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Cuban Missile Crisis

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Cuban Missile Crisis

How did the world come the closest it had ever been to full-blown nuclear war in October 1962? The Cuban Missile Crisis not only threatened the lives of Cubans and Americans but also had the potential to destroy the world.

Cuban Missile Crisis summary

In May 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began shipping ballistic missiles and trained personnel to Cuba. Cuba’s proximity to the USA meant that the Soviet Union now had a strategic launch pad to attack the other superpower from. One could see this move as levelling the playing field. The US had already created their own strategic launch pad to attack the Soviet Union in 1954 by establishing a joint base with nuclear weapons, the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

Ballistic missiles

A rocket-propelled self-guided weapon that can carry high explosives as well as nuclear munitions to a target.

Cuban Missile crisis Map showing the range of missiles being based in Cuba StudySmarterMap showing the range of missiles being based in Cuba, Wikimedia Commons.

However, the US viewed this move as a major threat to their security when they found out. President John F. Kennedy blockaded Cuba on 22 October 1962, and sent a letter to Khrushchev, urging him to remove the missiles. Cuba was in ‘America's backyard’ and the range of the missiles shown in the map above explains Kennedy’s concern.

To blockade

To seal off a place or country to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving.

Cuban Missile crisis US reconnaissance photograph of a medium-range ballistic missile launch site in San Cristobal Cuba StudySmarterUS reconnaissance photograph of a medium-range ballistic missile launch site in San Cristobal, Cuba, Wikimedia Commons.

The days that followed were incredibly tense and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Two events almost tipped the scales:

  • On October 24, Soviet vessels approached Cuba’s blockade line but turned back.

  • On October 27, Cubans shot down a US reconnaissance plane.

Reconnaissance plane

A military aeroplane used to gain information about an enemy.

Recognising the severity of the situation, Khrushchev and Kennedy came to an agreement. Khrushchev offered to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in return for an end to the blockade and a US pledge to not invade Cuba. As an assurance, the US also agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey. Based on these agreements, Khrushchev agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba on October 28.

The crisis and blockade ended on November 20 when the missiles’ removal was officially verified.

What events led to the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Although it only lasted a few days, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a culmination of years of tensions and disputes between the USA and USSR. To understand how the two countries got to such an acute crisis, we need to look at the events leading up to it.

The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959 and changed the country forever.

US-Cuban Relations

Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1898, helped by US intervention. This marked the start of the US’s long-term political dominance in the region. From the early 1900s, the US maintained a strong influence in Cuba, controlling its main export, sugar. Most Cuban industry was owned by US businesses, and many Americans had bought land in the country.

Batista

From 1940-44, General Fulgencio Batista ruled as the elected President of Cuba. After a US-backed military coup, he regained his power in 1952 and ran Cuba as a military dictatorship until 1959. Batista was corrupt and oppressive and hated by the Cubans, but the US profited from him being in power due to his leaning towards the United States. During his rule, the US established almost complete domination of Cuba’s economy and the number of American corporations in Cuba increased dramatically.

Military coup

A seizure and removal of government and its powers by force, carried out by the military.

Revolution

In 1956, in retaliation against Batista’s oppressive rule, Marxist-socialists Che Guevara and Fidel Castro gathered a force of guerrilla fighters to start a revolutionary war against government forces. Cuba entered a state of virtual civil war, with the revolutionaries staging uprisings and attacks.

In the early hours of 1 January 1959, Batista relinquished his presidency and fled the country. Castro formed a new liberal nationalist government.

Guerilla fighters

Fighters that fight as part of an unofficial army (normally against an official army or police force).

Cuban Missile crisis Photograph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro StudySmarterPhotograph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, Wikimedia Commons.

Deteriorating US-Cuban relations

Castro resented the Americans providing aid to Batista and wanted to rid his country of US influence.

Castro’s attitude towards the US

Castro wanted the Cuban economy to benefit poorer Cubans, rather than Americans and the corrupt upper classes. He did this by:

  • Nationalising US businesses.

  • Introducing land reforms to limit the size of farms.

In 1960, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to trade with Cuba for sugar, Castro infuriated the US further by:

  • Nationalising all foreign assets in Cuba.

