The end of World War II triggered the start of the Cold War between the Soviet states and the United States. The Cold War encompassed a huge part of Asia and Europe as the Eastern and Western Blocs formed after the War took sides respectively.
Even before 1962, the Cold War had resulted in multiple other wars, crises, and revolutions. But the world never came as close to total destruction as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the two superpowers gunning for nuclear war, the fate of the world came down to one unsuspecting man…
7. When Did the Cuban Missile Crisis Happen?
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 16th – 29th, 1962 was a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The conflict between the two superpowers is the closest the world has ever been to nuclear war.
6. What Caused the Cuban Missile Crisis?
The Cuban Missile Crisis began at one of the highest points of tension during the Cold War.
18 months earlier in April 1961, US President John F Kennedy (JFK), ruined an already damaged relationship with Cuba. He accused the Cuban revolution leader-turned-president, Fidel Castro, of being a secret Soviet member. In an attempt to supplant him, organized an invasion via Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The mission failed spectacularly just 2 days later.
This didn’t deter President Kennedy, who launched a barrage of secret attacks codenamed Operation Mongoose. His attempt to destabilize Castro through political assassinations, propaganda, and other coordinated attacks drove Cuba into the Soviet Union’s arms.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was already looking to direct nuclear missiles at the US, given the country’s own nuclear weapon base in Turkey that put the Soviets under threat. As a result of persecution from the US, Castro agreed to let Khrushchev build nuclear missiles in Cuba. Soviet missiles that just so happened to point in a particular direction.
In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane photographed the nuclear missile site. In response, Kennedy placed an embargo on Cuba, igniting the flame that had sparked the crisis.
5. How Was the Cuban Missile Crisis Resolved?
Nuclear war seemed perilously close – something both sides were aware of and wanted to avoid at all costs.
After a few days of tense discussions, Nikita Khrushchev sent JFK an offer on October 26, 1962. In exchange for the US promise that they wouldn’t invade or attempt to change the political direction in Cuba; they would remove the nuclear weapons from its shores.
A day later, Khrushchev followed this up with another letter. He insisted that the US must also remove its own nuclear warheads from Turkey.
Publicly, Kennedy agreed to the first demand. Privately, further discussions resulted in the US also agreeing to remove the weapons in Turkey, but they made no public declaration of this.
Although it took a few more weeks to smooth everything out, this agreement marked the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4. A Quick Cuban Missile Crisis Timeline
April 1961: The US attempts misguided Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, only for it to fail 2 days later.
March, 1962: The United States government places nuclear ‘Jupiter’ missiles in Turkey.
October 16th, 1962: JFK is first told of potential nuclear missiles in Cuba.
October 22nd, 1962: JFK receives confirmation and notifies American public of the Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, announcing a naval blockade of the country.
October 24th, 1962: Soviet ships approaching Cuba encounter the US naval blockade. Luckily, they stopped short rather than copy King Henry IV and go into the breach.
October 26th, 1962: Khrushchev offers Kennedy a compromise. The Soviet government promises to dismantle its missiles if the US promises to cease any invasion attempts on Cuba.
October 27th, 1962: Khrushchev sends another letter. This time he asks for the US to also remove their own missile bases in Turkey. An American reconnaissance plane is shot down over Cuba. The US readies an invasion force in response.
October 28th, 1962: The US administration publicly accept Khrushchev’s compromise regarding Cuba, and privately also agree to dismantle their own base in Turkey.
3. How Close Was Nuclear War In 1962?
Closer than anyone would like to think.
Kennedy had already been informed of the potential impact of nuclear war. He understood that over a third of the world could be wiped out, with major casualties being the USSR, the US, Europe, and China. It’s likely Khrushchev was also aware.
That means we could argue it was all a big game of nuclear chicken. Neither side may have had any intention of actually sparking a nuclear war. In their own ways were doing all they could to settle the conflict peacefully and avoid it. However, all it could take was one step too far, one overzealous commander, or one wrong move on either side to launch a war neither side could prevent.
In many ways, it was thanks to one man that that didn’t happen.
2. Vasili Arkhipov: The Quiet Hero of the Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 27th, 1961, while things were tense above the surface, they were also tense down below. A US Naval destroyer had spotted a USSR B-59 submarine in international waters around Cuba. In response, they started dropping charges to try and force it to emerge and identify itself.
Considering the very precarious situation on the surface it wasn’t the US’ best or smartest move.
Especially considering the USSR sub in question had no contact with the surface and no knowledge that this wasn’t an actual attack. Captain Savitsky was ready to start a nuclear war then and there, arguing they should deploy their weapon in response. The political officer aboard agreed.
Normally, that’s all that would be needed. They would have deployed the weapon and the consequences would have been catastrophic for the entire world.
But luckily this one time, on board this one sub, there was one other man whose permission was needed. Vasili Arkhipov was chief of the flotilla and his sign-off was required before they could launch the nuclear missiles.
Luckily, for all of us, Arkhipov refused. In doing so, he prevented the beginning of a nuclear war that could have decimated a huge portion of the planet. His refusal undoubtedly changed the course of world history.
1. The Cuban Missile Crisis’ Impact on the Cold War
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, if not in all of human history. It’s the closest we have ever got to nuclear warfare, and hopefully, the closest we’ll ever get. Unless Putin has a big red button…
Regardless, the Cold War changed from that moment on. Although it continued for another nearly 30 years, there was increased cooperation between the US and USSR after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although few said it, the potential catastrophe had scared all sides.
A hotline was developed between the White House and Soviet headquarters so the two countries could communicate. Both the Soviet Union and the USA limited their stores of nuclear weapons, and worked together to improve their relationship; however tenuously.
From there both signed the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, and neither side ever again came that close to threatening nuclear war.