This October marks the 61st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Explore the history with us.
Maj. Richard Heyser had been sitting 14 miles above the Earth for 5 hours. Soaring at the edge of space, he flew from northern California, around the Gulf of Mexico, and approached the small island of Cuba. He reached into the controls of his U-2 spy plane and flipped on the camera. Heyser could hear the thump of the camera swinging inside the airplane, snapping pictures of everything underneath. That camera is now in the Museum’s collection.
Heyser was in Cuban airspace for about 6 minutes and took 928 pictures. He called that mission “a milk run.” But what those photos revealed triggered a crisis that pushed the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
Heyser’s flight that day, October 14, 1962, revealed that the Soviet Union had begun building launch sites for nuclear missiles about 100 miles off the coast of Florida and was protecting those sites with SA-2 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. This discovery kicked off the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that crisis did not appear out of nowhere.
Building Up to a Crisis
After World War II, competition between the “superpowers” of the Soviet Union and the United States (and their respective allies) had grown more and more intense. A recent crisis in Berlin from 1958 to1961 and the shoot-down of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960 had pushed tensions to a boiling point. Both sides saw the other as an existential threat and worried of the other’s growing influence around the world.
Cuba, rocked by a communist revolution in the 1950s, became a flashpoint. After the United States rejected the requests for aid from the Cuban revolutionaries, their leader Fidel Castro turned to the Soviet Union. The new Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was thrilled to have an ally just off the U.S. coast.
The U.S. tried to get rid of Castro, first by funding and organizing a military intervention of Cuban exiles in 1960 called the “Bay of Pigs Invasion.” Despite its bloody failure, the CIA repeatedly tried to overthrow or eliminate Castro, and the Department of Defense made plans to invade Cuba, calling for an invasion force nearly 100 times larger than the Bay of Pigs. These plans were rehearsed in a series of military exercises in September 1962 that included flying fighter-bomber aircraft in simulated bombing attacks against Cuba. It was during this escalation that Heyser’s flight on October 14 confirmed the installation of nuclear-capable launchers.
Khrushchev felt he had good reasons for parking weapons of mass destruction in Cuba. First, he was certain a U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent and wanted to protect the island. He was also frustrated that the previous year, the U.S. had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, on the border of the Soviet Union. These missiles could have delivered a nuclear warhead to many strategic targets in Soviet territory, including Moscow. Khruschev argued that his intention for putting similar missiles in Cuba was to give the United States “a little of their own medicine.”
The Soviets had planned to give Cuba not only nuclear weapons, but also ground troops, bomber and fighter aircraft (some of which were nuclear-capable), and SAMs. The medium-range missiles could each carry a nuclear warhead more than 66 times as powerful as the blast at Hiroshima, Japan—capable of obliterating massive cities in a single launch.
The missiles in Cuba and Turkey were intermediate range missiles. They could reach their targets more reliably and with less warning than the bomber aircraft or early intercontinental missiles of the time. The Soviet missiles could have reached much of the southeastern United States, including Washington, D.C. For the military and the American public, the threat of a Soviet nuclear strike became much more real. Longer-range missiles with warheads more than twice as powerful could have reached almost all of the lower 48 states, although these weapons were never delivered.
The military briefed President John F. Kennedy on October 16, 1962. Kennedy and his advisors believed that the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba was a threat to the United States’ “credibility.” The administration was guided by the Monroe Doctrine (the idea that the entire western hemisphere was the sole purview of the U.S.) and worried that allowing missiles in Cuba would make the United States appear weak.
What the United States did not know at the time was that the Soviet Union also gave Cuba tactical nuclear weapons: “smaller” (Hiroshima-sized) nuclear weapons meant to annihilate any landing force the United States might send. When he later learned of this in the 1990s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said “This is horrifying. It meant that had a U.S. invasion been carried out . . . there was a 99 percent probability that nuclear war would have been initiated.”
