News / USA

50th Anniversary of Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuban Crisis, missile rangeCuban Crisis, missile range
Cuban Crisis, missile range
Cuban Crisis, missile range
On October 14th, 1962, pictures taken by an American U-2 spy plane revealed the presence of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Graham Allison, an expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis, said there were two types of missiles.  “One were medium-range ballistic missiles, which could deliver a nuclear warhead at D.C. [District of Columbia],” he said.  “And there were intermediate-range nuclear missiles that could deliver warheads as far as Omaha, [Nebraska], where the Strategic Air Command [was located].  So these covered two-thirds of the United States.”

Allison said the discovery was made by what he called “a magical intelligence capability”.  “That an airplane, the U-2, could fly at over 60,000 feet, nobody would know that it was there, over territory, and then with this amazing camera take pictures that gave you details of what was happening on the ground - this was just unimaginable for most people. It was a great American intelligence success because the missiles were discovered before they were operational,” said Allison.

Kennedy Discusses Options

President John F. Kennedy then convened a small group of experts to decide what course of action to take.  The group deliberated in secret for most of a week.  Initially, the experts favored air strikes followed by an invasion, but they felt that would inevitably lead to nuclear war.

Allison said they knew that Soviet-leader Nikita Khrushchev would respond in some forceful way.  “So they think he is going to attack U.S. missiles in Turkey - we had missiles there that looked almost exactly like the missiles they were putting in Cuba.  And then when they attacked the missiles in Turkey, which were nuclear-warhead armed missiles designed to fire against the Soviet Union, we would obviously have to respond against the Soviet Union,” he said.  “So that could have been another path to nuclear war, which was the reason why they rejected that option after they thought about it for a while and chose instead a naval blockade of Cuba.”

Kennedy Opts for Naval Blockade

President Kennedy made the announcement during a televised speech to the nation on October 22nd, 1962.  He warned the Soviet leadership, saying, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Two days later, Soviet ships approached the quarantine line and stopped.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk was quoted as saying: “We were eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.”

Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet leader, was 27 at the time.  He said he remembers his father as being calm throughout the crisis.  "He was not panicking. He thought that one of the most important things was not allow to make the first shot,” Khrushchev said. “Because after the first shot, there will be no negotiation and everything would be in the hands of the military who behave in a very different way.  And I think President Kennedy had the same idea, to avoid the first shot, because before this you can bargain, after that - you will die."

Khrushchev said his father and President Kennedy were adversaries, but they negotiated with each other.

While the naval quarantine of Cuba worked, tensions rose as Moscow continued to make operational the missiles already in Cuba.

Differing Messages from Khrushchev

On October 26th, 1962, `Kennedy received a message from  Khrushchev, offering to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for assurances that Washington would neither invade that country nor overthrow Fidel Castro.

Before replying, President Kennedy received - the next day - another letter from Khrushchev.  This time the offer was worse: the U.S. must withdraw its missiles from Turkey as a price for Moscow withdrawing its missiles from Cuba.

Graham Allison said Kennedy and his staff decided to ignore the second letter and agreed to incorporate the contents of the first letter in a new proposal.

U.S. Proposal

“And the proposal consists of three components.  One is a public deal - and the public deal is basically what the first letter proposed, which is you withdraw the missiles and I will guarantee that we will not invade Cuba or attack Cuba.  There is a private ultimatum, and it says we need a response within the next 24 hours or else we are going to act,” said Allison.  “And there is a third component - which I call a ‘secret sweetener’ - which says we are not prepared to do a deal with you for the missiles in Turkey.  But I’ll just tell you as a fact, if the missiles are withdrawn from Cuba, within six months, there will not be any missiles in Turkey.”

On October 28th, Nikita Khrushchev announced on Radio Moscow the Soviet Union had accepted the American offer and would withdraw its missiles from Cuba.

Blow to Moscow's Prestige?

Sergei Khrushchev said some people saw this as a blow to Moscow’s prestige.  “In each bargaining, you have decisions that satisfied you as much as possible and in each case you have the people who will not be satisfied with the thing [decision],” said Khrushchev.  “It was in the United States and it was in the Soviet Union too.  Especially on our side, there were the Chinese who just hated this feeling, they told us you are scared, you surrendered to the Americans, you have to start the war.  All the time, it is those people who are standing aside and they want the other people to start the war.”

By mid-November 1962, all Soviet missiles were out of Cuba.  And by next April - as per their secret deal - all U.S. missiles in Turkey were removed.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

Photogallery Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

UN Warns Air Pollution in Asia Pacific Has Rising Cost

Globally some seven million people a year die prematurely due to indoor and outdoor pollution with about 70 per cent of those deaths in region

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs