John F. Kennedy’s greatest triumph as President of the United States came in 1962, as the world’s two largest superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, edged closer and closer to nuclear war. The Soviet premier of Russia was caught arming Fidel Castro with nuclear weapons. The confrontation left the world in fear for thirteen long days, with the life of the world on the line. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, employed a daring gambit. He secretly ordered the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. Earlier the Soviet premier had promised Soviet protection to Cuba (“Cuban” 774).
This was the first time any such weapons had been placed outside of Eurasia (Hersh 345). Several explanations for his actions have been offered by historians. One factor in Khrushchevs decision was a strategic one (Hersh 346). A year earlier, the United States had placed several medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey (“Cuban 774). The missiles were just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, within sight of Khrushchev’s summer home (Hersh 346). President Kennedy had earlier ignored his advisors and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey.
Another factor was a threat by the US to one of the Soviet Union’s satellite countries, Cuba (Hersh 346). The United States had, in the past, attempted to kill Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba (Brinkley 1047). In July of 1962, the United States found out that nuclear missile shipments were being made to Cuba. United States U-2 spy planes flew over the island, bringing back reports of construction and ballistic missiles (“Cuban” 744). The CIA found that five thousand Russian military technicians were in Cuba, and various military weapons were being unloaded onto the island.
When U-2 activity was increased, reports showed the presence of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and torpedo boats with ship-to-ship rockets (Mills 233). On September 4, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with Robert Kennedy to discuss a message from Khrushchev. According to the message, the military buildup was defensive in nature and not militarily threatening. Robert F. Kennedy informed the ambassador that the United States would closely watch all military activity in Cuba and warned of severe consequences should the Soviets place offensive weapons (Mills 233). President Kennedy apparently did not believe the message.
He asked Congress for the authority to mobilize over 100,000 reservists into active duty. The Soviets response was that they could fire rockets from Russia just as easily as from Cuba. Offensive missiles in Cuba, they argued, were therefore unnecessary for an offensive base(Mills 234). Furthermore, the United States had over 3,000 nuclear warheads and nearly 300 missile launchers, opposed to the Soviet Union’s 250 warheads and 24 to 44 missile launchers (Hersh 343). Still, John Kennedy thought that Cuba could become a base for military operations at any given moment.
The United States had to be prepared to face it (Mills 234). At this point in the crisis, John McCone, the CIA director, was regularly sending President Kennedy reports of missiles capable of launching a nuclear warhead being sent to Cuba. According to McCone, medium-range ballistic missiles(MRBMs) would be next (Hersh 348). U-2’s were sent to scout the west end of Cuba. On October 14, the CIA reported that construction had begun for MRBMs (Mills 235). Despite the increased state of readiness in the US, many people did not realize that the Soviet Union had done nothing on its home territory during the crisis.
Its fleet of ICBM launchers were not mobilized and neither were Soviet reserves. There were not even any threats against Berlin (Hersh 343). Regardless of what the Soviets said, the United States was still far ahead in the nuclear arms race. ICBM’s were expensive to build and the Soviet Union did not have an abundance of money. Installing the smaller missiles in Cuba was much cheaper than building more ICBMs. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy would not oppose the building of the missile bases in Cuba because the United States President had not opposed Khrushchev in the past (Mills 236).
Not only did he secretly place the missiles in Cuba, but Khrushchev used Georgi Bolshakov and others to tell President Kennedy that missiles were not being shipped to Cuba. The Soviet premier was cautious to avoid a direct lie, even though he was clearly deceptive. Eventually, Kennedy chose to believe Khrushchev over the CIA reports that were being dropped on his desk. Excom, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, was secretly called. These were hand-picked advisors of Kennedy. The newest U-2 reports were shown and explained. Ninety miles off the coast of Florida, missiles were being prepared (Hersh 348).
Finally, on October 16, Kennedy realized that Khrushchev had been continuously lying to him. The President could have been humiliated by Khrushchev. He, however, turned the tables, and chose to humiliate the Soviet premier instead (Hersh 344-5). President Kennedy directed Excom to devise several possible courses of action, and Kennedy would decide which to follow (Mills 236). The next meeting of Excom raised more questions. The members of Excom wanted to know why was the Soviet Union building missile bases in Cuba. Several ideas were brought forward.
They hypothesized that he could be trying to get the US to remove the missiles that were placed in Turkey. Another theory is that Castro was alarmed at Republican insistence to invade Cuba and had asked for military assistance. “One member of Excom quoted an old Russian adage: ‘If you strike steel, pull back. If you strike mush, keep going. ‘” He implied that if President Kennedy didn’t respond, Khrushchev would think he could get away with other things (Mills 237). By October 17, U-2 reports showed that anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two medium-range ballistic missile sites and would be ready within seven days.
Construction for intermediate-range missile sites was already under way and would be operational by December. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a member of Excom, suggested that the United States place a naval “quarantine”n Soviet Ships on the way to Cuba. This was to serve as a warning to Khrushchev (Mills 238). The members of Excom that wanted an air strike were against the proposal. Those in favor of immediate, pre-emptive airstrikes argued that the missiles that were already on the island would not be affected by the blockade. They could not promise the success of an air strike, however.
It would be extremely difficult to bomb all the sites, and if even one site was missed, it might mean nuclear war. The Pentagon suggested a massive bombing to destroy all kinds of military equipment, and perhaps even Castro himself (Mills 238). Arguments were raised, and debate continued. Some felt an invasion was called for, while others opposed air strikes. On October 18, photographs revealed that construction on the missile bases was occurring at a faster rate than originally thought. The first medium-range missile site would be completed within the next day and a half.
The missiles were targeted at several U. S. cities. It was estimated that almost eighty million Americans would be killed, just minutes after the firing of the missiles (Mills 238). Kennedy had decided not to bring up the issue of the missiles in a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and listened to his comments. Gromyko said that the few Soviet defenses that existed were set up to defend from possible American attack. Later the President was reported saying, “I was dying to confront him with our evidence. It was incredible to sit there and watch the lies coming out of his mouth” (Mills 239).
According to recently declassified files in Moscow, Khrushchev had sent over 100 nuclear warheads into the Caribbean island, in case of American attack. Approximately 42,000 Soviet soldiers were ready to launch the nukes within a few hours notice. The Soviet commander in Cuba, General Issa Pliyev, was prepared to use every one of those warheads, should the United States invade Cuba. Neither of the Kennedy brothers had any idea that Cuba was ready to launch nuclear warheads at the first sign of an invasion (Hersh 355). During the meeting with Gromyko, the members of Excomm were attempting to agree on a plan.
Most leaned towards the strategy of a naval blockade. In case the blockade failed to get Khrushchev to remove the missiles, military action could act as a backup plan. A few fears were voiced, however, such as the possibility of Castro executing the Bay of Pigs prisoners, or Soviet air strikes, if the blockade failed (Mills 340). The day after the meeting with Gromyko, President Kennedy went to campaign, and left the Excom members to sort out their feelings and come up with a plan. They began to have second thoughts about the blockade, and some even pushed for a military strike.
Robert Kennedy opposed the military strike, explaining that this was not a fight for survival, it was a fight to uphold America’s ideals and heritage. Saturday, October 20, Robert called his brother and told him the result. It was the president’s choice; Excom could not reach a decision (Mills 241). JFK soon returned to the White House, and again heard all the plans. United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, proposed giving up a naval base at Guantanamo, or pull the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Both suggestions were rejected. There were too many problems with the air strike proposal.
The Commander-in-Chief of the United States ordered the blockade to begin (Mills 242). By Sunday, America’s allies knew of the situation, special briefings were given to members of the Organization of American States (OAS), and Congressional leaders were requested to return to Washington. On Monday, President Kennedy addressed the nation. Two letters were delivered to Khrushchev in Moscow, just thirty minutes before Kennedy’s address. One was a copy of the speech, the other was a letter from JFK himself. He wrote that he assumed that Khrushchev knew better than to drive the world to nuclear chaos in which it was clear no country would win.
At 7 PM, October 22, the President spoke to the nation (Mills 242). “Good evening, my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba…. It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union” (Mills 242-3). As the President began his speech, the Pentagon moved the military alert to DEFCON 3, the highest military alert short of all-out war (Hersh 355).
