Cuban Missile Crisis

Low-level photograph of nuclear missile construction site at San Cristobal, Cuba, 25 Oct 1962.
Low-level photograph of nuclear missile construction site at San Cristobal, Cuba, 25 Oct 1962.

In October 1962, the world held its collective breath while the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of full-scale nuclear warfare. Recent disclosures show that the prospect of annihilation was even closer than most participants realized.

At issue was the discovery that the Soviets were installing nuclear weapons in Cuba, which had been subject to an ongoing campaign of harassment, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Operation Mongoose's sabotage and subversion activities, and plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Although the U.S. had nuclear missiles in foreign countries pointing at the Soviet Union, particularly in Turkey, U.S. officials were adamant that a Communist nuclear beachhead not be established in the Western hemisphere.

President Kennedy convened the so-called ExComm meetings in tight secrecy, and participants debated what course of action to take. Most advised air strikes followed by an invasion of Cuba to take out the missiles. After much deliberation, Kennedy opted for a naval blockade of Cuba coupled with demands that the Soviets withdraw the missiles, and also private communications with Khrushchev to try to defuse the tensions.

The strategy worked, and the missiles were withdrawn. Part of the arrangement reached was that Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba, contingent upon UN inspections proving the missiles were actually removed (Castro refused to allow this). He also made assurances that the missiles in Turkey, which were becoming obsolete anyway with the advent of a nuclear-armed submarine fleet, would be quietly removed at a later date.

Many hawks in the U.S. were furious over Kennedy's failure to seize the event as a justification for invading Cuba and removing Castro. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay told Kennedy that this was "almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," referring to the British government's failure to confront Hitler over his invasion of Poland. What neither Kennedy nor LeMay knew was that Soviet field commanders in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons at their disposal, and an invasion would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear response.



Cuban Missile Crisis: 35 Years Ago on Tape, by JFK Lancer.

The Cuban Missile Tape Crisis: Just how helpful are the White House recordings?, by David Greenberg.

Ted Sorenson's Fallible Memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Sheldon M. Stern.


FUTURE POLICY TOWARD CUBA. This 1963 State Dept. memo for the President presents a plan for future policy in Cuba, following the missile crisis and the abandonment of Operation Mongoose.

UNITED STATES POLICY TOWARD CUBA. Another memo, this one from the Defense Dept. in January 1963, outlines possible courses of action regarding Cuba in the aftermath of the missile crisis.

McCone to McNamara memo of 9 Feb 1963. CIA Director McCone forwarded deep concerns about U.S. Security being expressed in Congress due to the administration's failure to anticipate the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

FRUS 1961-1963, Volume VII: Arms Control and Disarmament. This State Department volume covers arms control negotiations throughout the Kennedy presidency, including the missile crisis.


Other Links

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The 40th Anniversary. The National Security Archive site includes documents, audio clips, photographs, and information on a 40th anniversary conference held in October 2002 in Havana. is a website affiliated with Harvard University whose sole subject is the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 18-29, 1962. History Out Loud offers several audio recordings of ExComm meetings, along with commentary and transcript excerpts.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XI: Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath.

A World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The JFK Library website contains discussion, documents, and audio from the missile crisis.

Cuban Missile Crisis - Photographs. The Federation of American Scientists has a collection of reconnaissance photos taken in 1962 upon discovery of the missiles in Cuba.

Cuban Missile Crisis on wikipedia.

Related Starting Points


Peter Dale Scott discusses what was resolved in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and what was left unresolved, and how that affected adminstration policy toward Cuba in 1963.
(running time: 4:33)

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