In October 1962, a U-2 spy plane discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba.
The subsequent 13 days were some of the tensest in human history.
The United States and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than at any point in the cold war.
It was only a last-minute cooling of tensions that prevented a global calamity.
Learn more about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how it was resolved on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis starts in 1959 with the Cuban Revolution.
For five years, communist revolutionaries in Cuba fought against the government of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
On January 1, 1959, the Batista government fell, the rebels were in power, and the United States found themselves with a communist country 90 miles off their coast in the middle of the Cold War.
I’m radically simplifying everything, and the Cuban Revolution will be the subject of a future episode, but this was the gist of it.
The US was none too happy about having a communist government so close to their shore.
In 1961, the US supported a very half-hearted invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles at a place called the Bay of Pigs. It failed miserably.
This only drove the Cubans closer to the Soviets for their own protection from a future invasion by the United States.
There was something else that happened in 1961 which set up the events in this episode.
The United States deployed nuclear-armed PGM-19 Jupiter missiles on the territory of its NATO allies, Italy and Turkey.
For the most part, the Soviets had a large buffer space between themselves and NATO in the form of Eastern European Warsaw Pact states.
However, Turkey was much closer than most other NATO countries. It lay directly across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union. Such close proximity, it would allow for a surprise attack, which, needless to say, upset the Soviets.
In July 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Kurschev and Cuban leaderField Castro had a secret meeting where they found a solution to both of their problems. The Soviets agreed to install nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba.
The missiles would deter any future American invasion of the island, and it would give the Soviets missiles of their own which would be close to American soil.
That summer, rumors began to circulate in the US about Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba, but there was no evidence to support this.
The evidence came in October.
On October 14, an American U2 spy plane flew over Cuba piloted by Maj. Richard Heyser, taking hundreds of photographs over sites where activity was recently spotted.
The next day, October 15, the film was processed by the CIA, which found clear evidence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Given the range of the missiles, there were 90 million Americans who were put at risk.
The intelligence was sent to President John Kennedy, who convened a meeting of his national security advisors on October 16. His secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, gave the president several options for how to respond.
The first option was to try and use diplomacy with Castro and Kruchev to get the missiles removed. This could take months or years and might not actually achieve anything.
A second option was a naval quarantine of Cuba to prevent any Soviet ships from entering or leaving. They had to call it a quarantine because a blockade was considered an act of war.
A third option was an airstrike against the missiles. An airstrike would probably achieve the objective of destroying the missiles, but it would also kill hundreds of Soviets and Cubans and probably start a war.
Other options considered were an all-out invasion and just doing nothing and living with it.
Normally, Pentagon planners would have options for such a scenario ready to go because they were already considered. However, American intelligence never considered the Soviets putting missiles in Cuba to be a real possibility.
The unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a full-scale invasion of the island.
On October 18, Kennedy met in person with the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Gromyko told Kennedy that any weapons in Cuba were for defensive purposes only.
Although Gromyko didn’t know it, Kennedy had the photographs which proved that he was lying.
There were more U2 missions sent over Cuba to gather more evidence of the Soviet missile sites.
On October 21, the national security advisors met again, with several plans written up for the various options previously presented to the president.
Kennedy went with the quarantine of Cuba. This, he felt, would best thread the needle of getting the missiles removed yet not sparking a wider conflict.
On October 22, President Kennedy gave an 18-minute, live televised address to the American people, showing the photographic evidence of the missiles in Cuba.
While Kennedy was on television, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, delivered a message from President Kennedy to Nikita Kruschev. It read,
“the one thing that has most concerned me has been the possibility that your government would not correctly understand the will and determination of the United States in any given situation, since I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”
Letters with evidence of the Soviet missiles were also delivered to other US allies around the world, and all US military forces around the world were put on DEFCON 3.
US Naval ships were deployed around Cuba to prevent any ship from delivering military equipment. Shipments of other products were allowed through, as Kennedy explicitly noted, unlike what the Soviets did to Berlin in 1948.
The next day, October 23, Kruschev replied to Kennedy, again reiterating that the weapons in Cuba were only defensive.
Meanwhile, in New York, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson outlined the evidence the US has gathered to the UN Security Council.
Soviet submarines in the Atlantic were now diverted to the Caribbean, and Soviet naval ships inbound bound to Cuba continued on their way.
On October 24, tensions rose.
Kruschev sent a message to Kennedy saying, “if you weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the USA.”
On October 25, things got even worse.
The UN Security Council met, and the Soviet UN Ambassador still refused to acknowledge the existence of the missiles in Cuba.
The US Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2, the highest level US forces have ever been placed. Strategic missiles were placed on full alert, and B-25 bombers were in the air full time, circling in position in range of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets, oddly enough, were not on alert. They did not increase the number of flights of their bombers. Something which high-ranking American military officials took notice of.
