The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the moment when the two superpowers came closest to nuclear conflict.
After the failed U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs invasion, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reached a secret agreement with Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any further invasions. U.S. intelligence discovered the general Soviet arms build-up on Cuba during routine surveillance flights. President Kennedy issued a warning against the placement of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba.
All the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for an air strike to destroy the missiles, followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Other advisors wanted just to warn Cuba and the Soviet Union. The President decided upon a middle course. On October 22, he ordered a naval “quarantine” of Cuba.
That same day, Kennedy sent a letter to Khrushchev declaring that the United States would not permit the U.S.S.R. to deliver offensive weapons to Cuba. He demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases and remove all offensive weapons. The letter was the first in a series of communications between the White House and the Kremlin throughout the crisis.
The President also went on national television that evening to inform the public of the developments in Cuba.
On October 24, Khrushchev responded to Kennedy’s message with a statement that the U.S. “blockade” was an “act of aggression” and that Soviet ships headed for Cuba would proceed. U.S. forces prepared for war. On October 26, Kennedy told his advisors that only a U.S. attack on Cuba would remove the missiles, but he insisted on giving the diplomatic channel a little more time.
That afternoon, ABC News correspondent John Scali reported to the White House that he had been approached by a Soviet agent suggesting that an agreement could be reached: the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba if the United States promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev sent Kennedy a message: “If there is no intention,” he said, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot.”
The next day, Khrushchev sent another message indicating that any proposed deal must include the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. Kennedy ignored the second Khrushchev message.
It was a risky move. Attorney General Robert Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States. He indicated that the United States was planning to remove the missiles from Turkey, but this could not be part of any public resolution of the missile crisis. On October 28, Khrushchev issued a public statement that Soviet missiles would be dismantled and removed from Cuba.
The crisis was over.
Source: The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962
Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State