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Cuban Missile Crisis Research Paper


The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. The United States armed forces were at their highest state of readiness ever, and Soviet field commanders in Cuba were prepared to use battlefield nuclear weapons to defend the island if it was invaded.

In 1962, the Soviet Union was desperately behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe but U.S. missiles were capable of striking the entire Soviet Union. In late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. A deployment in Cuba would double the Soviet strategic arms and provide a real deterrent to a U.S. attack against the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro was looking for a way to defend his island nation from an attack by the U.S. Ever since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Castro felt a second attack was inevitable. He approved of Khrushchev’s plan to place missiles on the island.

For the United States, the crisis began on October 15, 1962 when reconnaissance photographs revealed Soviet missiles under construction in Cuba. Kennedy organized the EX-COMM, a group of twelve advisors to handle the crisis. After seven days debate within the upper echelons of government, Kennedy concluded to impose a naval quarantine around Cuba; He wished to prevent the arrival of more Soviet offensive weapons on the island. On October 22, Kennedy announced the discovery of the missile installations to the public and his decision to quarantine the island. He also stated that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and demanded that the Soviets remove their offensive weapons from Cuba.

Kennedy eventually ordered low-level reconnaissance missions once every two hours. On the 25th Kennedy pulled the quarantine line back and raised military readiness to DEFCON 2. Then on the 26th EX-COMM heard from Khrushchev in a letter. He proposed removing Soviet missiles and personnel if the U.S. would guarantee not to invade Cuba. October 27 was the worst day of the crisis. A U-2 was shot down over Cuba and EX-COMM received a second letter from Khrushchev demanding the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy suggested ignoring the second letter and contacted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to tell him of the U.S. agreement with the first letter.

Tensions finally began to ease on October 28 when Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations and return the missiles to the Soviet Union. Further negotiations were held to implement the October 28 agreement, including a United States demand that Soviet light bombers be removed from Cuba, and specifying the conditions of United States to not invade Cuba.

Causes of the Crisis

The Soviet decision to deploy missiles in Cuba can be broken down into two categories:

1) Soviet insecurity, and

2) the fear of losing Cuba in an invasion.

Soviet Insecurity

During his presidential campaign, Kennedy had repeatedly spoken of a missile gap between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Despite being briefed by the Pentagon that the U.S. had more missiles than the Soviets, Kennedy maintained his claim that the U.S. had less. In the summer of 1961 Khrushchev applied pressure to Berlin and eventually built a wall surrounding West Berlin. In response, the Kennedy Administration felt it necessary to reveal to Khrushchev that there was in fact no missile gap. Khrushchev had always known the U.S. had more missiles but now he knew that the Americans knew. Khrushchev also knew that Soviet missiles were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe but U.S. missiles were capable of striking the entire Soviet Union.

Cuban Invasion

The second of the two major causes was Cuba’s fear of invasion from the U.S. Since he had come to power in 1959, Fidel Castro was aware of several U.S. attempts to oust him. First, was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles in 1961. Second, was a U.S. military exercise in 1962. The Armed Forces conducted a mock invasion of a Caribbean island to overthrow a fictitious dictator whose name, Ortsac, was Castro spelled backwards. The U.S. was drafting a plan to invade Cuba (Operation Mongoose). The mock invasion and invasion plan were devised to keep Castro nervous. The CIA had also been running covert operations throughout Cuba trying to damage the Castro government. Consequently, Castro was convinced the U.S. was serious about invading Cuba.


In April, 1962, Nikita Khrushchev had the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. A deployment in Cuba would double the Soviet strategic arsenal and provide a real deterrent to an U.S. attack against the Soviet Union or Cuba. Khrushchev promoted the KGB station chief in Cuba Alexander Alexeev to Ambassador to negotiate for Castro’s approval of the plan. Believing it better to risk a great crisis than wait for an invasion, Castro accepted Khrushchev’s offer. In July of 1962 the Soviet Union began its buildup of offensive weapons in Cuba.

The Secret Build-Up

Throughout the summer and fall of 1962, the Soviets shipped launch equipment and personnel necessary for the preparation of missiles to Cuba. For fear of being discovered, they could not use military ships. Therefore civilian vessels were used. In one instance, troops rode on a cruise liner posing as tourists. In all, sixty missiles and their warheads were transported to Cuba.

On August 10, 1962 John McCone, director of the CIA, sent the president a memorandum stating that the Soviets would place medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. On the 29th, a U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba revealed the presence of SA-2 SAM sites. To reassure the public, Kennedy announced on September 4 the presence of Soviet defensive missiles in Cuba, but that there were no offensive weapons. On the same day, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin assured Attorney General Robert Kennedy that no offensive missiles would be placed in Cuba. Eleven days later, however, the first Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles arrived. Under increasing pressure Kennedy ordered another U-2 flight over Cuba for October 9. Due to bad weather the flight was delayed until Sunday, October 14.

