On 14th October 1962 a US spy plane flying over Cuba reported the installation of Russian nuclear missile bases. The picture (left) is one of those taken from the spy plane and clearly shows missile transporter trailers and tents where fuelling and maintenance took place.
The nuclear arms race was a part of the Cold War between America and the USSR which had began soon after the end of the second world War. In 1962 Russian missiles were inferior to American missiles and had a limited range. This meant that American missiles could be fired on Russia but Russian missiles could only be fired on Europe. Stationing missiles on Cuba (the only western communist country) meant that Russian missiles could now be fired on America.
The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, welcomed the Russian deployment since it would offer additional protection against any American invasion like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
On hearing of the Russian deployment on 16th October, US president J F Kennedy called a meeting of the EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to discuss what action should be taken. The group remained on alert and met continuously but were split between those who wanted to take military action and those that wanted a diplomatic solution.
On October 22nd Kennedy made the news of the installations public and announced that he would place a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent Russian missiles from reaching the bases. However, despite the blockade, Russian ships carrying the missiles remained on track for Cuba.
On October 26th the EXCOMM recieved a letter from Russian leader Nikita Kruschev stating that he would agree to remove the weapons if America would guarantee not to invade Cuba. The following day a US spy plane was shot down over Cuba and EXCOMM received a second letter from Kruschev stating that the missiles would be removed from Cuba if America removed nuclear weapons from Turkey. Although Kennedy was not averse to removing the missiles from Turkey, he did not want to be seen to giving in to Kruschev’s demands. Additionally the second letter which was much more demanding and aggressive in tone did not offer a solution to end the conflict.
Attorney General, Robert Kennedy suggested that the best solution was for the second letter be ignored and that the US reply to Kruschev accepting the terms of the first letter. A letter was duly drafted and sent. Additionally the Russian Ambassador was told ‘off the record’ that the missiles would be removed from Turkey in a few months when the crisis had died down. It was emphasised that this ‘secret clause’ should not be made public.
On Sunday 28th October Kruschev called a meeting of his advisors. The Russians were aware that President Kennedy was scheduled to address the American people at 5pm that day. Fearing that it could be an announcement of war Kruschev decided to agree to the terms and rushed a response to reach the President before 5pm. The crisis was over. The Russians duly removed their bases from Cuba and as agreed US missiles were quietly removed from Turkey some months later.
This article is part of our larger collection of resources on the Cold War. For a comprehensive outline of the origins, key events, and conclusion of the Cold War, click here.