Berlin was being administered by the communist East Germany, while West Berlin was administered by the capitalist West Germany. In the early 1962, Khrushchev had vowed overrun western part of Berlin, even if it meant risking a major war. Indeed, Khrushchev has informed President Kennedy of his intentions. Khrushchev and his government had set the deadline in November, after which the USSR was to execute its mission (Freedman 15).
Before the onset of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy had believed the American nuclear superiority was enough deterrence to any Soviet aggressive moves. However, when the photos of the missile bases arrived, President Kennedy and his advisers concluded that the nuclear weapons could have been installed in Cuba so as to prevent America from engaging in a war over the western part of Berlin. President Kennedy believed that doing nothing with regard to the missiles could increase the possibility of another war, and this could, consequently, worsen the crisis over Berlin. The American president understood the dilemma as acute and one that required urgent measures (Michael 25).
Debating the Options
The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the closest point to a nuclear war. In 1960, the Soviet Premier, Khrushchev, decided to arm Cuba with a number of nuclear missiles that had the capacity of striking most parts of the U.S. Khrushchev always denied that he had authorized the installation of missiles in Cuba. This changed when the U.S. spy planes had photographed the Soviet-made bases. On October 14, 1960, the spy planes spotted and photographed a missile installation, a development that proved that, indeed, the Soviets were arming Cuba. For about seven days, President Kennedy made secret consultations with his advisers. They discussed the options that they had in secrecy so that the public never noticed that something was amiss (Michael 23).
Eventually, on 22nd October, President Kennedy informed Americans about the missile discovery and, at the same time, demanded of the Soviet Union to remove them. The president went ahead to declare the Cuban waters as a quarantine zone, a code phrase which meant that the U.S. agents had the right to inspect communication between Cuba and the rest of the world. President Kennedy urged Khrushchev to halt and, indeed, eliminate the clandestine, provocative, and reckless threat to the global peace and stability. He emphasized that he respected the stable relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. Nevertheless, President Kennedy warned the Soviets that any attack launched from Cuba on any nation state in the western hemisphere could be regarded to be an attack by the Soviet Union on America itself. The Kennedy administration began mobilizing troops in readiness for the invasion of Cuba. Moreover, the government kept the air units on high alert. American warships blockaded Cuba, and marines were ordered to conduct searches on every suspicious-looking Soviet vessel and turn back those that bound to deliver offensive weapons.
For several days, Soviet vessels that were en route to Cuba endeavored to avoid the quarantine zone. At the same time, Kennedy and Khrushchev discussed the matter through various diplomatic channels in an attempt to avert the escalation of the crisis. Upon consultation with his advisers, Khrushchev realized that he had a weak military position. This fact prompted him to send a message to the U.S. president agreeing to his demands. The October 26th correspondence, therefore, served as a commitment that the Soviet Union would uninstall all missiles from the Cuban territory. Within 24 hours, even before the Americans had responded, the Soviet Union’s Premier Khrushchev sent another request to negotiate on the basis of other terms. Kennedy opted to reply to the inaugural note, and on 28th October, Khrushchev indicated his commitment to dismantle and rid Cuba of the offensive weapons. They went ahead to offer the Americans an on-site inspection right so as to enhance the trust between the two nations. In return, Kennedy, though secretly, promised to avert an invasion of Cuba. The U.S. president also promised to remove U.S. missile installations from Turkey (May and Zelikow 20).
Kennedy agreed to call off the Cuban blockade, but Castro, angered by lack of consultation, turned down the promised inspection. However, the American spy planes confirmed that the Soviet missile bases were, indeed, being dismantled, and as such, a nuclear war between the Communist and the Capitalist worlds had been averted. The moment was, perhaps, the greatest of the Kennedy’s time in office. Many observers felt that the First and the Second World Wars resulted from the weak responses that the powers gave to constant acts of aggression. Kennedy was regarded as the President who prevented the Third World War through a display of strength and courage.
Waiting for War
Following President Kennedy’s speech to the nation, tensions rose as the Americans waited for the Soviet Union’s response. Some felt that Soviet ships would not respect the U.S. blockade, a scenario that would have triggered a major military engagement at the sea. For several days, the Soviet vessels routed for Cuba did avoid the quarantine zone. President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev kept communicating through a variety of diplomatic channels, a cautious action which postponed confrontation between the Soviet freighters and the U.S. Navy. The Soviet Union extended a goodwill gesture by stopping submarine escorts for their Cuba bound vessels (Fursenko and Naftali 10).
