On October 14, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis began, and hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of a nuclear conflict. On this day, photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane offered irrefutable evidence that Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba – designed to carry the nuclear warheads – were stationed 90 miles off the American border.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union over Cuba had been steadily increasing since April 1961, when Cuban refugees, armed and trained by the United States, made a failed attempt to overthrow the Soviet-supported government of Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Convinced that the United States would try again, Castro sought to increase Soviet military assistance.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was interested in upping the stakes in the Cold War, and had fears about the United States actually having plans to invade Cuba. He had been criticized by hard-line members of the Soviet government, and he hoped taking a tougher stand could earn him dividends. His biggest concern, however, were American nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey and capable, if need the arose, of reaching the Soviet Union in 10 minutes.
Although the deployment of the missiles was strictly confidential, the American intelligence services spotted disturbing commotion on the Cuban island, which Khrushchev explained as the deployment of harmless research equipment. However, the truth was revealed on October 14, as the first photos of launching pads were delivered by the American U-2 spy planes. After being developed and analyzed by intelligence officers, the pictures were presented to President John F. Kennedy.
The military suggested an immediate attack on the Soviet missiles. Such a course of events would inevitably have led to war with the Soviet Union, which was highly undesirable due the uncertainty of a successful outcome. Kennedy, in a televised address on October 22, announced the discovery of the missiles and threatened that should any nuclear attack come from Cuba, the United States would respond accordingly. He imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba to prevent further Soviet shipments of offensive military weapons. Khrushchev sent letters to Kennedy on October 23 and 24 indicating the deterrent nature of the missiles in Cuba and the peaceful intentions of the Soviet Union.
Since it was unclear as to what course the Soviet Union would follow, the US armed forces had been ordered "to prepare for any eventualities," with the entire defense establishment placed on alert status.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a long appeasing letter. Finally confessing about the deployment of the powerful nuclear weapons on the Cuban territory, he proposed to dismantle the missiles and remove the personnel in exchange for the United States not invading Cuba. Khrushchev tried to convince the American leader that the Soviet Union didn’t plan the nuclear attack on the United States.
“Only crazy people or suicidal maniacs could do that, if they wish to die themselves and destroy the rest of the world,” Khrushchev wrote. Such words were very untypical of Khrushchev, normally always eager “to show America its place,” but forced to restrain himself under the circumstances.
The president of the United States agreed to hold off on attacking Cuban territory if the Soviet government withdrew the offensive weapons from the island.
As the first steps toward an agreement seemed to have been made, the situation once again deteriorated dramatically on October 27, the famous “black Saturday,” when Soviet anti-aircraft defenses shot down one of America’s spy planes, killing its pilot.
The resulting outrage triggered the US president’s final decision to start massive bombardments of the Soviet military base and deploy troops on the island. The plan provided of 1,080 flights to be performed each day of the campaign. An estimated 180,000 troops were stationed for attack in the southeast United States. American citizens hurried to relocate from large cities, fearing the impeding Soviet nuclear blows.
But the world narrowly escaped the nuclear war, as on Sunday, October 28, the Soviet government decided they would accept the American conditions and delivered their decision to the US president.
“We agree to dismantle the weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union,” the message read.
The international tension dropped quickly as the Soviet Union removed its missiles and bombers from the Cuban territory. Quarantine measures and aerial surveillance remained in effect until November 20.
Despite its peaceful resolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis gave the world community food for thought and taught the Soviet Union and the United States to seek compromises and yield to each other in their foreign policies.