Day 1: Monday, October 15

After analyzing the pictures from the flight, the National Photographic Interpretation Center found there were more surface-to-air missile sites, and six much larger missiles, each 60 to 65 feet long. They had discovered SS-4 nuclear missiles.

Day 2: Tuesday, October 16

It was now clear that for months the Soviets had been deceiving America. Kennedy took charge and scheduled two meetings for that morning; first, to see the photographs himself. The missiles he held in his sight had a range of 1,100 miles and threatened major population centers in the U.S. including New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. At this point, the missiles were not yet operational, nor were they fitted with nuclear warheads.

Kennedy hand-picked a group of trusted government officials to advise him on the crisis. The assembled group was later referred to as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council or EX-COMM. In that first meeting, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara outlined three possible courses of action for the U.S. to take against Cuba and the Soviet Union.

1.”The political course of action.” — To engage Castro and Khrushchev on the diplomatic stage in a gamble to resolve the crisis openly — the option which most members of EX-COMM thought unlikely to succeed.

2.”A course of action that would involve declaration of open surveillance” combined with “a blockade against offensive weapons entering Cuba.”

3.”Military action directed against Cuba, starting with an air attack against the missiles,” and then followed by a invasion.

EX-COMM worked from the premise that the missile warheads were not yet in Cuba and not attatched to the missiles. Therefore, the goal of any action they proposed was to stop the warheads from reaching Cuba or to prevent the missiles from becoming fully operational. What EX-COMM didn’t know was that the Soviets did have nuclear warheads on the island. They had also installed battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba and were prepared to use them to stop an invasion.

Kennedy wanted to appear tough yet avoid a military confrontation. No matter what action the U.S. took, EX-COMM expected Khrushchev to retaliate.

Day 3: Wednesday, October 17

In order to maintain secrecy, Kennedy followed his planned schedule. The Soviets and the American public didn’t know the Americans knew of the missiles in Cuba. If the Soviets found out, they might hide the missiles or launch them if they were ready. If the public found out, the nation would panic. Consequently, Kennedy broke off no public engagements for the next four days.

Throughout EX-COMM’s discussions, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force strongly argued for an air strike. The Air Force suggested bombing Cuba with over 100 sorties, Before the Air Force was done, they had planned a massive air attack that would have wiped Cuba off the planet’s surface.

After another U-2 flight on the night of the 17th, the military discovered intermediate range SS-5 nuclear missiles. With the exception of Washington and Oregon, these missiles could reach all of the continental U.S.

Day 4: Thursday, October 18

On October 18 Kennedy fulfilled a previously scheduled engagement to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrie Gromyko. EX-COMM wasn’t sure if Gromyko knew of the missiles or if he knew that the Americans knew. Kennedy decided not to confront the minister on the issue.

The meeting began with a polite exchange over minor world events but soon shifted to Cuba. Gromyko read a statement to Kennedy saying that Soviet aid was “solely for the purpose of contributing to the defense capabilities of Cuba and to the development of its peaceful democracy. If it were otherwise, the Soviet government would have never become involved in rendering such assistance.” In response Kennedy re-read a statement he had made on September 4 saying the U.S. would not tolerate offensive weapons in Cuba. Gromyko must have wondered why Kennedy was reading him the statement, but when he later reported to Khrushchev he said all was well with the Americans. After the meeting Kennedy remarked to an advisor that he wanted to take the enlarged reconnaissance photographs out of his desk, point to the missiles, and ask Gromyko, “What do these look like?”

Later that evening, a black-tie dinner was held in Gromyko’s honor. As the guests entered the State Department to attend the ball, EX-COMM was preparing to meet just one floor below. During the discussion a majority opinion had been reached on recommending a blockade.

At the White House, Kennedy liked the idea of the blockade because it provided the Soviets a way out of the crisis. But because EX-COMM still hadn’t reached a consensus Kennedy instructed his speech writer Theodore Sorensen to draft two different speeches to give to the American public on October 22: one announcing a blockade and the other announcing an air strike. Kennedy still hadn’t decided on the best course of action.

Day 5: Friday, October 19

Before leaving for a campaign trip to the Midwest Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs, who still promoted the idea of air strikes. A consensus still couldn’t be reached. Kennedy was already late, so he asked his brother to continue the EX-COMM meetings to draw up full plans for both scenarios. Again he chose not to cancel this trip because he wanted to maintain secrecy.

