The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which pit the world's nuclear powers against each other, was a defining moment in the history of the world. This was a time when the whole world waited in unabated breath for two weeks as the potential end to humanity stared it in the eyes. The secret stockpiling of nuclear missiles in Cuba had been discovered by the Americans and reported to President John F. Kennedy who, as the commander in chief was mandated to take an action. The Soviet Union had formed a path for war with their missiles in Cuba; decisive action was needed from the president to ensure the safety of Americans and, indeed, the rest of the world.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that took place between 15th to 28th of October, 1962, was a confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. It followed the Soviet Union's secret placing of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, which had recently formed a communist government led by Fidel Castro. Upon discovering the missiles, the United States response was to blockade Cuba. The crisis only ended after series of intense discussions between President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union's Premier Nikita Khrushchev, which was necessitated by the increasing fear over the impending nuclear catastrophe.
This research helps in understanding the factors that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the crisis was resolved. It reveals the role that Soviet leadership played in bringing about the crisis and incidents at the UN that might have also fueled it. Finally, the research establishes a link between contemporary Russian politics and the events that surrounded the Cuban Missile Crisis. This report comes at a time when America and Ukraine on one side and Russia on the other are embroiled in accusations over the annexation of Crimea and the downing of a civilian plane in Ukraine, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists. Thus, the research expounds on the possibilities of another nuclear crisis. It also sheds light on the current events in international politics between Western countries and Russia. Thus, it highlights the potential factors that can contribute to another crisis as is presented in this essay.
In its methodology, the researcher reviewed the relevant and current studies that have been published in peer reviewed journals and books, hence increasing the study validity. From the initial literature review, a number of factors could be said to have caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was in large part a result of the then ongoing Cold War, which involved the Western Europe NATO alliance and the United States on the one side and USSR-led Eastern Bloc (which formed the Warsaw Pact alliance) on the other side. Once the Second World War had ended in 1945, the two forces, which had been allies against Nazi Germany, began to compete against one another in order to gain global political and economic supremacy. The main ideals were democracy and capitalism versus authoritarianism and communism. Over the years, the Cold War created a dividing line within Europe, making the world vulnerable to dangers such as the Cuban Missiles Crisis. The differences were fueled by the coming to power of Fidel Castro, whose new government was hostile to the United States. Other causes included the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1961 and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
From the review of literature, it was possible to conclude that the crisis was the peak of the political and social issues that had been occurring amongst NATO one hand, and Cuba and the Warsaw Pact on the other hand. Thus, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a result of the ongoing Cold War between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. In order to flex its dominance in the Western and Eastern hemispheres, the US had resolved to aggressive activities against Cuba, which had just undergone a successful revolution and was on the path to socializing its industries. The actions were meant to defend American interests in Cuba. However, they turned out to be a point of contention with Soviet Union, which had for some time had put up with the American missiles in Turkey. Moreover, the internal politics of the USSR was also playing a role in the way Moscow leadership decided to ship the weaponry to Cuba even without thinking over the consequences. It would seem that the Soviet Union was acting on the impulse of wanting to appease their Politiburo at the expense of causing a nuclear confrontation with their number one enemy, the United States.
It was evident that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a political and military standoff between the United States and the USSR. The standoff began upon the discovery of the project to install nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. The crisis proceeded with a TV announcement by President Kennedy informing the American public on the existence of the missiles and the decision to enact a naval blockage to prevent further shipment of the missiles by Soviet Union to Cuba. During the announcement, the president clarified that the United States would be willing to take military action to prevent the threat posed by the presence of the missiles in Cuba (Stern, 2005, p. 74).
The impact was a widespread panic among the people over the possibility of nuclear war. The crisis lasted for 13 days, culminating in the removal of the intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba (Mooney, 2006, p. 54). The crisis ended when the US and USSR negotiated a deal, with Khrushchev agreeing to remove the missile on condition that the US not invade Cuba. There was also a secret agreement that required the US to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey, an action that had since been suggested by President Kennedy owing to the obsolete nature of the missiles in Turkey. However, in order to avoid humiliation during the midterm congressional elections, President Kennedy secretly agreed to remove the missiles in Turkey as a way of appeasing the Soviet Union and also to avoid the persistence of the standoff (Gioe, Scott & Andrew, 2014, p. 63).
The Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the most serious events in the existence of civilization. A number of factors brought about the crisis, including the rivalry between the US and USSR in missile technology, the sustained hostility of the United States against the government of Cuba, the pressure on the USSR leadership to close the missile gap between itself and Washington, and the Jupiter missiles that the US stationed in Turkey (Norris, 2012). There was also the antagonism over the fact that the western half of Berlin, located in the Soviet-controlled East Germany was under control of the United States and its Western allies. The dealings surrounding the sighting of the missiles by the US spy plane led to an insightful and extreme reaction from the Washington. As the development was thought to be a secret, the diplomats in Washington had not been briefed about the scheme and therefore denied the rumors when they emerged in the US media. To this end, the discovery of the missile sounded an alarm in Washington, which viewed it a highly provocative act from Moscow (Stern, 2005, p. 21).
The famous 13 days of deliberations began upon the discovery of the missiles in Cuba. The height of the crisis occurred when a US spy plane was shot down on Cuban airspace on October 27 1962, a day known as the Black Saturday. Kennedy (1969, p.34) described this downing of the spy plane as the single most event that could have pulled the trigger for a full blown nuclear war between two superpowers that were in open confrontation over so many issues (Norris, 2012, p. 12).
Historians have offered a number of reasons as the inspiration for transfer of the missiles to Cuba. For example, the Excomm argued that Khrushchev wanted to act for the purposes of global strategic reasons. Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, America had ten times the number of missiles that could reach the Soviet Union with disastrous effects. Consequently, by sending the missiles to Cuba, Khrushchev hoped to restore military parity between his country and the US, although the Soviet Union could not have managed to achieve the first strike capability (Pardoe, 2014, p. 43). The memoirs from Khrushchev after his ouster in 1964 indicated that he was motivated by the desire to protect the Cuban people from an invasion by America. Castro had formed a formidable relationship with Khrushchev that was mutual beneficial to both parties. The administration in Washington had openly supported an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba using right-wing exiles that had tried to sabotage the activities of the Castro regime. This covert action, known as the Operation Mongoose, was the sole motivation for Khrushchev to put missiles in Cuba. As he later wrote in his memoirs, there was no way USSR was going to allow the US to take over Cuba as that would represent a blow to global communism, represented by Cuba in the Western hemisphere (Garthoff, 1989, p. 19).
Khrushchev also had a personal vendetta for wanting to go to war with United States. He regarded Kennedy as young and inexperienced (Blight & Brenner, 2002, p. 11). With the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, Khrushchev saw an opportune moment to try to accomplish the missions with two acts. The first was to prevent the invasion of Cuba, and the second was to get the United States to remove the missiles from Turkey, which he considered a big threat to his country. Khrushchev had noted in his memoirs that he simply wanted the America to understand how it felt to have its people threatened by weapons on their doorstep (Nash, 1997, p. 15). The Soviet Union started shipping missiles to Cuba in September 1962, with the first batch arriving on September 9. This was an extensive military buildup that consisted of the deployment of the surface-to-air missiles that were used to shoot down the American spy plane. Khrushchev had also sent in three regiments of armed soldiers to fight alongside the Cuban revolutionaries (Blight & Brenner, 2002, p. 39).
The Cold War, which was fought between the US and USSR was a height of opposing principles between the two countries. Only two superpowers had remained after the defeat of Germany and Japan at the end of the World War II (Roberts, 2012, p. 30). The USSR and the Eastern Bloc took pride in socialism, with its leaders vowing to protect and even spread it out over the globe. The United States on the other hand advocated for capitalism and democracy. As a result, there was an awareness of contrasting views with both sides seeking to build alliances with friendly nations in order to defeat the other competitor. The United States had vowed to stop the spread of communism. Therefore, when Cuba embraced it, this was the antithesis of the American policies that led to Cuba's suspension from the Organization of American States. With the US and USSR possessing nuclear weapons, a military confrontation would have ultimately led to mutually assured destruction. However, the US held an advantage since it had its weapons in Soviet Union's neighborhood that were considered a big threat to national security (Fursenko & Naftali, 1998, p. 25).
During the Cold War, there was feeling on both sides that a peaceful co-existence of socialism and capitalism was not going to be possible. The Soviet Union did not trust the capitalist West and sought to persuade more countries to embrace socialism. The USSR was never comfortable with its ideologies, causing the leaders to find ways of protecting their interests at the international level. As capitalism was seen as the superior political system, the West had achieved not only great development technologically but also economically, which provided resources for competent and powerful institutions in military and diplomacy. Even though the Soviet Union was still an influential member of the United Nations Security Council, it could not match the influence of the United States (Fursenko & Naftali, 1998, p. 33). Thus, the Cold War and such rivalries with the West were a desperate attempt not only to curtail the hegemony that the United States was succeeding at building, but also to establish socialist systems around the world. The United States, for its part, was convinced that the military and economic superiority that it held gave it the right to police the world and proclaim a new world order irrespective of the resistance and opposition from the Soviet Union (Fursenko & Naftali, 1998, p. 35).
