The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis – Matthew A. Jordan


It’s not hard to imagine a world
where at any given moment, you and everyone you know could be
wiped out without warning at the push of a button. This was the reality for millions
of people during the 45-year period after World War II, now known as the Cold War. As the United States and Soviet Union
faced off across the globe, each knew that the other had nuclear
weapons capable of destroying it. And destruction never loomed closer
than during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1961, the U.S. unsuccessfully tried to
overthrow Cuba’s new communist government. That failed attempt was known
as the Bay of Pigs, and it convinced Cuba to seek help
from the U.S.S.R. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev
was happy to comply by secretly deploying nuclear
missiles to Cuba, not only to protect the island, but to counteract the threat from
U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey. By the time U.S. intelligence
discovered the plan, the materials to create the missiles
were already in place. At an emergency meeting on
October 16, 1962, military advisors urged an airstrike
on missile sites and invasion of the island. But President John F. Kennedy chose
a more careful approach. On October 22, he announced that the
the U.S. Navy would intercept all shipments to Cuba. There was just one problem: a naval blockade was considered
an act of war. Although the President called it
a quarantine that did not block basic necessities, the Soviets didn’t appreciate
the distinction. In an outraged letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev wrote, “The violation
of freedom to use international waters and international airspace
is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss
of world nuclear missile war.” Thus ensued the most intense
six days of the Cold War. While the U.S. demanded the removal
of the missiles, Cuba and the U.S.S.R insisted
they were only defensive. And as the weapons continued
to be armed, the U.S. prepared for a possible invasion. On October 27, a spy plane piloted
by Major Rudolph Anderson was shot down by a Soviet missile. The same day, a nuclear-armed Soviet
submarine was hit by a small-depth charge from a U.S. Navy vessel trying
to signal it to come up. The commanders on the sub,
too deep to communicate with the surface, thought war had begun
and prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. That decision had to be made unanimously
by three officers. The captain and political officer
both authorized the launch, but Vasili Arkhipov,
second in command, refused. His decision saved the day
and perhaps the world. But the crisis wasn’t over. For the first time in history, the U.S. Military set itself
to DEFCON 2, the defense readiness one step
away from nuclear war. With hundreds of nuclear missiles
ready to launch, the metaphorical Doomsday Clock
stood at one minute to midnight. But diplomacy carried on. In Washington, D.C., Attorney General
Robert Kennedy secretly met with Soviet Ambassador
Anatoly Dobrynin. After intense negotiation,
they reached the following proposal. The U.S. would remove their missiles
from Turkey and Italy and promise to never invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal
from Cuba under U.N. inspection. Once the meeting had concluded, Dobrynin cabled Moscow saying
time is of the essence and we shouldn’t miss the chance. And at 9 a.m. the next day, a message arrived from Khrushchev announcing the Soviet missiles would be
removed from Cuba. The crisis was now over. While criticized at the time by their
respective governments for bargaining with the enemy, contemporary historical analysis
shows great admiration for Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s ability
to diplomatically solve the crisis. But the disturbing lesson was that
a slight communication error, or split-second decision by a commander,
could have thwarted all their efforts, as it nearly did if not for
Vasili Arkhipov’s courageous choice. The Cuban Missile Crisis revealed just how
fragile human politics are compared to the terrifying power
they can unleash.

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