The first test of the quarantine also took place. One Lebanese freighter was inspected and allowed to pass, as was a Romanian oil tanker.
Soviet military cargo ships stopped and did not challenge the blockade.
That evening, President Kennedy was notified that there had been no slowdown in activity at the Cuban missile sites, and nothing had changed.
Here I should note that while all the political and military maneuvering was taking place, the rest of the world was preparing for nuclear war. Panic buying was taking place. People began preparing fall-out shelters.
People were legitimately worried that there might not be a tomorrow.
On October 26, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Fidel Castro sent a message to Nikita Kruschev encouraging a nuclear first strike against the United States. It wasn’t until years later that the existence of this message became public. Years later, Castro regretted the message based on information about what was happening that he was unaware of at the time.
Kruschev, thankfully, completely dismissed it.
Kennedy, at this point, had come to the conclusion that the only thing which was going to remove the missiles was an invasion of Cuba. He ordered plans to be drawn up for an invasion and for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.
He didn’t make this a secret. He wanted his intentions to be known to break the stalemate.
Kruschev sent a message to Kennedy, which for the first time, was not threatening, but rather called for cooler heads to prevail. He wrote:
Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.
This was the first glimmer of de-escalation.
Also, that day, low-level backdoor diplomacy began.
A former KGB station chief in Washington reached out to a journalist from ABC News and asked him to reach out to his contacts at the state department to see if they would be open to diplomacy.
The proposed solution would be the removal of Soviet weapons in Cuba under UN supervision, the Cubans would agree not to host such weapons again, and the US would agree not to invade Cuba.
The Cubans were contacted about this via Brazil.
On the morning of October 27, things took a turn for the worse. Castro ordered Cuban defense forces to fire on any American aircraft over Cuba. The result was the downing of an American U2 spy plane and the death of its pilot Major Rudolf Anderson.
At first, the Americans assumed that this was the start of the war. Blood had been shed, and the Soviets had fired first.
However, the Americans soon realized that the Soviets had nothing to do with this and didn’t order the plane to be shot down. It was completely a decision made by Castro.
Kruschev then amended his message from the previous day, demanding that the Americans remove its missiles from Turkey.
That evening, the president’s brother Robert Kennedy met with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. Kenney told Dobrynin that the US had planned on removing missiles from Turkey before all of this started but was not ready to make it public yet.
However, he also told Dobrynin that if there was another attack on an American plane, it would result in all antiaircraft weapons in Cuba being taken out in an airstrike, which would probably then be followed by an invasion.
This meeting took place without the knowledge of anyone on the national security team or any NATO allies.
After meetings in the White House, the President agreed to the removal of missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of missiles from Cuba.
Kruschev approved the agreement without consulting the Politburo and had his acceptance broadcast on the radio in Moscow on the morning of October 28.
The Americans continued the quarantine of Cuba for several days as reconnaissance photos showed the Soviets dismantling the missiles.
The American strategic forces stood down, and they later removed missiles from both Turkey and Italy.
It was later discovered just how close both sides were to the use of nuclear weapons.
On the 27th, an American ship was dropping depth charges when, unbeknownst to them, there was a Soviet submarine beneath them. The sub had standing orders to respond to any depth charge attacks with nuclear torpedoes they had on board.
The captain of the submarine wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo but was overruled by his superior, who just happened to be on board that day.
Likewise, the same day, there was an unauthorized flight over Soviet airspace by the Americans. The Soviets scrambled their fighters, as did the Americans in response. The American Convair F-102’s that were summoned were armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a sobering experience for both the Americans and the Soviets. One of the results was the creation of a direct hotline between the Kremlin and the White House. This would ensure that there would be no communication problems for any future crises.
Relations between the Soviets and the Cubans actually worsen. Castro was more upset with Kruschev than he was with Kennedy because Kruschev never consulted Castro about the removal of the missiles.
The Cuban Missile Crisis remains the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. There were people on both sides who wanted war, and war could have easily accidentally broken out, but thankfully cooler heads prevailed.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener DanielleH21984 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write
I love this podcast! Sometimes I don’t want to listen for an hour about every history topic. This gives an informative and well-researched thorough overview of a topic. So great!!
Thanks, Danielle! My original idea for the show was to do 2-3 hour episodes every other week, so it appears I made the right decision.
I’d also like to remind everyone that I have a new podcast called Everything Everywhere Weekly.
This show format is me and a guest talking about the previous week’s topics in a rapid fire format, along with several topics from the backcatalog.
It is currently available for anyone who supports the show over on Patreon. This week’s guest is my friend Francis Tapon of the Wanderlearn Podcast. He joined me from Morocco.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show,