The start and perpetuation of the Cold War was a result of the diverging opinions over fundamental political and economic issues that the two countries took. From a political point of view, Soviet Union expected a two-centered world that could embrace development revolution at the international level. Since the America was allowed to create more capitalist-leaning countries, the Soviet Union as the equal partner also wanted to have an opportunity to create socialist countries. Castro had established a socialist regime and therefore Cuba's decision to welcome Soviet Union in their boundaries was anchored in international law and the United Nations Charter on the sovereignty of the nations. Nonetheless, this was always going to clash with the United States ideologies as its leadership had sought to create a Latin America that was free from socialism (Garthoff, 1989, p. 45). The United States, through its military and economic power, was looking to build an economic world that envisaged the virtues of capitalism. On the other hand, the Soviet Union feared that capitalism would spread in the Eastern Bloc countries, as was already evident from the mass exit of people from East Germany to West Germany. It was an indication that the socialism model was failing and the Soviet Union needed quick and effective measures to prevent the situation from escalating further. In fact, the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall as a way of preventing people from leaving its controlled region (Roberts, 2012, p. 5).
Because of the increasing concentration of power around socialism in the Eastern hemisphere and capitalism in the Western hemisphere, the rival nations could not trust each other. Economic and military advancement always posed a mutual threat and were seen as a tool to muzzle the influence of the other. The political leaders in Washington and Moscow strived to promote their ideologies and principles to those viewed as supporters and the ability to convince a member to join their side was seen as a victory. Even though the relationship between the United States and Cuba were at an all-time low before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US could not accept the introduction of socialist ideologies at its doorstep while it was working hard to establish capitalism in the Eastern hemisphere. The placement of the missiles in Cuba was a strategic step that the Soviet Union undertook to prove that it also had the power and capability to support whoever it chose, provided the partner was willing. America had just supported South Korea in the Korean War with the intention of curtailing the influence of the Soviet Union in Eastern hemisphere. The Soviet Union had chosen to respond in kind by supporting Cuba against the aggression of the United States (Pardoe, 2014, p. 65).
Soviet politics also pushed Khrushchev to take drastic and dangerous measures against the United States. The political situation in Soviet Union required a leader who was seen as tough and decisive against the aggressive and progressive United States. The Soviet Union leadership saw every opportunity as a chance to change the balance in its favor (Blight & Brenner, 2002, p.56). In order to achieve this, the Soviet leadership took diverging views even on matters that could easily be agreed upon. There was a deliberate attempt to discredit whatever the United States was doing for the sake of presenting the Soviet Union as the true leader of world politics (Pardoe, 2014, p. 27).
The Cuban Missile Crisis has been evaluated from three perspectives when it comes to understanding the events that contributed to the standoff. The first is the United States perspective (Preston, 2001, p. 56). According to this perspective, the stocking of the missiles in Cuba was a result of the desire by Khrushchev to match the missile gap and advantage that existed between the US and the USSR (Stern, 2005, p. 40). The Soviet Union was reeling from a lack of strategic capability against its rival. Its arsenal was limited to short range missiles that could not go beyond the European countries, and hence the United States occupied a stronger position in the arms race. Thus, in order to increase its chances of striking the United States, the Soviet Union was looking at a strategic position in the Caribbean where it could launch its missiles. The Excomm, which was formed to resolve the crisis, came up with two analyses as to what may have led to the crisis: psychological and the strategic (Mooney, 2006, p. 9).
In the strategic analysis, the placement of the missiles in Cuba was a desperate action by Khrushchev to create a balance between the two world powers so that it would become more able to challenge the increasing hegemony from the United States (Gioe, Scott & Andrew, 2014, p. 6). The action was also aimed at questioning the credibility of the United States to claim superiority in the arms race. The missiles were also meant to justify the imminent attack on Berlin, where the US had huge interests. The Soviet Union had only built the Berlin Wall a year earlier, but it had not achieved its purpose as people continued to move from the East Germany to West Germany. A response in the form of a military attack would have justified the Soviet Union's attack on America outposts that were close to USSR (George, 2013, p. 17).
