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The Consequences Of The Cuban Missile Crisis History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For thirteen days in the month of October 1962, the world stayed on constant alert as President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev tried to reach a compromise and avoid nuclear war which would have possibly caused the destruction of our planet [1] . In this essay the factors that brought about the Cuban missile crisis between the two most powerful states will be investigated and the extent to which this crisis was a victory for the USA and a failure for the USSR will be discussed.

Background to the Crisis:

The origin of the crisis started back in May 1962 when Khrushchev was thinking about the missile situation while he was visiting Bulgaria. He was aware that in their neighboring country, Turkey, there were American military bases with nuclear warheads (known as the Jupiter’s) that were capable of wiping out in a matter of minutes the most important cities in the Soviet Union, such as Moscow, Kiev and Minsk [2] . He knew the threat his country was in and started considering the idea of giving the Americans the same threat by placing nuclear missiles bases near their rival. In a meeting with his advisers he asked “Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?” [3] , and it was then when his attention turned to Cuba; a nation with a new young leader with left-wing advisers by his side (Che Gevara and Raul Castro).

Cuba provided a perfect site for Khrushchev’s “Bold Idea.” [4] The installations of Soviet missiles in Cuba would not only threaten the USA, but also protect the island from any attack (as they had seen with the Bay of Pigs a year earlier). So, by August 1962 after a long talk with his colleagues in the Presidium [5] in Moscow, the Soviet Union agreed with Castro to secretly ship components for the construction of nuclear missile sites in Cuba. Although many in the Presidium wanted to make it public, Khrushchev wanted the importation of the missiles to be top secret because he believed that by the time the Americans spotted them, it would be too late for the USA to do anything about it, and in the case the Americans attacked and destroyed some of the installations, at least a few missiles could still be fired at the USA. And with the new young American President, John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev believed that if his “Yankee” rival discovered the missiles once they were operational, he would not try to destroy them as “the Soviets would respond by launching one of them.” [6] 

After the plan was approved, Khrushchev mentioned “the American Rockets in Turkey are aimed at us and scare us. Our missiles will also be aimed at the United States, even if we don’t have as many of them. [7] But….they will be even more afraid”. [8] 

Reason’s for the placement of the Missiles:

The reasons why Khrushchev decided to site the missiles are not certain, however there are several possibilities. First, it would reduce the “missile Gap” between them and the USA. Khrushchev had always known that the USA had more and more powerful missiles than the Soviet Union; for example, the Americans had four times as many ICBMs [9] (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) than the USSR and five times as many Intercontinental bombers. This “fear of insecurity” lead Khrushchev to believe that placing intermediate and medium range nuclear missiles on Cuba, which is just 90 miles away from the American East coast, would significantly increase the USSR’s ability to threaten the USA.

Another reason why the Soviet Union placed the Nuclear weapons in Cuba was probably to force a deal with the American government either over Berlin or the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. [10] Khrushchev believed that with their threat in Cuba, USA would withdraw from West Berlin or remove their missiles from Turkey in return for the removal of the Soviet missiles in the Caribbean. [11] 

The protection of Cuba was another important factor. Ever since La Coubre incident (1960) [12] and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), [13] the Soviets believed that the Americans were planning to overthrow the new Radical Leader at any opportunity they had. They were right, as Sam Halpern from the CIA admitted that their job was, after the failed invasion of Cuba, [14] “to start new plans to get rid of Castro and the Castro regime.” [15] Castro’s fear of an American invasion made him turn to the Soviets for help [16] and his please inspired Khrushchev to make the daring offer of the installation of missile [17] sites, which by the end of the crisis the Soviets managed to gain a guarantee from USA on never to invade (at least militarily) Cuba. However, despite this promise, plans to assassinate Castro by the CIA (in Operation Mongoose) [18] remained, creating at least eight assassination attempts since 1962. [19] 

Although in his autobiography, Khrushchev claims specifically that he only wanted to protect Cuba from another American invasion, several people like Robert Kennedy [20] and Fidel Castro [21] disagree with him as they believe that his intentions in Cuba were only for the benefit of the Soviet Union and their Red image. The Soviet leader mentioned that his country wanted Cuba to remain as a communist state and placing the missiles would help preserve Castro in power. However, Bobby Kennedy believed that if Khrushchev really wanted only to protect Cuba from any threat of invasion, then the establishment of Soviet Troops would have been enough to protect it, [22] “not nuclear warheads.” [23] 

Although Castro disliked the idea of nuclear missiles [24] , he approved of Khrushchev’s plan with the idea that it will reinforce the position of the entire communist world. By the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union worked quickly and secretly to build its missile installations in Cuba.