  • Increasing the taxes on US imports.

  • Establishing trade deals with the Soviet Union.

Nationalisation

Transferring a branch of industry or commerce from private to state control.

The US had placed an arms embargo on Cuba in 1958 during the armed conflict and refused to accept Castro’s government afterward. By 1960, the US government had started planning to help overthrow Castro.

Embargo

An official ban on trade with a particular country (in this case, the embargo means the US did not permit the sale or purchase of arms with Cuba).

Eisenhower considered banning the purchase of sugar from Cuba, which would cripple the country, as Cuba was heavily reliant on US sales.

In 1961, Castro announced that Cuba was Communist, which heightened Eisenhower’s concerns about the country. He was motivated by the Domino Theory, which suggested if one state fell to communism, the neighbouring countries would follow. He felt that Cuba might trigger a domino effect in the rest of Latin America.

The US, on the other hand, regarded itself as the protector of South and Central American countries due to the Monroe Doctrine, a US policy that opposed European colonialism in the Americas. In Eisenhower’s opinion, communism would threaten US power and America’s economic interests.

When Castro introduced reforms that penalised the US in 1960, Eisenhower retaliated by:

  • Freezing Cuban assets in the United States.

  • Slashing the import quota for Cuban sugar.

  • Imposing an almost complete trade embargo.

  • Cutting off diplomatic ties with Cuba.

To freeze assets

Legal blocking of assets (such as bank accounts or properties) so that people cannot use them or sell them.

Diplomatic ties

To seal off a place or country to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving.

Relations deteriorated even further when in April 1961, Kennedy approved a CIA plan to send over 1000 Cuban exiles into Cuba with the aim of overthrowing communism by initiating an uprising. This plan became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion due to the name of the southern coast of Cuba where they landed. The plan was unsuccessful as Kennedy pulled out US Air Force support at the last minute, resulting in all of the exiles being captured or killed. Castro's knowledge of this plan inflamed American-Cuban relations further.

As relations with the US deteriorated, Cuba looked to the Soviet Union to forge an alliance. After the US cut quotas on sugar, Cuba looked to set up more trade agreements with the Soviet Union on sugar and other goods. An alliance was agreed and Castro and Khrushchev formed a strong relationship after meeting in New York in 1960.

Khrushchev

Accepting Cuba’s request for help was a strategic move for Khrushchev, who was losing support at home in Russia. He needed to be seen as supporting an endangered communist state, and Cuba offered the opportunity to spread communism in Latin America.

Khrushchev had lost support and power for several reasons:

  • Domestic policies: his agricultural programme was a failure, resulting in food price rises, shortages, and widespread hunger. Revolts broke out as a result.

  • Secret Speech: Khrushchev denounced Stalin in what was known as his ‘Secret Speech’. It alienated hard-line Stalinists and caused revolts abroad in Poland and Hungary.

  • Berlin Wall: the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, though it stemmed the flow of refugees, painted the Soviet Union in a bad light. It looked as though they had to imprison citizens to avoid them defecting.

  • China: relations with China deteriorated under Khrushchev as Chinese leader Mao Zedong did not support de-Stalinisation. The Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s meant that the USSR had lost one of its valuable allies, weakening its position on the global stage.

De-Stalinisation

A policy pursued after 1956 of eradicating the memory or influence of Stalin and Stalinism in most Communist areas. This was done by acts such as altering government policies or removing monuments to Stalin.

How did Khrushchev’s view of Kennedy influence the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Cuban Missile crisis Photograph of Khrushchev and Kennedy talking at the Vienna Summit StudySmarterPhotograph of Khrushchev and Kennedy talking at the Vienna Summit, Wikimedia Commons.

Although it never came to nuclear war, the missile crisis still had long-lasting effects.

Khrushchev’s ousting

Kennedy emerged from the Cuban Missile Crisis as a highly regarded leader, his calm and firm stance in the negotiations demonstrating his skills. His failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion was overridden in the minds of many.

Khrushchev, on the other hand, emerged less than victorious. His decisions were seen as reckless, and he was seen to have bowed down to Kennedy’s demands. This, along with his failed domestic policies in the Soviet Union, provided evidence that he was unable to lead effectively. Soviet officials forced him into retirement in 1964. He was replaced with the new leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Brinkmanship

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a prime example of a policy that dominated foreign relations throughout the Cold War: brinkmanship. This was a foreign policy practice used by Eisenhower, which forced the enemy to the threshold of conflict to gain better-negotiating power. The word originated from a 1956 Life Magazine interview with the US secretary of state John Foster Dulles. In the article, he is quoted as saying,

The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art... if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.

The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated the dangers of brinkmanship. Formerly, interactions between states were predicated on the balance of power, whether military or economic, but now a state’s possession of nuclear weapons changed the game, allowing it to influence others. At the beginning of the Cold War, the US’s supply of cataclysmic nuclear weapons often meant these negotiations were skewed in their favour. By the time of the Cuban crisis, however, the USSR had caught up in the arms race, and posed a formidable threat.

Cuban Missile crisis Diagram showing how brinkmanship works StudySmarterDiagram showing how brinkmanship works, Wikimedia Commons.

The Cuban Missile Crisis significance for communication

The threat of nuclear war is often credited with preventing the Cold War from turning hot, but events like the Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the potentially devastating effects of this policy. Clear communication between the two leaders had prevented the worst possible outcome. Recognising this, Kennedy and Khrushchev established a Moscow-Washington hotline to facilitate direct communication between them.

Test ban treaty

In August 1963, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

  • Nuclear weapons tests underwater, in the atmosphere or in space were prohibited.

  • Underground nuclear tests were allowed.

  • A pledge was made to work towards an end to the armaments race and aim towards complete disarmament.

However, the treaty did little to stall the arms race as the US and Soviet Union continued to stockpile arms and their nuclear arsenals.

Cuban Missile Crisis - Key takeaways

  • In May 1960, Khrushchev began shipping ballistic missiles and trained personnel to Cuba, which would create a strategic launch pad like the US’s in Turkey.
  • When the US found out, they blockaded Cuba. Kennedy urged Khrushchev to remove the missiles.
  • The situation threatened nuclear war and was only resolved after the US offered a deal of lifting the embargo, promising not to invade Cuba, and removing their missiles from Turkey.
  • Cuba had established relations with the USSR after relations deteriorated with the US following the Cuban revolution.
  • The USSR wanted to create a close relationship with Cuba to show they were helping a struggling communist country, and potentially spread communism in Latin America.
  • Khrushchev believed Kennedy was a weak leader due to his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He felt he could take the rise of placing ballistic missiles in Cuba.
  • The Cuban Missile Crisis contributed to Khrushchev’s ousting as he was seen as reckless.
  • Strong lines of communication were set up between the Soviet Union and the United States to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, when Kennedy was informed about the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba. After gaining support from ExComm, Kennedy announced a blockade of Cuba on October 22, 1962. Khrushchev and Kennedy negotiated until October  28, 1962, when a deal to remove the missiles was agreed upon. The crisis didn’t officially end, however, until November 20, 1962, when the removal of the missiles from Cuba was officially verified

The Cuban Missile Crisis was when US President John F. Kennedy was informed about the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba. These weapons had been shipped over by the Soviet Union, which had built a strong relationship with Cuba in the last two years, and threatened the security of the US due to their proximity. Kennedy responded by blockading Cuba until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles. After negotiations, where the US agreed to not invade Cuba and to remove their own nuclear missiles from Turkey, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on October 28, 1962. Although the crisis only lasted less than a week, it was a key event in the Cold War due to how close both sides were to engaging in a nuclear war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was caused by a number of several long-term and short-term factors but one of the most important of these was relationships. The deterioration of the relationship between the US and Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution led Cuba to develop stronger ties with the Soviet Union, who opposed the US and saw Cuba as a strategic ally. Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion led to further deterioration of the US relationship. Paranoia about future invasions prompted Castro to ask the Soviet Union for support, leading Khrushchev to send ballistic missiles to the country and build launch pads.

The immediate results of the Cuban Missile Crisis were the Soviet Union removing missiles from Cuba and the US agreeing to not invade again and to remove their own nuclear missiles from Turkey (which they did in April 1963). Communications improved between the two sides, they set up a Moscow-Washington hotline and a test ban treaty was introduced in 1963. This prohibited some nuclear tests but did not stall the arms race.

