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Cuban Missile Crisis

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The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a dangerous moment in the COLD WAR between the United States and the Soviet Union. The actions taken by President John F. Kennedy's administration prevented the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. The crisis also illustrated the limitations of international law, as the United States relied on military actions and threats to accomplish its goal.

The crisis grew out of political changes in Cuba. In the 1950s, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, led a guerrilla movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista lost the confidence of the Cuban people and on January 1, 1959, fled the country. Castro became premier of the new government.

At first, the United States supported the Castro government. This changed when Castro seized U.S.-owned sugar estates and cattle ranches in Cuba. The United States subsequently embargoed trade with Cuba, and the CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA) began covert operations to topple Castro. In 1960, Castro openly embraced COMMUNISM and signed Cuba's first trade agreement with the Soviet Union.

Many Cubans had left the island of Cuba for the United States following the Castro revolution. Aided by the United States, a Cuban exile army was trained for an invasion. Although most of the planning took place in 1960, when President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER was finishing his second term, the final decision to invade came during the first months of the Kennedy

U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (seated, far right) addresses members of the U.N. Security Council on October 25, 1962. On display are aerial photographs of missile sites in Cuba—proof that the Soviet Union had indeed been building missile sites on the island.

administration. In April 1961, Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a debacle, in part because U.S. air support that had been promised was not provided. The exile army was captured.

Convinced that the United States would attempt another invasion, Castro asked Premier Nikita Khrushchev, of the Soviet Union, for nuclear missiles. Khrushchev agreed to what would be the first deployment of NUCLEAR WEAPONS outside the Soviet Union. President Kennedy at first did not believe the Soviets would follow through on their promise. On October 14, 1962, however, photographs taken by reconnaissance planes showed that missile sites were being built in Cuba. The president convened a small group of trusted advisers, called the Executive Committee of the NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL (Ex Com). Attorney General ROBERT F. KENNEDY served on Ex Com and became the key adviser to President Kennedy during the crisis.

Military officials advocated bombing the missile sites or invading Cuba. Others argued for a nuclear strike on Cuba. These ideas were rejected in favor of a naval blockade of Cuba. All ships attempting to enter Cuba were to be stopped and searched for missiles and related military material. President Kennedy, believing that the Soviets were using the missiles to test his will, resolved to make the crisis public. Bypassing private, diplomatic procedures, Kennedy went on national television on October 22 and informed the United States of the missile sites, the naval blockade, and his resolve to take any action necessary to prevent the missile deployment.

Tension built during the last days of October as the world awaited the approach of Soviet missile-bearing ships at the blockade line. If Soviet ships refused to turn back, it was likely that U.S. ships would either stop them or sink them. If that happened, nuclear war seemed probable.

During the crisis, the UNITED NATIONS was not used as a vehicle for negotiation or mediation. The United States and the Soviet Union ignored an appeal by Secretary General U Thant, of the United Nations, that they reduce tensions for a few weeks. Instead, the Security Council of the United Nations became a stage for both sides to trade accusations. Ambassador ADLAI STEVENSON, from the United States, presented photographs of the missile sites to back up U.S. claims.

On October 24, the crisis began to ease, as 12 Soviet ships on their way to Cuba were, on orders from Moscow, diverted or halted. However, construction on the missile sites continued. On October 26, Premier Khrushchev sent a long, emotional letter to President Kennedy, claiming that the missiles were defensive. He implied that a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba would allow him to remove the missiles. President Kennedy replied, accepting the proposal to exchange withdrawal of the missiles for the promise not to invade. He also stated that if the Soviet Union did not answer his reply in two or three days, Cuba would be bombed. On October 28, the Soviets announced on Radio Moscow that the missile sites were being dismantled.

Some historians maintain that President Kennedy acted heroically to meet a threat to the security of the United States. Others claim that the missiles at issue were of limited range and were purely defensive, and that Kennedy was reckless in brandishing the threat of nuclear war. Most agree that the crisis was probably the closest the Soviet Union and the United States ever got to nuclear war.

The significance of the crisis to INTERNATIONAL LAW and the management of international crises has led to many books, articles, and scholarly conferences. In October 2002, a conference hosted by Fidel Castro was held in Havana. It was a rare event because participants from the United States, Soviet, and Cuban governments attended the gathering, sharing their impressions of what had happened during the crisis. Participants included former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara, Kennedy presidential aides Arthur Schlesinger, Ted Sorensen, and Richard Goodwin, as well as Ethel Kennedy, the widow of ROBERT KENNEDY.

The Cuban government declassified documents relating to the crisis and Castro took center stage, arguing that Khrushchev had inflamed the situation by lying to Kennedy that there were no nuclear weapons in Cuba. McNamara confirmed that most of Kennedy's advisers, both military and civilian, had recommended he attack Cuba. The conference ended with a trip to a former missile silo on the western side of Cuba.



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