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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), as seen in Document 24.
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. Document 25, 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 (Document 26).
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.
Source: “United States Reaffirms Policy on Prevention of Aggressive Actions by Cuba,” Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 47, no. 1213 (September 24, 1962), 450. Available at https://goo.gl/1n7uRu.
All Americans, as well as all of our friends in this hemisphere, have been concerned over the recent moves of the Soviet Union to bolster the military power of the Castro regime in Cuba. Information has reached this Government in the last 4 days from a variety of sources which establishes without doubt that the Soviets have provided the Cuban Government with a number of antiaircraft defense missiles with a slant range of 25 miles which are similar to early models of our Nike.1 Along with these missiles, the Soviets are apparently providing the extensive radar and other electronic equipment which is required for their operation. We can also confirm the presence of several Soviet-made motor torpedo boats carrying ship-to-ship guided missiles having a range of 15 miles. The number of Soviet military technicians now known to be in Cuba or en route – approximately 3,500 – is consistent with assistance in setting up and learning to use this equipment. As I stated last week, we shall continue to make information available as fast as it is obtained and properly verified.
There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country; of military bases provided to Russia; of a violation of the 1934 treaty relating to Guantanamo;2 of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise.
The Cuban question must be considered as a part of the worldwide challenge posed by Communist threats to the peace. It must be dealt with as a part of that larger issue as well as in the context of the special relationships which have long characterized the inter-American system.
It continues to be the policy of the United States that the Castro regime will not be allowed to export its aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force. It will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary from taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere. The United States, in conjunction with other hemisphere countries, will make sure that while increased Cuban armaments will be a heavy burden to the unhappy people of Cuba themselves, they will be nothing more.
- 1. Nike antiaircraft missiles, named after the Greek goddess of victory, were capable of downing Soviet long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons. The United States built more than 200 Nike sites during the 1950s.
- 2. A reference to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 1934 treaty allowed the United States to keep a base there as long as it wanted; Cuba could not cancel the lease without U.S. agreement.