The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Brink of Nuclear War

Michael Genender
February 17, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

The Event

Fig. 1: President Kennedy signing the proclamation for a naval quarantine of Cuba in October, 1962. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In October of 1962, a U.S. spy plane flying over Cuba produced photographic evidence of Soviet medium and intermediate range nuclear-tipped missile facilities on the island. These missiles had around an 1,000 mile range and as a result, threatened the safety of citizens from Washington D.C. all the way down to Florida and many other areas throughout the southeastern part of the United States. Clearly needing to move quickly, President John F.Kennedy commissioned a naval blockade of all future armaments delivered to Cuba as shown in Fig. 1. However, this action did nothing to deter Soviet behavior in Cuba with the missiles already on the island, fueling disdain from many Americans who felt a military strike was the far superior course of action. Critics also panned the blockade as a stimulant for direct conflict between the U.S. and the Soviets when the first and only matter of importance at the time was getting the weapons out of Cuba by a form of peaceful diplomacy. As Bobby Kennedy said, critics believed a blockade would solely, "Close the door after the horse had left the barn." [1] Tense negotiations between JFK and Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev ensued for the two weeks after the blockade had been established, with neither side backing down. It was at this point that Kennedy announced there was nearly a 50% chance of nuclear war ensuing. Finally, with war on the horizon, on October 27th Khrushchev and JFK ended the crisis without war with Khruschev accepting a final U.S. offer which promised not to invade Cuba without direct provocation again in exchange for the Soviet's removing all of their nuclear weapons from the island. [2]

Why Cuba?

Fidel Castro's communist Cuba was a bitter enemy of the United States and vise versa. The U.S, in its efforts to deter the spread of communist throughout the world, hired Mafia members in 1960 to assassinate Castro and had begun training anti-communist Cuban exiles to attack their homeland. After JFK's failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the ensuing CIA-sponsored program of harassment and sabotage in Cuba, Castro began turning to fellow communist nation, the Soviet Union to protect Cuba. He hoped that the announcement of an alliance or use of Soviet military aid would stop the U.S. harassment and aggression. Ironically, Castro did not want the Soviets to store nuclear weapons in Cuba and it took near begging from Khrushchev to finally get Castro to agree. [1]

Presence of Nuclear Weapons

U.S. military officials worked 24/7 for two straight weeks during the crisis because the mere thought of the Soviet nuclear capacities was enough to scare Americans greatly. This "fear of escalation" affected U.S. government behavior, as they were extremely wary and cautious for every move they made, as one bad one could provoke the nuclear war. It was this "risk" that Khrushchev had initiated, that gave Khrushchev power in negotiations. Ultimately whether or not the nuclear weapons were ever actually going to be used will never be known, but their presence served as a tool of power and advancement, one that not only led to the protection of communism in Cuba, but the secret removal of U.S. weapons in Turkey and Italy as well. [3]


The current conflict between the U.S. and Iran has many similarities to the Cuban Missile Crisis. An Iranian nuclear bomb could signal a devastating and long-lasting blow to U.S. influence in one of the world's most economically important regions. But, a preventative air strike today would have no impact on Iranian development of a bomb later on. The best option seems to be a Kennedy-like approach. One that combines the threat of invasion with sound peaceful negotiation that would slow down Iranian nuclear capacities. Again that will not permanently deter the future production of a bomb. [2] It seems as if there is no perfect solution, which is just like the Cold War. The Cold War dragged on for nearly 30 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but nuclear war never developed. Similarly, the best approach today may be to work to delay production of a bomb and look to improve relations to the point that use of a bomb if and when it becomes usable would not be necessary.

© Michael Genender. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. F. Kennedy and A. M. Schlesinger, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (W.W. Norton, 1999), pp. 9, 27.

[2] G. Allison, "At 50, the Cuban Missile Crisis as Guide," The New York Times, 15 Jun 12.

[3] M. Trachtenberg, "The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis," Int. Security 10, 139 (1985).