On the Brink: 50 Year Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy soon came into receipt of two missives from Khrushchev. The first, on October 26, was personal and earnest and indicated a desire to strike a deal to defuse the crisis: Khrushchev proposed removal of the missiles from Cuba in return for a public American pledge never to invade Cuba. The second, on October 27, was impersonal and rigid -- and suspected of being a Politburo production, not Khrushchev’s -- and more belligerent, insisting also on the removal of the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

To make matters worse, the same day, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, killed. A second U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace and nearly shared the same fate. It has been said that neither side would have permitted war on such chance missteps, but that remains unclear: ExComm had previously decided that a downed U-2 called for eliminating the offending SAM anti-aircraft missile site. ExComm had further determined that all SAM sites in Cuba were to be destroyed if a second U-2 was downed. Matters could have swiftly degenerated into war. Kennedy wisely chose not to order retaliation for the first U-2 and to remain silent about the second. He also ordered U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey defused so they could not be fired without his authorization.

Even without these possible triggers, the risk of war was high. On October 22, the U.S. moved to Defcon-2, the highest state of alert reached at any time in the Cold War. All U.S. missile crews were placed on maximum alert, over 1,400 bombers were armed and poised for immediate action, including 90 B-52s airborne carrying multi-megaton bombs, and over 160 nuclear warheads were made active. Whatever else might be said about the crisis, it cannot be claimed that the two superpowers were not poised near the brink.

Through back channels, agreement was reached along the lines of Khrushchev’s second letter, though the removal of the Jupiter missiles was a secret component of the deal, never avowed in public. On October 28, the deal was concluded and the world -- for once not a hyperbolic image -- breathed a sigh of relief. Kennedy basked in the glow of victory. A nuclear exchange had been averted and the Democrats picked up four Senate seats in the midterm elections that followed.

In short, Kennedy’s wretched judgment on the Bay of Pigs had spurred the Soviets to shore up their Cuban ally to the point of installing nuclear missiles. Yet with the stakes so high, Soviet determination untested, and the room for maneuver small, Kennedy carefully extricated the U.S. from the ignominious prospect of Soviet missiles positioned permanently ninety miles from mainland United States. He thus extricated the world from a nuclear exchange precipitated by this development.

There remain critics. Some thought the deal weak, that a more seasoned, sure-footed  president would have insisted on the restoration of the status quo ante and the complete demilitarization of Cuba. “So long as we had the thumbscrew on Khrushchev, we should have given it a turn every day,” had been the judgement of Dean Acheson, former secretary of State under Harry S. Truman, whom Kennedy had called in to advise during the crisis. Should Kennedy have demanded demilitarization? Would the Soviets, being able to achieve the securing of Cuba from American invasion and the removal of the Jupiter missiles besides, have balked at withdrawing their advisers from Havana? The answer may never be known. Given the stakes, one is inclined to give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt for not attempting to find out.

Yet no accounting of the deal can omit its costs. The 42,000 Soviet advisers in Cuba remained, training Castro’s forces to develop what was to become the leading communist mercenary army, which would assist subversion in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for the next two decades. Cuban exiles had to forfeit any hope of dismantling communism in their homeland until at least after the Cold War and, indeed, up to the present day. They paid the heaviest price for sparing the world the horrors that might have been unleashed half a century ago.