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Cuban missile crisis (in detail)


Cuba is a large island in the Caribbean. In 1959 a revolution took place in Cuba and Fidel Castro came to power. He introduced a Soviet-style government on the island and he looked to the Soviet Union for support. There was a great uproar in 1962 when the Soviet leader, Khrushchev, placed nuclear missiles on the island.


What happened during the Cuban missile crisis?

The revolution in Cuba was a great blow to America. A communist state had been set up only 90 miles from the USA. In April 1961 the American CIA organized an attack on Cuba. This was carried out by Cuban exiles. Their plan was to land in a remote part of the island and set up a base for guerrilla war against the government of Cuba. They expected that other Cubans would rise up and join the rebellion. The invasion force landed at a place called the Bay of Pigs.


The attack at the Bay of Pigs went disastrously wrong: the Americans had underestimated the strength of the Cuban armed forces and the CIA had misunderstood how popular Castro was. The invasion force was easily defeated by the Cuban government and there was no widespread support for the invasion from among the people of Cuba . The fiasco at the Bay of Pigs was humiliating for the American President, Kennedy.


The struggle for control of Cuba was part of the world-wide Cold War. In early 1962 the Americans placed a number of nuclear missiles in Turkey, within easy range of many cities of the USSR. Shortly afterwards Khrushchev decided to place missiles on Cuba.


The crisis

The Soviets tried to move the missiles secretly to the Caribbean. In public Khrushchev stated that no missile capable of reaching the United States will be placed in Cuba. A U-2 spy plane flew over Cuba on 14 October and took photographs of the missile site. On 16 October 1962 President Kennedy was shown the photographs proving that Soviet missiles were on Cuba. The missiles had only recently arrived and would not yet have been in working order.


The Americans spent six days secretly discussing and planning how to respond. They did not consult with their allies at this stage. Even the government of Britain, the closest ally was not told about the missiles until 21 October, shortly before Kennedy made an announcement to the American people.


On the edge of a nuclear catastrophe

Kennedy's response to the news of the missiles was twofold: he decided to get ready for an invasion of Cuba but first of all to mount a blockade of the island. On 22 October a so-called quarantine was announced - the Americans stated that they would stop and search all ships bound for Cuba.


Even at this stage, Khrushchev refused to accept publicly that there were missiles on Cuba. This put the USSR in a difficult position when Kennedy was able to show the world that Khrushchev was lying. Two days later a number of Soviet ships, which probably contained warheads for the missiles, turned back just short of the line of the blockade. This was not the end of the crisis because some warheads were already on the island.


The Americans announced that the missiles must be dismantled immediately or else Cuba would be attacked and invaded. There was a real possibility of a nuclear war breaking out between the USA and the USSR.


According to one source, Castro actually suggested to Khrushchev that the USSR should launch nuclear missiles against America to stop the imminent invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev was not impressed by this advice and was horrified to discover that some of his top generals thought it would be better to have a nuclear war than back down. Instead he decided to write an urgent letter to Kennedy. This was sent on 26 October.


Before Kennedy had replied to this message Khrushchev sent a second letter on 27 October. with different demands. This second letter demanded that the Americans must take their missiles out of Turkey in return for the removal of the Cuban missiles.


The Americans did not know how to respond. The Americans had already considered taking their missiles out of Turkey but Kennedy did not want to be seen to be backing down in the face of Soviet pressure. The American military leaders recommended an immediate air attack on Cuba. Kennedy was unsure. A letter was about to be sent to Khrushchev refusing to do a deal over the Turkish missiles.


At this point it was suggested that the Americans ignore the second letter, but reply to the first letter accepting the Soviet proposal that the missiles should be withdrawn in return for an American commitment not to invade Cuba. The President liked this idea and a suitable letter was sent.