Fifty years later, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis remains the closest the world has come to full-scale nuclear war. At the time, the event represented the convergence of several trends in U.S. foreign policy, including the Cold War policy of containing global communism; the post–World War II U.S.-Soviet competition for the loyalties of the developing world; and the nuclear rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The crisis also represented what many observers believe to be President John F. Kennedy's finest hour. This excerpt from the introduction to
Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide discusses the ending of the crisis and its impact on the remainder of
Several tense days ensued, during which Soviet antiaircraft batteries on
Cubashot down . . . a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane. Seeking to avoid further escalation, Kennedy rejected Taylor’s advice to retaliate militarily and deliberately refrained from action. After some hesitation, Khrushchev decided not to challenge the naval quarantine and acquiesced in the removal of the missiles. Simultaneously, his ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, secretly obtained an unpublicized pledge from Robert Kennedy that his brother would shortly remove Jupiter missiles in Turkeyand Italy.
Recently released tapes of conversations among President Kennedy and his advisers reveal that to avoid nuclear war, he was prepared to make even greater concessions to the Soviets, including taking the issue to the United Nations and openly trading Turkish missiles for those in Cuba. In so doing, he parted company with some of his more hard-line advisers. Showing considerable statesmanship, Kennedy deliberately refrained from emphasizing Khrushchev’s humiliation, although other administration officials were privately less diplomatic and celebrated their victory to the press.
Newly opened Soviet documentary evidence has demonstrated that the Cuban situation was even more menacing than most involved then realized. Forty-two thousand well-equipped Soviet soldiers were already on the island, far more than the 10,000 troops that
U.S.officials had estimated. Moreover, although Kennedy’s advisers believed that some of the missiles might already be armed, they failed to realize that no less than 158 short- and intermediate-range warheads on the island, whose use Castro urged should the United Statesinvade, were already operational and that 42 of these could have reached U.S.territory. Castro also hoped to shoot down additional U-2 planes and provoke a major confrontation.
The Cuban Missile Crisis had a sobering impact on its protagonists. On Kennedy it had a certain salutary maturing effect, making the once-brash young president a strong advocate of disarmament in the final months before his untimely death in November 1963. His stance induced the Soviet leadership to agree to establish a hotline between
Moscowand Washingtonto facilitate communications and ease tensions during international crises.