On 26th October, 1962, Khrushchev forwarded a coded diplomatic cable to President Kennedy that appeared to have offered the withdrawal of missiles from the Cuban territory, and, in return, the Soviet Union’s leader urged the U.S. to pledge that it would not invade Cuba. In fact, Kennedy had already pledged more than seven days ago, during his meeting with the Soviet Union’s Foreign Minister, Andrey Gromyko, never to invade Cuba. Before President Kennedy could react, Premier Khrushchev went ahead to deliver a message in public which he appeared to link the uninstalling of the Cuban based missiles to the withdrawal of analogous American weapons from Turkey. The Turkish weapons had been installed along the nation’s border with the USSR. Khrushchev opted to embolden the matter to make the added demand – America should allow a section of the Soviet-bloc vessels to by-pass the blockade. Many of the Kennedy advisers did not value the American missiles in Turkey, and they did consider them to be obsolete. However, most of them were against the removal of the missiles at that time, as it would have appeared to be a yield to the Soviet demand, a demand that the Americans thought had been made in an endeavor to delay any solution (May and Zelikow 20).
Meanwhile, it was evident that the Americans were facing the challenge of maintaining the Cuban blockade, as well as keeping track of those missiles that remained in Cuba. The Americans believed that some missiles were camouflaged before being removed, and this happened soon after President Kennedy's speech. In a dramatic encounter, a low-flying American surveillance aircraft was engaged in a hostile fire. The 27th October incidence led to the shooting down of an American U-2 plane, an incident which resulted in killing the pilot. The American government engaged in a debate with the view of determining whether it would be appropriate to revenge the hostile act by demolishing a section of the Cuban air defense system. However, the government learnt that retaliation would end up killing some Soviet advisers, a scenario that would have escalated the crisis. In the meantime, although President Kennedy sensed that many Americans would support the removal of the missiles from the Turkish land, he saw their removal to be counterproductive, as it would have appeared as if the Americans were capitulating to Premier Khrushchev's demands (May and Zelikow 20). As such, President Kennedy decided that his public response would only be in response to Khrushchev's inaugural message. The message in question offered for the withdrawal of the Cuban based missiles, and, in return, the Americans were to pledge that they would stop mobilizing in readiness for an attack on Cuba.
Kennedy opted to assure Khrushchev in secrecy that he favored the removal of the Turkish based missiles. President Kennedy’s brother and the U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, visited the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, at the USSR’s Washington, D.C.’s Embassy in secret to convey President Kennedy’s pledge that he would abide by the terms of all the agreements between the two nations. The Attorney General warned that should the Soviet Union disclose the assurance that the Turkish based missiles were part of the agreement between the two nations, then the American president would find it difficult to order their withdrawal. The American Attorney General also warned that with time, his president would be compelled by the citizens and the military advisers to order an attack on Cuba (May and Zelikow 5).
Before he had even received the Washington based ambassador’s report, Khrushchev had already ordered the removal of the missiles as the danger of a nuclear war had been eminent. Indeed, the Cuban president had sent a message to Khrushchev indicating that the U.S. invasion of his country was in the offing. Incidentally, Castro wanted Khrushchev to be prepared to launch the Soviet missiles. Khrushchev, realizing that President Kennedy meant business, informed his cabinet that the Soviet missiles had to be withdrawn as their presence would make Cuba suffer unprecedented losses. Even so, he insisted that their removal had to be coupled with an American promise of averting an invasion of Cuba (McGeorge 110).
On 28th October, tensions began to wear off. In a global radio broadcast, Premier Khrushchev announced that the USSR would dismantle and remove all the offensive weapons that had been installed in Cuba, and, in return, the U.S. had to pledge never to invade Cuba. He also asked Fidel Castro to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the country so that they can verify the dismantling process. Kennedy trusted Khrushchev, and he believed that he was sincere, although several Kennedy’s advisers demonstrated wariness of the USSR’s intentions. The problem was aggravated when Castro turned down the offer of allowing the UN oversight personnel during the dismantling process (May and Zelikow 20). However, an eventual agreement was reached which stated that the Soviet bombers had to be removed in a month, and the offensive missiles bases among other weapons would have to be evacuated openly such that the American surveillance planes would observe the removal keenly.
