Lying only 145 km from the coast of the USA, Cuba had always been of concern to the United States (America still maintains a naval base there to the present day at Guantanamo). The relations between the two nations took a U-turn with the onset of the communist revolution in 1959. Fidel Castro’s consequent rise to power made Cuba a real and present danger. The pressing concern for the United States was the potential symbolic threat that a communist neighbor would prove to be. The fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs invasion, intended to dispel and if possible eliminate Castro, was an affair of big embarrassment for the Kennedy Administration. This further strained the diplomatic relations between the two countries. (Frankel 53)
At this juncture Castro was left with little option but to strengthen relations with the Soviet Union. It benefited the Soviet Union to respond to Cuba’s call for protection, as setting up a base so near the American coast was of strategic importance. The events of these fortuitous days for mankind unraveled in the backdrop of the cold war. The 50’s were a period of economic and technological advancement for both superpowers. Paralleling this prosperity was the escalating ideological conflict between democracy and communism. The tense couple of weeks that would later be called the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest this planet came to complete annihilation. Soviet missiles with capabilities to wipe out all major cities in eastern United States were positioned just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. A last minute command from Krushchev to soviet ships heading to Cuba saved the planet from a potential Armageddon. (Frankel 55)
The political climate of these days is captured clearly in President Kennedy’s speech on 22nd October. An excerpt:
“This secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles … in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy … is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. … Should these offensive military preparations continue … further action will be justified … It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” (Library of Congress Archives)
In this context, Krushchev’s personal communication with Kennedy takes on vital importance. Krushchev’s two letters to President Kennedy were certainly not masterpieces of literature by any means. These somber notes assumed a rambling style. In the first letter Krushchev talks of the International laws of the oceans and Russia’s integrity in abiding by these laws. The letter interrogates Kennedy to state the Soviet offence. It is an argument for the Soviet Union’s rightful navigation of international waters and its intention of helping Cuba, a fellow communist client state. In it, Khrushchev requests Kennedy “not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war” (Library of Congress). He also mentions that his weapons in Cuba were always intended to be “defensive,” and if Cuba’s safety were guaranteed, “the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.” (Library of Congress). It is believed that Krushchev personally composed these letters, without assistance from his advisors. The gravity of the situation is reflected by the emotional tone that is manifest in the passages. Krushchev implores Kennedy to see the issue from the Soviet point of view and tries to justify his recent actions. (Thorpe & Gillian)
The approach of the Kennedy Administration in dealing with the crisis combined obstinacies with intimidation. It was a battle off the battle fields. In this climate both psychological and strategic advantages were sought. President Kennedy’s immediate response to the developments was to commission an advisory body, ExComm it was called. In it were members of the administration of the most import, including Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Robert Kennedy, etc. The discussions held within the confines of the White House between the committee members were very heated and passionate. However, Kennedy’s calm and collective disposition assured that order prevailed amid the chaos. Kennedy was left to make some difficult choices. He wanted to be portrayed as a tough leader, but without resorting to outright aggression.
The proposals of the ExComm ranged from doing nothing to executing a preemptive strike, the latter surely leading to a nuclear warfare. In this context, Krushchev’s letters to President Kennedy strongly suggested that the Soviet Union’s primary interest was the defense of Cuba and not hostility towards the United States. It certainly presented Krushchev’s earnestness of purpose and to that degree struck a rapport with his counterpart.
The second letter from Krushchev to Kennedy was less emotive and more diplomatic in nature. It proposed a deal that the Soviet Union would withdraw its installations in Cuba, if the United States would do likewise in Turkey. Although Kennedy never formally agreed to the proposal, it is evident from the de-classified records of the time that a tacit agreement was made on the issue. Thus, it could be said that Krushchev’s personal communications with Kennedy during those turbulent days inspired confidence in Washington that they are dealing with a reliable head of state.
Meanwhile, American military also began practice moves in the seas around Cuba and built up troop numbers in nearby Florida. There were still nuclear missiles on Cuba, and Castro really feared that there would be an invasion to capture these. Throughout the world people now feared that a nuclear war would start, with the Soviets launching missiles at the USA if the Americans invaded Cuba. (Thorpe & Gillian)
Finally, Kennedy decided on a naval blockade to prevent further arrival of weapons on Cuba. In his immortalized speech on television on 22nd October, the American public were informed of the seriousness of the situation and the options facing the United States. At this point in time Soviet ships carrying more missiles were traveling towards Cuba. Political analysts feared that if the American warships fired on them it would lead to a nuclear conflict. Fortunately, Khrushchev denounced the blockade the following day and ordered his ships back to the USSR. (Frankel 55)
The peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis resulted in some important subsequent developments. Both the superpowers realized how close they had come to a catastrophe, and worked on improving bilateral relations. This is evident from reduced usage of harsh language about the ideological rival in the speeches of the day. Also, both sides realized that diplomacy as opposed to military confrontation is the primary method to deal with political differences. More goodwill gestures were made by both the superpowers in the fall out of the crisis. These were:
“Kennedy allowed the sale of $250 million’s worth of wheat to the USSR. Commercial flights began between New York and Moscow in 1963. In August 1963 the Test Ban Treaty was signed in Moscow between the USSR, USA and Britain; this banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water. And most importantly, a ‘hotline’ was established between Washington and Moscow to allow direct negotiations between the American and Soviet leaders.” (Thorpe & Gillian)
Hence, the Cuban crisis’ historical implications are quite profound. The arms race burdened both superpowers and contributed to the eventual implosion of the Soviet empire. Other nations reached for the diplomatic prowess that nuclear weapons seemed to confer. And the Ex-Commers wrongly assumed that they could again use escalating military pressure to pursue a negotiated deal–in Vietnam. The Vietnam war proved to be a protracted and unmanageable event. It could be argued that this was because Krushchev was a more reliable and predictable rival than Ho-Chi-Minh. The evidence for the same could be found in those two vital notes of communication between Moscow and Washington.
Frankel, Max. “Learning from the missile crisis: what really happened on those thirteen fateful days in October.(Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962).” Smithsonian 33.7 (Oct 2002): 52.
Thorpe, Keir, and Gillian Staerck. “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” Modern History Review 12.2 (Nov 2000): 28(4).
The Library of Congress Archives. “Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis “