Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

What was the Cold War?

Who were the American and Soviet leaders during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

What was EXCOMM?

Who was Fidel Castro?

Why was Castro’s Cuba hostile to the U.S.?

What is NATO? What was the Warsaw Pact?

What was the Berlin Blockade of 1948?

What was the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1961?

Why did the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba?

Why did the U.S. place missiles in Turkey?

Why did the U.S. blockade Cuba?

What were the Soviet forces in Cuba?

Were there any Soviet weapons that did not make it to Cuba?

Were the missiles in Cuba capable of nuking American cities?

What did the United States know about the Cuban missiles at the time of the crisis?

What was the “Secret Deal” between Robert F. Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin?

Why did the Soviets withdraw the missiles?

Who was in EXCOMM, the advisory council to Kennedy, during the crisis?

What was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

“The Cuban Missile Crisis was a thirteen-day confrontation from October 15 to October 28, 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union over the positioning of nuclear missiles in Cuba. In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly placed nuclear-tipped missiles on the Communist-led island of Cuba. After discovering the missiles in October, the U.S. responded by blockading Cuba. Following a period of intense discussions and fear of a nuclear catastrophe, President John F. Kennedy made a proposal to Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviet leader accepted; The Soviets withdrew the missiles after  the U.S. pledged publicly never to invade Cuba and promised privately to withdraw its own nuclear missiles from Turkey.

What was the Cold War?

The Cold War was a political struggle between the Western world, represented by the United States and NATO allies and the Eastern Bloc, organized by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (sometimes referred to as the Soviet Union or USSR) and its allies. From roughly the end of World War II in 1945 until 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed against each other to demonstrate the superiority of each one’s politico-economic system: democracy and capitalism vs. authoritarianism and communism, During the Cold War, neither side directly engaged in all-out war with each other. However, they competed through proxy conflicts, whether political (supporting democratic or communist parties), economic (development aid), or military (supporting opposing forces in the “Third World”). Initially, the superpowers focused on post-World War II Europe as they tried to win over states to their sides. As the Cold War progressed and dividing lines in Europe were consolidated, the superpowers increasingly focused on the developing world in South America, Asia, and Africa.

Who were the American and Soviet leaders during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, having been elected in 1960. Nikita Khrushchev assumed control of the Soviet Union in 1953 following the death of the previous leader Joseph Stalin. 

What was EXCOMM?

The Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or EXCOMM, was a group of American officials within the White House who were consulted during the Cuban Missile Crisis. EXCOMM served as an advisory council to Kennedy during the Crisis. The book The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, provides a transcript of the group’s deliberations. Click here for a list of EXCOMM members.

Who was Fidel Castro?

Fidel Castro was a revolutionary who in 1959 overthrew the government of Cuba, an island state 90 miles away from the U.S., and became its new leader. Castro first began his revolutionary struggle in 1953; after an initial defeat, he regrouped and launched a successful insurgency that caused President Fulgencio Batista to flee and allowed Castro to seize power.

Why was Castro’s Cuba hostile to the U.S.?

The Cuban government was initially neutral to the superpower competition. The Soviet Union initially was at first uninterested in Cuba, and Castro even toured the U.S. in 1959. Yet Castro frayed the relationship with America when he threatened, and ultimately undertook, reforms that would harm American-owned property in the country. The increasingly hostile relationship with the U.S. provided an opening for the Soviet Union. Castro formed trade ties with Moscow and as Cuba grew closer to the USSR, relations with Washington deteriorated further. The U.S. revoked its diplomatic recognition of Cuba at the beginning of 1961.

What is NATO? What was the Warsaw Pact?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is an alliance of countries formed initially from a core of Western European and North American states (the U.S., Canada, the UK, and others). Founded in 1949, the alliance aimed to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The alliance provided for collective defense, meaning that an attack against one member state was an attack against all members of the alliance. NATO still exists and has added many ex-Communist countries in Europe as part of the alliance.

