On the 16 October 1962

On the 16 October 1962, all ten of President John F. Kennedy’s major military advisers urged him to approve an air strike on the Cuban missile sites and the invasion of the Island.

It is near impossible to imagine a world where at any given moment you, and everyone you know, could be obliterated, 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 them; and destruction never loomed closer than during the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1961, the US unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Cuba’s new communist government — a failed attempt known as the Bay of Pigs — and it persuaded Cuba to seek help from the USSR (Soviet Union). Soviet premier, Nekita Khrushchev, was happy to comply by secretly deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba, not only to protect the island but to counteract the threat from US missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Due to America’s growing suspicions of the possibility that the USSR was secretly positioning nuclear weapons in Cuba, on October 1962, America deployed a U-2 spy plane that discovered and secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. President Kennedy did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that he had discovered the missiles. Therefore, he met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem. As aforesaid, all of President Kennedy’s major military advisers urged him to approve an air strike on the alleged Cuban missile sites and the invasion of Cuba. However, Kennedy chose a more careful approach. On October 22, he announced that the U.S. Navy would intercept all shipments to Cuba to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. Unfortunately, there was just one problem: a naval blockade was considered an act of war. Even though Kennedy stressed the point that this measure was a quarantine, the Soviets didn’t appreciate the distinction. In an outraged letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev wrote: “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.”

Both superpowers knew that they were on the brink of nuclear war, but they also recognized the devastating effects of such a war. On October 22, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about the crisis in a televised address. Even though talk of nuclear war between the Soviet’s and the U.S. had been present ever since the end of World War Two, this address from President Kennedy personified to the American and Soviet citizens alike, the now very real threat of nuclear war.

On October 24, Khrushchev responded to Kennedy’s message with a statement that the US “blockade” was an “act of aggression” and that Soviet ships bound for Cuba would be ordered to proceed. Nevertheless, during October 24 and 25, some ships turned back from the quarantine line, others were stopped by US naval forces, but they contained no offensive weapons and so were allowed to proceed. Meanwhile, the US continued their air surveillance of the Cuban missile sites, with seemingly no stoppage to the Soviet construction, the US predicted that these sites were near operational readiness.

With the impending danger of nuclear war, both the Soviets and the Americans knew that this crisis needed to come to an end. So after intense negotiations they reached the following proposal; the US would remove their missiles from Turkey and Italy and promised to never invade Cuba, in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba under United Nations (UN) inspection. Although the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, and America from Turkey and Italy, they both escalated the building of their independent military arsenals. Even though the immediate threat of nuclear war was over, the long term prospect of nuclear war was still a viable risk.

America’s aggressive approach to the Soviets nuclearisation of Cuba was considered by many Cuban citizens at the time as being “barbaric” and “insensitive”. However, considering America had sufficient firsthand experience of just how extreme nuclear weapons were and how unstable and unpredictable Russia’s leaders had proven to be, it was quite understandable that the US was wary of a new and unknown nuclear threat so close to their shores. Moreover, Kennedy’s choice to take a sensitive and careful approach to this new danger was an extremely sensible and tactical move because if he had decided to go down the path of invasion it would have undoubtedly pushed the Soviets to execute their threats of “world nuclear missile war.”

Not only was the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis one of the most potentially catastrophic and intense thirteen days that the world had ever seen, but it was also a turning point for the societal prospect of a nuclear threat that was now somewhat neutralized. Due to Kennedy’s justified and cognitive approach to the threat, the Crisis stands as a singular event during the Cold War that strengthened Kennedy’s image domestically and internationally.