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Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Cuban Missile Crisis Begins, October 14, 1962

Today in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis began when a US Air Force U-2 spy plane captured photos of a medium-range ballistic missile site under construction near San Cristobal on the island of Cuba. There was no doubt that the construction materials and the missiles were Soviet in origin. From that October day and for the 37 days that followed, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear annihilation.

The real beginning of the crisis can be traced to Turkey. It was there that the United States installed 15 medium-range ballistic missiles earlier in 1962. These missiles were capable of hitting many of the population centers in the western part of the Soviet Union. The thinking behind this move is not clearly understood because by the 1960’s the American submarine fleet was more than capable of hitting the same areas with ICBMs. Regardless, the move into Turkey worried many of the power elite in Moscow.

In May of that fateful year, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev ordered the deployment of missiles to Cuba. These missiles could hit Washington, DC and were capable of taking out half of the strategic bomber airfields in the mainland United States. From Cuba, they would have to fly less than 20 minutes before hitting their targets. At first, advisors in the Kennedy administration thought that the Soviets would not move missiles into Cuba. The photographs of October 14th proved them wrong.

On the evening of October 22nd, President Kennedy addressed the world and told the Soviets directly that any attack on the United States from Cuba would be considered Soviet in nature and would be dealt with accordingly. He placed a naval blockade (then called a “quarantine”) around the island to inspect all ships coming into the area. Behind the closed doors of the White House, all options were on the table, including invasion. Troops were moved into position in Florida to await the signal to go.

Ultimately, it was the Soviets who blinked first. On October 26th and 27th, Moscow issued two demands: a US guarantee that no invasion of Cuba would take place and that the American ballistic missiles in Turkey be removed. In return, the Soviets would remove her missiles from Cuban soil. The US agreed to the terms and ended the blockade on November 20th.

It was not learned until 1992 that Soviet forces in Cuba not only had nuclear weapons mounted atop ballistic missiles, but tactical nuclear weapons as well. Any attempted invasion would likely have resulted in a local nuclear exchange which could’ve easily spread into a worldwide war.

Nikita Krushchev’s political career came to an end a few years after the end of the crisis, mainly due to what was seen as his inept handling of the matter. John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 of the following year.

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