Sixty years ago, a U–2 spy plane spotted Intermediate Range and Medium Range Ballistic Missiles on Cuba, triggering an international crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. This is the story as it unfolded over thirteen days in October 1962.

Todd DePastino

photo of Nuclear Warhead Bunker Under Construction

Nuclear Warhead Bunker Under Construction San Cristobal Site 1 (NARA)

Sixty years ago, a U–2 spy plane flying over Cuba took surveillance photos of Intermediate Range and Medium Range Ballistic Missiles sites under construction. When armed with nuclear missiles, these sites could strike targets 1,200 miles away, including Washington, DC, within minutes. The photographs were proof that the Soviet Union was looking to place the United States under a towering new nuclear shadow.

The images hit President John F. Kennedy’s desk the next day. On October 16, Kennedy assembled EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to gather advice from the nation’s top military and diplomatic experts on how to respond.

JFK’s military advisors advocated air strikes followed by a US invasion of Cuba. The President demurred on the invasion, but ended that first day of deliberations convinced that at the very least, a limited air strike was warranted.

Cuban Missile Crisis EXCOMM meeting board room

EXCOMM meeting, Cuban Missile Crisis, 29 October 1962 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

It would take until October 20 for Kennedy to pull back from offensive military action and turn to a more subtle act of war: a naval blockade. Not wanting to trigger World War III, Kennedy lowered the temperature even further by calling the maneuver a “quarantine” of the island nation. By whatever name, the blockade would stop the arrival of nuclear weapon shipments. That, coupled with a demand that Moscow remove any nuclear weapons already on Cuba, would be the White House’s first move in this high-stakes diplomatic chess game.

Cuban Missile Crisis map

This map from the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the range of Soviet SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, if launched from Cuba.

After briefing Congressional leaders and allies around the world on October 22, President Kennedy requested time on the national television network to put the American people on notice about the crisis. One-hundred-million Americans watched the President declare, “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.”

At the same time, JFK made clear, “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right- not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this Hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world.”

Meanwhile, the quarantine stopped and searched Soviet ships bound for Cuba, turning some around and letting others, not containing weapons, to pass. Soviet missileers readied their weapons for launch. The US Strategic Air Command increased its status to DEFCON 2, one step away for nuclear war. Over 100,000 US troops assembled to prepare for an invasion of its island neighbor. The world inched ever closer to catastrophe. The US and the Soviet Union were “eyeball to eyeball,” in the words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

Then, on the evening of October 26, President Kennedy received an unexpected and surprisingly heartfelt note from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. “If there is no intention 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. We are ready for this.”

U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3A-20-LO Orion flying over Soviet ships

A U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3A-20-LO Orion (BuNo 150497) of Patrol Squadron VP-44 flies over the Soviet ship Metallurg Anosov and destroyer USS Barry (DD-933) during the Cuban Missile Crisis (NARA)

In yet another turn, Khrushchev followed up this first letter, written in the middle of the night, with another, penned in the light of day. The second letter was tougher, demanding the removal of US Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Tensions built further when the US got word that one of its U-2 spy planes had been shot down over Cuba by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile. The missile strike had killed US pilot Rudolf Anderson, Jr., the only casualty of the crisis.

Anderson’s death had a sobering effect on both sides.

With his advisors escalating calls for an attack on Cuba, President Kennedy dispatched his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to meet secretly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. RFK offered a straight-up exchange, with a twist. In returning for the Soviet Union’s removal of missiles from Cuba, the US would publicly promise not to invade the island.  The US sweetened the deal by pledging to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. However, the US demanded that this part of the deal remain secret. The US didn’t want to lose face, at home and abroad, by giving away missiles.

The Soviets accepted the deal. On October 28, Khrushchev announced that the missiles would be dismantled, and the sites destroyed. It would take several months for all the elements of the deal to be completed—the Jupiter missiles were only removed in April 1963—but the world had averted nuclear annihilation.

One immediate result of the crisis was the realization on both sides of the need for direct and instant communications. One small misapprehension or mistranslation could have catapulted the superpowers to war. To prevent such a mishap, the White House and Kremlin agreed to install a “hotline” so the two could negotiate directly the next time there was an emergency.

The Missile Crisis also represents the high water mark of American confidence in prospect of victory in nuclear war. Few agreed with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay that the peaceful resolution of the crisis “the greatest defeat in our history.” The shock of coming so close to nuclear war convinced the US to re-open talks with the Soviet Union on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to find other ways to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals.