In 1962 during the darkest period of the Cold War, the world came as close as it ever has to being destroyed by nuclear war. During 13 days in October, the US and Soviet Union stared down each other over offensive missiles placed 90 miles away from the US in Cuba. President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev made threats and counter threats but in the end through a back-channel agreement saved the world from certain destruction.
Cuba is a small island off the coast of Florida that came under the Communist rule of Fidel Castro in 1959. They were the natural ally of the Soviet Union, and immediately after their revolution became a constant target for the United States. One of Kennedy's first acts in 1961 was to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt, which failed to overthrow Castro. Numerous attempts to assassinate Castro by the CIA failed. Through the secret program Operation Mongoose, the CIA tried many ridiculous schemes to neutralize the Communist leader. Among other things, they tried to make Castro's beard fall out, tried to poison his cigars, and tried placing explosive seashells in his favorite diving spots. Despite these attempts, Castro remained as a Soviet satellite state right in the United States' back yard.
In May, 1962 Khrushchev made the strategic decision to place medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba. In Khrushchev's mind, this was necessary to have a first strike capability to counter US missiles in Turkey. Despite Castro's alliance with the Soviet Union, Castro objected, but the deployment of missiles proceeded. In October, US spy planes brought pictures that confirmed the missile sites, and the crisis for Kennedy and the US began.
Kennedy immediately began a series of meetings with his Cabinet and most trusted advisors. This included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, Secretary of the Treasury C Douglas Dillon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor, special advisor McGeorge Bundy, and under-secretary of State George Ball among others along with his most trusted advisor and younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. This group became known as Ex-Comm or Executive Committee of the National Security Council.
Kennedy asserted that the missiles must be removed. There was no way to accept Soviet nuclear missiles 90 miles away from the United States. Many strategies were discussed, from doing nothing to negotiating to military options. Taylor and the military men favored air strikes. The US military would bomb the missile installations and remove the missiles with a minimum amount of casualties. While this was discussed it became clear that the military could not guarantee getting all of the missiles without following up with an invasion of Cuba which would surely bring more loss of life. Taylor and the military men pushed this, as they surmised that Khrushchev would not retaliate for Cuba. Kennedy saw it differently. He predicted a Soviet response probably in Berlin, where allied West Berlin stood by itself in Communist East Germany. Kennedy saw that this could quickly turn into World War III with nuclear weapons, and he implored his advisors to find another way.
The next military option discussed was a blockade. Since Cuba was an island, the US would place warships in a complete arc around the island and not allow any military ships to pass. This would prevent the supplies from reaching the island that would be needed to complete the missile installations, and buy time for a negotiated solution of the crisis. This was the option that Kennedy in the end decided on. Kennedy allowed his advisors to speak their minds and make their arguments, but the decision was his alone. The blockade is renamed a "quarantine" as the term blockade is considered an act of war.
On October 22, day 8 of the crisis, Kennedy made a speech to the nation on television to inform the American people and the world of what that the missiles have been discovered in Cuba and that the US will be implementing the naval quarantine of Cuba.
Events moved very quickly after Kennedy's speech. The quarantine is implemented starting on Tuesday morning, October 23 where US ships take up a position 800 miles around Cuba. Ships entering the zone will be stopped and boarded. The first letter from Khrushchev arrives on this day, and it is defiant.
I must say frankly that measures indicated in your statement constitute a serious threat to peace and to the security of nations. The United States has openly taken the path of grossly violating the United Nations Charter, path of violating international norms of freedom of navigation on the high seas, the path of aggressive actions both against Cuba and against the Soviet Union.
Kennedy is concerned that Khrushchev hasn't had time to process yet, and by day's end he ordered the quarantine line to be reduced to 500 miles.
No one knows exactly what went on in Moscow with Khrushchev and the Politburo. Khrushchev had raised the stakes by secretly moving the missiles into Cuba, but at this point he had to be feeling the enormous pressure of war, as Kennedy did. On Wednesday the first Soviet ships approaching the quarantine line turned around. They'd avoided confrontation, clearly on orders from Moscow, but the crisis was far from over.
There were fiery confrontations in the United Nations between US representative Adlai Stevenson and his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin. Stevenson addressed Zorin with the following:
All right, sir, let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no - don't wait for the translation - yes or no?
Upon receiving no answer from Zorin, he replies:
You can answer yes or no. You have denied they exist. I want to know if I understood you correctly. I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that's your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.
Stevenson then presented photos of the evidence of the missiles in Cuba.