Why Kennedy Succeeded
Kennedy succeeded due to his quick assembling of a small team of advisers who included both the national security agents and other personnel that the president considered to be unbiased. On 16th October, i.e. the day that the crisis began, President Kennedy and most of the government advisers convened a meeting. They concluded that the United States had to execute a surprise attack on Cuba, followed, probably, by a naval blockade. The naval blockade had to be reinforced by a land invasion, as that appeared to be the only way to stop Castro (Fursenko and Naftali 11).
However, on 18th October, the American ambassador to the USSR, Llewellyn Thompson, advised Kennedy to announce that a blockade would be a prelude to the predicted air strike. The American president’s advisers supported the idea of a blockade, but their reasons for the blockade differed. There was a group that perceived the blockade to be a form of an ultimatum. As such, unless Premier Khrushchev began the pullout of the missiles from Cuba, that blockade would have to be followed by a military action, and this was planned to take place on short notice. Another section of the American advisers regarded the blockade to be an opening to the much awaited negotiations. After the advisers negotiated on the options, President Kennedy opted to proceed with the American blockade. The American military commenced mobilizing equipment and troops in readiness for a possible invasion to the Cuban territory (May and Zelikow 5).
Before President Kennedy made a public announcement with regard to the blockade, the Americans found it to be necessary to began preparing the congressional and military leaders for any eventuality. On 19th October, the president met with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in the cabinet room. The Chiefs were of the view that an air strike, followed by an invasion, would help to resolve the matter. President Kennedy rejected that proposal. The president believed that such an invasion could result into an escalation that would make both parties suffer. President Kennedy contacted the congressional leaders on 22th October. The representatives’ opinions coincided with those that President Kennedy had, a situation which favored the position of several of the presidential advisers (May and Zelikow 20).
Upon meeting with the congressional leaders, President Kennedy proceeded into making a worldwide television and radio announcement over the discovery that the U.S. spy planes had helped to make. He urged Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles and announced that the first step he would initiate was a quarantine zone in the waters around Cuba. The American naval forces were authorized to intercept, as well as inspect vessels to determine if they carried weapons. Kennedy argued that could Khrushchev order a firing of missiles from the Cuban territory, then America would be obliged to retaliate with full force. As a blockade is defined as an act of war under the international law, President Kennedy opted to refer to the American actions as ones meant to enforce a quarantine zone. The Americans gained the support of the Organization of American States, as the organization’s main goal sought to cooperate on such matters as security, social, and economic development (Fursenko and Naftali 12).
On 3rd June, 1961, the U.S. president met the USSR’s leader in Vienna, Austria, where the two leaders sought to review the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the meeting addressed other issues of common interest to the U.S. and the USSR. Nevertheless, two incidents instigated hostility at that meeting. Firstly, Americans were aggrieved by the manner in which an American spy plane had been shot down in the USSR’s air space. The second matter was about the failed 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. It became evident that Khrushchev had, indeed, construed the Americans mismanagement in the issue regarding the invasion at the Bay of Pigs (Gaddis 20). They saw this as a sign of American weakness, and so they chose to gamble. That meeting resulted into no real agreements, especially on important issues. In the end, the USSR’s premier reported that the Soviet Union had the intention of pursuing a belligerent policy with regard to relations to the United States. The U.S. president ended the meeting with an argument that the two nations were to have a cold winter. He proceeded to report to the Americans that the USSR’s premier was, indeed, a tough-minded figure who could not have understood the American intentions.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is remembered as one of the most intriguing moments during the Cold War. As much as the U.S. president emerged victorious, the crisis resulted into the weakening of the two administrations. The military and conservatives regarded President Kennedy as a reluctant president, a trait that resulted into a humiliating mismanagement of the Cuban Crisis. A significant number of observers argue that many Americans never forgave Kennedy for that mess, a situation which some believed to be the one that led to his assassination. On his part, the Soviet Union’s leader appeared to be indecisive, and the one who backtracks on his plans. Khrushchev is remembered as a leader who faced stiff challenges as he tried to implement some of his plans. However, despite his failures in Cuba, his reformation efforts became significant influences on most young USSR’s citizens, and some of them become leaders in the later years (Fursenko and Naftali 10).