Stepping Back from the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Lessons for Today

We are now 60 years away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The October 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba was a moment when the world came perilously close to nuclear war. The episode’s extraordinary danger has understandably made the crisis the subject of much study and remembrance over the years.

This historical crisis has additional significance in the year 2022, as the world now faces a new confrontation between the United States and Russia that poses a similar danger of nuclear war. No less than US President Joseph Biden recently said that for the “first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon[s].”[1] The current situation gives special importance to remembering the 1962 crisis and learning from it whatever can be useful in avoiding war today.

Overlapping Cold War Problems

The Cuban Missile Crisis can be understood as arising from three aspects of the Cold War:

Nuclear Arms Race. The United States had been the first nation to build nuclear weapons, and by the early 1960s possessed both a larger number of nuclear weapons and more technologically sophisticated weapons than the Soviet Union. Moreover, the United States had nuclear weapons stationed outside its borders, in various US-allied countries from which they could reach the Soviet Union relatively quickly.[2]   

Given that even a very small number of relatively unsophisticated nuclear weapons can be devastating if used, such numerical and technological imbalances supposedly should not matter. However, according to the paranoid logic that nuclear deterrence can encourage, these imbalances are frightening because they can be interpreted as giving one side an advantage over the other. The imbalance raises the question: Could the other side use its superiority to strike first in an effort to destroy our nuclear arsenal before we can retaliate? By this logic, the Soviet Union had a problem.

Cuba. A 1958 revolution overthrew the pro-US dictator of Cuba and brought to power a new, left-wing regime led by Fidel Castro. Cuba’s relationship with the United States deteriorated, and the new regime sought closer ties with the Soviet Union, which provided Castro with military aid.[3]

As the United States pursued covert efforts to undermine Castro’s power, Nikita Khrushchev, the preeminent Soviet leader, made repeated public pledges to defend the island against the United States.[4] In 1960, Khrushchev even implied the Soviets would use nuclear weapons to defend Cuba.[5]

US efforts to destroy Castro’s regime culminated early in President John F. Kennedy’s administration. In April 1961, Kennedy supported an attempted invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces with the intention of overthrowing Castro.[6] The invasion at the island’s Bay of Pigs ended in disaster but it underlined for the Soviets the danger their Cuban ally faced. Soviet-Cuban military ties increased after the invasion, while the Kennedy administration continued to work against Castro, even plotting his assassination.[7]

Berlin. The German city of Berlin, divided between a US-aligned government in the west and a Soviet-aligned government in the east, was a major Cold War problem. Kennedy worried about the precarious situation of West Berlin, which was located deep within Communist East Germany and could be seized by the Soviets with little difficulty.[8]

West Berlin concerned Khrushchev both as a potential base for the US military and because it was a major route by which refugees fled East Germany for the more prosperous west. The Soviet leader described Berlin variously as a “thorn,” “a cancer,” and a “bone in my throat.”[9]

With all three of these conflicts unfolding simultaneously, US-Soviet relations worsened during 1961-62. Kennedy and Khrushchev had a hostile summit meeting in June 1961, during which the Soviet leader threatened to cut off US access to West Berlin.[10] Potential confrontation over Berlin was lessened when the Soviets and East Germans stemmed the refugee flow that summer by building the Berlin Wall.[11] The underlying conflict remained, though.

The Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing in 1961, after a years-long moratorium.[12] The United States soon resumed its own nuclear tests.[13]

Amid this tense international situation, Khrushchev decided in May 1962 to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Having nuclear weapons there could address multiple problems: being able to quickly strike the United States seemingly evened out the US-Soviet nuclear imbalance; and Castro’s regime would be protected from invasion. Also (although the role of this last consideration in Khrushchev’s thinking is unclear and has been much debated) nuclear missiles in Cuba might give the Soviets an advantage over the United States that possibly could be used as a bargaining chip in the Berlin conflict.[14]

To his inner circle, Khrushchev commented “the only way to save Cuba is to put missiles there” and that just as US weapons stationed close to the Soviet Union “are aimed at us and scare us” Soviet missiles in Cuba would “give them back some of their own medicine.”[15] The Soviet leadership agreed on May 21 to put Soviet missiles in Cuba.[16]