The Warsaw Pact was the Soviet version of NATO: it was an alliance of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. The alliance was formed to deter a Western invasion of the member states that were part of the USSR’s sphere of influence. It was founded in 1955, in part due to West Germany’s accession to NATO, and was sometimes referred to as the Eastern Bloc. The decline and fall of the Soviet Union led to the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution in 1991.

What was the Berlin Blockade of 1948?

During the negotiations ending World War II, the Allies agreed to split Germany into four parts: three parts in the western half of the country, controlled by the Western allies (the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom); and one part in the east controlled by the Soviet Union. The Western allies established a democratic, capitalist government in their portion while the Soviets put in place a communist government in the territory they controlled. Eventually, the territories split into two new countries: democratic West Germany and communist East Germany. Yet the former capital city of Berlin, situated in East Germany had also been divided into Western and Eastern zones. Therefore, due to the Western occupation of half of Berlin, an exclave of West Germany was surrounded by East Germany. For further information, consult this map and publication here.

In 1948, the Soviet Union tried to force the Western powers out of Berlin by blockading all land routes to West Berlin until full control of the city was handed over to the Soviets. The Western powers overcame this by airlifting supplies to Berlin, until the  Soviets ended the blockade in 1949.

What was the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1961?

In 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum to NATO demanding that it relinquish West Berlin to East Germany. Khrushchev originally gave a six-month deadline, but this was continually pushed back until the crisis escalated in 1961.

During the summer of 1961, Khrushchev met Kennedy in Vienna and demanded yet again that NATO hand over control of West Berlin to East Germany. This summit preceded the Soviet/East German decision to seal off West Berlin by building the Berlin Wall. Beginning on August 13, the Soviets and East Germans built a wall that bisected the city and prevented free passage between the Western and Eastern zones. Beginning on October 27, American and Soviet forces faced off at “Checkpoint Charlie,” an access point controlling passage across the wall.

The Berlin Crisis was eventually resolved when the United States acquiesced to the wall’s construction in November 1961. However, Khrushchev had not yet achieved his objective of establishing East German control over West Berlin. Khrushchev believed that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba could be used as leverage in negotiations over Berlin. Khrushchev thought that Washington might trade the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba missiles for NATO’s retreat from West Berlin.

Why did the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba?

The Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba for two primary reasons: (1) to boost the Soviet Union’s power, threatening the U.S. with nuclear attack from the Caribbean and (2) to bolster the Soviet Union’s bargaining position in its attempts to force West Berlin to join East Germany. Additional reasons included defending Cuba from American invasion and bolstering Soviet prestige.

Why did the U.S. place missiles in Turkey?

The U.S. had prepared for a possible war in Europe by placing nuclear weapons in allied countries. Bombers and ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons were intended as a deterrent against a Soviet invasion of Germany and other NATO countries. Nuclear missiles were placed in Turkey, a NATO member that shared a border with two Soviet republics, because of its proximity to the Soviet Union.

Why did the U.S. blockade Cuba?

Many members of EXCOMM argued in favor of a military strike to destroy the nuclear missiles in Cuba before they became operational. President Kennedy, however, did not want to escalate to war so quickly. Instead, he decided to blockade Cuba to prevent the installation of additional Soviet nuclear missiles. While this step did not defuse the crisis, it bought the President time and avoided a direct attack against Cuba.

What were the Soviet forces in Cuba?

The Soviets installed 36 to 42 medium SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba. Six of the missiles were decoy versions to deceive a potential American attack or for use in training. The missiles had a range of 1,100 nautical miles (1,266 miles) and could reach New Orleans, Miami, and Washington, DC. Each missile’s warhead had an explosive capacity of about 1 megaton (the equivalent of one million tons of explosive), more than 60 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (which was only 16 kilotons, or the equivalent of 16,000 tons of explosive).

Twelve short-range, Luna tactical nuclear missiles were also in Cuba. They had a range of about 17 nautical miles (20 miles) and were designed for use in battle: the Soviets would only use them in the event of an American invasion. Each missile’s warhead was delivered to Cuba: these had an explosive capacity of 2 kilotons (an eighth the size of the weapon used at Hiroshima). Soviet commanders were initially authorized to use these weapons with no further input from Moscow. That changed on October 27, when the Soviet government instructed them not to be fired without authorization from Moscow.

