How close we came to nuclear war – The Cuban Missile Crisis

Lying quietly in deep international waters close to Cuba, the Soviet submarine B59 came under attack by American depth charges. The furious officers scrambled to activate their key weapon as their instructions were clear – if provoked, launch your nuclear missile at an American city. The submarine had been evading it’s US Navy pursuers for days and was too deep to receive radio contact so it’s officers were unaware if war had broken out or not. In this scenario they had to presume the worst and return fire without question. But this submarine was unique, instead of having two commanding officers there were three and all had to agree to any action. The third was Vasili Arkhipov who broke rank and refused to sanction the launch. This son of a peasant farmer from outside Moscow narrowly averted nuclear war on 27th October 1962.

During the 1950s the small island of Cuba situated 90 miles from Florida was a playground for wealthy Americans seeking a good time. With legal gambling and swinging nightclubs, Havana attracted numerous packs of fun loving tourists. With 200 million American dollars invested in the country, the dictator Batista naturally cuddled up to his friendly neighbours. Little of this money was seen by the Cuban peasants and socialist rebels began to educate them for free. The message was mass redistribution of land and wealth. Led by Fidel Castro they seized power in 1959. Corrupt officials were executed and American firms were nationalised. The money generated from this was spent primarily on a national health system and widespread education. In response America initiated a total trade embargo which came close to bankrupting the island. Castro had no choice but to turn to America’s greatest foe for trade and support – the Soviet Union.

In 1961 President Kennedy approved a clumsy military operation led by Cuban exiles to take back governance of the island. It was a disaster. Landing at the Bay of Pigs with no maps of the island, Jeeps with no fuel and no air support promised by the US Air Force, they were easily defeated. With a hostile neighbour on his doorstep, Castro sought a closer relationship with the Soviet Union. Kruschev, the Soviet Premier, slyly took advantage of the situation.

On 16th October 1962 a U2 spy plane took a photograph which threw the Kennedy administration into chaos – Soviet missile launch pads were being constructed in the Cuban jungle.

With a potential range of 2000 miles, missiles launched from this base could kill upwards of 80 million Americans within less than half an hour. Alarmingly, intelligence then confirmed that 20 Russian ships carrying nuclear weapons were on their way to the Caribbean. Instead of an air strike or full invasion, Kennedy and his group of advisors ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) initiated a naval blockade of the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

On 22nd October JFK addressed the nation from the oval office. He stated that if any Russian ship carrying offensive weapons broke the blockade then the United States would launch a, “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Countries around the world began to take sides, China pledged 650,000 soldiers in support of the Cuban people while the West German government applauded the hard-line stance of America. Pope John XXIII appeared to briefly calm tensions with a much-publicised plea to rulers, “not to be deaf to the cry of humanity.”

At a televised meeting of the United Nations Security Council the Soviet Ambassador Zorin refused to admit the existence of the missiles. The following day America logistically prepared for war. B52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert while B47 bombers equipped with nuclear weapons were dispatched to civilian airfields, ready to begin offensive missions with fifteen minutes notice while 145 inter-continental ballistic missiles were placed on active notice. Still the Soviet fleet headed for Cuba.

Throughout this time there was a flurry of secret messages back and forth from Washington and Moscow. Neither side wanted war but equally neither wished to back down and face humiliation. Kennedy, supported by his brother Robert the Attorney General, fluctuated between launching a full scale invasion of Cuba and lessening the blockade. Both he and Kruschev had groups of so called hawks and doves providing conflicting advice behind closed doors. Privately, Kennedy noted that the chances of all-out nuclear war were, “between one third and even.”

On the same day as the B59 incident, Kruschev received the ‘Armageddon Letter’ from Castro urging the use of force against America. Elsewhere Soviet and American fighter jets squared off over the Bering Sea. But by midnight on the day known as ‘Black Saturday’ both sides finally came to an agreement.

The Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for America removing their Jupiter missiles which were secretly located in Italy and Turkey. America also had to respect the sovereignty of Cuba in the future. However the American removal of their missiles remained secret which gave Kennedy the upper hand in the eyes of the public. Oddly enough, as yet undiscovered nuclear tactical missiles remained in Cuba as they were not technically part of the agreement but the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister authorised their removal within weeks. By April of 1963 each side had fully removed any weapons which the other would see as threatening and within months signed the Nuclear test Ban Treaty.

One year later Kruschev fell from power. A key reason behind this was the ill thought-out and executed plans to support Cuba followed by the embarrassing retreat in the spotlight of the world. The Soviet leadership viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis as, “a blow to it’s prestige bordering on humiliation.” In a practical sense the ‘Red Telephone’ hotline was created between the White House and the Kremlin. This enabled instant communication to verify the actions of each side. It switched to fax in 1986 and in 2008 evolved to email. In the long term, the crisis benefitted relations between the two superpowers. Each now knew that the other would refrain from all out hostilities and a period of friendship known as Détente began. This era ended on Christmas Day 1979 when the Soviet Union made the grave error of invading Afghanistan.

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1 Response to How close we came to nuclear war – The Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. Pat says:

    This was really interesting. I always knew about the crisis but not in detail. Scary!!


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