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Cuban Missile Crisis in American History

The Cuban missile crisis was one of the defining incidents of the Cold War period where the world came very close to being engulfed in a thermonuclear war. The confrontation between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba is one of the most researched subjects in Geopolitics. The incident is worth examining for it holds many lessons for humanity at large especially to the practitioners of global politics and conflict management mechanisms. This essay aims to recount the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis with supporting analysis to bring home the relevance and importance of the incident.

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The end of the Second World War created conditions for a new paradigm of war the Cold War where the two competing powers, the United States and the Soviet Union strove to establish their power blocs as the predominant force in the world. The Cold War led to numerous proxy wars with the Western Bloc supporting one side and the Warsaw Pact countries the other. Cuba’s adoption of a socialist system made it the number one enemy of the United States who imposed crippling sanctions on the country. In 1960, the White House had even devised “a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro by training 1,500 Cuban exiles living in the United States in guerilla warfare and then land them on a beach in Cuba to quickly mobilize and take the island swiftly”( Edenbaum & Haight, 8). Cuba, fearing an invasion from the US needed weaponry desperately. “In May 1960, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev promised military assistance to the beleaguered Castro regime in Cuba” (Holmes, 244). When the Americans based their nuclear missiles in Turkey, the Soviet Union sought to counter the American move by covertly basing their nuclear missiles in Cuba. When the United States detected a large shipment of arms being transported to Cuba they demanded from the Soviets an explanation. In a letter to President Kennedy, the Russian Premier, Nikita Khrushchev assured him that the weaponry was purely ‘defensive in nature. According to Fidel Castro in his autobiography, Khrushchev’s deception came unstuck when one of his own intelligence operatives, “Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, gave the Americans the exact coordinates of the missiles”(274). Armed with this knowledge the US launched a U-2 spy plane on 14 October 1962 leading to the detection of missile sites in western Cuba.” Intelligence indicated that SS-4 and SS-5 each with a one-megaton warhead which could target almost the entire Continental United States”(Holmes, 244) had been placed. This discovery led to a chain of events that very nearly brought the world to a nuclear conflagration.

On 19 October 1962, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff advised President Kennedy to authorize a massive aerial attack. Wiser sense prevailed on Kennedy who decided to manage the unfolding crisis with greater circumspection. On 20 October, the US Secretary of State, Robert Mc Namara advised the President to order a naval blockade of Cuba to pressurize the Soviets and prevent any further shipments of weaponry on the island. As a result, one of the largest naval deployments since World War Two was put into action by the US Navy where “a total of 183 warships participated in the operation overall”(Baer, 383). This blockade was not a total blockade but a selective naval blockade in which the only shipment of offensive weapons to Cuba was prohibited allowing essential items such as food or petroleum or other goods to pass through. According to Baer this “was the least provocative action and gave Khrushchev time to recognize the seriousness of his problem and begin withdrawal “(382).

To build international diplomatic pressure and strengthen domestic support, Kennedy on 22 October 1962, spoke to the nation on TV announcing that the Soviet Union had to withdraw its nuclear missile or it risked nuclear war. “After the speech, the United States military was put on DEFCON 3, the highest level since WWII” (Edenbaum & Haight, 11). In response to Kennedy’s TV address, Castro mobilized his country and over 300,000 combatants were called to arms. While the events were rapidly unfolding on the ground, a diplomatic battle was being waged at the United Nations. Castro in his autobiography squarely blames the Soviet side for losing the diplomatic battle by his observation that the soviet ambassador “made the mistake of rejecting the real debate, which should have been over the sovereignty of Cuba, its right to defend itself, to protect itself”(277).

The US Navy and the US Air force launched a massive aerial surveillance campaign which enraged Castro who retaliated by shooting down one U-2 spy plane which led to the death of the American pilot. This act of belligerence could have been considered as an act of war by the Americans as Castro admits “This could have led to an all-out war”(277). The American side, however, refused to get drawn into a shooting war as they clearly understood the implications of any precipitous action. The gravity of the situation was also understood by the Soviets. While the two superpowers were busy gauging each other’s next move fully understanding the seriousness of the matter, Castro by his own admission was more cavalier and less thoughtful. Castro suggested to Khrushchev that rather than give in to American demands, the two forces should carry out a nuclear first strike. This dangerous suggestion was responded to by Khrushchev who in his letter to Castro wrote:

”In your cable of 27 October you proposed that we carry out a nuclear first strike against the enemy territory. This would not be a simple attack, but rather the beginning of a thermonuclear world war. Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I believe your proposal to have been wrong.”(Castro, 281).

Khrushchev realizing the precarious position that the Soviets were in, and given that the Americans had overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons decided to withdraw the missiles from Cuba on 28 October 1962. As a Quid Pro Quo, the Americans agreed not to attack Cuba and quietly removed their missiles from Turkey. How close the world had been to the brink of disaster can only be gauged by this revelation by Castro that in case the Americans had carried out the invasion the Cubans had “a regiment of tactical nuclear arms that would be armed with nuclear warheads when the crisis broke out and whose commander would be empowered to use them without higher orders” (272). Some on the American side had believed otherwise. According to one Air Force General, David A Burchinal who was involved in the complete crisis “the Russians were so thoroughly stood down—We were never further from nuclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further”(Baer, 381).

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Such optimism was however never taken seriously by President Kennedy, who through a clever mix of coercion, diplomacy and posturing forced the Russian Premier to blink first and bring this crisis to an end. The ‘October crisis’ as the Cubans call it would have turned out differently, had Khrushchev listened to Castro’s reckless advice or had the Americans invaded Cuba to find a retaliation with tactical nuclear weapons which would have possibly spiraled into a full-fledged thermonuclear war.

Works Cited

Baer, George W. One Hundred Years of Sea Power. California: Stanford University Press. 1994.

Castro, Fidel with Ramonet, Ignacio. My Life. New York: Penguin Group. 2007.

Edenbaum, Mathew & Haight. 2004. “Thirteen Days in October: The Cuban Missile Crisis”. 2008. Web.

Holmes, Richard. The Oxford Companion to Military History. New York: Oxford University Press. 2001.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 23). Cuban Missile Crisis in American History. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/cuban-missile-crisis-in-american-history/

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