This Day in History: The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis, largely considered one of the most critical moments in history, was by many accounts the closest the world ever came to full-scale nuclear war. On this date, October 28th, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a peaceful resolution when Premier Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev ordered the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuban soil.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was of course a symptom of the nuclear arms race in general, but was really triggered by the positioning of American nuclear missiles in Turkey, well within range of the Soviet Union. When requests to have these weapons removed were denied, the Soviet Union took steps to balance out the situation by putting their own nuclear weapons in Cuba. However, this balancing act nearly provoked a war.

In reaction to the discovery that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States blockaded the island of Cuba to keep any more Soviet weapons from reaching it. On at least one occasion the US Navy could have caused a nuclear exchange while enforcing the bargo. A Soviet nuclear submarine was patrolling the area, when it was discovered by the US Navy. The Americans began dropping depth charges to in an attempt to force the submarine to surface, not realizing that the submarine had permission to launch its nuclear weapons if it was attacked. Fortunately, the submarine’s commander refused to provoke a war, and instead chose to surface and submit to the US Navy.

 

The tense situation continued for two weeks before the Americans and Soviets struck a deal. Khrushchev had rushed into his decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba, and now when faced with war he began to doubt his decision, and considired the withdrawal of the weapons. However, the Soviet military was upset with Khrushchev over the whole debacle, feeling that Khrushchev had backed the Soviet Union into a corner. It was the general sentiment that were the Soviet Union to press on with their decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba, it would inevitably lead to war, but to abandon the plans with nothing to show for their efforts would damage the prestige of the nation irreparably.

Thankfully, a deal was struck between the Soviet Union and America, wherein America agreed to remove all nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, in exchange for the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. The weapons in Turkey and Italy were unknown to the public, so despite being a strategic victory for the Soviet Union, it was still perceived as a significant blow to the country’s prestige on the world stage. However, on a positive note, the crisis and the ensuing negotiations highlighted the need for faster and more reliable means of communication between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the famous White House-Kremlin hotline was installed to enable ease of contact in times of high tension. The hotline, as well as a series of agreements that followed, reduced tensions between the two super powers for a number of years, until the removal of Khrushchev by Kosygin and Brezhnev in 1971.

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