The United States was concerned about an expansion of communism, and a Latin American country allying openly with the USSR was regarded by it as unacceptable, given the U.S.–Soviet enmity since the end of World War II. Such an involvement would also directly defy the Monroe Doctrine, a U.S. policy which, while limiting the United States' involvement in European colonies and European affairs, held that the Western Hemisphere was in the U.S. sphere of influence.
The United States had been embarrassed publicly by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, which had been launched under President John F. Kennedy by CIA-trained forces of Cuban exiles. Afterward, former President Eisenhower told Kennedy that "the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do." The half-hearted invasion left Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers with the impression that Kennedy was indecisive and, as one Soviet adviser wrote, "too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations ... too intelligent and too weak." U.S. covert operations against Cuba continued in 1961 with the similarly unsuccessful Operation Mongoose.
In addition, Khrushchev's impression of Kennedy's weakness was confirmed by the President's response during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, particularly to the building of the Berlin Wall. Speaking to Soviet officials in the aftermath of the crisis, Khrushchev asserted, "I know for certain that Kennedy doesn't have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge." He also told his son Sergei that on Cuba, Kennedy "would make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree."
In January 1962, U.S. Army General Edward Lansdale described plans to overthrow the Cuban government in a top-secret report (partially declassified 1989), addressed to President Kennedy and officials involved with Operation Mongoose. CIA agents or "pathfinders" from the Special Activities Division were to be infiltrated into Cuba to carry out sabotage and organization, including radio broadcasts. In February 1962, the U.S. launched an embargo against Cuba, and Lansdale presented a 26-page, top-secret timetable for implementation of the overthrow of the Cuban government, mandating that guerrilla operations begin in August and September, and in the first two weeks of October: "Open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime."
When Kennedy ran for president in 1960, one of his key election issues was an alleged "missile gap" with the Soviets leading. In fact, the U.S. led the Soviets by a wide margin that would only increase. In 1961, the Soviets had only four intercontinental ballistic missiles (R-7 Semyorka). By October 1962, they may have had a few dozen, with some intelligence estimates as high as 75.
The U.S., on the other hand, had 170 ICBMs and was quickly building more. It also had eight George Washington– and Ethan Allen–class ballistic missile submarines with the capability to launch 16 Polaris missiles each, with a range of 1,500 nautical miles (2,800 km).
Khrushchev increased the perception of a missile gap when he loudly boasted to the world that the USSR was building missiles "like sausages" whose numbers and capabilities actually were nowhere close to his assertions. The Soviet Union did have medium-range ballistic missiles in quantity, about 700 of them; however, these were very unreliable and inaccurate. The U.S. had a considerable advantage in total number of nuclear warheads (27,000 against 3,600) at the time and in the technology required for their accurate delivery.
The U.S. also led in missile defensive capabilities, naval and air power; but the USSR enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in conventional ground forces, more pronounced in field guns and tanks (particularly in the European theater).
In May 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was persuaded by the idea of countering the United States' growing lead in developing and deploying strategic missiles by placing Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite the misgivings of the Soviet Ambassador in Havana, Alexandr Ivanovich Alexeyev who argued that Castro would not accept the deployment of these missiles. Khrushchev faced a strategic situation where the U.S. was perceived to have a "splendid first strike" capability that put the Soviet Union at a huge disadvantage. In 1962, the Soviets had only 20 ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the U.S. from inside the Soviet Union. The poor accuracy and reliability of these missiles raised serious doubts about their effectiveness. A newer, more reliable generation of ICBMs would only become operational after 1965. Therefore, Soviet nuclear capability in 1962 placed less emphasis on ICBMs than on medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs). These missiles could hit American allies and most of Alaska from Soviet territory but not the contiguous 48 states of the United States. Graham Allison, the director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, points out, "The Soviet Union could not right the nuclear imbalance by deploying new ICBMs on its own soil. In order to meet the threat it faced in 1962, 1963, and 1964, it had very few options. Moving existing nuclear weapons to locations from which they could reach American targets was one."
A second reason Soviet missiles were deployed to Cuba was because Khrushchev wanted to bring West Berlin—the American/British/French-controlled democratic enclave within Communist East Germany—into the Soviet orbit. The East Germans and Soviets considered western control over a portion of Berlin a grave threat to East Germany. For this reason, among others, Khrushchev made West Berlin the central battlefield of the Cold War. Khrushchev believed that if the U.S. did nothing over the missile deployments in Cuba, he could muscle the West out of Berlin using said missiles as a deterrent to western counter-measures in Berlin. If the U.S. tried to bargain with the Soviets after becoming aware of the missiles, Khrushchev could demand trading the missiles for West Berlin. Since Berlin was strategically more important than Cuba, the trade would be a win for Khrushchev. President Kennedy recognized this: "The advantage is, from Khrushchev's point of view, he takes a great chance but there are quite some rewards to it."
Khrushchev was also reacting in part to the nuclear threat of obsolescent Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles which the U.S. had installed in Turkey during April 1962.
In early 1962, a group of Soviet military and missile construction specialists accompanied an agricultural delegation to Havana. They obtained a meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Cuban leadership had a strong expectation that the U.S. would invade Cuba again and they enthusiastically approved the idea of installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. However, according to another source, Fidel Castro objected to the missiles deployment that would have made him look like a Soviet puppet, but was persuaded that missiles in Cuba would be an irritant to the U.S. and help the interests of the entire socialist camp. Further, the deployment would include short-range tactical weapons (with a range of 40 km, usable only against naval vessels) that would provide a "nuclear umbrella" for attacks upon the island.
By May, Khrushchev and Castro agreed to place strategic nuclear missiles secretly in Cuba. Like Castro, Khrushchev felt that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent, and that to lose Cuba would do great harm to the communist cause, especially in Latin America. He said he wanted to confront the Americans "with more than words ... the logical answer was missiles." The Soviets maintained their tight secrecy, writing their plans longhand, which were approved by Rodion Malinovsky on July 4 and Khrushchev on July 7.
