Going to the Brink: The End of the Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy Signs Cuba Quarantine OrderPresident John F. Kennedy Signs Cuba Quarantine Order. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library)

Most Americans, Russians, and Cubans associate the missile crisis with the thirteen days following the American discovery of offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba on October 14, 1962. However, the crisis did not officially end until November 20, 1962, when the United States formally lifted the “quarantine” against Cuba.[1] Popular misconceptions about the events, especially in the United States, stem largely from Robert F. Kennedy’s Thirteen Days – a memoir about the events from the White House’s perspective. Kennedy’s narrative suggested the very real danger posed by the weapons and cast his brother, John F. Kennedy, in a favorable light for acting in such a levelheaded way in the face of grave danger. Revelations by the Russians after the Cold War, specifically that their forces had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, indicated the danger Kennedy implied was very real. However, Thirteen Days (as well as other early treatments of the crisis) downplayed the role the Soviets and the Cubans played resolving the near disaster. Furthermore, it masked the real length of the crisis.[2]

The Cuban Missile Crisis began well before the CIA informed the Kennedy administration it sighted offensive missiles in Cuba. In 1959, the American government refused to accept Fidel Castro’s rise to power. John Kennedy inherited a CIA plan to invade the island, which turned into the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Fearing another American-backed operation against Cuba, Castro looked to the Soviet Union for assistance. Nikita Khrushchev could hardly turn down an offer to place Soviet troops so close to the United States. Thus, the Soviets provided planes, missiles, advisers, and troops to the Cubans. Kennedy acquiesced to the possible presence of defensive missiles, but never imagined Khrushchev would risk nuclear war with the United States.

The discovery of offensive weapons began what some have described as the tensest two weeks of the Cold War. John Kennedy convened the “ExComm,” an ad-hoc subgroup of his national security team, and he tasked the group with providing options for an American response. After several days of debate and waffling on the best course of action, Kennedy’s advisers suggested either a blockade or an invasion. The blockade would stop supplies needed to finish construction of the missiles before those supplies arrived. The invasion would eliminate the missile sites before they became operational. Kennedy announced the blockade, labeled a “quarantine,” in a televised address on October 22. Khrushchev ultimately decided not to challenge the blockade, and the first ships carrying military supplies turned around on October 25. In the ensuing days, Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated about resolving the crisis. Additionally, Robert F. Kennedy met secretly with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, to discuss the options for a settlement.

On October 28, Khrushchev announced publicly that construction on the missile sites had stopped largely because Kennedy had privately stated the United States would not invade Cuba. For most Americans and Russians, their countries had averted war when cooler heads prevailed, but the crisis had not quite passed. Three hours after Khrushchev’s announcement, Castro indicated his dissatisfaction with American assurances. He also wanted the United States to end its economic blockade and stop covert operations against Cuba, among other things. Castro’s dissatisfaction prolonged the crisis because it made negotiating a final settlement more difficult. Khrushchev did not want to risk his alliance with Castro, but he felt a written agreement was all that would hold the United States to a non-intervention pledge. Meanwhile, Kennedy would not lift the quarantine against Cuba without a formal agreement – ideally, one that spelled out exactly what equipment the Soviets would remove from Cuba.

In the ensuing weeks, it fell to Soviet diplomat Anastas Mikoyan to convince Castro that an agreement between the US and the USSR could work in his favor. It was a tedious process because Castro opposed any agreement that included inspections. Simultaneously, Khrushchev and Kennedy worked on determining which weapons to include in the agreement. Kennedy’s demands included the IL-28 bomber, but Khrushchev wanted those planes to remain in Cuba. His refusal strengthened a call from Pentagon officials to move forward with invading Cuba since a deal seemed unlikely. By November 10, given the situation, Moscow privately accepted including the IL-28s in the deal. Over the next few days, officials worked to lay out a justification, especially for Castro, on how removal had not occurred because of the American negotiating position.

Soviet medium bomber Ilyushin IL-28 ("Beagle") in flight

Soviet medium bomber Ilyushin IL-28 (“Beagle”) in flight. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library)

As Mikoyan held discussions with Castro, the Soviets and Americans also ironed out acceptable language on the bombers – namely the Americans agreed to accept Khrushchev’s assurance the IL-28s would be dismantled within thirty days of an agreement. While the terms seemed promising, Castro’s frustration with his allies mounted. He worried the Soviet negotiating positions risked Cuban security. He also felt slighted because neither superpower felt he should play a significant role in resolving the crisis. To underscore his relevance, Castro informed Mikoyan that he ordered his military to shoot at any American warplanes conducting reconnaissance missions over Cuban airspace. Castro’s decision did not win him much support in Moscow; Khrushchev vowed not to consult the Cuban leader prior to an agreement with the Americans.

Between November 16 and November 20, the Soviets and the Americans finalized the terms of a settlement. The Soviets conceded to the removal of the IL-28s, and the Americans agreed not to demand on-site inspections. On the evening of November 20, Kennedy announced the end of the quarantine against Cuba. By this point, Castro appeared to be shifting positions, but his decision came too late to affect the Soviet-American agreement. The Cuban Missile Crisis and its resolution was complicated. Looking again at the duration of the crisis, though, tempers the tendency to attribute success solely to President Kennedy and provides a more accurate picture of the role that Soviet, Cuban, and American leaders played in the events of 1962.

A silver-plated wooden paperweight calendar given to Jacqueline Kennedy from JFK to mark the Cuban Missile Crisis; Kennedy had 34 made by Tiffany and Co, each engraved with the recipient's and the President's initials

Silver-plated paperweight given to Jacqueline Kennedy from JFK to mark the crisis; Kennedy had 34 made by Tiffany and Co, each engraved with the recipient’s and his initials. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library)

1 Chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis in Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, ed., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (New York: The New Press, 1992, 1998), National Security Archive, The George Washington University, accessed 12 November 2015, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/chron.htm. See also, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), accessed 13 November 2015, https://books.google.com/books?id=ksYHt-Edc8QC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

2 Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999). The book originally appeared in 1969. In the forward to the new edition, Arthur M. Schlesinger, historian and Kennedy adviser, discussed the real dangers posed by the crisis based on conversations between Soviet, Cuban, and American participants and scholars at a conference to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the crisis.

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

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