The year 1962 is a year that most Americans will never forget, because that was the year the world was on the brink of nuclear warfare, stemming from the conflict between the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union. This conflict came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time the United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cold War. Which although there was no official declaration of war, was a period of immense tension between the two world powers due to their conflicting ideologies: The United States was democratic and the Soviet Union was communist. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The reason for this action was that Cuba, an ally to the Soviet Union, was nearly invaded by United States forces in 1961 in the failed Bay of Pigs excursion in an attempt to get rid of Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro was responsible for dismantling the economic relationship between The United States and Cuba, which was created nearly a half a century earlier. The Soviet Union also felt that since the United States had naval bases in Europe close to the Soviet Union it was only fair that they had a missile base close to the United States. Although the situation would later be averted, the crisis ultimately shaped the relationship between the United States and Cuba through the rest of the twentieth century.
In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, when the United States had defeated Spain, the Spanish signed the rights to its territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, over to the U.S, which subsequently granted Cuba its independence with the stipulation that the U.S. could intervene in the country’s affairs if necessary and that it be granted a naval base at Guantánamo Bay. For the next half of the twentieth the two countries more or less cooperated, with the U.S. helping to squash rebellions and heavily investing in the economy of Cuba.
Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tensions between the United States and Cuba were already on the rise. After taking control of Cuba in 1959, following the Cuban Revolution, communist leader, Fidel Castro, formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. Thus the relationship between the United States and Cuba was no longer intact. As a result The United States placed an embargo on Cuba on October 19th, 1960, and placed a further embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without asking for permission. On February 7th, 1962 the embargo was extended to include almost all imports. During Castro’s regime, Cuba became dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military support.
This enraged the United States whom at the time was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Both countries were already in a race to build up their armed forces. The Arms Race was a competition between both countries to scare each other by creating bigger, more powerful missiles and bombs. The United States was more advanced than the Soviet Union in technology. The Soviet Union tried to catch up as quickly as possible and neither stopped creating weapons. The alliance between the Soviet Union and the Cubans frightened many Americans because Cuba is extremely close to the United States, just ninety miles off the coast of southern Florida. By having an ally to the Soviet Union so close to the United States, many Americans feared a Soviet invasion and ultimate communist take over. President at the time, John F. Kennedy, concluded that something had to be done to prevent this from happening.
President Kennedy’s solution led to the failed attempt of an invasion in 1961, known as the Bay of Pigs. The Bay of Pigs occurred in April of 1961, Cuban refugees, armed and trained by the United States, as well as American soldiers attempted to invade Cuba and tried to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was unsuccessful and many were killed or imprisoned. The event was deemed to be one of the most humiliating events in American military history. Reports claim, that President Kennedy was visibly shaken by the failure. This event would set in motion the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro was convinced that the United States would try again to invade, and sought to attain military helpfrom the Soviet Union. The leader of the Soviet Union, also known as the Soviet Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, agreed with Castro’s concerns and had decided to send Soviet Missiles in order for the Cubans to be able to protect themselves.
Following reports of the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy issued a public warning to the Soviet Union, in September of 1962, that no harmful weapons were to be placed within Cuba. However, the United Sates still sent a U2 aircraft, to overlook the situation in Cuba. The aircraft confirmed that there were Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. However, the U2 aircraft was shot down before it could return to the United States. Although it was not confirmed whether or not it was Soviet forces or Cuban forces that had shot down the aircraft, it had already served its purpose. President Kenney and his officials agreed that by the U2 aircraft being shot down and that by the Cubans now have attained Soviet missiles that they were teetering on the brink of war.
Following these events, President Kennedy was uncertain of what course of action he should take. However, Kennedy also felt that it was not right that Cuba had the missiles. Nor did he want to appear weak. Throughout many meetings with his advisors, which, went on for nearly a week, they came up with a variety of options, including a bombing attack on the missile sites and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. According to an account by one of Kennedy’s advisors, Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy did not want to “force Khrushchev’s hand…” Essentially, he did not want to drag the United States into war. Kennedy wanted to protect the United States.
