The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962


Historical Background

The Caribbean was regarded by the USA as its own 'backyard' - America determined to maintain stability there in order to protect its own national interests. Until the events of 1959, Cuba was essentially an American protectorate - gave USA the rights of intervention in Cuba and required Cuba to provide land for naval bases - hence Guantanamo Bay. USA had a huge influence in Cuba. Inevitably, this attitude generated opposition among many nationalistically minded Cubans. Castro on 1st January 1959, Batista's dictoral regime collapses and Castro becomes leader of Cuba.

How would the USA respond to this revolution and what impact would the response have on international relations?

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Early Developments 1958-1960

America had shown little support for Batista's regime during Castro's regime. Whilst it looked like the revolution was nationalist and home grown, with no external aid from communist states, the USA was willing to let it run its course. 

In May 1958, Vice President Nixon led to a shift in US policy towards Latin America - economic stability became a target.In fact, Eisenhower agreed not to support dictators in the area. 

Some of Castro's supporters were communist. He could not let them deliver Cuba into the hands of Soviets or China, but needed the support of a great power to manage the inevitable US response to his plans to reduce US economic and political influence in Cuba. He had to avoid alienating powerful internal and external allies. 

In May 1959, Castro introduced agrarian reform which led to American-owned property being seized by the state. No intial hostile US response. US fears of Cuba becoming a satellite state were worsened when Soviet First Deputy visits Cuba in Feb 1960 and arranges $100 million in credits to Castro- tying Cuba in economically with the SU, but also a political one. Ironically, it was the Soviet version of the Marshall Plan and had similar impact on the USA as theirs had on the USSR. In April 1960, Castro nationalises the oil companies and America imposes economic sanctions, reducing their imports of sugar. Castro seizes $1 billion US assets on Cuba in October. Castro needed the SU domestically and foreign reasons. By 1961, USA wanted to remove Castro. 

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Bay of Pigs & Operation Mongoose 1961

Bay of Pigs had been initiated under Eisenhower and inherited by Kennedy. Plan to for anti-Castro exiles to carry out a military coup to overthrow Castro - under the CIA. It was an unmitigated disaster and humiliation for Kennedy - but also confirmed the Soviet Union and Castro's fears about the USA intentions for Cuba. Castro's power had been reaffirmed as he protected Cuba from American imperialism. 

On 30th November 1961, Kennedy authorises Operation Mongoose to overthrow communism in Cuba using covert operations. Slim chance of success. Soviet Union had been supplying Cuba with arms shipments for some time, but the USA had not intervened as it did not think this would threaten the USA. Malinovsky concludes that in face of a determined US attack, Cuba would not survive a week. Khrushchev decides to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba in 1962 - Code name 'Anadyr' to keep USA off the scent.

Khrushchev's decision had profound consequences for international relations and it was unlikely he could predict all of them. 

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The Soviet Rationale

THE DEFENCE OF CUBA: Khrushchev claimed his only purpose was defence of Cuba in face of US hostility towards Cuba and determination to translate this into direct action. What did Khrushchev have to gain by defending Cuba? Could he have not used conventional forces? This would have been less risky in terms of peace and not provoking the USA - the aims of peaceful coexistence. No one would have been threatened this way - thus presents the view that Khrushchev had ulterior motives. Despite this, there was strong evidence to suggest US military aggression - numerous attempts to overthrow communism in Cuba - perhaps if they didnt take this approach there would be no missile crisis - USA primary causal factor? Soviet Union defensive as nuclear option was merely a deterrent? 

BRIDGING THE MISSILE GAP: Dominant power was USA, despite what was suggested - and Khrush knew this - lost atomic leverage in international relations. Only hope of readdessing the missile balance was by placing missiles on Cuba - strategic importance  - linked to defence of Cuba? Reducing missile gap would also supply military planning aims - reducing spending on conventional military forces and initate development into arsenal whilst investing in civilian economy due to fragility of Eastern bloc states. But then why did Soviet Union not disguise missile sites, despite knowing of U2 planes?

NEED FOR FRIENDSHIP IN VIEW OF CHINESE SITUATION: Spreading revolution through Latin Am. by controlling it as leaders of international communism, not China in view of split due to peaceful coexistence - China thought USSR was weak. Neutralise anti-Soviet propaganda. Did not want China in the area. 

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The Soviet Rationale 2


Intervention in Cuba was a way of putting pressures on the powers over Berlin. Linkage strategy between Cuba and Berlin, where Khrushchev was repeatedly failing to remove the Western power. Political embarassment to Khrushchev and implications in terms of the security of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Cuba might have diverted American attention. To put pressure on NATO alliance if other members felt the USA was placing its own regional interests above those in the Western Alliance. The Cuban issue might present the USA with a hemispheric threat serious enough to impel them to withdraw from Berlin in return for Soviet concessions in Cuba. However, little tangible evidence to support this. Khrush never made direct attempts to seek concessions. However, did illustrate how one problem in one area could be used to solve a problem in another - this strategy appears throughout the era.


