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The Cuban Missile Crisis

Written by: Brian Domitrovic, Sam Houston State University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the various military and diplomatic responses to international developments over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this narrative with the John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Narrative and the John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 Primary Source to cover President Kennedy’s inauguration and his approach to the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the central foreign policy crisis of the Kennedy administration and represents the closest the world came to the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The crisis began in October 1962, with U.S. U-2 aircraft taking reconnaissance photographs of Cuba that showed the Soviet Union had recently placed nuclear missiles there and was preparing them with the capacity to launch and reach targets in the United States. Kennedy deliberated with his advisers and, on October 22, made a television address revealing the Soviet moves, demanding that they be reversed, and announcing a naval quarantine of Cuba that would permit no shipments related to missile preparations.

After several tense days, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed, to Kennedy’s satisfaction, to remove the missiles in exchange for official American recognition of Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, the end of the quarantine, and the removal of American nuclear missiles from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-member Turkey. The crisis was defused, and the missiles left Cuba as the quarantine was lifted in November.

The roots of the crisis lay in the superpowers’ contest over Berlin that had come to a head the previous year. Because of thePotsdam agreement after World War II, West Berlin remained an enclave of the United States and its allies within Soviet-dominated East Germany. In 1961, Khrushchev had appealed to Kennedy at a summit in Vienna to permit the effective incorporation of West Berlin into East Germany. Kennedy refused, and in August, Khrushchev ordered the Berlin Wall to be built separating East and West Berlin. This stemmed the large flow of emigrants from East to West that had characterized the city since its division.

The building of the wall represented an admission on the part of the Soviet Union that the United States had rejected its proposal on Berlin outright, requiring the U.S.S.R. to undertake the embarrassing secondary option: the wall. Smarting from this development, Khrushchev sought other arenas in which the Soviet Union could clearly beat the United States in a geopolitical contest. An opportunity arose early in 1962, when the leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, declared his allegiance to the cause of Marxist-Leninism and international communism (Figure 14.23).

Photograph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Castro raises his right arm over his head.

Fidel Castro (right) led a communist revolution in Cuba and attempted to forge a relationship with the Soviet Union.

In April 1961, Castro, who had seized power in a coup in 1959, easily fended off the Bay of Pigs invasion undertaken by Cuban exiles who had been covertly supported by the United States during the Kennedy administration. Emboldened by this accomplishment, Castro aspired to export revolution throughout Latin America. In making his communist allegiances known in early 1962, Castro also indicated to the Soviet Union that, should it lack enthusiasm for communist expansionism in Latin America, he would court Chairman Mao’s communist China as an alternative partner.

Khrushchev decided he would submit to Castro’s pressure and make Cuba the vehicle for the geopolitical victory he sorely desired after the 1961 developments in Berlin. In the summer of 1962, therefore, the Soviet Union increased its exports of important military materiel to Cuba, depriving formerly favored allies such as Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the process. The shipments included nuclear missile components that, when readied, could easily reach the United States.

Khrushchev understood that in the near future, the United States would detect these developments, but he accepted the risk that a crisis would ensue. Besides building the Berlin Wall and limiting Chinese influence over Cuba, Khrushchev wished to give the impression that he had nuclear missiles to spare. In his presidential campaign of 1960, Kennedy had bemoaned a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, even though he knew the balance of these weapons actually favored the United States. By having missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev hoped to discredit Kennedy by showing that not only was the missile gap real (which it was not) but also that it had become more extreme under Kennedy.

Khrushchev’s decision was exceedingly dangerous and risky. Placing nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida in a country that several years before had been something of a U.S.client stateand violating the 138-year-old Monroe Doctrine was a move that could clearly get out of hand. The missiles threatened to destabilize the Cold War because they gave the Soviets first-strike capability, meaning they could strike the United States before it could launch a response. By obtaining first-strike capability, the Soviets would upset the logic of mutual assured destruction (MAD), because MAD prevented a nuclear war only if each side could strike the other with nuclear weapons. It was “one hell of a gamble,” as Kennedy observed during the crisis that October. The Soviet Politburo appears to have justified its decision by reasoning that U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, which bordered the Soviet Union, were no different than Soviet missiles so close to the United States in Cuba. However, the U.S. government did not regard the two situations as comparable.

On October 16, Kennedy received word from his national security staff that aerial photography definitively showed Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, with launch sites being readied (Figure 14.24). This information remained classified as Kennedy met with his advisers and military leadership for six successive days, debating the response to take. The options included diplomatic efforts, a naval blockade, and an invasion of Cuba. The military staff heavily favored invasion, but Kennedy feared that would elicit a Soviet march on Berlin that the United States might be powerless to oppose and would deliver Khrushchev exactly what he wanted. Ultimately, Kennedy chose the blockade but adjusted it to a “quarantine.” This meant that American naval vessels would only permit goods to pass into Cuba that were not associated with war materiel. This distinction implied that Kennedy’s action was not an act of war.

Aerial shot called

This 1962 aerial photograph shows the construction of a medium-range ballistic missile launch site in Cuba. Photographs like this were shown to President Kennedy at his briefings with national security teams during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On October 22, Kennedy addressed the nation on television explaining the crisis—the first the public had heard of it—and the naval quarantine. Soviet responses to Kennedy’s moves were not conciliatory, and with large military forces of both superpowers gathered in and around Cuba, the world sensed that nuclear war could be imminent. The U.S. Navy was stopping and boarding ships, a U.S. reconnaissance pilot was shot down (the only combat fatality of the crisis), and at least one Soviet submarine with nuclear weapons was harassed by American forces.

