On this day 50 years ago, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was presented with a dilemma that had immense implications for the future of humanity: to strike or not to strike.
It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had been surreptitiously pursuing new sites to position nuclear missiles. On Oct. 16, 1962, its intentions suddenly became clear to the U.S. administration: Moscow sought to use Cuba -- just 90 miles from the American mainland -- as a nuclear missile launching pad.
Kennedy, 45, and his counterpart, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, 68, were suddenly embroiled in a terrifyingly high-stakes game of chicken. Military engagement looked inevitable.
But the crisis ended peacefully. Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at CUNY Hunter College, explains that negotiation quickly became the only way out.
"The event was a learning experience for both sides because they realized that using their nuclear weapons was not an option," he said. "And it demonstrated that both sides could fight conventional wars without reaching this penultimate action."
Today, a parallel situation is playing out in an entirely different part of the world. Iran, which is suspected of enriching uranium with the intent of developing nuclear capabilities, has lately been the target of bellicose rhetoric from politicians in Israel as well as the United States.
Half a century has passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the lessons learned during that tense time have serious implications for U.S. foreign policy today.
A Beautiful Morning
It was just before 9 a.m. on an unseasonably warm Tuesday in 1962 when National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy called the president’s attention to a series of reconnaisance photographs.
The black-and-white shots -- aerial surveillance images of Cuba obtained in recent days -- were hard to decipher at first glance. One photo showed a deceptively benign aerial view of forests and plains, but several points were labeled with explanatory text.
“TENT AREAS,” said one indicator. "ERECTOR/LAUNCHER EQUIPMENT," said another. "8 MISSILE TRAILERS," said a third.
In audio recordings from that meeting, one can hear the president addressing his questions to Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
“Well?” Kennedy asked.
“Mr. President, this is a, of course, a ... serious development. It’s one that we, all of us, had not really believed the Soviets could, uh, carry this far,” said Rusk.
He explained what the surveillance photographs revealed: Russia had been building military bases in Cuba, with the intent of developing the capability to launch medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles into U.S. territory.
Fidel Castro's communist revolution had succeeded in Cuba just recently, in 1959. Despite Castro's close ties with the Soviet Union, Washington hadn't known the budding dictator was accepting Russian missiles.
“Now, um, I do think we have to set in motion a chain of events that will eliminate this base. I don't think we [can] sit still,” added Rusk.
“The questioning becomes whether we do it by sudden, unannounced strike of some sort or we, uh, build up the crisis to the point where the other side has to consider very seriously about giving in or, or even the Cubans themselves, uh, take some, take some action on this.”
During the discussion that followed, Kennedy made few declarations and asked many questions. He and his advisors originally seemed resigned to the fact that a strike on Cuba was inevitable, and some top military commanders urged action without delay.
But upon further discussion that morning and over the next few days, Kennedy and his top aides decided on a less belligerent alternative: the establishment of a naval "quarantine" around Cuba.
The plan would prevent more arms from gaining entry into Cuba from the Soviet Union, hobble weapons progress on the island and give the U.S. more time to negotiate a favorable resolution. U.S. Navy vessels were to approach Russian ships and ask them to open their hatches for inspection.
Build Up And Draw Down
The situation was made clear to the American people during a televised address on Oct. 22.
Facing the cameras on that Monday evening, Kennedy explained to the viewing public that the Soviet Union had been blatantly lying about the existence of installations in Cuba.
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” he continued.
Hawkish words. But then came the revelation of a more dovish plan: the implementation of the quarantine, without plans for an immediate strike.
“A strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated,” said the president. “All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”
As Chandler explains, this was a departure from the policies of the 1950s, when the use of force was more readily pursued.
"History continues to view Kennedy’s response to the crisis in good terms," he said. "His use of diplomacy changed the nature of US and USSR relations. Force no longer became the preferred option."
But Kennedy's decision wasn't easy. Some alternative presidential announcements had been drafted -- announcements that relayed a message very different from the one that reached the American public on Oct. 22 -- but these were never read.
