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Diplomacy and Conflict • The Arms Race

The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962 and consisted of a standoff between U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev over the Soviet plan to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 100 miles away from Florida. The Cuban Missile Crisis is considered the climax of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although Khrushchev ultimately backed down on that aspect of his nuclear armament program, the crisis exposed the vulnerability of the United States to nuclear attack.

The Cuban Revolution

The United States and Cuba had grudgingly maintained rocky relations since the the 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War forced Spain to surrender Cuba. Although Cuba was inaugurated as an independent nation, President William McKinley introduced the Platt Amendment, which allowed U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs, in 1901. That legislation was valid until 1934. Since that time, various dictators have run the Cuban government—unstable, often-corrupt, and highly influenced by the United States. The national climate was ripe for revolution. Fidel Castro stepped forward to lead that revolution.

The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959, ended the corrupt presidency of Fulgencio Batista and ushered in a new era of leadership, and foreign relations, under Castro. The revolution was deeply rooted in the past revolutionary efforts of 1868, 1898, and 1933, which attempted, but failed, to achieve independence from foreign intervention. Beginning in 1953, Castro led a small group of middle- and working-class people to push out Batista's regime, known as the July 26 Movement. By 1958, Batista had lost the support of his people as well as of the Cuban Armed Forces; on January 8, 1959, Castro became premier of Cuba.

Initially, the United States hoped it could work with the new government, but once Castro demonstrated that he intended to bring about a major social revolution and cut foreign intervention, relations with the U.S. government soured. Castro's anti-American stance, admiration for the successes of Soviet communism, and close geographical proximity to the United States made Cuba a willing pawn for Khrushchev to wield in the Cold War.

Khrushchev strengthened relations with Cuba when the Soviet Union began trading its oil for Cuban sugar, thus freeing Cuba from its economic dependence on the United States. Castro now saw a distinct advantage to Cuba's communist alignment with the Soviet Union, while Khrushchev's ambition to expand communism in the Western Hemisphere found a foothold in the small, revolutionary nation. Their symbiotic relationship progressed through 1961: Castro gained resources to fund his revolution; Khrushchev gained power and a potential offensive battleground in the West.

Bay of Pigs and New Allies

By this point, the Kennedy administration had committed itself to the overthrow of Castro by covert means. The Bay of Pigs invasion, one such attempt to oust Castro from power, was a disaster. On April 15, 1961, American B-26 planes bombed four Cuban airfields. Two days later, 1,500 Cuban dissidents, trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Guatemala and supplied with arms by the U.S. government, landed on Cuba’s Bay of Pigs at Playa Giron. Their mission was to instigate an uprising, gain national support, and overthrow Castro. However, the renegade force was quickly quelled by Castro's military; within 72 hours, the invading force had been pushed back to its landing area, where the troops were soon surrounded by Castro's forces. This defeat had two crucial effects: Kennedy and the CIA were humiliated, and Cubans pulled together in the wake of the invasion to support Castro. In December 1961, Castro formally declared his conversion to Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The nationalization of Cuban communism opened a window of opportunity for the Soviet Union. The installation of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba was carefully considered by Khrushchev and his advisers, several of whom pointed out that U.S. warheads already installed in Turkey could destroy Moscow, Kiev, and other major Soviet cities at any moment. Khrushchev hoped to balance out the two nations' access to nuclear weapons, and he also believed the nuclear weapons would deter American plans to invade Cuba. Although it was anticipated that the Kennedy administration would balk at Soviet nuclear arms in Cuba, Khrushchev thought that if the missiles were secretly installed, Kennedy would have no choice but to accept their presence. It's also possible that the Bay of Pigs disaster had convinced the Soviet leader that Kennedy was weak and would be easily intimidated.

America Responds

The Soviet Union began the transport of nuclear ballistic missiles in October 1962. Kennedy received aerial photos of the missiles in transit on October 16, and after several heated EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) meetings, he imposed a naval quarantine of Cuba. The most dangerous point in the crisis occurred when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba on October 27. Although the Kremlin had not ordered the attack, Kennedy weighed different proportional response scenarios in light of the incident.

Ultimately, Kennedy and Khrushchev defused the crisis with the following agreement: on October 28, Khrushchev decided to withdraw the nuclear arms from Cuba on the condition that the United States publicly declare that it would not attack Cuba and privately withdraw its nuclear arsenal from Turkey. Castro was unaware of those negotiations, which reveals the degree to which Cuba was viewed as a minor player by the Soviet Union.

Although the Cuban Missile Crisis lasted only 13 days, its repercussions were considerable. Having come closer to nuclear war than ever before, both the United States and the Soviet Union became more cautious about offensive deployment of nuclear arms for the remainder of the Cold War. The crisis also served to expose the United States' vulnerability to nuclear attack that had not been evident previously. One lasting consequence of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the economic embargo that the United States imposed on Cuba in 1962. Although the Barack Obama presidency saw improved relations between the two countries—eased restrictions on travel and commerce starting in 2008, and the reopening of a U.S. embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana in 2015—the embargo remains in place.

Anne Blaschke
Anne Blaschke is visiting assistant professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross. She has also taught at Bridgewater State University, Wheelock College, and Boston University. Previous to those positions, she was a writer and editor for ABC-CLIO. Anne received her BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her MA and PhD in history from Boston University. Her specialties include 20th-century American political and cultural history, women's and gender history, racial politics, ethnicity, sports, and international relations.

Further Reading

Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; Kennedy, Robert F, and Arthur M. Schlesinger. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2010; Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991. New York: Oxford univ. Press, 1998; White, Mark J. Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, and the 1962 Crisis. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

MLA Citation

Blaschke, Anne. "Cuban Missile Crisis." American History, ABC-CLIO, 2020, americanhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/253259. Accessed 18 Feb. 2020.

Entry ID: 2174297

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