From the very beginning, the Soviets' operation entailed elaborate denial and deception, known in the USSR as "maskirovka". All of the planning and preparation for transporting and deploying the missiles were carried out in the utmost secrecy, with only a very few told the exact nature of the mission. Even the troops detailed for the mission were given misdirection, told they were headed for a cold region and outfitted with ski boots, fleece-lined parkas, and other winter equipment. The Soviet code name was Operation Anadyr. Anadyr was also the name of a river flowing into the Bering Sea, the name of the capital of Chukotsky District, and a bomber base in the far eastern region. All these were meant to conceal the program from both internal and external audiences.
Specialists in missile construction under the guise of "machine operators," "irrigation specialists" and "agricultural specialists" arrived in July. A total of 43,000 foreign troops would ultimately be brought in. Marshal Sergei Biryuzov, chief of the Soviet Rocket Forces, led a survey team that visited Cuba. He told Khrushchev that the missiles would be concealed and camouflaged by palm trees.
The Cuban leadership was further upset when in September the U.S. Congress approved U.S. Joint Resolution 230, which expressed Congress's resolve to prevent the creation of an externally supported military establishment. On the same day, the U.S. announced a major military exercise in the Caribbean, PHIBRIGLEX-62, which Cuba denounced as a deliberate provocation and proof that the U.S. planned to invade Cuba.
The Soviet leadership believed, based on their perception of Kennedy's lack of confidence during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, that he would avoid confrontation and accept the missiles as a fait accompli. On September 11, the Soviet Union publicly warned that a U.S. attack on Cuba or on Soviet ships carrying supplies to the island would mean war. The Soviets continued the Maskirovka program to conceal their actions in Cuba. They repeatedly denied that the weapons being brought into Cuba were offensive in nature. On September 7, Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin assured United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson that the USSR was supplying only defensive weapons to Cuba. On September 11, the Telegrafnoe Agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza (Soviet News Agency TASS) announced that the Soviet Union had no need or intention to introduce offensive nuclear missiles into Cuba. On October 13, Dobrynin was questioned by former Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles about whether the Soviets planned to put offensive weapons in Cuba. He denied any such plans. On October 17, Soviet embassy official Georgy Bolshakov brought President Kennedy a personal message from Khrushchev reassuring him that "under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba."
As early as August 1962, the U.S. suspected the Soviets of building missile facilities in Cuba. During that month, its intelligence services gathered information about sightings by ground observers of Russian-built MiG-21 fighters and Il-28 light bombers. U-2 spyplanes found S-75 Dvina (NATO designation SA-2) surface-to-air missile sites at eight different locations. CIA director John A. McCone was suspicious. Sending antiaircraft missiles into Cuba, he reasoned, "made sense only if Moscow intended to use them to shield a base for ballistic missiles aimed at the United States." On August 10, he wrote a memo to President Kennedy in which he guessed that the Soviets were preparing to introduce ballistic missiles into Cuba.
With important Congressional elections scheduled for November, the Crisis became enmeshed in American politics. On August 31, Senator Kenneth Keating (R-New York), who received his information from Cuban exiles in Florida, warned on the Senate floor that the Soviet Union may be constructing a missile base in Cuba. He charged the Kennedy Administration was covering up a major threat to the U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay presented a pre-invasion bombing plan to Kennedy in September, while spy flights and minor military harassment from U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base were the subject of continual Cuban diplomatic complaints to the U.S. government.
The first consignment of R-12 missiles arrived on the night of September 8, followed by a second on September 16. The R-12 was a medium-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead. It was a single-stage, road-transportable, surface-launched, storable liquid propellant fueled missile that could deliver a megaton-class nuclear weapon. The Soviets were building nine sites — six for R-12 medium-range missiles (NATO designation SS-4 Sandal) with an effective range of 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) and three for R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (NATO designation SS-5 Skean) with a maximum range of 4,500 kilometres (2,800 mi).
On October 7, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós spoke at the UN General Assembly: "If ... we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves; we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ."
The missiles in Cuba allowed the Soviets to effectively target the majority of the continental U.S. The planned arsenal was forty launchers. The Cuban populace readily noticed the arrival and deployment of the missiles and hundreds of reports reached Miami. U.S. intelligence received countless reports, many of dubious quality or even laughable, and most of which could be dismissed as describing defensive missiles. Only five reports bothered the analysts. They described large trucks passing through towns at night carrying very long canvas-covered cylindrical objects that could not make turns through towns without backing up and maneuvering. Defensive missiles could make these turns. These reports could not be satisfactorily dismissed.
The United States had been sending U-2 surveillance over Cuba since the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. The first issue that led to a pause in reconnaissance flights took place on August 30, when a U-2 operated by the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command flew over Sakhalin Island in the Soviet Far East by mistake. The Soviets lodged a protest and the U.S. apologized. Nine days later, a Taiwanese-operated U-2 was lost over western China to an SA-2 SAM. U.S. officials were worried that one of the Cuban or Soviet SAMs in Cuba might shoot down a CIA U-2, initiating another international incident. In a meeting with members of the Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance (COMOR) on 10 September, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy heavily restricted further U-2 flights over Cuban airspace. The resulting lack of coverage over the island for the next five weeks became known to historians as the "Photo Gap." During this period, no significant U-2 coverage was achieved over the interior of the island. U.S. officials attempted to use a Corona photoreconnaissance satellite to obtain coverage over reported Soviet military deployments, but imagery acquired over western Cuba by a Corona KH-4 mission on 1 October was heavily covered by clouds and haze and failed to provide any usable intelligence. At the end of September, Navy reconnaissance aircraft photographed the Soviet ship Kasimov with large crates on its deck the size and shape of Il-28 light bomber fuselages.
In September 1962, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) noticed that Cuban surface-to-air missile sites were arranged in a pattern similar to those used by the Soviet Union to protect its ICBM bases, leading DIA to lobby for the resumption of U-2 flights over the island. Although in the past the flights had been conducted by the CIA, due to pressure from the Defense Department, the authority was transferred to the Air Force. Following the loss of a CIA U-2 over the Soviet Union in May 1960, it was thought that if another U-2 were shot down, an Air Force aircraft arguably being used for a legitimate military purpose would be easier to explain than a CIA flight.
When the reconnaissance missions were re-authorized on October 9, poor weather kept the planes from flying. The U.S. first obtained U-2 photographic evidence of the missiles on October 14, when a U-2 flight piloted by Major Richard Heyser took 928 pictures on a path selected by DIA analysts, capturing images of what turned out to be an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province (now in Artemisa Province), in western Cuba.
On October 15, the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) reviewed the U-2 photographs and identified objects that they interpreted as medium range ballistic missiles. This identification was made, in part, on the strength of reporting provided by Oleg Penkovsky, a double agent in the GRU working for CIA and MI6. Although he provided no direct reports of the Soviet missile deployments to Cuba, technical and doctrinal details of Soviet missile regiments provided by Penkovsky in the months and years prior to the Crisis helped NPIC analysts correctly identify the missiles on U-2 imagery.
That evening, the CIA notified the Department of State and at 8:30 pm EDT, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy chose to wait until the next morning to tell the President. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was briefed at midnight. The next morning, Bundy met with Kennedy and showed him the U-2 photographs and briefed him on the CIA's analysis of the images. At 6:30 pm EDT, Kennedy convened a meeting of the nine members of the National Security Council and five other key advisors, in a group he formally named the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) after the fact on October 22 by the National Security Action Memorandum 196. Without informing the members of EXCOMM, President Kennedy tape recorded all of their proceedings, and Sheldon M. Stern, head of the Kennedy library has transcribed some of them.
The U.S. had no plan in place because U.S. intelligence had been convinced that the Soviets would never install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The EXCOMM quickly discussed several possible courses of action, including:
- Do nothing: American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new.
- Diplomacy: Use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
- Secret approach: Offer Castro the choice of splitting with the Russians or being invaded.
- Invasion: Full force invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro.
- Air strike: Use the U.S. Air Force to attack all known missile sites.
- Blockade: Use the U.S. Navy to block any missiles from arriving in Cuba.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion was the only solution. They believed that the Soviets would not attempt to stop the U.S. from conquering Cuba. Kennedy was skeptical:
They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.
Kennedy concluded that attacking Cuba by air would signal the Soviets to presume "a clear line" to conquer Berlin. Kennedy also believed that U.S. allies would think of the U.S. as "trigger-happy cowboys" who lost Berlin because they could not peacefully resolve the Cuban situation.
The EXCOMM then discussed the effect on the strategic balance of power, both political and military. The Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the missiles would seriously alter the military balance, but McNamara disagreed. An extra 40, he reasoned, would make little difference to the overall strategic balance. The U.S. already had approximately 5,000 strategic warheads, while the Soviet Union had only 300. McNamara concluded that the Soviets having 340 would not therefore substantially alter the strategic balance. In 1990, he reiterated that "it made no difference ... The military balance wasn't changed. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now."
The EXCOMM agreed that the missiles would affect the political balance. First, Kennedy had explicitly promised the American people less than a month before the crisis that "if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out offensive actions against the United States ... the United States would act." Second, U.S. credibility among their allies, and among the American people, would be damaged if they allowed the Soviet Union to appear to redress the strategic balance by placing missiles in Cuba. Kennedy explained after the crisis that "it would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality."
On October 18, President Kennedy met with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, who claimed the weapons were for defensive purposes only. Not wanting to expose what he already knew, and wanting to avoid panicking the American public, the President did not reveal that he was already aware of the missile build-up.
By October 19, frequent U-2 spy flights showed four operational sites. On the night of 10-19-1962 at 23:56 a helicopter from USS Essex CVS-9 squadron HSS-2 crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Lt. Cmdr. James Robert Hughes and AM-3 George Blythe perished. Their bodies were never recovered. On October 22 1962 a second helicopter crashed into the Gulf, that also was from HSS-2 stationed on the Essex. Lost that night were Lt. Cmdr. Witkowski and Enlisted Serviceman 50 AZ Murphy. The details of the deaths of October 19, 1962 have never been provided to the families affected. There are numerous rumors that exist from bad storms, Soviet interference with the flight, or a one way suicide recon mission. However the most consistently repeated accounts from on deck witnesses indicate that the helicopter on October 19 was "shot down".
Two Operational Plans (OPLAN) were considered. OPLAN 316 envisioned a full invasion of Cuba by Army and Marine units supported by the Navy following Air Force and naval airstrikes. However, Army units in the U.S. would have had trouble fielding mechanized and logistical assets, while the U.S. Navy could not supply sufficient amphibious shipping to transport even a modest armored contingent from the Army. OPLAN 312, primarily an Air Force and Navy carrier operation, was designed with enough flexibility to do anything from engaging individual missile sites to providing air support for OPLAN 316's ground forces.
Kennedy met with members of EXCOMM and other top advisers throughout October 21, considering two remaining options: an air strike primarily against the Cuban missile bases, or a naval blockade of Cuba. A full-scale invasion was not the administration's first option. McNamara supported the naval blockade as a strong but limited military action that left the U.S. in control. However, the term "blockade" was problematic. According to international law a blockade is an act of war, but the Kennedy administration did not think that the USSR would be provoked to attack by a mere blockade. Additionally, legal experts at the State Department and Justice Department concluded that a declaration of war could be avoided so long as another legal justification, based on the Rio Treaty for defense of the Western Hemisphere, was obtained via a resolution by a two-thirds vote from the members or the Organization of American States (OAS).
Admiral Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations wrote a position paper that helped Kennedy to differentiate between what they termed a "quarantine" of offensive weapons and a blockade of all materials, claiming that a classic blockade was not the original intention. Since it would take place in international waters, Kennedy obtained the approval of the OAS for military action under the hemispheric defense provisions of the Rio Treaty.
Latin American participation in the quarantine now involved two Argentine destroyers which were to report to the U.S. Commander South Atlantic [COMSOLANT] at Trinidad on November 9. An Argentine submarine and a Marine battalion with lift were available if required. In addition, two Venezuelan destroyers (Destroyers ARV D-11 Nueva Esparta" and "ARV D-21 Zulia") and one submarine (Caribe) had reported to COMSOLANT, ready for sea by November 2. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago offered the use of Chaguaramas Naval Base to warships of any OAS nation for the duration of the "quarantine." The Dominican Republic had made available one escort ship. Colombia was reported ready to furnish units and had sent military officers to the U.S. to discuss this assistance. The Argentine Air Force informally offered three SA-16 aircraft in addition to forces already committed to the "quarantine" operation.
This initially was to involve a naval blockade against offensive weapons within the framework of the Organization of American States and the Rio Treaty. Such a blockade might be expanded to cover all types of goods and air transport. The action was to be backed up by surveillance of Cuba. The CNO's scenario was followed closely in later implementing the "quarantine."
On October 19, the EXCOMM formed separate working groups to examine the air strike and blockade options, and by the afternoon most support in the EXCOMM shifted to the blockade option. However, reservations about the plan continued to be voiced as late as the 21st, the paramount concern being that once the blockade was put into effect, the Soviets would rush to complete some of the missiles. Consequently, the U.S. could find itself bombing operational missiles were the blockade to fail to force Khrushchev to remove the missiles already on the island.
At 3:00 pm EDT on October 22, President Kennedy formally established the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) with National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 196. At 5:00 pm, he met with Congressional leaders who contentiously opposed a blockade and demanded a stronger response. In Moscow, Ambassador Kohler briefed Chairman Khrushchev on the pending blockade and Kennedy's speech to the nation. Ambassadors around the world gave notice to non-Eastern Bloc leaders. Before the speech, U.S. delegations met with Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and French President Charles de Gaulle to brief them on the U.S. intelligence and their proposed response. All were supportive of the U.S. position.
On October 22 at 7:00 pm EDT, President Kennedy delivered a nationwide televised address on all of the major networks announcing the discovery of the missiles.
It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
Kennedy described the administration's plan:
To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.
During the speech a directive went out to all U.S. forces worldwide placing them on DEFCON 3. The heavy cruiser USS Newport News was designated flagship for the blockade, with the USS Leary (DD-879) as Newport News's destroyer escort.
On October 23, at 11:24 am EDT, a cable drafted by George Ball to the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey and NATO notified them that they were considering making an offer to withdraw what the U.S. knew to be nearly obsolete missiles from Italy and Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Turkish officials replied that they would "deeply resent" any trade involving the U.S.'s missile presence in their country. Two days later, on the morning of October 25, journalist Walter Lippmann proposed the same thing in his syndicated column. Castro reaffirmed Cuba's right to self-defense and said that all of its weapons were defensive and Cuba would not allow an inspection.
Three days after Kennedy's speech, the Chinese People's Daily announced that "650,000,000 Chinese men and women were standing by the Cuban people." In West Germany, newspapers supported the U.S.'s response, contrasting it with the weak American actions in the region during the preceding months. They also expressed some fear that the Soviets might retaliate in Berlin. In France on October 23, the crisis made the front page of all the daily newspapers. The next day, an editorial in Le Monde expressed doubt about the authenticity of the CIA's photographic evidence. Two days later, after a visit by a high-ranking CIA agent, they accepted the validity of the photographs. Also in France, in the October 29 issue of Le Figaro, Raymond Aron wrote in support of the American response. On October 24, Pope John XXIII sent a message to the Soviet embassy in Rome to be transmitted to the Kremlin, in which he voiced his concern for peace. In this message he stated "We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace."
At the time, the crisis continued unabated, and on the evening of October 24, the Soviet news agency TASS broadcast a telegram from Khrushchev to President Kennedy, in which Khrushchev warned that the United States's "outright piracy" would lead to war. However, this was followed at 9:24 pm by a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy which was received at 10:52 pm EDT, in which Khrushchev stated, "if you weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the USA" and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as "an act of aggression" and their ships will be instructed to ignore it.
The U.S. requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on October 25. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. Ambassador Zorin refused to answer. The next day at 10:00 pm EDT, the U.S. raised the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON 2. For the only confirmed time in U.S. history, while B-52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert, B-47 medium bombers were dispersed to various military and civilian airfields, and made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes' notice. One-eighth of SAC's 1,436 bombers were on airborne alert, some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert, some of which were targeted at Cuba, while Air Defense Command (ADC) redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours with one-third maintaining 15-minute alert status. Twenty-three nuclear-armed B-52s were sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union so that the latter might observe that the U.S. was serious. Jack J. Catton later estimated that about 80 percent of SAC's planes were ready for launch during the crisis; David A. Burchinal recalled that, by contrast,
the Russians were so thoroughly stood down, and we knew it. They didn't make any move. They did not increase their alert; they did not increase any flights, or their air defense posture. They didn't do a thing, they froze in place. We were never further from nuclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further.
"By October 22, Tactical Air Command (TAC) had 511 fighters plus supporting tankers and reconnaissance aircraft deployed to face Cuba on one-hour alert status. However, TAC and the Military Air Transport Service had problems. The concentration of aircraft in Florida strained command and support echelons; which faced critical undermanning in security, armaments, and communications; the absence of initial authorization for war-reserve stocks of conventional munitions forced TAC to scrounge; and the lack of airlift assets to support a major airborne drop necessitated the call-up of 24 Reserve squadrons."
On October 25 at 1:45 am EDT, Kennedy responded to Khrushchev's telegram, stating that the U.S. was forced into action after receiving repeated assurances that no offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba, and that when these assurances proved to be false, the deployment "required the responses I have announced ... I hope that your government will take necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation."
At 7:15 am EDT on October 25, the USS Essex and USS Gearing attempted to intercept the Bucharest but failed to do so. Fairly certain the tanker did not contain any military material, they allowed it through the blockade. Later that day, at 5:43 pm, the commander of the blockade effort ordered the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. to intercept and board the Lebanese freighter Marucla. This took place the next day, and the Marucla was cleared through the blockade after its cargo was checked.
At 5:00 pm EDT on October 25, William Clements announced that the missiles in Cuba were still actively being worked on. This report was later verified by a CIA report that suggested there had been no slow-down at all. In response, Kennedy issued Security Action Memorandum 199, authorizing the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR (which had the duty of carrying out first air strikes on the Soviet Union). During the day, the Soviets responded to the blockade by turning back 14 ships presumably carrying offensive weapons.
The next morning, October 26, Kennedy informed the EXCOMM that he believed only an invasion would remove the missiles from Cuba. However, he was persuaded to give the matter time and continue with both military and diplomatic pressure. He agreed and ordered the low-level flights over the island to be increased from two per day to once every two hours. He also ordered a crash program to institute a new civil government in Cuba if an invasion went ahead.
At this point, the crisis was ostensibly at a stalemate. The USSR had shown no indication that they would back down and had made several comments to the contrary. The U.S. had no reason to believe otherwise and was in the early stages of preparing for an invasion, along with a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union in case it responded militarily, which was assumed.
At 1:00 pm EDT on October 26, John A. Scali of ABC News had lunch with Aleksandr Fomin (the cover name of Alexander Feklisov, the KGB station chief in Washington), at Fomin's request. Following the instructions of the Politburo of the CPSU, Fomin noted, "War seems about to break out" and asked Scali to use his contacts to talk to his "high-level friends" at the State Department to see if the U.S. would be interested in a diplomatic solution. He suggested that the language of the deal would contain an assurance from the Soviet Union to remove the weapons under UN supervision and that Castro would publicly announce that he would not accept such weapons in the future, in exchange for a public statement by the U.S. that it would never invade Cuba. The U.S. responded by asking the Brazilian government to pass a message to Castro that the U.S. would be "unlikely to invade" if the missiles were removed.
On October 26 at 6:00 pm EDT, the State Department started receiving a message that appeared to be written personally by Khrushchev. It was Saturday at 2:00 am in Moscow. The long letter took several minutes to arrive, and it took translators additional time to translate and transcribe it.
Robert F. Kennedy described the letter as "very long and emotional." Khrushchev reiterated the basic outline that had been stated to John Scali earlier in the day, "I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear." At 6:45 pm EDT, news of Fomin's offer to Scali was finally heard and was interpreted as a "set up" for the arrival of Khrushchev's letter. The letter was then considered official and accurate, although it was later learned that Fomin was almost certainly operating of his own accord without official backing. Additional study of the letter was ordered and continued into the night.
Direct aggression against Cuba would mean nuclear war. The Americans speak about such aggression as if they did not know or did not want to accept this fact. I have no doubt they would lose such a war. —Ernesto "Che" Guevara, October 1962
Castro, on the other hand, was convinced that an invasion of Cuba was soon at hand, and on October 26, he sent a telegram to Khrushchev that appeared to call for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the U.S in case of attack. However, in a 2010 interview, Castro expressed regret about his earlier stance on first use: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it at all." Castro also ordered all anti-aircraft weapons in Cuba to fire on any U.S. aircraft, whereas in the past they had been ordered only to fire on groups of two or more. At 6:00 am EDT on October 27, the CIA delivered a memo reporting that three of the four missile sites at San Cristobal and the two sites at Sagua la Grande appeared to be fully operational. They also noted that the Cuban military continued to organize for action, although they were under order not to initiate action unless attacked.
At 9:00 am EDT on October 27, Radio Moscow began broadcasting a message from Khrushchev. Contrary to the letter of the night before, the message offered a new trade, that the missiles on Cuba would be removed in exchange for the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey. At 10:00 am EDT, the executive committee met again to discuss the situation and came to the conclusion that the change in the message was due to internal debate between Khrushchev and other party officials in the Kremlin. Kennedy realized that he would be in an "insupportable position if this becomes Khrushchev's proposal", because: 1) The missiles in Turkey were not militarily useful and were being removed anyway; and 2) "It's gonna – to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade." National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy explained why Khrushchev's public acquiescence could not be considered: "The current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba."
McNamara noted that another tanker, the Grozny, was about 600 miles (970 km) out and should be intercepted. He also noted that they had not made the USSR aware of the blockade line and suggested relaying this information to them via U Thant at the United Nations.
While the meeting progressed, at 11:03 am EDT a new message began to arrive from Khrushchev. The message stated, in part,
"You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But ... you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us ... I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive ... Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States ... will remove its analogous means from Turkey ... and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfillment of the pledges made."
The executive committee continued to meet through the day.
Throughout the crisis, Turkey had repeatedly stated that it would be upset if the Jupiter missiles were removed. Italy's Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, who was also Foreign Minister ad interim, offered to allow withdrawal of the missiles deployed in Apulia as a bargaining chip. He gave the message to one of his most trusted friends, Ettore Bernabei, the general manager of RAI-TV, to convey to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Bernabei was in New York to attend an international conference on satellite TV broadcasting. Unknown to the Soviets, the U.S. regarded the Jupiter missiles as obsolescent and already supplanted by the Polaris nuclear ballistic submarine missiles.
On the morning of October 27, a U-2F (the third CIA U-2A, modified for air-to-air refueling) piloted by USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, departed its forward operating location at McCoy AFB, Florida. At approximately 12:00 pm EDT, the aircraft was struck by a S-75 Dvina (NATO designation SA-2 Guideline) SAM missile launched from Cuba. The aircraft was shot down and Anderson was killed. The stress in negotiations between the USSR and the U.S. intensified, and only later was it believed that the decision to fire the missile was made locally by an undetermined Soviet commander acting on his own authority. Later that day, at about 3:41 pm EDT, several U.S. Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft on low-level photoreconnaissance missions were fired upon.
