The Cuban Missile Crisis

In 1962, after years of Cold War tensions had been steadily building between the United States and the Soviet Union, the island of Cuba became the focal point for potential, and global, disaster when intelligence of Soviet missiles in Cuba was confirmed by the U.S. military. The development of nuclear strike capabilities by the leading world powers had long since added a gravely sinister component to the uneasy relationship between the U.S. and the USSR; American assurance in its ultimate dominance and ethical correctness may still have been in place, but the reality, known and troubling to the nation, was that the massive Communist entity of Russia was armed, and capable of either crippling attacks or reprisals. In this tense period of John Kennedy's administration, the entire world essentially held its breath. Very simply, the Cold War was poised to erupt into actual war, and on an unprecedented scale.

No such massive stand-off occurs spontaneously, and the history behind the crisis virtually leads a direct path to it. Since the end of World War II, the build-up of nuclear arsenals within both major powers had fueled serious concerns in each as to the ultimate intentions of the other. Mere geographic distance, however, served to ameliorate pressing fears. It was the sheer presence of Cuba, so near to the U.S. and under a Communist regime, that would drastically force the issues. This took shape most dramatically when, on October 16th, 1962, President Kennedy was informed that aerial photographs taken by the U.S. military revealed indisputable evidence of Soviet missiles as established on Cuban soil. There was one respite; the missiles were not fully ready to launch.

Prior to this crucial day, the history of Cuban/American relations had been, at best, marked by conflict. Moreover, the history was lengthy; following the Spanish-American War, the Platt Amendment to the Cuban Constitution effectively permitted the U.S. to intervene in Cuban affairs if threats to American security were perceived. Clearly, there was a longstanding concern in the U.S. that this island nation could be subverted, and employed as a nearby base for hostilities. This speculative wariness, however, was transformed into outright fear when the Castro regime made Cuba a Communist state. Not only was this of itself a menace to the U.S., but obvious ties to the greater Communist power of the USSR were inevitable, and the U.S. consequently began a series of covert, and frequently misbegotten, efforts to undermine or eliminate Castro's government. Most notably, the 1961 Bay of Pigs affair was an attempted invasion of Cuba by the U.S., and one that endures historically as a template of hopelessly conflicted agendas and striking incompetence. Essentially, this multifaceted invasion, orchestrated well in advance and with initial planning dating back to the Eisenhower presidency, sought to somehow attain a complete removal of an existing regime through covert military strikes. Military imperatives contrasted with political needs, and the failed outcome placed the U.S. in the international light of having been an aggressor in an unjustified conflict; if Castro was a tyrant, he had nonetheless given no legitimate cause for war.

The Bay of Pigs debacle, again, has become legendary: “Almost from the outset, the operation proved a tactical and logistical disaster”. It also changed the aspect of international reaction, in that the U.S. was then in the unfamiliar position of being viewed as an intrusive, aggressive force, and the Communist states were more easily perceived as victims. The situation was far more complex than that, however, as the USSR had long settled on Cuba as an excellent site upon which to base “defensive” forces. In fact, as accurate as the 1962 military information was, the reality was far more dire: eighty nuclear warheads were actually within Cuba at the time of the crisis, a fact not ascertained until after the settlement. It is hardly surprising that these days of 1962, when negotiations and stand-offs were evolving hourly, placed the entire world in a state of virtually insupportable suspension. The two most powerful nations on earth were, in essence, dueling, and only diplomacy, fueled by inevitable concerns of self-interest, stood to ward off global disaster. If there had been a gradual acceptance of the Cold War as a probable, permanent mode of co-existence between the great powers, U.S. activities in Cuba, and the subsequent missile crisis largely set in motion by them, alerted the world that it was very close indeed to an actual, and devastating, conflagration.