The psychological analysis claimed that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of a politically experienced Khrushchev was merely testing the ability of the younger US president to handle serious matters (Gioe, Scott & Andrew, 2014). Khrushchev was convinced that President Kennedy was a weakling, who could be intimidated easily. A year earlier, President Kennedy had failed to take a firm stance during the Vienna summit and Soviet Union's premier had thought that indeed Kennedy was a weak leader. The shipment of the missiles to Cuba was only meant to confirm this. The underlying assumption in the two analyzes is that Premier Khrushchev acted aggressively against the United States to the point that his basic expectation was a swift, decisive, and forceful response to the explicit acts of aggression (Zagare, 2014, p. 73).
The Soviet Union politics also played a role in the development of the crisis. President Kennedy had campaigned for the presidency in 1960 on the assertion that the Soviet Union had more missile weapons than the United States (Blight & Welch, 2004, p. 25). He had argued that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration failed when they did not do more to prevent Fidel Castro from coming to power in Cuba. Thus, when Kennedy finally clinched the presidency, there was founded fear in Moscow that the United States was readying itself to attack the Soviet Union and Cuba. This assumptions came when the Kennedy Administration revealed that the missile gap was actually the opposite of what Kennedy had stated during his campaign and then announcing that the new administration will further expand the number of missiles that could be used against the Soviet Union. Within the Soviet Union circles, there was belief that the American buildup of its missiles and warheads was a proof that that their country was under an imminent nuclear attack and intimidation from the United States (Absher, 2009, p. 54).
Moreover, the United States had trained and supported Cuban exiles to launch an invasion against the Castro government. The invasion failed with many exiles being killed at the Bay of Pigs (Blight & Welch, 2004, p. 94). Continued attacks against the government of Cuba by CIA-trained commandos was also an indication to the Soviet Union that the United States was preparing for further aggressive actions against its strategic ally in the Caribbean region, and therefore, undermining the interests of the Soviet Union. Frequent attacks and the suspension of Cuba from the Organization of American States was enough evidence to confirm the intention of the United States to invade Cuba (Absher, 2009, p. 80).
In order to counteract the aggressive approach of the United States, the Soviet Union placed the missiles in Cuba as a way of sending a strong warming to the United States against attacking Cuba. Castro welcomed of the missiles because he knew that they could work to his political advantage. The missiles in Cuba had the potential to work directly against the United States and therefore enhance the ability of the Soviet Union to prevent an aggressive attack from the United States (George, 2013, p. 79).
The third theory that has been advanced as the cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a growing fear among the Cuban citizens propagated by Castro. The socialist revolution had occurred without the intervention of international actors. Once it had succeeded, Castro managed to attract the interest of the Soviet Union. However, there was a general belief among Cuban that America was intent on destroying the revolutionaries in Cuba whether it was to be a socialist or capitalist country. As a result, the revolutionaries were looking for a way to defend themselves against an invasion from the United States (George, 2013, p. 56).
As a result of the failure of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy declared a new plan to remove the Castro regime from power and it was put into operation long before the Soviet Union started sending the missiles into Cuba (Tsvetkova, 2013, p. 32). As it was, the Operation Mongoose was encouraged attacks on Cuban government officials, burnings of sugar fields, and contamination of products earmarked for export. It also came with economic sanctions and trade embargos sanctioned against Cuba together with attempts to assassinate Castro. In effect, there was every reason to believe that America was paving the way for an invasion that could involve the use of military forces.
George (2003, p. 67) noted that in order to wade off the possible attacks from the US, the Cuban government was obliged to accept any plan from the Soviet Union. The plan presented was to build missile warheads in Cuba as a way of preventing an invasion by the United States and making Cuba a de facto friend of the Soviet Union in the Caribbean region (Tsvetkova, 2013, p.32). The preparation activities involved arming of more than 250,000 Cubans against an estimated 100,000 American soldiers. As an interested partner in the crisis however, Cuba did not trust America's no-invasion pledge and wanted to retain the Soviet bombers just in case the US decided to go through with one. However, as Washington had classified the planes as offensive weapons, the bombers also had to be removed along with the missiles. The turn of events affected the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, as Castro became eschewed with the Khrushchev's commitment to support Cuba against its enemy (Trachtenberg, 1985, p. 56).
Continuing Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Whatever scale of a crisis that faces humanity, there is always a solution to that challenge. The political leadership in the two countries demonstrated a great level of patience and leadership in wading through the murky crisis that faced them (Trachtenberg, 1985, p. 19). A group of advisors should be used to give and weigh various options before settling on one. In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Excomm group played a very important role during the search for solutions, with some suggesting drastic measures that could have resulted in nuclear war. The essence of the group was to avoid all out nuclear war and hence their suggestions provided the president a clue on all steps to prevent it. The media also can put pressure and increase anxiety to the public. Kennedy's address to the American public only helped to raise tension among the people and reveal to the aggressors that they plan was in fact working (Scott & Smith, 1994, p. 56).
