Soviet Reactions to Certain U.S. Courses of Action on Cuba

Why is the Soviet Union putting missiles in Cuba? Why must the United States force the missiles’ removal? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the options (warning or blockade) to get the missiles out of Cuba? How might the Soviet Union respond to U.S. actions? How likely is the chance of an all-out war between the Soviet Union and the United States?
NSC 68 predicts the Soviet Union will try to dominate the world. Does the Central Intelligence Agency show this prediction coming true? Is the placement of missiles a response to the actions taken by the United States in Operation MONGOOSE?

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. These documents relate to the crisis’s origins and tensest moments.

In the late 1950s, a revolution replaced Cuba’s undemocratic government with a communist regime led by Fidel Castro. In the face of U.S. efforts to topple his regime, including support for a failed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs (1961), Castro turned to the Soviet Union, which provided military assistance. The U.S. government closely monitored this aid, as seen in Document 23, dated September 4, 1962. In response to Castro’s ties with the Soviets and support for revolution in Latin America, the Kennedy administration intensified covert operations against the Castro regime (Operation MONGOOSE).

In September and October 1962, U.S. reconnaissance flights captured photographic evidence that the Soviet Union was secretly shipping nuclear warheads and missiles to Cuba and building launch bases there. President Kennedy convened a group of advisors (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council or ExComm) to provide recommendations on how to force the Soviet Union to remove the missiles, warheads, and bases. “Soviet Reactions to Certain U.S. Courses of Action on Cuba,” dated October 19, considers the motives of the Soviet Union for the deployment and outlines several possible responses: an ultimatum to the Soviets to remove the bases, a naval blockade, or a surprise military attack.

Intense discussions within the ExComm produced a recommendation to blockade or quarantine the island nation of Cuba in order to prevent completion of the deployment. The ExComm and Kennedy also wanted to use the quarantine as leverage to force the removal of the missiles and warheads already in Cuba. Kennedy announced this action to the country in a televised address on October 22.

The Soviet Union only partially respected the quarantine. Tensions mounted; several generals openly advocated a military strike, not knowing that the Soviet commander in Cuba had the authority to use the nuclear weapons on the island to defend his forces. Had he used the weapons to retaliate against a U.S. military strike, a full nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union almost certainly would have broken out. However, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev both continued to seek a peaceful end to the showdown. Letters between the two leaders opened the door to a resolution of the crisis. In exchange for an American commitment to leave Castro alone, the Soviet Union would remove its nuclear weapons and bases. In a provision that was not made public, the United States also promised to remove nuclear missiles it had deployed at bases in Turkey, a U.S. ally. The crisis was over, but the danger of nuclear war in the future had not abated.

—David Krugler

Source: Mary S. McAuliffe, ed., CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 (Washington, D.C.: History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, 1992), 197-202. Available online from the Center for the Study of Intelligence.

The Problem

To estimate probable Soviet reactions to certain US courses of action with respect to Cuba.

The Estimate

  1. A major Soviet objective in their military buildup in Cuba is to demonstrate that the world balance of forces has shifted so far in their favor that the US can no longer prevent the advance of Soviet offensive power even into its own hemisphere. In this connection they assume, of course, that these deployments sooner or later will become publicly known.
  2. It is possible that the USSR is installing these missiles primarily in order to use them in bargaining for US concessions elsewhere. We think this unlikely, however. The public withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba would create serious problems in the USSR’s relations with Castro; it would cast doubt on the firmness of the Soviet intention to protect the Castro regime and perhaps on their commitments elsewhere.
  3. If the US accepts the strategic missile buildup in Cuba, the Soviets would continue the buildup of strategic weapons in Cuba. We have no basis for estimating the force level which they would wish to reach, but it seems clear already that they intend to go beyond a token capability. . . .
  4. US acceptance of the strategic missile buildup would provide strong encouragement to Communists, pro-Communists, and the more anti-American sectors of opinion in Latin America and elsewhere. Conversely, anti-Communists and those who relate their own interests to those of the US would be strongly discouraged. It seems clear that, especially over the long run, there would be a loss of confidence in US power and determination and a serious decline of US influence generally.

Effect of Warning

  1. If the US confronts Khrushchev with its knowledge of the MRBM1 deployment and presses for a withdrawal, we do not believe the Soviets would halt the deployment. Instead, they would propose negotiations on the general question of foreign bases, claiming equal right to establish Soviet bases and assuring the US of tight control over the missiles. . . .
  2. There is some slight chance that a warning to Castro might make a difference, since the Soviets could regard this as a chance to stand aside, but it also would give time for offers to negotiate, continued buildup, and counter pressures, and we think the result in the end would be the same.
  3. Any warning would of course degrade the element of surprise in a subsequent US attack.

Effect of Blockade

  1. While the effectiveness of Castro’s military machine might be impaired by a total US blockade, Castro would be certain to tighten internal security and would take ruthless action against any attempts at revolt. There is no reason to believe that a blockade of itself would bring down the Castro regime. The Soviets would almost certainly exert strong direct pressures elsewhere to end the blockade. . . .

Soviet Reaction to Use of Military Force

  1. If the US takes direct military action against Cuba, the Soviets would be placed automatically under great pressure to respond in ways which, if they could not save Cuba, would inflict an offsetting injury to US interests. This would be true whether the action was limited to an effort to neutralize the strategic missiles, or these missiles plus airfields, surface-to-air missile sites, or cruise missile sites, or in fact an outright invasion designed to destroy the Castro regime.
  2. In reaction to any of the various forms of US action, the Soviets would be alarmed and agitated, since they have to date estimated that the US would not take military action in the face of Soviet warnings of the danger of nuclear war. They would recognize that US military action posed a major challenge to the prestige of the USSR. We must of course recognize the possibility that the Soviets, under pressure to respond, would again miscalculate and respond in a way which, through a series of actions and reactions, could escalate to general war.
  3. On the other hand, the Soviets have no public treaty with Cuba and have not acknowledged that Soviet bases are on the island. This situation provides them with a pretext for treating US military action against Cuba as an affair which does not directly involve them, and thereby avoiding the risks of a strong response. We do not believe that the USSR would attack the US, either from Soviet bases or with its missiles in Cuba, even if the latter were operational and not put out of action before they could be readied for firing.
  4. Since the USSR would not dare to resort to general war and could not hope to prevail locally, the Soviets would almost certainly consider retaliatory actions outside Cuba. The timing and selection of such moves would depend heavily upon the immediate context of events and the USSR’s appreciation of US attitudes. . . .
  5. We believe that whatever course of retaliation the USSR elected, the Soviet leaders would not deliberately initiate general war or take military measures, which in their calculation, would run the gravest risks of general war.
  1. 1. Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles, which had a maximum range of approximately 1,100 miles.
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