The Soviets also had 80 Sopka-variant cruise missiles in four missile batteries arrayed along the Cuban coast. Many, if not all, of the warheads for these missiles were delivered to Cuba by the beginning of the Missile Crisis on October 14, 1962. Each missile’s warhead had an explosive capacity of 12 kilotons (three-quarters of the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). These missiles had a range of 40 nautical miles (46 miles): they were to be used to counter an American invasion of Cuba.

There were also 42 unassembled IL-28 bombers (NATO codename: “Beagle) in Cuba (only seven were assembled by the end of the crisis). These bombers had a range of 600 nautical miles: from their airbases, the bombers could hit Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami. There were six nuclear bombs in Cuba capable of being carried by the IL-28s, each with a 12 kiloton yield.

The Soviets had over 40,000 troops in Cuba.

Were there any Soviet weapons that did not make it to Cuba?

Yes. 24 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) were also intended to be installed in Cuba. These had a range of 2,200 nautical miles (2,532 miles). These missiles could have hit as far away as Chicago, Boston, and even Newfoundland. The U.S. blockade prevented these from being delivered to Cuba.

Were the missiles in Cuba capable of nuking American cities?

Yes. 45 warheads suitable for use on the 36 MRBMs arrived on October 4, 1962. Just before the blockade took effect on October 21, 24 warheads for the IRBMs had arrived; however, the missiles to carry those warheads were never delivered because of the blockade. Had the Americans discovered the missile sites two weeks later, the MRBMs would have been armed and ready for launch against the United States. Had the IL-28s successfully penetrated America’s air defenses in the southeast, they could have hit American cities.

If the U.S. had invaded Cuba, the local commander had been authorized to use tactical nuclear weapons in defense of the island. President Kennedy and his advisers were not aware of this. If tactical nuclear weapons had been used against U.S. forces, escalation to full nuclear war between the superpowers would have been very likely.

What did the United States know about the Cuban missiles at the time of the crisis?

The Americans identified 40 missile launchers in Cuba: these were the apparatuses necessary to launch a missile. There were 24 MRBM launchers and 16 IRBMs launchers.

At the time, according to Robert McNamara, the Americans did not believe there were nuclear warheads in Cuba. They also only estimated  that there were 10,000 Soviet soldiers in Cuba, not the 40,000 that were actually there.

What was the “Secret Deal” between Robert F. Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin?

On October 27, President Kennedy dispatched his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to make an offer to the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Dobrynin, in the hope of defusing the crisis. Kennedy offered Dobrynin two things in exchange for Soviet removal of the Cuban missiles: (1) the U.S. would publically pledge never to invade Cuba and (2) the U.S. would secretly withdraw missiles from Turkey. The U.S. refused to publically admit to removing the Turkish missiles because it did not want to appear weak. The Soviet Union accepted this offer the next day.

Why did the Soviets withdraw the missiles?

The reasons why Khrushchev withdrew missiles from Cuba are still somewhat uncertain. Scholars conclude that two major factors were at play in the Soviet decision: (1) Khrushchev knew that war over Cuba could quickly escalate into nuclear war that would destroy both superpowers and (2) the Soviet government won what Khrushchev considered significant concessions from the U.S: the pledge never  to invade Cuba and to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Who was in EXCOMM, the advisory council to Kennedy, during the crisis?

1. President John F. Kennedy

2. Attorney General Robert Kennedy

3. Secretary of State Dean Rusk

4. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

5. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor

6. CIA Director John McCone

7. Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon

8. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy

9. Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen

10. Undersecretary of State (Rusk’s deputy) George Ball

11. Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric

12. Deputy Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson

13. Ambassador at Large for Soviet Affairs Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson

14. Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin

15. State policy planner Walt Rostow

16. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze.

Others involved in Cuban Missile Crisis:

1. Vice President Lyndon Johnson attended almost all of the key White House meetings.

2. UN ambassador and former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson traveled to Washington and joined a few of the White House sessions, as did former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett.

3. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave private advice and attended some meetings at the State Department.

 

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