Revisiting the Cuban missile crisis

Source: By Raghu Malhotra: The Indian Express

The October of 1962 saw the Cold War hit its height, when the two great superpowers, the Soviet Union and the US, teetered on the brink of nuclear warfare for 13 days. The standoff, known as the Cuban missile crisis, was resolved and disaster narrowly averted thanks to timely negotiations between Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F Kennedy.

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden said that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s veiled threat of using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine marked the first prospect of nuclear “armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis. A day later, his administration said there was no evidence for this claim. On the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, we explain the event.

Background to the standoff

An important precursor of the Cuban missile crisis was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, in which US-backed Cuban counter-revolutionaries attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in the country and establish a non-communist government friendly to the US.

After successfully fending off the operation, Castro turned increasingly towards the USSR and its premier Khrushchev, to deter any future invasion by the US. An agreement was made between the two, and by July 1962, a number of clandestine missile launch facilities began to be constructed in Cuba.

Other than wanting to protect another communist country, Khrushchev also wanted to place nuclear weapons in Cuba to counter the urgent threat of US missiles close to its own borders. From the late 1950s, Washington had begun placing nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, which had the capability of destroying strategic centres within the USSR. By placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, the USSR could challenge the strategic status-quo favourable to the US.

The Cuban missile crisis

On 14 October 1962, a US U-2 spy plane flying over Cuban territory took pictures of several medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missile sites being constructed in Cuba, which had the capacity to target strategic centres in the heartland of the US.

On the morning of 16 October, Kennedy summoned his cabinet officials and top advisors to form the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM), to develop a course of action. While some members recommended air strikes followed by another invasion of Cuba, others favoured issuing stern warnings.

Kennedy opted for another route and on 22 October, announcing the discovery of the missiles, ordered a naval “quarantine” of Cuba. The ‘quarantine’ was different from a blockade announcement, which would indicate the occurrence of war. US destroyers and submarines were placed around Cuba in order to prevent military supplies being brought to the island.

The stalemate

The same day, Kennedy sent Khrushchev a letter, stating that the US would not allow offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that Soviets dismantle their missile bases and return all offensive weapons to the USSR.

Two days later, Khrushchev responded with a statement that the US deployment was a “blockade” which was an “act of aggression,” and that Soviet ships would continue to proceed to Cuba. However, on 24 and 25 October, some ships did turn back from the blockade line.

The US recognised that the Soviet missile sites were reaching closer to a state of operational readiness and the nuclear crisis was not resolved. In response, it increased the Strategic Air Command’s readiness to an unprecedented DEFCON II, only one step away from war being declared “imminent.”

The agreement

The first sign of de-escalation came on 26 October, when Khrushchev sent Kennedy a letter, stating that he would be willing to stop military shipments and withdraw his forces from Cuba if the US agreed to not invade or support any invasion of its neighbour.

The following day, Khrushchev announced on a public broadcast in the USSR that they would remove missiles from Cuba if the US would remove its missiles from Italy and Turkey first, contrary to what he had said in the letter to Kennedy.

Fueling tensions further was the fact that on the same day, an American U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba, probably by the Soviets. Kennedy, however, refused to retaliate to this, and chose to respond favourably to the agreement from Khrushchev’s letter while ignoring the additional condition from his broadcast.

At the same time, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin secretly. He agreed to not invade Cuba and to remove the missiles from Turkey and Italy, but added that the latter could not be part of any public resolutions.

On 28 October, Khrushchev announced that Soviet nuclear missile sites would be removed from Cuba, while Kennedy pledged to never invade Cuba and secretly agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. Both superpowers began to fulfil their promises over the coming weeks, and the crisis was over by late November.

Crisis averted on 27 October

There were a few instances on 27 October that could have escalated the standoff into outright war. The first was when the US U-2 aircraft was shot down over Cuba, and the government chose to not order retaliatory strikes. A separate U-2 spy had also made unauthorised entry into the Soviet Union.

On the same day, the US Navy dropped a series of non-lethal depth charges on a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo. Those in the submarine, unaware that they were practice charges initially assumed the vessel was under attack. Launching the nuclear weapon required the consent of all three senior officers on board, The Guardian reported. Among them, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, the chief of staff, was the only one to refuse permission and avert nuclear warfare.

After the Cuban missile crisis, the two superpowers created the Moscow-Washington hotline, so that their leaders could have a direct communication link and prevent such tensions.

While nuclear warfare was thankfully averted, the Cuban missile crisis did not mark the resolution of the Cold War, nor the culmination of the ever-growing arms race.