On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev told his son Sergei that the shooting down of Major Anderson's U-2 was by the "Cuban military at the direction of Raul Castro".
At 4:00 pm EDT, Kennedy recalled members of EXCOMM to the White House and ordered that a message immediately be sent to U Thant asking the Soviets to suspend work on the missiles while negotiations were carried out. During this meeting, General Maxwell Taylor delivered the news that the U-2 had been shot down. Kennedy had earlier claimed he would order an attack on such sites if fired upon, but he decided to not act unless another attack was made. Forty years later, McNamara said:
We had to send a U-2 over to gain reconnaissance information on whether the Soviet missiles were becoming operational. We believed that if the U-2 was shot down that—the Cubans didn't have capabilities to shoot it down, the Soviets did—we believed if it was shot down, it would be shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air-missile unit, and that it would represent a decision by the Soviets to escalate the conflict. And therefore, before we sent the U-2 out, we agreed that if it was shot down we wouldn't meet, we'd simply attack. It was shot down on Friday. ... Fortunately, we changed our mind, we thought "Well, it might have been an accident, we won't attack." Later we learned that Khrushchev had reasoned just as we did: we send over the U-2, if it was shot down, he reasoned we would believe it was an intentional escalation. And therefore, he issued orders to Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, to instruct all of his batteries not to shoot down the U-2.
Emissaries sent by both Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev agreed to meet at the Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. on the evening of October 27. Kennedy suggested that they take Khrushchev's offer to trade away the missiles. Unknown to most members of the EXCOMM, Robert Kennedy had been meeting with the Soviet Ambassador in Washington to discover whether these intentions were genuine. The EXCOMM was generally against the proposal because it would undermine NATO's authority, and the Turkish government had repeatedly stated it was against any such trade.
As the meeting progressed, a new plan emerged and Kennedy was slowly persuaded. The new plan called for the President to ignore the latest message and instead to return to Khrushchev's earlier one. Kennedy was initially hesitant, feeling that Khrushchev would no longer accept the deal because a new one had been offered, but Llewellyn Thompson argued that he might accept it anyway. White House Special Counsel and Adviser Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy left the meeting and returned 45 minutes later with a draft letter to this effect. The President made several changes, had it typed, and sent it.
After the EXCOMM meeting, a smaller meeting continued in the Oval Office. The group argued that the letter should be underscored with an oral message to Ambassador Dobrynin stating that if the missiles were not withdrawn, military action would be used to remove them. Dean Rusk added one proviso, that no part of the language of the deal would mention Turkey, but there would be an understanding that the missiles would be removed "voluntarily" in the immediate aftermath. The President agreed, and the message was sent.
At Dean Rusk's request, Fomin and Scali met again. Scali asked why the two letters from Khrushchev were so different, and Fomin claimed it was because of "poor communications." Scali replied that the claim was not credible and shouted that he thought it was a "stinking double cross." He went on to claim that an invasion was only hours away, at which point Fomin stated that a response to the U.S. message was expected from Khrushchev shortly, and he urged Scali to tell the State Department that no treachery was intended. Scali said that he did not think anyone would believe him, but he agreed to deliver the message. The two went their separate ways, and Scali immediately typed out a memo for the EXCOMM.
Within the U.S. establishment, it was well understood that ignoring the second offer and returning to the first put Khrushchev in a terrible position. Military preparations continued, and all active duty Air Force personnel were recalled to their bases for possible action. Robert Kennedy later recalled the mood, "We had not abandoned all hope, but what hope there was now rested with Khrushchev's revising his course within the next few hours. It was a hope, not an expectation. The expectation was military confrontation by Tuesday, and possibly tomorrow ..."
At 8:05 pm EDT, the letter drafted earlier in the day was delivered. The message read, "As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals—which seem generally acceptable as I understand them—are as follows: 1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safe-guards, to halt the further introduction of such weapon systems into Cuba. 2) We, on our part, would agree—upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba." The letter was also released directly to the press to ensure it could not be "delayed." With the letter delivered, a deal was on the table. However, as Robert Kennedy noted, there was little expectation it would be accepted. At 9:00 pm EDT, the EXCOMM met again to review the actions for the following day. Plans were drawn up for air strikes on the missile sites as well as other economic targets, notably petroleum storage. McNamara stated that they had to "have two things ready: a government for Cuba, because we're going to need one; and secondly, plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure as hell they're going to do something there."
At 12:12 am EDT, on October 27, the U.S. informed its NATO allies that "the situation is growing shorter ... the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary." To add to the concern, at 6:00 am the CIA reported that all missiles in Cuba were ready for action.
Later that same day, what the White House later called "Black Saturday," the U.S. Navy dropped a series of "signaling depth charges" (practice depth charges the size of hand grenades) on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the blockade line, unaware that it was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allowed it to be used if the submarine was "hulled" (a hole in the hull from depth charges or surface fire). The decision to launch these required agreement from all three officers on board, but one of them, Vasili Arkhipov, objected and so the launch was narrowly averted.
On the same day a U.S. U-2 spy plane made an accidental, unauthorized ninety-minute overflight of the Soviet Union's far eastern coast. The Soviets responded by scrambling MiG fighters from Wrangel Island; in turn the Americans launched F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea.
On October 27, Khrushchev also received a letter from Castro – what is now known as the Armageddon Letter (dated Oct. 26) – interpreted as urging the use of nuclear force in the event of an attack on Cuba. "I believe the imperialists' aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be," Castro wrote.
On October 27, after much deliberation between the Soviet Union and Kennedy's cabinet, Kennedy secretly agreed to remove all missiles set in southern Italy and in Turkey, the latter on the border of the Soviet Union, in exchange for Khrushchev removing all missiles in Cuba. There is some dispute as to whether removing the missiles from Italy was part of the secret agreement, although Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that it was; nevertheless, when the crisis had ended McNamara gave the order to dismantle the missiles in both Italy and Turkey.
At 9:00 am EST, on October 28, a new message from Khrushchev was broadcast on Radio Moscow. Khrushchev stated that, "the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as 'offensive' and their crating and return to the Soviet Union."