USA May 1962 Jupiter missile deployment in Turkey - to supplement NATO's defensive nuclear umbrella. Linkage - Khrushchev's response in Cuba may be in response to this - thus there was equal threat on both sides. The crisis would have given Khrushchev a bargaining tool to use against US missiles in Turkey. 

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Development of the Crisis

History presents Kennedy as a strong leader, who forced Khrushchev to back down after his opportunistic challenge to USA's nuclear and global strategic power. Others feel he over reacted. Kennedy's failure in the intial stages lay in his certainty that Khrushchev would never carry out such a reckless plan so close to the USA - failed to account for reactions against Bay of Pigs/Mongoose. Subsequently did not have any strategies in place. Similarly, Khrush did not know how Kennedy would react - overestimated the attitude that the USA would have. Failed to see that his actions would be seen as aggressive and offensive to the international community rather than defensive or driven by sense of need. 

Castro had secured defence of his island by pitting the two superpowers against each other.US planes used U2 spy planes to find nuclear site - Kennedy claims they will do whatever is necessary to protect its own security and that of its allies. Gromyko tells the UN, an attack on Cuba would mean war with the Soviet Union. Soviets depended on a major nuclear build up without US realising but the secrecy ends on 14th Oct. Kennedy assembles ExComm. They could do nothing, risking splitting the NATO alliance by appearing to ignore interests of Europe as it would expose to a nuclear response. Air strike was unfeasable as all could not be destroyed. Naval Blockade would stem the flow of missiles entering Cuba as there was too many missiles to guarantee the destruction of all of them before Soviet retaliatory action. Kennedy chose the latter - quarantine. UN condemns SU and Khrush calls the blockade an act of aggression. But had an impact. Soviet ships turn back. "the other fellow just blinked" - brinkmanship

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The End in Sight

Brinkmanship was a high risk strategy and could only be effective if both sides recognised that any form of military confrontation in a nuclear age would be undesirable. If Khrush had intended to protect Cuba from US aggression, he had clearly not succeeded - Cuba was in more danger. Khrushchev was the first to propose a truce - Soviets withdraw from Cuba on the grounds that USA doesnt invade Cuba. Perfect opportunity for Kennedy. Peaceful resolution made difficult by Castro who was convinced of a US attack. Orders anti-aircraft forces to start firing on low level reconnaissance planes. Khrushchev amends his proposal by proposing removal of Jupiter missiles. Pilot shot by Cuba - escalation of crisis. Kennedy's strategy was to ignore the second proposal and reply to the first. Kennedy was willing to remove the already 'old' and ineffective missiles in Turkey but not immediately and not incorporated into a public settlement of the crisis - so the NATO allies did not see it as a concession. On 28th October, Khrushchev agrees to remove the missiles, but Castro saw it as a humiliating betrayal by Khrushchev and refused to allow checks on the dismantling of the sites. Only fulfilled as Soviet ships removing the missiles revealed the contents. 

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Impact of the Crisis

Brought the world closer to nuclear war than had ever happened at any other time. What the crisis did show was that international relations could not be conducted through crisis management methods - and was not a model of crisis management. 

In 1963, a 'hotline' was created connecting Washington and Moscow to solve crises directly. Some historians take the view that its symbolic value was greater than its practical application. 

Crisis led to a growing awareness of the need to create some control over the nuclear arms race by placing restrictions on nuclear tests. In October 1963, a Partial Ban Test Treaty was put in place, banning the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and underwater - proposed by Khrushchev. Described as a watershed, marking an important new era in arms control. However, the ban fell short as the treaty made no provisions for underground tests or inspection. Encouraged weapon proliferation among the nuclear powers and after 3 months powers could restart the testing and no obligatory start up - China/France did not join. This was a major contributing factor to upcoming detente. 

USA using superior power humiliated the USSR. SU had to be forced to respond rather than being deterred from taking action - USA aggressive. USSR emerged with the determination to restore its international status. Cuba remains communist in the backyard of the USA - USA's commitment to containment had failed - but did not undermine policy. Cuba was a part of the start of the revolutionary change in developing countries. Ensured survival of West Berlin. Shifts bi-polar world closer towards greater co-operation prior to the era of detente. 

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  • 'The conclusion of the missile crisis was absolute proof that the USA's strategy of containment had failed.' How valid is this assessment?
  • 'Placing nuclear missiles on Cub was a reckless piece of international gambling by Khrushchev that achieved nothing of significance for the USSR.' How valid is this view? 
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