The Brink of Nuclear War: The Cuban Missile Crisis

AT Hall
May 29, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Kennedy and his staff at the EXCOMM meetings. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the Cold War, there was a constant tension between the USSR and the United States of America. There was a heavy clashing of ideas as to how to run a country. The United States wanted to stop the spread of communism at all costs and the USSR was willing to back and help any countries who wanted to become communist. [1] Though there was no actual fighting between the United States and the USSR they both financially backed countries who would be involved in actual wars. During this entire war that lasted from 1946-1991, there was a high likelihood of nuclear weapons being used on both sides. [1] The thought of possible nuclear war caused a plethora of events to occur that would call for some serious political action to be taken to save the lives of millions of innocent people. One of those being the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

On October 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane flying over western Cuba captures images of missile sites that are only 90 miles off the coast of South Florida. The United States found SS-4 and SS-5 missiles that have a range of about 1,000 miles and this made them a serious threat. [1,2] The next two weeks are probably the closest that the world has ever been to a true nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy says that at one point there was about a 50/50 chance that there was going to be a war. [3] Immediately after President Kennedy finds out that there are missiles in Cuba the EXCOMM meetings (Fig. 1) took place. These meetings were filled with his cabinet members and high ranking military officers on what should be done about these missiles in Cuba. One of the most discussed ideas was the possibility of an airstrike on the missile locations. The idea of an airstrike was ultimately pushed to the side and President Kennedy decided that this matter should be handled politically. The next day, after the EXCOMM meetings had ended, a letter was sent to Kennedy from Andrei Gromyko, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the USSR at the time, assured that all of the aid that was being given to Cuba was for the defensive capabilities of Cuba. [3] A few days later, President Kennedy receives another letter this time from Nikita Khrushchev who was the head of the USSR at the time. The letter addressed that there were a lot of people's lives who were in danger and there was a threat to the peace. [3] JFK answered right back making sure the USSR knew that this was their fault for placing missiles in Cuba. The two nations soon came to terms of nuclear disengagement, the United States would publically announce that they would not ever invade Cuba and they remove their missiles from Turkey. The USSR would then remove their missiles from Cuba. On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev announced on the public radio that the USSR would be removing the missiles from Cuba.

How Did Cuba Get Involved?

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro drove his guerilla army into the capital of Cuba and overthrew the dictator at the time. The old leader was Pro-American and received lots of help from the Americans because the United States had a lot of business on the Island in the sugar, cattle, and mining business. As soon as Castro took power he began to denounce the Americans within Cuba. It took less than a year for all political ties to be cut off and Cuba to side with the USSR. [4] Soon after the United States embargoed trade from Cuba and set up a blockade between the island and Florida. [4] During this time a group of about 1,400 Cuban exiles were being trained by the US military in Miami to overthrow Castro. On April 15, 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. [4] All 1,400 Cuban exile troops landed in Cuba and the invasion was a complete failure. This caused Cuban American relations to become even tenser and this got Russia to be even more involved.

© AT Hall. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] A. Schlesinger Jr., "Origins of the Cold War," Foreign Aff. 46, 22 (1967).

[2] Michael Genender, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Brink of Nuclear War ," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memior of the Cuban Missile Crisis (W. W. Norton, 1999).

[4] P. Roberts, ed., Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO, 2012).