The U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was put at DEFCON 2—the step just below full-blown nuclear war—for the only time in U.S. history to date. This meant that at any given time, 56 B-52 Stratofortress bombers were in the air carrying nuclear weapons. The rest of SAC’s force of hundreds of B-52s and B-47 Stratojets and dozens of Atlas and Titan nuclear missiles were on heightened alert, ready to go to war with just a few hours’ notice. Florida became a massive staging ground for aircraft of all types—including the F-100 Super Sabre currently on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. RF-8 Crusaders, similar to the one also on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, played a key role in gathering intelligence as the crisis unfolded. The Commander in Chief of U.S. Atlantic Command, Adm. Robert Dennison, noted, “Florida looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier. Every bit of cement in the state… had an aircraft on it.”
Although many of Kennedy’s advisors urged him to launch air strikes, the president did what he could to prevent shooting. He staged a blockade (calling it a “quarantine”) of Cuba, preventing Soviet ships from delivering any more weapons.
Meanwhile, actions by lower-ranking individuals nearly triggered a nuclear Armageddon more than once. For example, on October 27, 1962, a Soviet air defense commander independently ordered the shoot-down of an American U-2 taking photos over Cuba. Pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson was killed. On the same day, American destroyer boats dropped practice depth charges into the ocean to try to force Soviet submarines to surface. One submarine captain felt so threatened that he prepared to launch a 10-kiloton nuclear torpedo at a group of American vessels. The Soviet task force commander, Vasily Arkhipov, refused to approve the launch.
The stakes could not have been higher. In 1962, the U.S. nuclear arsenal alone could deliver 600,000 times as much explosive power as the weapon that devastated Hiroshima. If both sides used their nuclear stockpiles, hundreds of millions of lives would have been instantly vaporized, hundreds of millions more would have suffered horrific radiation burns and poisoning, and animal and plant life across the northern hemisphere would have been obliterated in planet-altering ways. This threat of nuclear annihilation, exacerbated by frequent duck-and-cover drills and constantly shifting news, caused emotional trauma for millions of citizens who had no power to influence the situation.
Khruschev made it known that he was willing to withdraw his forces from Cuba if the United States agreed to never invade Cuba and to remove its missiles from Turkey. Kennedy was willing to accept, especially as those missiles were old and considered near obsolete. But he and his advisors were concerned with credibility and did not want anyone to think they looked weak.
Kennedy’s brother Robert Kennedy, serving as attorney general at the time, met secretly with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Robert assured him that the United States would pledge to never invade Cuba and also agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey—but the removal would have to be done later, to make it look like it was unrelated to the crisis. This secret agreement was not confirmed until 1989. Neither Castro nor the Turkish government were consulted about any of these decisions.
With the agreements in place on October 28, Khruschev began removing Soviet missiles, equipment, and personnel from Cuba. Although the crisis appeared to be over, there were several weeks of wrangling to assure all sides that the agreements had been upheld. The United States did not fully stand down until late November.
In the immediate aftermath, both superpowers took steps to lessen international tension. This included the installation of a “hotline” of teletype machines between Moscow and Washington, D.C. One of those machines is currently on display in the One World Connected gallery in the National Air and Space Museum. Both sides also pursued a partial ban on some types of nuclear test explosions that took effect in 1963.
Although the leaders involved tried to prevent a nuclear war, the danger of one happening unintentionally, through accident or miscommunication, was very high. Secretary McNamara himself said: “The actions of all three parties were shaped by misjudgment, miscalculations, and misinformation.” Historian Walter LaFeber went a step further, arguing: “That the world survived the missile crisis was in part plain dumb luck.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended over 60 years ago, but we still live in its shadow. Looking closely at what happened forces us to ask difficult questions about the world we have built together, what kind of world we want to build for the future, and how we might get there. Kennedy himself certainly realized this. In a speech given about seven months after the crisis, he said: “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”
Concluding that talk, he pledged that the people of the United States “shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on--not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”