Day 6: Saturday, October 20

On Saturday, EX-COMM met to discuss the two speeches being prepared. They approved them with a few minor changes and then Robert Kennedy called the President to say that he had to come back to Washington. It was necessary then, that he return and discuss with EX-COMM the two options: a “surgical” air strike or a quarantine. The President finally agreed. Canceling his trip by saying that he had an “upper respiratory infection,” he returned to Washington.

Between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. he met with EX-COMM. Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Secretary of Defense, summed up Kennedy’s choices: “Essentially, Mr. President, this is a choice between limited action and unlimited action — and most of us think it is better to start with limited action.” The President liked the idea of a blockade because it allowed the U.S. to start with minimal action and increase the pressure on the Soviets as needed. Kennedy would not finalize his decision until the next day.

Day 7: Sunday, October 21

On the 21st, Kennedy met with his top advisors to discuss the missiles in Cuba. He asked General Walter Sweeney, the head of Strategic Air Command if an air strike could destroy all the missiles. The General replied that they could take out all the missiles they knew about. Sweeney could not predict 100 percent success. Next, Kennedy asked the general how many casualties, civilian and military, would occur. The general responded, 10,000 to 20,000. The only reasonable option left was a blockade against Cuba.

In the speech Kennedy would give the nation, he would use the word “quarantine” instead of “blockade.” This suggestion, made by George Ball, Under Secretary of State, was an important one. A blockade, as defined under international treaties is an act of war. A quarantine, on the other hand, is merely an attempt to keep something unwanted out of a particular area. In sum, the U.S. could have its blockade but the international community would not consider it an act of war.

The press contacted Kennedy to know about the situation in Cuba. The press knew that there were offensive weapons in Cuba and that Kennedy was preparing a plan to deal with the threat. Kennedy told the reporters to be quiet. He even personally telephoned The Washington Post and the New York Times to ask them to tone down their coverage of Cuba. He went on to warn that if he was denied the element of surprise, “I don’t know what the Soviets will do.”

Another U-2 flight that day revealed bombers and Migs being rapidly assembled and cruise missile sites being built on Cuba’s northern shore.

Day 8: Monday, October 22

On Monday, preparations had to be made for Kennedy’s 7:00 p.m. (EST) address to the nation. The State Department informed American allies around the world of Kennedy’s decision. U.S. Senate leaders were called to Washington for a special briefing. They came out of the briefing doubting the effectiveness of a quarantine; most wanted an air strike. Almost 300 Navy ships set sail, not yet having received the specific orders for a quarantine. In Guantanamo Bay, three Marine battalions were brought in to reinforce the base and military dependents were evacuated. Military alert was raised to DEFCON 3 and instructions were given to be ready to launch missiles within minutes of the President’s speech. Twenty planes armed with nuclear bombs were also in the air ready to strike the U.S.S.R.

At 7:00 p.m., precisely as Kennedy was beginning his speech, jet fighters took off from bases in Florida and headed south towards Cuba. If Castro decided to respond militarily, they would be ready. For the next seventeen minutes, Americans and citizens around the world sat glued to their TV sets listening to the American President.

Earlier in the day, Kennedy had sent Khrushchev a copy of his speech. Upon reading it, Khrushchev became infuriated. He was angry with his military for not successfully hiding the missiles and he was angered by the American “quarantine” which, no matter what they called it, was an act of war. Khrushchev’s first response was to instruct the ships on their way to Cuba not to stop.

In response to Kennedy’s speech Castro mobilized all of Cuba’s military forces. The Cuban’s were not surprised by Kennedy, for the U.S. had constantly threatened them. Ever since the Bay of Pigs, eighteen months earlier, the Cubans had been living under a constant fear of invasion. The “Crisis of October” was little different from any other month. The public phase had begun.

Day 9: Tuesday, October 23

Kennedy ordered six Crusader jets to fly a low-level reconnaissance mission. The mission was flown at 350 feet and at 350 knots and brought back stunning close-up pictures of the missile sites and also showed that the Soviets were testing the missiles for launch.

The Organization of American States (OAS) approved of the quarantine against Cuba. These countries realized that they were also threatened by the missiles in Cuba. With the backing of the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy signed the actual Proclamation of Interdiction in the early evening. The quarantine was to take effect at 10:00 a.m. (EST) on October 24. By the end of the day U.S. ships had taken up position along the quarantine line, 800 miles from Cuba. They were instructed to use force to halt any ship that failed to stop at that line.