At 10:00 am, October 28, Kennedy first learned of Khrushchev's solution to the crisis: Remove the 15 Jupiters in Turkey and Russia will remove the rockets from Cuba. The Soviet premier had made the offer in a public statement for the world to hear. Despite almost solid opposition from his senior advisers, Kennedy quickly embraced the Soviet offer. "This is a pretty good play of his," Kennedy said, according to a tape recording he made secretly of the Cabinet Room meeting. Kennedy had deployed the Jupiters in March of the year, causing a stream of angry outbursts from the Soviet premier. "Most people will think this is a rather even trade and we ought to take advantage of it," Kennedy said. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the first to endorse the missile swap but others continued to oppose the offer. Finally, Kennedy ended the debate. "We can't very well invade Cuba with all its toil and blood," Kennedy said, "when we could have gotten them out by making a deal on the same missiles on Turkey. If that's part of the record, then you don't have a very good war."
Kennedy immediately responded, issuing a statement calling the letter "an important and constructive contribution to peace." He continued this with a formal letter:
I consider my letter to you of October twenty-seventh and your reply of today as firm undertakings on the part of both our governments which should be promptly carried out ... The US will make a statement in the framework of the Security Council in reference to Cuba as follows: it will declare that the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba, and will restrain those who would plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from US territory or from the territory of other countries neighboring to Cuba.
Kennedy's planned statement would also contain suggestions he had received from his adviser, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in a "Memorandum for the President" describing the "Post Mortem on Cuba."
The U.S. continued the blockade, and in the following days, aerial reconnaissance proved that the Soviets were making progress in removing the missile systems. The 42 missiles and their support equipment were loaded onto eight Soviet ships. On November 2, 1962, President Kennedy addressed the U.S. via radio and television broadcasts regarding the dismantlement process of the Soviet R-12 missile bases located in the Caribbean region. The ships left Cuba from November 5–9. The U.S. made a final visual check as each of the ships passed the blockade line. Further diplomatic efforts were required to remove the Soviet IL-28 bombers, and they were loaded on three Soviet ships on December 5 and 6. Concurrent with the Soviet commitment on the IL-28s, the U.S. Government announced the end of the blockade effective at 6:45 pm EST on November 20, 1962.
At the time when the Kennedy administration thought that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, nuclear tactical rockets stayed in Cuba since they were not part of the Kennedy-Khrushchev understandings. However, the Soviets changed their minds, fearing possible future Cuban militant steps, and on November 22, 1962, the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan told Castro that those rockets with the nuclear warheads were being removed too.
In his negotiations with the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy informally proposed that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be removed "within a short time after this crisis was over." The last U.S. missiles were disassembled by April 24, 1963, and were flown out of Turkey soon after.
The practical effect of this Kennedy-Khrushchev Pact was that it effectively strengthened Castro's position in Cuba, guaranteeing that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. It is possible that Khrushchev only placed the missiles in Cuba to get Kennedy to remove the missiles from Italy and Turkey and that the Soviets had no intention of resorting to nuclear war if they were out-gunned by the U.S. Because the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles from NATO bases in Southern Italy and Turkey was not made public at the time, Khrushchev appeared to have lost the conflict and become weakened. The perception was that Kennedy had won the contest between the superpowers and Khrushchev had been humiliated. This is not the case as both Kennedy and Khrushchev took every step to avoid full conflict despite the pressures of their governments. Khrushchev held power for another two years.
The compromise embarrassed Khrushchev and the Soviet Union because the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Italy and Turkey was a secret deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Khrushchev went to Kennedy thinking that the crisis was getting out of hand. The Soviets were seen as retreating from circumstances that they had started. Khrushchev's fall from power two years later was in part because of the Politburo embarrassment at both Khrushchev's eventual concessions to the U.S. and his ineptitude in precipitating the crisis in the first place. According to Dobrynin, the top Soviet leadership took the Cuban outcome as "a blow to its prestige bordering on humiliation."
Cuba perceived the outcome as a betrayal by the Soviets, given that decisions on how to resolve the crisis had been made exclusively by Kennedy and Khrushchev. Castro was especially upset that certain issues of interest to Cuba, such as the status of the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo, were not addressed. This caused Cuban–Soviet relations to deteriorate for years to come. On the other hand, Cuba continued to be protected from invasion.
Although LeMay told the President that he considered the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis the "greatest defeat in our history", his was a minority position. He had pressed for an immediate invasion of Cuba as soon as the crisis began, and still favored invading Cuba even after the Soviets had withdrawn their missiles. 25 years later, LeMay still believed that "We could have gotten not only the missiles out of Cuba, we could have gotten the Communists out of Cuba at that time."
After the crisis, the U.S. and the Soviet Union created the Moscow–Washington hotline, a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington, D.C. The purpose was to have a way that the leaders of the two Cold War countries could communicate directly to solve such a crisis. The worldwide U.S. Forces DEFCON 3 status was returned to DEFCON 4 on November 20, 1962. U-2 pilot Major Anderson's body was returned to the U.S. and he was buried with full military honors in South Carolina. He was the first recipient of the newly created Air Force Cross, which was awarded posthumously.
Although Anderson was the only combatant fatality during the crisis, 11 crew members of three reconnaissance Boeing RB-47 Stratojets of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing were also killed in crashes during the period between September 27 and November 11, 1962. Seven crew died when a MATS Boeing C-135B Stratolifter delivering ammunition to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base stalled and crashed on approach on October 23.
Critics including Seymour Melman and Seymour Hersh suggested that the Cuban Missile Crisis encouraged U.S. use of military means, such as in the Vietnam War.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a historian and adviser to President Kennedy, told National Public Radio in an interview on October 16, 2002, that Castro did not want the missiles, but that Khrushchev had pressured Castro to accept them. Castro was not completely happy with the idea but the Cuban National Directorate of the Revolution accepted them to protect Cuba against U.S. attack, and to aid its ally, the Soviet Union. Schlesinger believed that when the missiles were withdrawn, Castro was angrier with Khrushchev than he was with Kennedy because Khrushchev had not consulted Castro before deciding to remove them. Although Castro was infuriated by Khrushchev, he planned on striking the United States with remaining missiles should an invasion of the island occur.
In early 1992, it was confirmed that Soviet forces in Cuba had, by the time the crisis broke, received tactical nuclear warheads for their artillery rockets and Il-28 bombers. Castro stated that he would have recommended their use if the U.S. invaded despite knowing Cuba would be destroyed.
Arguably the most dangerous moment in the crisis was only recognized during the Cuban Missile Crisis Havana conference in October 2002. Attended by many of the veterans of the crisis, they all learned that on October 27, 1962, the USS Beale had tracked and dropped signaling depth charges (the size of hand grenades) on the B-59, a Soviet Project 641 (NATO designation Foxtrot) submarine which, unknown to the U.S., was armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo. Running out of air, the Soviet submarine was surrounded by American warships and desperately needed to surface. An argument broke out among three officers on the B-59, including submarine captain Valentin Savitsky, political officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Deputy brigade commander Captain 2nd rank (U.S. Navy Commander rank equivalent) Vasili Arkhipov. An exhausted Savitsky became furious and ordered that the nuclear torpedo on board be made combat ready. Accounts differ about whether Commander Arkhipov convinced Savitsky not to make the attack, or whether Savitsky himself finally concluded that the only reasonable choice left open to him was to come to the surface. During the conference McNamara stated that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said, "A guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."
Fifty years after the crisis, Graham Allison wrote:
Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, US President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was "between 1 in 3 and even," and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The US air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.
BBC journalist Joe Matthews published on October 13, 2012, the story behind the 100 tactical nuclear warheads mentioned by Graham Allison in the excerpt above. Khrushchev feared that Castro's hurt pride and widespread Cuban indignation over the concessions he had made to Kennedy might lead to a breakdown of the agreement between the Soviet Union and the U.S. In order to prevent this, Khrushchev decided to offer to give Cuba more than 100 tactical nuclear weapons that had been shipped to Cuba along with the long-range missiles, but which crucially had escaped the notice of U.S. intelligence. Khrushchev determined that because the Americans had not listed the missiles on their list of demands, keeping them in Cuba would be in the Soviet Union's interests.
Anastas Mikoyan was tasked with the negotiations with Castro over the missile transfer deal designed to prevent a breakdown in the relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union. While in Havana, Mikoyan witnessed the mood swings and paranoia of Castro, who was convinced that Moscow had made the agreement with the U.S. at the expense of Cuba's defense. Mikoyan, on his own initiative, decided that Castro and his military not be given control of weapons with an explosive force equal to 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs under any circumstances. He defused the seemingly intractable situation, which risked re-escalating the crisis, on November 22, 1962. During a tense, four-hour meeting, Mikoyan convinced Castro that despite Moscow's desire to help, it would be in breach of an unpublished Soviet law (which didn't actually exist) to transfer the missiles permanently into Cuban hands and provide them with an independent nuclear deterrent. Castro was forced to give way and – much to the relief of Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviet government – the tactical nuclear weapons were crated and returned by sea to the Soviet Union during December 1962.
The American popular media, especially television, made heavy use of the events of the missile crisis and both fictional and documentary forms. Jim Willis includes the Crisis as one of the 100 "media moments that changed America." Sheldon Stern finds that a half century later there are still many "misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies" that have shaped media versions of what happened in the White House during those harrowing two weeks. According to William Cohn, television programs are typically the main source used by the American public to know about and interpret the past. The Soviet media proved somewhat disorganized as it was unable to generate a coherent popular history. Khrushchev lost power and he was airbrushed out of the story. Cuba was no longer portrayed as a heroic David against the American Goliath. One contradiction that pervaded the Soviet media campaign was between the pacifistic rhetoric of the peace movement that emphasizes the horrors of nuclear war, versus the militancy of the need to prepare Soviets for war against American aggression.
(Listed chronologically)Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy's account of the crisis, released in 1969; It became the basis for numerous films and documentaries.
Topaz, 1969 film by Alfred Hitchcock based on the 1967 novel by Leon Uris, set during the run-up to the crisis
The Missiles of October, 1974 TV docudrama about the crisis
The World Next Door, 1990 novel by Brad Ferguson, set in this period
Quantum Leap, 1991 TV Show, (Season 3 Episode, Nuclear Family – October 26, 1962), Sam must deal with the panic associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis as a Florida fallout shelter salesman.
The short film Symposium on Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 is available for free download at the Internet Archive
Matinee, 1993 film starring John Goodman set during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which an independent-filmmaker decides to seize the opportunity to debut an atomic themed film.
seaQuest 2032, 1995 TV Show, (Season 3 Episode, "Second Chance"), seaQuest inadvertently travels back to 1962 where their presence accidentally interferes with the Cuban Missile Crisis
Blast from the Past (film), 1999 American romantic comedy film, set in this period
K-19: The Widowmaker, Docudrama about the history just before the crisis
Thirteen Days (film), 2000 docudrama directed by Roger Donaldson about the crisis
The Fog of War, 2003 American documentary film about the life and times of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara directed by Errol Morris, which won that years' Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
"Meditations in an Emergency", the last episode of season 2 of the television series Mad Men takes place during the crisis
Ur, a 2009 short novel by Stephen King released for the Amazon Kindle, is about three men who discover through a magic Kindle that in another "Ur", the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated into a nuclear war and ended that "Ur".
Call of Duty: Black Ops, 2010 video game, set during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Kennedys (TV miniseries), 2011 production chronicling the lives of the Kennedy family, including a dramatization of the crisis
X-Men: First Class, 2011 superhero film set during the Cuban Missile Crisis
The Politics of Deception: JFK'S Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights and Cuba. Patrick J. Sloyan, St. Martins Press, New York, 2015.
The music video for My Trigger by Miike Snow is based loosely on the crisis.