13 days when nuclear war threatened

13 days when nuclear war threatened


Sixty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Here’s a look at how the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union unfolded:

– missiles deployed –

On May 21, 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decides to deploy intermediate and medium-range nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Moscow’s communist ally in the Caribbean.

He justified the decision by saying that Cold War rival the United States could deploy nuclear weapons from NATO member Turkey, which bordered the then Soviet Union.

US President John F. Kennedy warns on September 4 that the “serious consequences” would follow if significant Soviet offensive weapons were introduced into Cuba.

On October 14, a US U2 spy plane confirmed that Soviet missiles were stationed in Cuba, just 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the Florida coast and therefore within range of northeastern cities.

– 13-day crisis –

For 13 days, a terrifying geopolitical poker game rages between young Kennedy and fiery Khrushchev.

On October 16, Kennedy is briefed on the high-resolution photos of a spy plane. He weighs whether to order a naval blockade or an invasion.

The next day, US military units begin moving to bases in the southeastern United States as intelligence photos from another U-2 flight show additional locations and 16 to 32 missiles.

– Cuba under ‘quarantine’ –

On October 22, Kennedy writes to Khrushchev.

“I did not suppose that in this nuclear age you or any sane person would willfully plunge the world into a war that no country could win and which could only have disastrous consequences for the whole world, including the aggressor,” he writes.

Speaking on television that evening, he announces the establishment of a “quarantine” or naval blockade around Cuba and orders preparations for a landing on the island.

The Organization of American States supports Washington.

The next day, ships from the naval quarantine fleet docked around Cuba.

Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines move to the Caribbean.

Soviet freighters bound for Cuba with military supplies freeze their positions.

In a letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev protested: “You no longer appeal to reason, you want to intimidate us.”

The military of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies are put on alert.

On October 26, Cuban leader Fidel Castro urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States in the event of a US invasion of Cuba.

In a letter to Kennedy, Khrushchev proposes withdrawing Soviet missiles and personnel if the United States guarantees not to invade Cuba.

– spy plane shot down –

The next day, a US U-2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba, killing its pilot Rudolph Anderson, who becomes the sole casualty of the crisis.

Kennedy receives a new letter from Khrushchev demanding the removal of US missiles in Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles. Kennedy promises not to invade Cuba and lift the blockade if the missiles are removed.

On October 28, Khrushchev relented and agreed to dismantle the facilities and return the missiles to the Soviet Union, ending the crisis.

In another secret deal, the United States agrees to eventually withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

On November 20, Kennedy lifts the Cuban blockade.

– The consequences –

Next year, a “hotline” is to connect the US and Soviet leadership by telex. Until then, they had only communicated through their respective ambassadors.

Sixteen months earlier, in February 1962, Kennedy had imposed a strict economic and financial embargo on the island following Cuba’s expropriation of US companies.

It would be another half-century before US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries in December 2014.

Sources: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, AFP Archives

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