The 13 day Crisis

The whole crisis started back on October 16, 1962, when a U-2 (American spy plane) took photographs over Cuba. The snapshots revealed Soviet intermediate-range SS-4 and SS-5 nuclear missiles. If these were launched from Cuba they could easily hit the main cities of the America, such as New York or Washington, which were both at a range of 1,100 miles. (See Appendix 1)

In response to this secret threat, Kennedy established a special executive committee, known as ExComm, to help him reflect his options, which included at first an air raid on the missile facilities, an invasion of Cuba, a nuclear strike or a blockade of the island (which is the option Kennedy chose).

By October the 22, Kennedy went on television to tell his civilians that he was ordering a naval blockade on Cuba and quarantine on all Soviet ships attempting to dock in the island ports. His aim with this blockade and quarantine was to prevent additional military hardware from reaching Cuba while his committee analyzed the possible courses of action to eliminate the National threat.

On the 26 of October the crisis reached its climax point when an American U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba was shot down by a S-75 (Soviet Anti Aircraft gun). With the pressures from the military and tensions between both nations, [25] Kennedy ordered all American forces to be placed on DefCon Two. [26] 

During the negotiations two points of possible agreement emerged. First, Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy that he would remove the missiles in return for “Kennedy’s pledge” that America would not invade Cuba (which Kennedy agreed). Second, in secret negotiations, Robert Kennedy told Anatoly Dobrynin, [27] that in return for their removal of the missiles in Cuba, the Americans would not only guarantee peace to Cuba, but also remove the intermediate-range Jupiter missiles targeted at the Soviets in Turkey, but only provided if their removal was kept secret from the public.

By October the 28th, both nations accepted this agreement the Cuban Missile crisis was resolved.

Results of Crisis:

The Crisis ended with the Americans managing to remove the Soviet missile’s from Cuba while the USSR gained the promise of a non-American invasion ever to happen in Cuba and the removal of the Jupiter missile threat in Turkey. Both nations also benefited with a “Hotline” telephone, [28] as communication during the Crisis had been slow which made negotiations difficult and put both nations in constant alert. [29] This would help avert similar crisis in the future, such as an accidental nuclear outbreak caused by malfunctioning of electronic equipment. [30] 

The Consequences of the Crisis for the USSR:

Many Russians claimed the outcome of the missile crisis in Cuba was a victory, as they helped keep Cuba a communist country until the present day and as they managed to remove the threatening Thor and Jupiter missiles from Turkey by November 1962.FN Others however (such as the Stalinists), [31] did not see it that way, as the deal over the missiles in Turkey was kept secret (provoking a weak image to Communism) and as their aim to establish missile bases near the USA had failed. The problem with dealing if the USSR lost more in the crisis than the USA is due to the issue of why they even started the crisis in the first place, which as mentioned earlier is not for certain. Did they want this crisis to develop in the first place, and if so, what did they want to take out of it? Their main aim in the crisis is unknown. Khrushchev himself states in his autobiography that they started the whole crisis to protect Cuba, but this could be biased as he wanted history to look up at him favorably and we must also remember that while discussing the idea if placing the missiles, Khrushchev mentioned “why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?” [32] , which seems more like a hostile action than a defensive one. On the other hand, Stalinist and other political opponents of Khrushchev, such as Leonid Brezhnev [33] believe that the Soviet aim in the crisis was to give the Americans a nuclear threat, [34] just as the USA had done to the USSR in Turkey (and Italy) [35] and just as Khrushchev had initially proclaimed [36] . However, we must remember that this may also be biased as they were Khrushchev political rivals and attacked him at every opportunity they had.

Since the beginning, Khrushchev knew that Cuba was in danger, as the Americans had been planning to overthrow Castro from power since the failed Bay of Pigs and the curious La Coubre incident. The Americans feared Communist influence in the Americas and Khrushchev believe that losing Cuba would “a terrible blow, gravely diminishing Soviet influence throughout the Third World, especially in Latin America.” [37] He feared Cuba to be another piece for the American Domino theory [38] and he therefore had to somehow protect Castro.

After the crisis, Khrushchev claims that he achieved what he set out to do, which was to secure Castro’s Cuba from the threat of invasion, “though not quite the manner he intended.” [39] And as a result of his success, he also managed to take the missile threat out of Turkey [40] and an understanding with President Kennedy. [41] 

Although many Stalinist claim Khrushchev actions against Kennedy as a defeat (as they had no other nuclear threat to the USA), until the end of 1962, there were four Soviet diesel attack submarines which carried a torpedo primed with a Nuclear Warhead. These were operating in US territorial waters without the knowledge of the Americans. [42] Also, as mentioned earlier, many historians claim the Soviets had, at the time of the crisis, long-range missiles which could already reach the USA from Russia. [43] Therefore, the missiles in Cuba did not really pose a new threat for the USA, hence Kennedy had traded their missiles in Turkey for a threat which either way they would continue having with or without the missiles in Cuba.

