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Avoiding Nuclear War: The Cuban Missile Crisis


Okay! Take your seats, everyone! On the count of three, we'll be blasted back in time to 1962, the closest our world has ever been to nuclear war. One, two, THREE!!


It was early in 1962 when the head of the Soviet Union - Nikita Khrushchev - decided that his country didn't have enough weapons. His missiles were only powerful enough to destroy neighboring Europe. The United States, on the other hand, could wipe out most of the Soviet Union. That's because the USA had a missile site in Turkey, right next to the USSR. Khrushchev thought he needed a better missile site. And he had the perfect spot in mind.

Just 90 miles off the Florida coast was Cuba -- a small island country that was communist, like the USSR. Castro, the leader of Cuba, loved the idea of helping the Soviet Union. A couple of years before, the United States had tried to overthrow him during the "Bay of Pigs" operation. Now, he was more than happy to help the Soviet Union's with their missiles.


Frijoles, frijoles, the magical food….

Of course, the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, wouldn't have been too happy with this idea. So Khrushchev snuck the missiles in to Cuba. Soviet troops dressed like tourists and brought the missiles over on cruise ships. Then they hid the weapons in Cuba's forests.

In October of that year, an American spy plane flew over Cuba and saw the missiles. These missiles could demolish every major American city but Seattle. Kennedy found this out while he was still in his pajamas, eating breakfast. He immediately met with his closest advisors, and they locked themselves in a room for seven days and debated what to do.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had officially begun.

There seemed to be three possible options. Kennedy could try to solve the problem by talking to Castro and Khrushchev. He could prevent further weapons from entering Cuba by blocking the island with ships. Or he could take direct military action, starting with an air attack on those missiles.

Just in case, the U.S. military prepared for an attack.

Flag that would someday fly over a free Havana

At 7 p.m. on October 22, 1962, Kennedy appeared live on television to announce that a nuclear attack from Cuba would be seen as an attack by the Soviet Union. He put a band of ships around the island to prevent new missiles from arriving. As Kennedy spoke, 20 planes armed with nuclear weapons and 300 Navy ships headed out to Cuba.

Stephanie interviews Jose and Josefina Salazar, two Cuban exiles living in Miami
cubajose.jpg: Stephanie interviews Jose and Josefina Salazar, two Cuban exiles living in Miami

The instant Kennedy finished his 17-minute speech, panic swept through the streets of America. Some families constructed bomb shelters and collected food; others headed to church.

The Soviets, meanwhile, were furious. Khrushchev saw the blockade as an act of war. He instructed his ships to keep on sailing.

In the early morning hours of October 24, U.S. ships took their position on a line some 800 miles away from Cuba. They planned to use force against any ship that tried to sail in past 10 a.m. A fleet of Soviet ships came closer and closer to the line. They didn't turn back until the last possible second, around 10:25 a.m.

Luis Zuniga, president of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, was a political prisoner in Cuba for 19 years

After that morning, Khrushchev offered a deal. He would dismantle the missiles in Cuba if Kennedy promised never to invade the island again. This didn't make Kennedy very happy, since who wants a Communist neighbor? While he was thinking about this idea, another letter arrived. It was short: the Soviets would take away the missiles in Cuba if the USA did the same in Turkey.

Luis Zuniga, president of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, was a political prisoner in Cuba for 19 years

Kennedy didn't like this idea either. Luckily for Kennedy, his brother Bobby (the attorney general of the USA) came up with a very good plan: Ignore the second letter. Kennedy did just that. He agreed to the first deal, and then later agreed to the second one under the table.

Khrushchev dismantled the weapons in Cuba and Kennedy followed suit in Turkey half a year later. Nuclear war had been averted - for the time being.

It would be nice to say that that was the end of the missiles in this world, but it's not. Today, many more countries have nuclear weapons - China, India, and Pakistan, to name a few.

Bay of Pigs veteran Estevan Bovo points out his fallen comrades

Where is the end to all of this madness? We already have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy this entire planet - why do people keep building more?

Where are we going with all of these weapons?

A memorial to Bay of Pigs veterans stands in the heart of Little Havana in Miami

Perhaps Kevin Costner put it best in "Thirteen Days" - the Hollywood version of the Cuban Missiles Crisis - when he remarked: "Everyday the sun comes up says something about us."

Let's keep on giving the sun good things to say.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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