On October 26, Kennedy received an otherwise-standoffish letter from Khrushchev that appeared to offer notes of conciliation and compromise. Through back channels, Kennedy learned that the Soviets were willing to remove the missiles in exchange for two clear American concessions (in addition to the ending of the quarantine): a pledge not to invade Castro’s Cuba and the removal of the United States’ own missiles in Turkey. Diplomats conferred, and on October 28, Khrushchev issued a public statement that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba. The United States confirmed that it would end the blockade when the missiles and their attending apparatus were gone (which it did in November), as well as pledging not to invade Castro’s island. The Turkey concession was kept secret (to Khrushchev’s chagrin), and the United States removed the missiles there the following April.

The release of sources, documents, and tape recordings over the years since 1962 has revealed that specific individuals had the capacity to carry out major military strikes during the crisis and refrained. Aboard a submarine near Cuba on October 27, Soviet officer Vasili Arkhipov cast the deciding vote against firing the vessel’s nuclear weapons in response to harassment from American naval forces (Figure 14.25).

A submarine surfaces, and a helicopter flies above it.

In 1962, Vasili Arkhipov was an officer on the Soviet submarine B-59, pictured here. A unanimous vote among its three top officers was required to launch the sub’s nuclear weapons. Arkhipov refused to assent without receiving orders from Moscow, an action that likely saved the world from nuclear holocaust.

By provoking the missile crisis, Khrushchev had secured an ally in Cuba, but it was an ally that had pushed him around to pursue its own goals. He also did not secure the prize – West Berlin – that had motivated him to act in the first place. In 1964, weakened and embarrassed, he was relieved of his office and replaced by the hardliner Leonid Brezhnev. Kennedy, on the other hand, was emboldened by the missile crisis, basking in the glory of getting tough with the Soviets while appearing conciliatory in the cause of world peace. The crisis made West Berlin a permanent entity, which Kennedy relished as another Cold War victory. He immortalized his success in a 1963 speech in that city in which he famously said, “Ich bin ein Berliner” [“I am a Berliner”] and urged that if people wished to compare Communism and the free world, “let them come to Berlin.” The missile crisis also introduced a new sober realism to U.S.-Soviet relations. A diplomatic hotline was installed between Moscow and Washington, DC, and a nuclear test ban treaty between the two powers was signed the following year.

Review Questions

1. The Cold War world came closest to seeing the use of nuclear weapons during the

  1. Berlin Airlift
  2. Korean conflict
  3. Cuban Missile Crisis
  4. Vietnam War

2. All the following occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis except

  1. reconnaissance photography
  2. a naval blockade
  3. a televised address to the American public by the president of the United States
  4. a military invasion of Cuba

3. The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by

  1. an American pledge not to invade Cuba
  2. immediate removal of American nuclear missiles in Turkey
  3. replacement of a naval blockade by a naval quarantine
  4. the Bay of Pigs invasion

4. The Cuban Missile Crisis can be seen in the larger geopolitical context as

  1. a clash of post-World War II global powers
  2. a failure by the United Nations to deal with World War II land claims
  3. the end of American interest in Latin America
  4. the beginning of friendlier relations between the United States and China

5. Fidel Castro’s leadership of Cuba alarmed the United States primarily because Castro

  1. rejected the advances of Communist China
  2. played the Soviet Union against the Communist Chinese
  3. aspired to export revolution throughout Latin America
  4. threatened an invasion of southern Florida

6. A year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev and Kennedy disagreed over the fate of a city in which Cold War battleground nation?

  1. Vietnam
  2. Korea
  3. Germany
  4. Taiwan

7. Which concession did President Kennedy make to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis?

  1. Lifting the trade embargo with China
  2. Lifting the quarantine of Cuba
  3. Permitting nuclear forces in Cuba and Turkey
  4. Formally recognizing Communist China

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze Nikita Khrushchev’s objectives in placing nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962.
  2. Evaluate the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis on the U.S. Cold War foreign policy.

AP Practice Questions

A map of the western hemisphere with three concentric circles centered around San Diego de los Baños in Cuba. The first circle, labeled 630 NM includes Savannah, Georgia, parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, British Honduras, Honduras, Cuba, and parts of Haiti. The second circle, labeled 1020 NM, reaches farther, and includes the southeastern United States, half of Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Panama, and the northwestern tip of South America. The third circle, labeled 2200 NM, includes all of the United States except the northwestern-most part, the eastern half of Canada, and most of South America.
Figure 14.26 This map of the western hemisphere showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba was used in Washington, DC, during secret meetings on the 1962 Cuban crisis.

Refer to the map provided.

1. What was a direct result of the situation depicted in the provided map?
  1. Postwar decolonization
  2. The extension of Cold War competition to Latin America
  3. An increase in the number of nonaligned nations
  4. The exposure of suspected communists within the U.S. government
2. The image most directly resulted from what earlier policy?
  1. The expansion of a free-market global economy
  2. Support for mutual coexistence
  3. A strategy of containment
  4. Island hopping
3. The situation portrayed in the image contributed to which of the following?
  1. The communist revolution in Cuba led by Fidel Castro
  2. The signing of a nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and the U.S.S.R.
  3. The passage of new immigration laws banning the quota system
  4. The creation of NATO, on the basis of Western nations’ desire for collective security

Primary Sources

CIA History Staff, McAuliffe, Mary S. (ed). “CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962.”

“The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: The 40th Anniversary.” The National Security Archive.

“To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” National Archives Foundation.

Suggested Resources

Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Second ed. New York: Pearson, 1999.

Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Munton, Don, and David A. Welch. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.