Like in so many crises that involve two or more foes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was one that needed the stronger competitor to think soberly and act rationally. Even though the United States had ten times the atomic weapons that the Soviet Union had, an eruption of war would have been as costly to the American as it was for the Soviet Union (Siracusa, 2012, p. 12). The Jupiter missiles in Turkey were obsolete and could not have been used to any great effect against the Soviet Union. But the launching of a missile from Cuba, a distance of 90 miles from the US mainland, could have affected more than 70 percent of the population of the entire United States. Thus, the US was obligated to act rationally and prevent confrontation with the Soviet Union that involved the use of the nuclear weapons, even if it meant yielding to some of the demands such as a pledge not to invade Cuba. As it later emerged, the Soviet Union and the United States both had a common interest to prevent an escalation of the crisis to a full-blown war (Scott & Smith, 1994, p. 43).
During the whole crisis period, the United States and the Security Council were displaced from their roles as the custodian of the international peace and security. The United States continued at act as though it controlled of the United Nations (Schier, 2010, p. 53). During an emergency UN meeting in October 25 at the Security Council, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations continued to deny the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and even questioned the authenticity of the photographs that the US ambassador had revealed during the meeting. The shouting between the two ambassadors at a time when the crisis was threatening to spiral out of control shows how much the United Nations was contributing to the abating of the crisis (Garthoff, 1989, p. 13).
The United Nations believed that the United States blockade against Cuba was illegal; but there was little that the organization could do to stop it (Stern, 2012, p. 14). As a result, some of the senior diplomats in the organization only referred to the attempt by the United States to use big stick approach to stopping the shipment of more missiles into Cuba against the international conduct and principles in the Charter that had been signed by the United States itself. By assigning itself the right to attack ships of other countries in the high seas, the United Nations believed that the US was merely engaging in a form of undisguised piracy. Moreover, there was a general belief that the US actions against Cuba a few years earlier had been a logical representation of the aggressive policy that carried serious international consequences (Gioe, Scott & Andrew, 2014, p. 42).
The United States was also accused of trying to mislead the Security Council with the intention of creating a bigger crisis in order to obtain retroactive approval from the Security Council over its past illegal actions. Most of the actions that the United States had carried against the Cuban government were in direct violation of the United Nations Charter on the sovereignty of nations (Gonzalez, 2002, p. 14). As such, there were attempts by the US Ambassador to the UN to try to justify and rubber stamp the illegal activities such as sponsoring revolutionaries to topple a government and planning to assassinate the president; some which might have contributed to the emergence of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, many in the UN were determined to inform the world that the actions by the United States were likely to lead to nuclear war and the world should be prepared to pay for the irresponsible and reckless actions of the United States (Blight, Allyn & Welch, 2002, p. 31).
The Cuban Missile Crisis was caused by a series of events taking place in the US, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. In the U.S., President Kennedy had campaigned on the promise to reducing the gap in the use of missile with the Soviet Union. Hence, Kennedy's ascension to presidency was itself a threat to the already humiliated rival. Also, the Soviet Union was desperate to catch up with the America's development in military arms. As the Americans had weapons in Turkey, the USSR felt that having their weapons in Cuba was a proper tit-for-tat. The ascension to presidency of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Operation Mongoose, and the increasing threat and aggression of America to invade Cuba were among the events that sounded an alarm to the Soviets who were desperate to protect the only communist country in the Caribbean region. Any in ability to offer protection to Cuba from an America invasion would be taken as a sign of weakness on the part of the Soviet leadership.
The ensuing Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union was also a contributing factor to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War was based on the differing political and economic ideologies that saw the two countries competing on almost everything. As the arms race intensified, each country was looking out for a way to demonstrate its nuclear power. The Soviet Union saw the altercation between the United States and Cuba as an opportunity not just to defend its socialism ideologies, but also to prove to the United States that it had nuclear weapons that could match theirs. In Soviet politics, Premier Khrushchev was under pressure from political hawks to demonstrate to the United States that they could threaten it with the nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union and its members in the Warsaw Pact were facing humiliation in East Germany as the Berlin Wall had failed to stop the mass movement of people to the West. In order to redeem itself image internationally, the Soviet Union had to find a way to threaten the United States by interfering with its interests not just in Europe but also in the Western hemisphere, where it had established hegemony.