Meanwhile the ExComm hawks were pressuring Kennedy to give the go-ahead for the military to act. U2 flights over Cuba were showing the missiles would be operational soon. The military had its troops, bombers, and missiles at the highest alert level. Khrushchev was showing no signs of backing down, and any small skirmish could trigger the nuclear war machines on both sides to go into action. Kennedy knew this and Khrushchev surely knew it as well. What Kennedy and ExComm didn't know was that Soviet commanders on the ground in Cuba had nuclear weapons and the authority to use them against US forces should an invasion occur.
On Friday, October 26, the 11th day of the crisis, Aleksandr Fomin, a KGB station chief based in Washington, requested a meeting with ABC newsman John Scali. Fomin knew that Scali had connections with the high officials in the State department, and together they discussed an arrangement for ending the crisis. This became a back-channel negotiation. Fomin floated that the Soviet Union will remove the missiles if the US publically stated that it would not invade Cuba. Scali brought this message to Rusk, and the proposal was taken seriously though many in the ExComm group doubted the authenticity of the offer. The same day, a cable came from Khrushchev that was very personal and conciliatory. Part of the letter was this:
If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.
Within the letter is the same offer that was brought from Fomin to Scali - an offer to have the missiles removed from Cuba in exchange for a US public promise to not invade Cuba. The President was ready to accept the offer.
On the same day, Fidel Castro sent a letter to Khrushchev urging the Soviet Union to use a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US. This is to be become known as the "Armageddon Letter".
I believe the imperialists' aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.
Saturday came, and the tide turned once again. A new letter from Moscow arrived, this time offering to remove the missiles but adding the condition that missiles in Turkey be removed as a swap. Kennedy was furious as the extra condition of removing the missiles from Turkey was not something he was prepared to do. But going to all-out war for the missiles in Turkey (which are obsolete anyway) is untenable as well. Scali was livid and he confronted Fomin in another meeting that he's been double-crossed. During the day, a U2 plane flying over Cuba was shot down. It was later revealed that Castro ordered the plane to be shot down. The military hawks immediately pressed Kennedy to retaliate. Then an American pilot flew off course into Soviet airspace and had to be escorted back by US planes. The Soviet military could have used this incident as a pretext to retaliate. Neither happened. Kennedy and most likely Khrushchev had fended off their military hawks again. But time was running out.
Kennedy and his advisors then devised the strategy to use that was known as the "Trollope Ploy" named after a 19th century novel written by Anthony Trollope in which a woman interprets a casual romantic gesture as a marriage proposal. The ploy is for someone responding to a proposal to purposely misinterpret the proposal and to accept a proposal more to their liking. Kennedy decided to respond "yes" to the first letter from Khrushchev while ignoring the 2nd letter. He sent the letter to Khrushchev and they waited. The next morning, Khrushchev announceed on Moscow radio that the missiles would be removed. The world heaved a huge sigh of relief as nuclear war had been averted.
This was the story known to the world. It appeared that Khrushchev had backed down. Kennedy had held firm and got the missiles out of Cuba without a swap and without looking weak to his country and his NATO allies. This was the story put forth in Robert Kennedy's book "Thirteen Days." However, it later came out that Robert Kennedy had a secret meeting on Saturday with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin - where an agreement was made for the US to remove the missiles in Turkey within 6 months but it had to be kept secret. This secret agreement no doubt sealed the deal and kept the world at peace.
Kennedy came out looking like the ultimate statesman after the crisis. He was more popular than ever heading into his re-election in late 1963 when of course he was assassinated in Dallas. No one knows what went on in the politics of the Soviet Union, but Khrushchev was removed from power 11 months later. The world was saved from nuclear war, but the Cold War raged on for many years after the crisis. Some good things came out of the crisis that reduced Cold War tensions. A "hotline" was created between Moscow and Washington in June, 1963. This enabled leaders to communicate in real time with each other, and would avoid the 12 hour delay that hampered communication during the crisis. The US and Soviet Union along with the UK signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in October, 1963 which limited nuclear tests to underground and helped slow the arms race. Cold War conflict remained for years to come, but we never again got to the brink of the weapons being used.
One final footnote - John Scali wanted to tell the world about his story of the back-channel contact and his role in helping end the crisis, but Kennedy asked him to hold off. Kennedy felt it would jeopardize the chance to build better relations with the Soviets. After Kennedy was assassinated, he again wanted to write a story about it, but Scali's role was written about by Roger Hilsman, a State Department official. The story came out as a cover story in Look magazine in 1964 before Scali was able to tell his own story. Scali was essentially scooped on his own story.