The Crisis

The Soviet carried out their plan over the summer and early fall. By early October, Soviet forces in Cuba had over 30 missiles. Each could be armed with a 1-megaton warhead and each could hit a wide swath of the southeastern United States. The Soviets in Cuba also had 12 tactical nuclear weapons that they could use in the event of an American attack on the island.[17]

The crisis erupted when an American surveillance plane spotted the missiles. Kennedy learned about the missiles on October 16 and for almost a week secretly consulted his advisors on what to do. They considered trying to get rid of the missiles by bombing or invading Cuba.[18] Some, such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, argued the Cuban missiles had no military significance given US nuclear superiority. Others pointed out the comparable presence of US missiles close to the Soviet Union, in allied countries such as Turkey.[19]

Two crucial restraints helped prevent a US attack on Cuba. One was uncertainty about the missiles’ status: were any ready to launch? Could one be launched before US military action destroyed them? Another restraint was the fear the Soviets would retaliate with military action against West Berlin.[20]

Kennedy instead chose an option that he announced in a televised speech on October 22.[21] Calling the missiles “a definite threat to peace,” he urged Khrushchev to remove them. The United States would conduct a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further “offensive military equipment” being sent there.[22] Although his tone was confrontational, Kennedy was effectively playing for time, warning the Soviets without yet taking action against the Cuban missiles.

The Soviets responded in kind. Khrushchev sent messages to Kennedy defying the blockade, while the Soviet military raised its level of preparedness. Along with these threatening signals, though, the Soviet leadership decided first to curtail and then stop any further military shipments to Cuba, so as not to violate the US blockade.[23] The United State similarly engaged in some complicated, selective enforcement of the blockade so as to avoid a direct confrontation with Soviet ships.[24]

Behind the scenes, Americans and Soviets alike looked for a diplomatic resolution that would allow both sides to back down without losing. As early as October 17, Kennedy had been considering withdrawing US nuclear missiles in Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of the Cuban missiles.[25] Following Kennedy’s October 22 speech, US policymakers sent various messages, via private channels, to the Soviets proposing such a swap.[26]

On the Soviet side, Khrushchev and his inner circle agreed to propose their own deal: they would withdraw the missiles if the US guaranteed not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev sent this proposal to Kennedy on October 26. Khrushchev later added the Cuba-Turkey missile swap to his proposed deal, perhaps in response to the American proposal.[27]

Despite the mutual search for a peaceful resolution, the situation was quite dangerous. Some US policymakers still advocated attacking Cuba.[28] Had the United States done so, Soviet forces might have used their tactical nuclear weapons in response.[29]

People lower down the chain of the command also had the power to shape events. The Soviets had submarines armed with nuclear weapons close to Cuba; on October 27, one such submarine got into a confrontation with US blockade ships. The submarine commander apparently reacted to American depth charges (intended as warnings) by considering use of a nuclear missile in response but was overruled by another officer.[30]

The Soviets’ Cuban allies were also a potential source of conflict. To monitor the missiles in Cuba, intimidate the enemy, and prepare for a possible invasion, the United States conducted further overflights of Cuba with planes flying at high and low altitudes. Castro wanted to retaliate against low-flying US planes and ordered Cuban forces to fire upon them.[31]

Probably the most dangerous moment of the crisis came not because of Cuban actions, however, but rather unauthorized Soviet action far from the center of policymaking in Moscow. The morning of October 27, two Soviet officers in Cuba learned of an American surveillance plane overhead. Unable to reach their commander and fearing the plane was gathering information for an imminent US invasion, they opted to shoot the plane down, killing its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson.[32] When he learned of the incident, Kennedy crucially decided not to retaliate.[33]

A meeting between the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin finalized the terms of a diplomatic deal: the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba, while the United States promised not to invade Cuba and to withdraw its missiles from Turkey (the Turkish missiles part of the deal was to be kept secret, though).[34] The Soviets accepted the deal on October 28.[35]

By the year’s end, all Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba.[36] By early 1963, the US missiles left Turkey.[37] Also that year, the two nations reached an agreement to limit nuclear testing.[38] Meanwhile, Khrushchev never did attack or cut off western access to West Berlin.


Policymakers on both sides, despite their understandable mutual suspicions, fears, and hostilities, were ultimately able to defuse a confrontation that could have spiraled into nuclear war. Many different lessons could be drawn from the episode, but I will suggest just a few that are applicable today both to US-Russian relations and relations among other nations.

