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What Was the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Cuban Missile Crisis was a critical event of the Cold War which many people cite as one of the most important events of this prolonged period of hostility between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. Had the Cuban Missile Crisis been poorly handled, it could have resulted in nuclear war, a turn of events which would have probably been catastrophic. Numerous historians have studied the complexities of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as more documents about the crisis are declassified, more information about the event and the people involved has emerged.

The major players in the conflict were the United States, led by President John F. Kennedy, Cuba, led by President Fidel Castro, and Russia, led by Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The United Nations also stepped in, and numerous other nations had a vested interest in the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the tensions between the United States and Russia had a potential to have an impact on the rest of the world.

The context of the Cuban Missile Crisis is complex, but, in brief, President Castro was concerned that Cuba would be invaded by American forces, while Mr. Khrushchev wanted to gain a foothold in the Caribbean which could potentially be used to launch an offensive against the United States. When he approached Cuba to discuss the possibility of installing missiles and other military material, President Castro consented, deeming it a wise security move.

On 15 October, 1962, an American spy plane revealed missile installations in Cuba, raising concerns about Cuba's intentions. President Kennedy and his cabinet discussed a number of approaches to the issue, ultimately authorizing a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent military material from reaching the area. A flurry of letters and telegrams of protest were exchanged between the United States and the Soviet Union, and President Kennedy went public on 22 October, making a tense televised speech before the nation.

Secret negotiations were carried out in an attempt to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in a way which would satisfy both parties, even as both parties postured with military forces on high alert and inflammatory speeches. Ultimately, on 28 October, the United States agreed to refrain from invading Cuba and to the secret removal of American missiles from Turkey, and the Soviet Union destroyed the missiles in Cuba, under the supervision of the United Nations. A hotline between Washington and Moscow was also established, so that leaders could communicate clearly and rapidly in the future.

Had Kennedy and Khrushchev refused to negotiate, the Cuban Missile Crisis could have escalated to a dangerous level, and as it was several days during the crisis were very touch and go. For the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which they called the Caribbean Crisis, turned out to be a public relations disaster, because the Russian people were not aware of the American agreement about the missiles in Turkey, so it looked as though Russia had simply failed to follow through on a policy decision. The Cubans, who referred to the event as the October Crisis, were angry by what they perceived as a betrayal on the part of the Soviet Union, since Castro was not involved in the negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By BostonIrish — On Jan 28, 2011


I don't believe that the global nuclear threat will have been fully dealt with until we the world disarms as a whole. There will always be power struggles in future generations, and we must do our children and grandchildren a favor by uniting as one world and choosing to leave self-destruction behind us.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 26, 2011

The stalemate of the Cold War was effectively broken once Kissinger made us friendly with China. The tactics of the Kennedy's were ingenious in this instance, but they did not affect change in terms of the Cold War, they simply stalled a potential nuclear fallout. It was the brilliant tactics of diplomats under the Nixon presidency which brought the world past those times.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 25, 2011


Interesting theory. Is there evidence to back this up? Personally, I don't find it unlikely that the superior US intelligence would be able to recognize a nuclear threat that close to US shores, regardless of the Soviets' agenda.

By anon75243 — On Apr 06, 2010

I believe that the US removal of their missiles from Turkey was the main goal of the Russians in this crisis. The Russian missiles were stationed in such a way, that whey were easily discovered, this started all the circus. Russians did not want to keep their rockets in Cuba permanently. Howgh.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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