Cuban Missile Crisis: Five Things You Didn’t Know

Welcome to 1962. Slick back your hair, grab a scotch, and don’t forget to triple check that route to the nearest Fallout Shelter. It is October after all, the month in which the US and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than any other time in history. The nation held its breath as President John F. Kennedy faced off with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in waters just offshore of Cuba.

Earlier in the month, a U-2 spy plane over Cuba captured images of nuclear missile launch sites being built by the Soviets. Given the proximity to the US and the already looming threat of the Soviet Union, President Kennedy knew that he could not let this stand. After secretly conferring with a group of advisors (nicknamed ExComm), Kennedy announced the establishment of a naval blockade on all further armament shipments to Cuba. In a speech to the nation on October 22, Kennedy called for the removal of missiles already in Cuba and the destruction of all launch sites.

Over the next week, Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba were locked in a stalemate with US warships in the Caribbean. Faced with the very real possibility of nuclear war, Kennedy decided to approach Khrushchev with a deal to end the standoff peacefully.  Publically, Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba if the Soviets withdrew their missiles. Privately, Kennedy promised to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey within six months. Thirteen days after the start of the Crisis, Khrushchev accepted the offer and called back Soviet ships.

The Crisis was over and the nation could breathe again. But while Don Draper and company were dancing to the Monster Mash (don’t judge, it was a graveyard smash), others were beginning to see that the situation in Cuba was more intense than even President Kennedy was aware. After declassification of top-secret information and years of analysis by scholars and government officials, the reality of how close the world actually came to nuclear war is startling.

Here are five things we now know about the Cuban Missile Crisis:

1. One Soviet officer’s reluctance saved the world from nuclear war. On October 27, American destroyers forced a Soviet submarine to surface near the quarantine line using depth charges. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the sub was carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo. The Soviet commander believed that war had started and prepared to fire. Fortunately, authorization from three other officers was needed. Two were in favor. One was not. 

2. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended sinking a US ship and blaming the Cubans in order to create national support for a US invasion of Cuba. The JCS sent Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a list of possible courses of action to garner support for an invasion of Cuba entitled Operation Northwoods. These recommendations were for planning purposes, intended to provide a guide for crafting a single plan.  Recommended actions included sinking a ship near the entrance of Guantanamo Bay and conducting funerals for mock-victims; blowing up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blaming Cuba; developing a Communist Cuban terror campaign by fostering “attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding.” The text of the memorandum can be seen here.

3. Previous actions toward Cuba by the US government played a big role in creating the Crisis. Events outside of the immediate crisis had more of a driving effect than previously realized.  The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and Operation Mongoose (a project created to seek ways to topple Castro) led the Soviets to believe that Kennedy was determined to get rid of Castro.  In part as a way to protect an ally, Khrushchev decided to send nuclear weapons to Cuba. 

4. On October 27, the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets actually deployed nuclear weapons capable of destroying US naval bases. In the early morning hours of October 27, the Soviets deployed nuclear cruise missiles within 15 miles of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Kennedy had no idea. 

5. A US spy plane accidentally entered Soviet airspace during the Crisis creating potential for the use of nuclear air-to-air missiles. On October 27, a U-2 spy plane took a wrong turn and entered Soviet airspace. MiG fighters were sent to shoot the plane down and nuclear-armed US fighter-interceptors were sent to escort the spy plane home. Fortunately, the MiG fighters did not reach the U-2. President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara were not informed until an hour and a half into the event. 

So many seemingly little incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis could have unintentionally led to nuclear war. Whether through luck, or smart diplomacy by world leaders, we were able to head off nuclear destruction.

Test your own knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis with our fun quiz today.

This blog post was authored by Ploughshares Fund intern Jessica Sleight. Special thanks goes out to Kingston Reif and Martin Hellman for their respective papers on lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Photo by CHUCKage


My father was an EWO for a B-52 crew in Texas during this time. The crew spent 3 days in full flight gear, in their plane on the runway waiting for take off orders. My mother revealed to me a few weeks ago that my father's B-52 was headed for Russia (via Guam.) Thankfully, the missile crisis was averted and my father got to come home a month later to the birth of my brother!

I was 20 years old and lived in Melbourne Florida just south of cape Canaveral. When we learned of the missles in Cuba US1, the major north south highway to Miami was full of military vehicles carring tanks, missles, troups and equipment south. There were Sam Missle sights put up all over. With missles in them and sand bags around them. Next to the shopping center just south of Parrick Airforce Base was several. My family had their cars gassed up and even our cabin cruser was in the water and ready to go. We expected a giasnt orange glow to appear at the Cape, in Orlando and in Miami and we were going to head to the swamp. Our vehicles all had high power rifles and pistols in them with lots of ammo, food and water. My brother was stationed at Frankfort Germany and we had an agreement that if there was any prior indication of a nucular bomb we would call each other. Many of those things were no more efective than when I was in school and had to practice hiding under my desk. During WW2 there was build wooden towers along the beach on the atlantic side of Florida. They were usen for civilians to volentier to watch for Germans landing on the coast. When I was younger like 12, I volenteered to go on top of the tallest building in the town I lived in and watch for large airplans and call an office with the civilian air patrol and report it. Those times were scarey. Were we all lucky to have lived through that.

I was 9 yrs old at the time and didn't realize how close we came to a war. I do remember crawling under our desks during a nuclear explosion drill. What good that would do that do against a nuclear bomb?

The fact is that until he knew how US would react to his missile bases in Cuba Khrushchev NEVER put nuclear warheads on the island. Of course, he had tactical nukes there but these would and could only be used to defend against an invasion force. They in no way constituted a strategic threat. Keep in mind from this person who lived in that era, everyone was ready to err on the side of caution. You rightly point to them most idiotic aspect of the whole period: the Bay of Pigs Fiasco. Our military commanders were in historically induced menopause: hot and cold flashes. We see that there is a military tendency to always go beyond the operational to the strategic realm that is only civilian prerogative, hence we have numerous idiotic strategic analyses that really make you wonder how complex these guys can really think and how many balls they can juggle at one time. History has proven that while they have balls, they can't juggle them! Another lesson: the JFK people were all congenital liars. They deemed deception the essence of manhood. To their end, debating several of the close-ups to JFK, I found them to be extremely mendacious, insisting that we MUST all accept their lies as truth for the sake of national security-- even 20 years after JFK was dead. While JFK had a lot going for him as a reasonable person, his entourage were ready to do and say anything to be noticed and achieve the tightest orbit around their Sun King! The incompetence of decisions made was due to the fact that the ideas of men deemed loyal to a fault was taken over that of men deemed able to get into Soviets' shoes. Bottom line, Khrushchev was not playing Cuba but a piano of crisis keys across the board, determined to make a global symphony that would cause JFK to trip and remain off balance. Lastly, with no nuclear warheads in Cuba, Khrushchev had nothing to bargain with. Yet, JFK gave him the Jupiters in Turkey to save his butt. Khrushchev never forgot that JFK didn't take advantage of him. Had JFK not been assassinated by a US ally fearing that we would force it to abandon its developing nuclear weapons in compliance with Khrushchev's demand on route to nuclear disarmament, JFK could have really brought on, together with Khrushchev, the 1963 end of the Cold war that so many academics on the left erroneously thought to the case. They failed to factor in Mao and Le Duan.

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