The event also contributed to the ousting of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, who was seen to have acted recklessly in Cuba.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was significant because it demonstrated the dangers of brinkmanship. Formerly, interactions between states were predicated on the balance of power, whether military or economic. But now a state’s possession of nuclear weapons changed the game, allowing it to influence others. At the beginning of the Cold War, the US’s supply of cataclysmic nuclear weapons often meant these negotiations were skewed in their favour. By the time of the Cuban crisis, however, the USSR had caught up in the arms race, and posed a formidable threat.

Final Cuban Missile Crisis Quiz

Question

What did Nikita Khrushchev begin to ship to Cuba in 1960? Choose two.


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Answer

Ballistic missiles


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Question

What was the Incirlik Air Base?


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Answer

A joint air base between the USA and Turkey with nuclear weapons. It was based in Turkey and functioned as a strategic launch pad due to its proximity to the Soviet Union.

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Question

What two events during the Cuban Missile Crisis almost tipped the scales and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war? Choose two.


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Answer

Khrushchev’s receiving a letter from Kennedy


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Question

What did Kennedy agree to do in return for Khrushchev removing the missiles from Cuba? 


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Answer

He agreed to end the blockade of Cuba, pledged to not invade Cuba, and agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey.

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Question

 Why did the crisis only end on 20 November?


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Answer

Although Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on 28 October, the crisis continued until 20 November, when their removal was officially verified. Kennedy then ended the blockade and the crisis was over.

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Question

How did General Fulgencio Batista influence the Cuban Revolution? 


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Answer

An elected president from 1940-44, he regained power through a US-backed military coup in 1952. Batista’s corrupt and oppressive military dictatorship was wildly unpopular with Cubans. He allowed the US an almost complete domination of Cuba’s economy. Popular discontent led to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro creating a force of guerilla fighters to try and overthrow him.

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Question

What did Castro do that led to the deterioration of US-Cuba relations after the Cuban Revolution? Choose three.


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Answer

He nationalised US businesses


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Question

How did Domino Theory affect Eisenhower’s attitude to Cuba? 


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Answer

Eisenhower was concerned that the Cuban Revolution might lead to other states in Latin America falling to communism, like dominos. This would weaken the position of the US in the global power balance, and result in them being essentially surrounded by unfriendly states. This guided him and then Kennedy to try to overthrow Castro.


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Question

How did Eisenhower retaliate to Castro’s reforms in 1960? Choose three.


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Answer

He sent in Cuban exiles to try and assassinate Castro


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Question

Why was a relationship with Cuba beneficial to Khrushchev?

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Answer

Khrushchev was losing support in Russia due to his domestic policies, and had just lost a key alliance with China. Building a relationship with Cuba would be seen as supporting an endangered communist state, and an opportunity to spread communism in Latin America.

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Question

How did the Bay of Pigs invasion affect Khrushchev’s opinion of Kennedy?


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Answer

The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion established Kennedy as a weak and ineffective leader in the eyes of Khrushchev. He felt the US president lacked the expertise or power to resist Soviet desires, and wouldn’t intervene in the military build-up in Cuba.


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Question

Which summit allowed Kennedy and Khrushchev to meet for the first time?


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Answer

The Vienna Summit of 1961.

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Question

Kennedy and Khrushchev emerged differently from the Cuban Missile Crisis. How?


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Answer

Kennedy was praised for his calm and firm stance in the negotiations, whereas Khrushchev was seen as reckless and having bowed down to Kennedy’s demands. This, along with his failed domestic policies in the Soviet Union, led to Khrushchev’s enforced early retirement.

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Question

What does brinkmanship mean?


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Answer

Brinkmanship is a foreign policy where one side forces the enemy to the threshold of conflict to gain negotiating power.

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Question

How did the Cuban Missile Crisis change communication between the USA and USSR?


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Answer

The Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the potentially devastating outcomes of the Cold War and accentuated the need for clear communication between the powers. Kennedy and Khrushchev established a Moscow-Washington hotline to facilitate direct communication between the two.

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