“My fellow Americans,” begins one such relay from an alternate version of history. “With a heavy heart, and in necessary fulfillment of my oath of office, I have ordered -- and the United States Air Force has now carried out -- military operations with conventional weapons only to remove a major nuclear weapons buildup from the soil of Cuba.”
The text of that unspoken speech was released just last week by the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. Its existence shows how narrowly the U.S. avoided a potentially catastrophic decision and how sharply divided the U.S. administration was at the time of one of its most far-reaching decisions.
Things Left Unsaid
After Oct. 22, communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev progressed via a series of telexes and letters. But headway was imperiled by two serious incidents on Oct. 27, or Black Saturday.
One was the death of Air Force Pilot Rudolf Anderson Jr., who was shot down while flying over Cuba in the only combat death of the crisis. The other was the U.S. decision to launch explosive underwater weaponry against Soviet nuclear-armed submarines. It was later revealed that the Soviet officers on board were authorized to respond to the attack, but they chose not to.
Neither crisis came to a head, and, momentary panic notwithstanding, behind-the-scenes diplomacy continued. At sea, every ship approached by the U.S. Navy cooperated. Others were seen to turn back without even approaching the quarantine lines.
Finally, on Oct. 28, a Russian radio broadcast announced that the Soviet Union would dismantle its missile sites, in return for a U.S. promise never to invade Cuba again. (In 1961, the U.S. had sponsored an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which ended catastrophically. More than 100 Cuban exiles and other U.S.-backed operatives were killed, and 1,200 more were taken prisoner by the Castro regime.)
The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was generally perceived as a clear victory for Kennedy. The Soviets, it appeared, had fled in the face of brinkmanship, dismantling a valuable weapons base in exchange for little more than a promise.
But the passing years have revealed more details that fundamentally change the narrative. It is now clear that bargaining -- not bluster -- played the biggest role in resolving the Cold War’s most terrifying standoff.
"Khrushchev achieved his aim of because it got the U.S. not to invade Cuba," said Chandler. "The premier also made it clear that had any Soviet soldiers died on Cuban soil, Khrushchev would retaliate with military action in Germany."
The final deal also included an extra U.S. concession to Moscow: the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove a set of medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles capable of striking the USSR -- the Jupiters -- from a NATO base in Turkey.
This compromise was a great boon to Khrushchev. But in the U.S., it was kept secret until 1969, making Kennedy look like the unqualified victor whose principled firmness -- that staunch defense of freedom and dogged refusal to back down -- saved the U.S. from imminent destruction.
As new records reveal increasing disagreement within the president’s administration, more nuance within the correspondence between Soviet and U.S. officials and more details of the final deal that tip the scales a bit more in Moscow’s favor, that old assessment isn’t as convincing.
In a Monday essay published in the New York Times, historian Michael Dobbs -- author of the renowned "Cold War Trilogy" -- explained how the legacy of the Cuban Missile Crisis has been used to justify hawkish policies in the decades since. Kennedy’s supposed resoluteness has been held up as a cornerstone of such major decisions as the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush and the escalation of the Vietnam War under Lyndon B. Johnson.
Neither of those conflicts went as planned, and hundreds of thousands lost their lives in drawn-out occupations. But the Cuban Missile Crisis remains a powerful point of reference.
“Unfortunately, the myth has become a touchstone of toughness by which presidents are measured,” explained Dobbs.
“Last month, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called on President [Barack] Obama to place a ‘clear red line’ before Iran, just as President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban missile crisis.”
If historical review of the crisis tells us anything, it is that clear red lines are hard to make out in the fog of war. A story too oversimplified can set a dangerous precedent. And while intimidation and belligerence can work in some scenarios, they may be disastrous in others.
In 50 years, that hasn’t changed at all.
“As the two superpowers geared up for a nuclear war, the chances of something going terribly wrong increased exponentially. To their credit, both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood this dynamic,” said Dobbs.
And that was the real success of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- a shared understanding of the danger and a willingness to compromise on both sides. While disputes still abound over the day-to-day details of the two-week standoff, it is this lesson that has the most important implications for foreign diplomacy today.