The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

Cuba became communist after Fidel Castro led a communist revolution in 1959 and Castro took control of all American property. The USA imposed economic sanctions, so Cuba established friendly relations with the USSR and began trading with them instead.

President John F Kennedy used Cuban exiles to try and invade the country. This was known as 'The Bay of Pigs Invasion' and was a humiliating failure for Kennedy.

Castro asked the USSR for help in case America invaded again, so Khrushchev began secretly placing Soviet missiles in Cuba. He hoped that this would discourage another US invasion and he believed he may be able to use the missiles as a 'bargaining chip' to persuade the US to remove NATO missiles in Turkey.

A U2 spy plane photographed the missiles in Cuba. 'Hawks' within the US army and EXCOMM urged Kennedy to launch surgical airstrikes on Cuba, but Kennedy decided to set up a naval blockade instead, telling Khrushchev to remove the missiles or risk war.

Khrushchev announced that Soviet ships would break through the US blockade. He stated that the USSR were willing to use nuclear weapons if war began. Kennedy rose the US military alert to DEFCON 2 so they were prepared for war.

Khrushchev then wrote two letters to Kennedy. The first said that he would remove the missile in Cuba if Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba. The second said that NATO missiles must be removed from Turkey as part of the deal.

Publicly, Kennedy agreed to the demand of Khrushchev's first letter. However, in secret he sent his brother, Robert Kennedy, to tell the Soviet ambassador to the US, that he would remove the missiles in Turkey if the agreement was kept a secret.

Khrushchev agreed to the deal and removed the missiles from Cuba. Nuclear war had been averted.

In some ways, Khrushchev gained from the crisis:

  • To the Soviet people, he looked like a responsible peacemaker as he had turned Soviet ships around to avoid war.

  • He had protected Cuba from another US invasion and maintained a valuable communist ally in the Americas. Cuba further supported many other communist revolutionaries in Central and South America.

  • American missiles were removed from Turkey, which upset NATO allies as they were not consulted about the decision.

In some ways, Kennedy gained from the crisis:

  • The USSR had been forced to back down and remove missiles from Cuba. This made Khrushchev look weak and he was later removed from power in 1964.

  • Although the USA removed the missiles from Turkey, it was done secretly so Kennedy still looked strong publicly. Also, the development of ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) made the missiles in Cuba obsolete as they could be fired from the US.

Other consequences:

  • Castro was upset by the removal of missiles from Cuba, but needed the Soviet Union as an ally. He maintained control over Cuba and kept control of American companies.

  • The crisis showed how 'brinkmanship' had almost led to nuclear war. The USA and USSR began to try and reduce conflict between them, including setting up a special telephone hotline between Washington and Moscow to allow issues to be solved peacefully.