Show caution. War could have broken out had either side acted recklessly or tried to force a showdown. The US decision not to attack Cuba and the Soviet decision to avoid violation of the blockade helped prevent the situation escalating out of control.

Communicate. US-Soviet communication, both official and private, was essential to finding a resolution. Private communication was especially important in reaching agreements that could not be discussed publicly. Recognition of communication’s importance led to the United States and Soviet Union, in 1963, establishing a special “hotline” for 24-hour communication.[39]

Leave an exit. Resolving the crisis required each nation to get something that allowed its leaders to claim a victory. As Kennedy later said, “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world.”[40]

Beware uncontrollable situations. As the killing of Major Anderson showed, events can overtake policymakers. Large-scale, high-tension military confrontations raise the probability of violence breaking out because of a minor incident that escalates. This probability is a reason such confrontations should be avoided and quickly cooled down if they do occur. As Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev after the crisis, “I think that you and I, with our heavy responsibilities for the maintenance of peace, were aware that developments were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable.”[41]

All these principles are worth bearing in mind in future international relations. And I will add one more lesson, the most important:

As long as nuclear weapons exist, humanity is in grave danger. The destructive power of nuclear weapons means international conflicts, even ones that start relatively small, have the potential to kill billions and devastate our world. A confrontation over Cuba had the potential to end civilization, just as the present confrontation over Ukraine does.

This last lesson should give us fresh motivation to try to end the nuclear danger or at least to try to reduce it to the lowest level possible. The good luck we had in 1962 will not always be with us.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] White House, “Remarks by President Biden at Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Reception,” October 6, 2022,

[2] Max Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 53-57; Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Nuclear Order of Battle, October and November 1962,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68, no. 6 (2012): 85-19, available at

[3] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: Norton, 1997), 46-47.

[4] On US covert action, see ibid., 43-44, 57-58, 69-70, 83-85; on Khrushchev pledges, see ibid., 52, 60-61.

[5] Ibid., 52, 60-61.

[6] Ibid., 88, 92-97.

[7] On Soviet-Cuban cooperation, see Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 97-100; on US anti-Castro action, see Fursenko and Naftali, 142-144, 146-148, 156-158; on US plotting Castro’s assassination, see Fursenko and Naftali, 201, and Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 335-337, 712-714.

[8] Reeves, President Kennedy, 68, 77-78.

[9] William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 398, 407, quotations on 407; see also Reeves, President Kennedy, 168.

[10] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 129-130; Reeves, President Kennedy, 168-171; Taubman, Khrushchev, 499-500.

[11] Taubman, Khrushchev, 505-506.

[12] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 132-134; Reeves, President Kennedy, 223-224; Taubman, Khrushchev, 502-503.

[13] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 154-156; Reeves, President Kennedy, 225-228.

[14] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 177-178, 181-183; Taubman, Khrushchev, 537-540.

[15] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 182.

[16] Ibid., 179-181.

[17] Ibid., 216-217; for a rough overview of nuclear weapon’s destructiveness, see “The Persisting Threat of Nuclear Weapons: A Brief Primer.”

[18] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 222-227, 230-231, 234-235.

[19] Reeves, President Kennedy, 373, 375-376.

[20] Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War, 81-82, 106-107, 113-114; Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 222-227, 230-231, 234-235.

[21] “Address During the Cuban Missile Crisis,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accessed October 30, 2022,

[22] Ibid.; Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 245-247.

[23] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 247-248, 253-256, 259.

[24] Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War, 122-123, 124-127, 153-154.

[25] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 236-237; Reeves, President Kennedy, 378, 389.

[26] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 249-252, 263-265, 269-271.

[27] Ibid., 259-260, 262-263, 273-276.

[28] Ibid., 265-267.

[29] Ibid., 271-273, 273-277, 393-394 n. 64-66.

[30] Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War, 155-156; Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 247; Edward Wilson, “Thank You Vasili Arkhipov, the Man Who Stopped Nuclear War,” Guardian, October 27, 2012,

[31] Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War, 131-132, 145-147.

[32] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 277-278.

[33] Ibid., 280-281.

[34] Ibid., 281-282.

[35] Ibid., 283-287.

[36] Ibid., 315.

[37] Reeves, President Kennedy, 455-456, 484.

[38] Fursenko and Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble,” 337-338.

[39] Ibid., 338.

[40] “American University Commencement Address,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, accessed October 30, 2022,

[41] Reeves, President Kennedy, 425.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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