In order to avoid war, first, Kennedy would place the U.S. Navy on a blockade, or quarantine, of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional missiles and military equipment. Second, he would deliver an ultimatum that the existing missiles be removed. In a television broadcast on October 22, 1962, the president notified Americans about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to create the blockade and made it clear that the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to prevent any military advances by the enemy and his main concern was national security. However, many Americans still feared that the nation was on the brink of nuclear war.
Khrushchev viewed President Kennedy’s invoking of the blockade as an “act of aggression.” Thus a critical moment during the crisis occurred on October 24, when Soviet ships headed towards Cuba came close to the line of U.S. vessels whom were enforcing the blockade. Any attempt by the Soviets to break the blockade would likely have started a military confrontation that could have quickly turned into a nuclear battle. However, the Soviet ships stopped short of the blockade. Despite the fact, there was no formal battle there was still the issue of the missiles still in Cuba. Thus the issue was still on going. Although this event at offered some positive insight that a war could be avoided the tense standoff between the superpowers continued throughout the week. And on October 27, an America aircraft was shot down over Cuba, and a U.S. invasion force was readied in Florida.
Tension was still very much apparent. The Soviet Union and American leaders found a way out of this crisis. During the crisis, the Americans and Soviets had exchanged letters and other communications. On October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba or allow any other country to invade Cuba. The following day, the Soviet leader sent a letter proposing that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile bases in Turkey.
A major issue that resulted in the Crisis was that the United States had missile bases in countries that were close to the Soviet Union. For example, Turkey and Italy. These missile bases were called the Jupiter Missile base. Officially, the Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first message and ignore the second Khrushchev letter all together. Secretly however, American officials also agreed to withdraw their nation’s missiles from Turkey. When U.S. Attorney General and brother to President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy personally delivered the message to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and on October 28, the crisis came to an end. After the Soviet Union completed their removal of missiles in Cuba, the United States officially ended their blockade and finished removing missiles in Turkey by April 1963.
There was a lot of backlash following the crisis. The relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union became strained for a long period, after Khrushchev’s removal of the missiles. Fidel Castro accused the Soviet Union of backing down from the Americans and not supporting the Cuban revolution. European allies of the United States were also upset, not because of the United States’ actions during the crisis, but because Kennedy and his administration kept quiet and did not include them in negotiations that might have led to a nuclear war. However, within the United States President Kennedy’s popularity increased as his handling of the situation was deemed as redemption for the Bay of Pigs. Leaders within the Soviet Union were disgusted at Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the weapons. There was perhaps one positive aspect of the crisis. Having gone to the edge of what President Kennedy referred to as the “abyss of destruction,” both nations initiated steps to begin some control over nuclear weapons. Less than a year after the crisis ended, the United States and Soviet Union signed an agreement to end aboveground testing. This came to be known as the Limited Test Ban TreatyWhich prohibits the testing of Nuclear Weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States still continued their embargo of Cuba. This continued through the remainder of the twentieth century, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States government strengthened the embargo with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which states that the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and switches to a democratic government that does not involve any member of the Castro Family.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was an event that definitely highlighted the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century. The reason for the Crisis varies due to the many other situations that had transpired or were transpiring. The Cubans who were essentially under the control of the United Sates for the first half of the century were now under a new, communist regime under Fidel Castro, which the United States was not happy about. After the United States had imposed an embargo and failed to invade Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, the Soviet Union placed missiles within the country. However, the leaders of the Soviet Union had their own motives. The Soviet Union just wanted to be able to place a missile base close to the United States because the United States had missile bases close to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union essentially used the crisis to also force the United States to terminate those bases. In general Cuba was in middle of the larger feud between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact, the crisis was resolved, the Cold War continued for over the next twenty years. Cuba still remained under communist control and the relationship between the United and Cuba still remained the same.
Anthony Ruggiero is a High School History Teacher in New York City, New York. In addition to teaching, he has been published in several magazines and blogs. Such as: History Is Now magazine, Historic-U.K. magazine, Tudor Life magazine, Discover Britain magazine, The Odd Historian magazine, the Culture-Exchange blog, Inside History magazine, Versus History blog, The New York History Review and The Freelance History Writer blog. Through continuing to research and write, he is able to share his findings with his students in order to engage them in their learning and help them succeed. His work can also be viewed on his Twitter handle: @Anthony10290122