The world has never come closer to nuclear war than it did for fourteen days in October of 1962.
At that time, the Cold War was raging, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was woefully behind the United States in the nuclear arms race.
While the United States had enough fire power to launch a strike against the USSR if necessary, the same could not be said of the Soviets.
At the same time, the island nation of Cuba was under-defended, a fact which had become clear to its president, Fidel Castro, in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States. Castro, afraid that there would be a replay of that failed invasion, was eager to find a way to defend his tiny country.
In the Spring of 1962, The Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khurshchev arranged with Castro to put intermediate-range missiles on that island nation, in the knowledge that using that site as a deployment area would essentially double his country’s strategic arsenal as well as providing an apt deterrent to a US attack. So during the summer of 1962, the two nations began to covertly build Russian missile installations on the Cuban island.
On October 15, the U.S. noticed that construction on reconnaissance photos, and United States President John F. Kennedy immediately pulled together twelve of his most best-suited advisors to figure out what to do about these Russian missiles less that 100 miles from the American coast.
This group of advisors, called the Executive Committee of the United States National Security Council, spent a week discussing and debating the problem, and in the end, Kennedy decided that the United States would blockade Cuba, imposing a virtual quarantine, in order to prevent Russia’s delivery of any more weapons. He then announced that if a single missile was launched from Cuba, he would consider it an attack by the USSR and would retaliate against them. Then he demanded that the USSR remove all of its weapons from Cuba.
Shortly after that, Kennedy ordered low-level reconnaissance missions to be flown over Cuba every two hours.
The people of the United States held its collective breath, as did much of the world.
On October 25, the United States President raised military readiness to DEFCON 2, the second most severe position on the alert condition meter.
The next day, Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy, proposing his removal of the missiles as well as the Russian personnel if Kennedy would promise that the United States would not invade Cuba.
And on October 27, an American U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba. Immediately after that, Khrushchev wrote a second letter demanding that the U.S. remove missiles from Turkey, in exchange for the removal of the Cuban missiles.
Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother and the Attorney General, advised the President to ignore the second letter and to contact the Soviet ambassador and telling him that the United States agreed with the original letter.
On October 28, Khruschev made the announcement that he would order the missiles dismantled and returned to his country and that he trusted that Kennedy would abide by the request to not invade Cuba.
And the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, fifty years ago this month.
- - -