Late in the evening, the President sent Robert Kennedy to the Soviet embassy to talk with Ambassador Dobrynin. Well before the crisis, the administration had developed this channel of communication with the U.S.S.R. It allowed both countries to discuss matters privately and quietly. At 9:30 p.m. Robert Kennedy arrived at the embassy and proceeded to rebuke the Soviet ambassador for having lied to the United States about placing missiles in Cuba. He responded, that as far as he new, there were no offensive weapons there. Because communications were still at an infant stage then, Dobrynin had to call a Western Union telegraph station in Washington, which sent a bike messenger to pick up the cable. Dobrynin recalls urging the messenger to travel back to the station with the utmost speed.

Back at the White House, the President decided to give Khrushchev more time and pulled the quarantine line back to 500 miles.

Day 10: Wednesday, October 24

On the 24th EX-COMM convened at 10:00 a.m. (EST), the exact time the blockade began. Soviet ships kept coming closer to the line. American ships were preparing to disable them if they did not stop. The order given to the American ships was to first communicate with the Soviet vessels; then if they did not stop, the American’s were to fire across their bow, and if they still did not stop, American ships were instructed to blow off the rudder in order to stop the ships.

Two of the major concerns during the EX-COMM meeting were the Soviet submarines accompanying the vessels and the possibility that Khrushchev had not had enough time to instruct the ship captains on what they should do. At 10:25 EX-COMM received a message that the Soviet ships were turning back. Khrushchev was not ready to expand the crisis by challenging the blockade. This did not mean that the crisis was over.

Also on Wednesday, military alert was raised to DEFCON 2, the highest level ever in U.S. history. The notification, sent round the world from Strategic Air Command headquarters, was purposely left uncoded to let the Soviets know just how serious the Americans were.

That evening, the White House received a second letter from Khrushchev:

“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are advancing an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force…. No Mr. President, I cannot agree to this, and I think that in your own heart you recognize that I amcorrect. I am convinced that in my place you would act the same way.

Therefore the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of the American naval forces blockading that Island…. Naturally we will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas. We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.”

Day 11: Thursday, October 25

On the 23rd, U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, had proposed a pause in the crisis to Kennedy and Khrushchev. He suggested the Soviets stop shipping offensive weapons to Cuba for two or three weeks and in exchange the Americans would suspend the quarantine for the same length of time. On the 25th Kennedy politely turned down the offer because it allowed the Soviets to continue preparing the missiles that were already in Cuba.

Khrushchev received another correspondence from Kennedy which restated the United State’s position. Kennedy was not going to back down. Still attempting to avoid war, Kennedy had U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confront the Soviets at the United Nations. When asked directly about the missiles, Soviet Ambassador Zorin refused to comment. Consequently, Stevenson showed the reconnaissance photos of missile sites. The photographs were unmistakable evidence of the Soviet presence in Cuba.

A newspaper column written by influential journalist Walter Lippman was also printed on Thursday. Lippman suggested a face-saving missile exchange. The Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba and the Americans would remove their missiles from Turkey. Days before, EX-COMM had already begun to consider this option and was currently exploring the political consequences. Government officials both in the United States and Soviet Union mistakenly interpreted Lippman’s article as a trial balloon floated by the Kennedy administration, which it was not.

At the close of the 5:00 p.m. EX-COMM meeting, CIA Director McCone indicated that some of the missiles deployed in Cuba were now fully operational.

Day 12: Friday, October 26

During the 10:00 a.m. EX-COMM meeting, Kennedy said that he believed the quarantine alone could not force the Soviet government to remove its offensive weapons from Cuba. A CIA report from that morning stated that there was no halt in progress in the development of the missile sites and another reconnaissance flight revealed the Soviets were also attempting to camouflage the missiles. Kennedy believed that only an invasion or a trade (for missiles in Turkey) would now succeed. He also agreed to enhance pressure by increasing the frequency of low-level flights over Cuba from twice per day to once every two hours.

A Letter from Khrushchev to Kennedy arrived this day, at the White House at 6:00 p.m. but because it had to be translated, it came in four separate parts, the last of which arrived at 9:00 p.m. The letter was clearly an impassioned appeal, written by Khrushchev himself, to resolve the crisis. Khrushchev proposed removing his missiles if Kennedy would publicly announce never to invade Cuba. It read:

“You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dreaded forces our two countries possess.

I propose we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear.”

Day 13: Saturday, October 27

Saturday was the worst day of the crisis. One U-2 was shot down, another flew off course over Russia, a low-level reconnaissance mission was shot at over Cuba, and a second, more demanding letter was received from Khrushchev.

