Cuban Missile Crisis: The Edge of War

Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy's greatest triumph as President of the United States came in 1962, as the world's two largest superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, edged closer and closer to nuclear war. The Soviet premier of Russia was caught arming Fidel Castro with nuclear weapons. The confrontation left the world in fear for thirteen long days, with the life of the world on the line. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, employed a daring gambit. He secretly ordered the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. Earlier the Soviet premier had promised Soviet protection to Cuba ("Cuban" 774). This was the first time any such weapons had been placed outside of Eurasia (Hersh 345). Several explanations for his actions have been offered by historians. One factor in Khrushchev?s decision was a strategic one (Hersh 346). A year earlier, the United States had placed several medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey ("Cuban 774). The missiles were just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, within sight of Khrushchev's summer home (Hersh 346). President Kennedy had earlier ignored his advisors and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey. Another factor was a threat by the US to one of the Soviet Union's satellite countries, Cuba (Hersh 346). The United States had, in the past, attempted to kill Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba (Brinkley 1047). In July of 1962, the United States found out that nuclear missile shipments were being made to Cuba. United States U-2 spy planes flew over the island, bringing back reports of construction and ballistic missiles ("Cuban" 744). The CIA found that five thousand Russian military technicians were in Cuba, and various military weapons were being unloaded onto the island. When U-2 activity was increased, reports showed the presence of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and torpedo boats with ship-to-ship rockets (Mills 233). On September 4, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with Robert Kennedy to discuss a message from Khrushchev. According to the message, the military buildup was defensive in nature and not militarily threatening. Robert F. Kennedy informed the ambassador that the United States would closely watch all military activity in Cuba and warned of severe consequences should the Soviets place offensive weapons (Mills 233). President Kennedy apparently did not believe the message. He asked Congress for the authority to mobilize over 100,000 reservists into active duty. The Soviets response was that they could fire rockets from Russia just as easily as from Cuba. Offensive missiles in Cuba, they argued, were therefore unnecessary for an offensive base(Mills 234). Furthermore, the United States had over 3,000 nuclear warheads and nearly 300 missile launchers, opposed to the Soviet Union's 250 warheads and 24 to 44 missile launchers (Hersh 343). Still, John Kennedy thought that Cuba could become a base for military operations at any given moment. The United States had to be prepared to face it (Mills 234). At this point in the crisis, John McCone, the CIA director, was regularly sending President Kennedy reports of missiles capable of launching a nuclear warhead being sent to Cuba. According to McCone, medium-range ballistic missiles(MRBMs) would be next (Hersh 348). U-2's were sent to scout the west end of Cuba. On October 14, the CIA reported that construction had begun for MRBMs (Mills 235). Despite the increased state of readiness in the US, many people did not realize that the Soviet Union had done nothing on its home territory during the crisis. Its fleet of ICBM launchers were not mobilized and neither were Soviet reserves. There were not even any threats against Berlin (Hersh 343). Regardless of what the Soviets said, the United States was still far ahead in the nuclear arms race. ICBM's were expensive to build and the Soviet Union did not have an abundance of money. Installing the smaller missiles in Cuba was much cheaper than building more ICBMs. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy would not oppose the building of the missile bases in Cuba because the United States President had not opposed Khrushchev in the past (Mills 236). Not only did he secretly place the missiles in Cuba, but Khrushchev used Georgi Bolshakov and others to tell President Kennedy that missiles were not being shipped to Cuba. The Soviet premier was cautious to avoid a direct lie, even though he was clearly deceptive. Eventually, Kennedy chose to believe Khrushchev over the CIA