Many Russians believed that although they achieved the removal of the American missiles and the freedom of Cuba, the Cuban Missile crisis ended as a failure, as their main aim was to establish a “Soviet first-strike capacity against American Targets”. They say that even the removal of the American Thors [44] and Jupiters from Turkey meant nothing, as the Americans had ballistic missiles which could be launched from submarines from the eastern Mediterranean and hit the key points in the USSR [45] .

After the whole crisis, Communist China (under Mao) broke off relations with the USSR as they saw the Soviet position in the crisis as a weak nation. Their relations with Cuba also weakened, as the Cubans saw the final agreement of the two superpowers “a disgraceful agreement” [46] and a “betrayal” [47] . This is because, even though the Cuba received a non invasion guarantee, the final decisions on how to resolve the crisis had been made by Kennedy and Khrushchev only, and certain issues of interest to Cuba, such as the Guantanamo concern, were not addressed. This made Castro believe that the Soviets were only in Cuba for their own purposes, not Cubas, and therefore caused deteriorated Cuban-Soviet relations for the years to come. After the crisis, the Soviets had no intention of provoking another conflict with the USA in Central America, the USSR restrained Castro from carrying out his intention of promoting revolution in Central America. [48] This “unethical action to Socialism” [49] and the removal of the missiles made the Cubans see a moral defeat of the USSR and led Castro to stopped receiving the Soviet ambassador. With that said, Soviet shares in Cuba went down instead of growing. [50] 

Still, if the Soviets wanted only to protect Socialist Cuba from the USA, then the need of nuclear warheads wouldn’t have been necessary. As Castro had proposed to Khrushchev, a proclamation, an alliance or the stationing of Soviet troops on the island would have been enough to protect the island [51] . Also, if nuclear weapons were to be used, tactical weapons would have been easier to install and harder for the Americans to detect [52] . In an interview with Herbert Matthews [53] in 1967, Castro states that “Khrushchev was acting solely in Russian interest and not in Cuban interest”. The “Yankee” war against Castro’s regime was therefore not the cause of the Soviet attempt to turn the island into a nuclear missile base, or at least not the main one. [54] Robert Kennedy mentions that Khrushchev was “in a state of acute frustration” and had been desperately needed a change. With his regime, the USSR had been blocked in Berlin, left badly by the inordinate American missile build up and stalled in the Third World. [55] They were also experiencing national problems with their agriculture, industrial growth (slowing down) and pressures from Stalinist and military Generals (who demanded a larger military budget).

Therefore, Robert Kennedy believed that Khrushchev intentions was to gain a Soviet first-strike capacity against American targets, and with the missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev would not only gain the “balance of power”, but also humiliate the Americans, while rescuing Cuba (which would be a good image for the rest of Latin America) and work against the pressures he had in the Kremlin (from Stalinist and generals). So if this was his actual aim, which seems logical to Robert Kennedy as “Khrushchev could gain colossal rewards and only medium risks”, [56] then the Cuban missile Crisis was in fact a failure for the USSR as their first strike capacity missiles where taken back to their nation. However, we must remember that this view comes from Robert Kennedy and could be biased to make the Americans look victorious.

The Consequences of the Crisis for the USA:

After the crisis the whole world had the impression that Khrushchev had lost because he had given in to the pressure of a strong president, after all Kennedy had managed to take the threat out of his nation’s “backyard”. (See Appendix 2). As Khrushchev mentioned, the Soviet missiles in Cuba made the Americans more vulnerable than ever before in history. [57] The Russians were so close they could strike without warning and take out all the major cities (in a range of over 2,000 miles). [58] (See Appendix 1)

However, today, many historians question whether the Cuban Missile Crisis was a victory for the USA. Many views say that although;

“Kennedy’s handling of the situation was highly praised in the 60s, he is to be criticized for allowing the crisis to develop in the first place, arguing that since Soviet long-range missiles could already reach the USA from Russia itself, [59] and the missiles in Cuba did not exactly pose a new threat which could have resulted in a Nuclear War”.

However, whether the Soviet Union had missiles which could reach the USA from their nation does not equal the threat the Americans had with the missiles in Cuba. First of all, the further away the missiles are launched, the higher the possibilities where that it wouldn’t hit the target or that the American’s could destroy it before it reached them. Cuba was only 90 miles away from the Florida coast, and it could hit almost every city with precision (for example Washington which was at a range of 1,100 miles from Cuba), and about 40% of the American bases of Strategic Air Command. Futhermore, the “long range missiles” were in Khrushchev words, “limited in their capability” [60] even though

“Khrushchev had boasted to the world of Russia strength, but in reality he knew just how limited his long range missiles force really was” [61] .