First, a U-2 on a “routine air sampling mission” over western Alaska picked the wrong star to navigate by and flew off course into Soviet airspace. When he realized his mistake, the pilot immediately radioed for help. The rescue station operator was able to give him directions to turn his plane onto the right course. By that time the Soviets had detected the U-2 and sent MiG fighters to intercept the spy plane. The Americans also sent their F-102 fighters to provide cover for the U-2. The F-102s had been armed with nuclear tipped air-to-air missiles. The U-2 left Soviet air space in time and two fighter groups never met.

Around noon, news reached EX-COMM that a U-2 had been shot down over Cuba. Major Rudolph Anderson’s spy plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile and crashed in the island’s eastern jungle. EX-COMM interpreted the action as a planned escalation of the situation by the Kremlin. The order to launch the missile did not come from Moscow. It was a Soviet commander in Cuba who gave the command. Khrushchev now worried that he had lost control of his forces.

EX-COMM had previously decided that if an American reconnaissance plane was downed, the Air Force would retaliate by bombing the offending site. Now that it had happened, the Joint Chiefs, who had been pressing for permission to bomb Cuba, pressed even harder.

The next event in that long day was a low-level reconnaissance mission flown by six F8U-1P Crusader jets. Two of the jets aborted the mission early due to mechanical problems, but the remaining four continued on their course. As the fighters passed over the San Cristobal and Sagua la Grande missile sites, Cuban ground forces shot at the planes with anti-aircraft guns and small arms. One plane was hit by a 37mm shell but it returned safely. Earlier that morning, Castro lost his nerve and ordered his troops to fire at American aircraft. With each new flight the Americans were gaining valuable information for an invasion Castro believed to be only 24 to 72 hours away.

A Pretty Good Spot

Fourth, at 11:03 a.m. a second letter from Khrushchev arrived. This letter, formally written, was much more demanding. Some members of EX-COMM speculated that hard-liners had pressured Khrushchev to take a more aggressive position. The letter was also publicly broadcast in order to reduce communication delays but the broadcast also raised the stakes. The two countries no longer had the luxury of private negotiations Khrushchev’s previous proposal had not mentioned Turkey. Too much information on the crisis had already been leaked to the press. If the U.S. buckled under pressure and removed its missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally, the whole alliance could falter.

Dreading conflict, Kennedy couldn’t demand more of Khrushchev. Fearing political pressure at home, he couldn’t give in on the question of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Then, Robert Kennedy had an inspiration: why not ignore the second letter and respond only to the first? A long-shot, but it might work suggested Soviet specialist Llewellyn Thompson. To Kennedy, it seemed the only viable option left. Consequently, the President had Robert Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen draft a response. In forty-five minutes they returned to the meeting. The committee then edited the proposal and approved it.

The Secret Deal

After the meeting adjourned, Kennedy called six men into the Oval Office for further consultation. The President informed them of the Attorney General’s meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin on the previous evening and asked for more suggestions on how to use this precious channel of communication. The group agreed to have the Attorney General meet with Dobrynin again to orally reinforce the proposal. Secretary Rusk also suggested that Robert Kennedy propose a secret deal on the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

At 7:45 that evening, Dobrynin came to the Justice Department to meet with the Attorney General. Kennedy handed him a reply to Khrushchev’s letter and then informed him of the secret deal. He gave assurances that the U.S. would quietly remove the Jupiters a few months after the crisis but warned they could not be part of a public deal. Robert Kennedy also imposed an ultimatum to Dobrynin. “If you do not remove those bases, we would remove them.” He concluded by saying a Soviet commitment was needed by tomorrow. Immediately after the meeting Dobrynin cabled Khrushchev to tell him of the proposal and that the Attorney General had imposed a deadline for a response. The Soviets just didn’t know what that deadline was.

Meanwhile, at the request of Secretary Rusk, John Scali met once again with Aleksandar Fomin. Rusk wanted Scali to find out why Khrushchev had suddenly introduced the Jupiter missiles into the deal. When Scali met Fomin in an empty ballroom at the Statler Hotel, he exploded. Why, Scali demanded, had Khrushchev performed a flip-flop? Fomin muttered something about poor communications. Scali, not satisfied with the answer, then accused Khrushchev of performing a “stinking double-cross.” The ABC News corespondent, in the heat of the moment, then gave a warning he had no right in making: “American invasion of Cuba is only hours away,” said Scali. Fomin was deeply impressed by the statement. After the two parted ways he went back to the Soviet embassy to report the latest news to Khrushchev, while Scali wrote a memorandum summing up the encounter for EX-COMM.

At 8:05 p.m. Kennedy released his response to Khrushchev’s latest proposal. It was given to the press to avoid any communications delays.

“As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals–which seem generally acceptable as I understand them–are as follows:

1.You would agree to remove these weapon


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