The largest US force since D-Day was assembled in Georgia and Florida. Over one hundred thousand troops stood ready, bombers of the Strategic Air Command flew the skies, and 180 ships were in the Caribbean (Mills 243). Nuclear weapons were placed on bombers in Spain, Morocco, and England. Their target: the Soviet Union (Hersh 356). The next day, pilots flew over Cuba and snapped photographs of two operational medium-range ballistic missile sites. Back in Washington, evacuations were commencing. Jackie Kennedy refused to evacuate without her husband. Robert Kennedy would not budge, either (Mills 243).
Surveillance planes sighted twenty-five Soviet ships, along with six submarines, headed for Cuba. In a message to Kennedy that night, on October 23, Khrushchev warned that the blockade would be ignored, and the Soviet ships would deliver the missiles. He said that America’s actions would lead to a nuclear war (Mills 243). The Excom group found out that several Soviet ships were en route to the blockade. If they did not stop, planes and ships from the carrier Essex would be forced to fire. The Russian response might have included ICBM’s from the Soviet Union, or missiles from Cuba. The president was nervous, and so were the Excom members.
Then the news came: some of the Russian ships were stopping (Mills 244). Stevenson asked the Soviet ambassador, Zorin, in a UN Security Council meeting whether he denied the existence of medium and intermediate range missiles in Cuba. Zorin replied that he was not in an American courtroom, to which Stevenson replied, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over… and I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room–now! ” (Mills 245) The surveillance photographs taken by the spy planes were brought in(“13” 4C). Stevenson explained that he was trying to preserve peace, not debate (Mills 245).
The blockade stopped its first Soviet ship on Friday. Armed parties from two American destroyers boarded the ship and searched. It was determined that it was carrying only trucks, and was allowed to continue (Mills 245). According to photographs taken that Friday, the MRBMs would be ready soon, and the intermediate-range missiles would be operational by the end of November. The possibility of an air strike was raised again by some Excom members. Unknown to Excom and the world at large, Kennedy and Khrushchev were keeping in touch. Khrushchev insisted that he wanted the US and Russia to have a peaceful rivalry and not begin a war.
As long as America promised not to invade Cuba, the missiles would be taken out (Mills 245). An Excom meeting was called to order, to draft a reply to Khrushchev’s words. However, the Soviet premier sent out a more aggressive message during the meeting: the US was to remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey. The FBI reported that Russian diplomats were destroying papers in New York (Mills 246). Fidel Castro was amazingly ignored throughout this whole crisis. He was certain that the Americans were invading and was frustrated that Pliyev refused to fire at the U-2’s. Castro finally obtained authority to shoot the planes down (Hersh 362).
The U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed. The Pentagon insisted on an air strike, followed by an invasion of Cuba (Mills 246). Robert Kennedy suggested that Excom should treat the second message as if it never existed, and reply to the first. Within an hour, the president’s reply was sent back to the Soviet premier. The Jupiter missiles were left out of the proposal, but it accepted the removal of the missiles under UN supervision. President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and stopped the blockade. On Sunday, October 28, Khrushchev agreed. The crisis was at an end (Mills 246).
The missiles were removed and the sites demolished. Khrushchev soon announced that he would concentrate on Russia’s economic problems instead of international military matters. He asked for solutions from the West in solving the Berlin dilemma. He thought that “in the next war, the survivors will envy the dead” (Mills 246). On Christmas Eve, 1962, over $50 million of baby food and medical supplies were sent, and the Bay of Pigs prisoners were released. In April 1963, Kennedy had the Jupiter missiles removed from Turkey, and four months later, Russia signed the nuclear test ban treaty.
A “hot line” teletype link now enabled instant communication between Moscow and Washington, and the US sold extra wheat and flour to the Soviet Union. The tide of the Cold War turned–for a little while (Mills 247). The crisis was the closest the world had ever come to global nuclear war and could possibly be the reason for Khrushchev’s fall in 1964 (“Cuban” 774). Those thirteen days left the world in awe of the determination and responsibility of the United States and its young president (Hersh 342). John Kennedy summarized his dealings with Khrushchev in just five words: “I cut his balls off” (Hersh 341).