Therefore there is no question that the USA was in fact dealing with a serious crisis and so the results demonstrate, at least in the short term, a clear victory for the American side. It first prevented the threat of possibly the destruction of their country and armed forces [62] and it didn’t let the USSR catch the USA in the arms race and therefore didn’t narrow the differences between the forces of both nations.

Also, it was important for the USA to keep its guarantee of security to its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies by taking the Soviet missile site out of Cuba because as Robert McNamara [63] mentions “If the US were not to respond to Soviet deception, how would this influence the attitude of our NATO allies? How would they view the US guarantee of their security? And how would it influence the future behavior of the Soviet Union. If they got by with deception once could they do it again?” It was as many would mention “a test of strength”, (See Appendix 3) and Kennedy clearly demonstrated that he wasn’t the weak president Khrushchev thought he could manipulate.

If Kennedy did nothing about the crisis (if he backed down) then would the Soviet Union do something similar in the future? Would Khrushchev take advantage of Kennedy and threaten him to do agreements over Berlin or any American missile sites in Europe (like for example the missiles in Italy)? If Kennedy didn’t resist the pressures of Khrushchev and let the missiles become functional in Cuba, then the Soviet Union would have threaten the USA with their missiles in Cuba.

The USA however proved to be weak in some aspects. Although some sources state that the Americans had plans already to disable the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, [64] the USA had traded their missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba. Robert Kennedy claims that it was a “fair trade”, as both nations were disarming their missiles from their rivals “backyard”. However, if this was the Soviet intention from the beginning, then Khrushchev plan had actually worked by manipulating Kennedy to make the agreement and would therefore do it again in the future. However, Khrushchev was dismissed soon after the crisis had ended and there was never any proof that this was their main aim in the crisis.

The Americans were also planning to take out Castro from power (Operation Mongoose), as Cuba was becoming more Communist and was as much as the USA feared, becoming a magnet of revolution and socialism that would “attract other Latin American countries to this form of government.” [65] 

Although, as McNamara and Adlai Stevenson [66] had argued in the first week of the crisis and John Kennedy had agreed that a trade with their Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be reasonable, it is important to say that for the USA decision to sacrifice the defense of a NATO ally (Turkey since 1952) [67] would understandably affront the Turks who might loose confidence in NATO and upset other NATO members.

The military Generals (or the hawks in Excomm), saw the results of the crisis as “the biggest defeat in history”. Since the beginning of the crisis, they had believed that the invasion of Cuba would have been the best option. However, the invasion of Cuba would have, apart from giving the Americans a negative image to the world, led to the immediate retaliation of the Soviets, possibly causing the nuclear war both nations feared. [68] 


The question lies entirely on the reason why the Soviets placed the missiles in Cuba in the first place. Was it to protect Cuba from the United States? Or was it to reduce the gap between the arms race and balance of power thus threatening the USA with Soviet First Strike missile positions? Or was it both? Depending on the aim the Soviets had, which is at least not for certain as there are many views, including the clear contradiction of Khrushchev himself about the aims, then we can discover if the crisis had been a victory for the USA and a failure for the USSR. However, one thing is for certain, both nations and the whole world won, as both were able to avoid a nuclear war which could have brought an end to mankind.

In the short term, we could most certainly say that the USA won over this Caribbean Crisis, because they had accomplished what they had set out to do and had also obtained an image of strength. Kennedy had achieved total victory in the psychological, propaganda and media factors while the USSR total defeat; They were seen as the aggressors, had given in to America (bad image for promoting communism) and had redraw their missile sites back to their nation, which not only caused national problems, but also affected their International Relations with other countries (especially China). The Russians were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started. In a way, they had received the punishment they wanted the USA to have.

However, in the Long Term the results could have looked just the opposite. As mentioned before, many historians believe that Kennedy’s guarantee of security to Cuba and their removal of the Thor and Jupiter Missiles from Turkey was more important (and more of a sacrifice) than for the Soviets to remove their missile sites in Cuba because “Soviet long-range missiles could already reach the USA from Russia itself, so the missiles in Cuba did not really pose a new national security threat.” [69] On the other hand they praise Khrushchev for giving in the crisis and preventing the nuclear war Kennedy was ready to have.

In any case, the USA was able to eliminate this new national security threat, no matter what the intentions of the missiles really were, and most importantly, they managed to take them off Cuba before they became operational. If they had come operational, no one knows what could have happened. Large tensions and bad communications could have caused one side to “hit” first (for example, the invasion of Cuba) and the retaliation by the other, ending with a complete war.

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