On this day in history, we look back 50 years to the end of one of the more important events in our nation’s history-the “Cuban missile crisis”, a major event in the lives of most of our parents and grandparents in that it was really the first time American citizens were made aware just how vulnerable they could be to nuclear weapons. For while the Cuban missile crisis primarily took place during October, it wasn’t until November 20, 1962 that President John F. Kennedy ended the quarantine of Cuba, effectively bringing a total end to the crisis.
Coming out of World War 2, in which the USSR and USA were the largest forces, working together to eliminate a common threat (Germany) there was a great deal of distrust and tension between the two superpowers. The Soviets were put off by America’s refusal to consider them a real part of the international community, and by the delay in America entering the second world war, while Americans were distrustful and dismissive of communism. Activists were hard at work, demonizing communism at home, and the perceived threat from those communists in the USSR grew into a nation wide fear that fueled foreign policy decisions.
In 1946, diplomat George Kennan wrote the now famous “Long Telegram”, essentially outlining the strategy of “containment” that the US would employ against the Soviets. Over the next 15 years the US would quadruple it’s military budget, beginning an arms race with the USSR, both powers competing with the other to develop the more destructive, more dominant weapons and sabotage the others’ efforts in doing so along the way.
Following the atom bombs the US dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was pretty clear to the world that nuclear type bombs were the route to dominance. Throughout the late 40’s and early 50’s both countries worked feverishly to develop such technology, testing A and H bombs as part of their effort to one up the other. Throughout this time in America, pop culture fed off the growing fears of the Cold War, with many movies and other forms of entertainment heavily focusing on the possibility of nuclear war, bombs going off, and even mutant creatures. In response people built bomb shelters, drilled in preparation for such a conflict, and generally lived in a great deal of fear at times. This all came to a head in late 1962.
The real beginning of the missile crisis, was in 1959 following the takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro. Castro promptly aligned himself with the USSR, and became extremely reliant upon the Soviets for economic and military support. As the two nations grew closer, their relationship evolved through one common enemy: the United States. In October of 1962, the US discovered just how deep those feelings and that relationship ran, when the pilot of an American U-2 spyplane took photos of a nuclear armed Soviet SS-4 medium range ballistic missile in the process of being assembled and installed.
Upon hearing of this discovery, President Kennedy immediately formed what was known as the “executive committee” or “ExComm” for short. Over the next 13 days, President Kennedy and his team entered into the most important negotiations in American history, as he faced down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, over their nuclear missiles, now being installed just 90 miles from American soil in Florida.
For 13 days negotiations continued between the two nations’ leaders. Negotiations were tough, Soviets felt much more secure with missiles in Cuba, as the US had many sites in eastern Europe with their missiles, aimed at the USSR. In what has become typical US fashion on foreign policy however, Kennedy felt that what was good for us, was not good for them and that the presence of Soviet missiles so close to US soil was unacceptable. To that end, Kennedy ordered the US Navy to completely quarantine the island of Cuba, encircling the land and not allowing anyone in or out. Although Soviet ships came, none ultimately tested that blockade, stopping just short and respecting the line drawn by the American naval forces.
With the quarantine set, JFK was able to turn his attention to the problem at hand-the missiles already in Cuba. While negotiations continued, American and Cuban citizens alike grew restless. Cubans of course, encircled by the American navy while Americans were on edge with the thought of nuclear war literally at their doorstep. Ultimately however, a deal was struck-as was no doubt the idea in putting the missiles in Cuba to begin with from a Soviet perspective.
On October 26, 1962 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent two successive messages to JFK and “ExComm”. The first offered the deal that the US officially accepted: we’ll remove our missiles from Cuba if you promise not to invade Cuba. The second was a less public-but still accepted-deal on top of the first; take our missiles out of Turkey and we’ll take our missiles out of Cuba. JFK ultimately accepted both deals-although only the one publicly-and the crisis was averted. Robert Kennedy delivered the message to the Soviet diplomats himself, and on October 28 the crisis came to it’s official end. Nearly a month later, following the removal of the final missile JFK ended the Cuban quarantine, withdrawing US naval forces from around the island.
The aftermath of this crisis was-somewhat oddly-a closer relationship between the two superpowers. In 1963 a hotline was established, creating a direct link between DC and Moscow, with the idea of avoiding future conflicts like we saw in Cuba. While the Cold War would last almost another 30 years and outlast both Kennedy and Khrushchev, October and November of 1962 were perhaps the most important months in the 46 years (1945-1991) that are labeled as the Cold War. 50 years later, regardless of who was right and who was wrong, the US stands alone and the USSR as something most Americans see on an old map and think “what is that?” One way or another, those two months in 1962 taught everyone in the world one thing: nukes are not something to play around with, and talking often ends with everyone happier than war does.