In Depth

The Cuban Missile Crisis – how close to nuclear war did we get?

53 years ago today, a nuclear war between the US and USSR was narrowly averted after Khrushchev 'blinked'

On 28 October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end. Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev announced on Radio Moscow that the USSR would be removing the nuclear missiles it had stationed on the Caribbean island of Cuba, roughly 90 miles from Florida.

In the words of the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "We were eyeball-to-eyeball and the other fellow just blinked."

The USA already had a fractious relationship with the island state of Cuba before the crisis. In 1961, a CIA-sponsored invasion attempt to overthrow the communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro had failed miserably in the Bay of Pigs.

Castro wanted to be defended against a full-scale US invasion but Khrushchev's main reason for placing the missiles with his communist comrade was that there were American missiles stationed in Turkey, close to the USSR.

It was a game of political brinkmanship, but to this day remains the closest we have ever got to nuclear annihilation.

14 October 1962

Photos taken by US spy plane missions show evidence of ballistic nuclear missiles, transporters and bunkers on Cuban soil.

16 October 1962

ExComm (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) meets at the Whitehouse to debate how to respond to the threat.

Eventually the decision is made to make a public declaration of a naval blockade of the island in order to prevent further missiles from being delivered.

22 October 1962

President John F Kennedy speaks to the American people, announcing the blockade and challenging Khrushchev to remove the weapons.

The biggest US troop invasion force since D-Day, gathers in Florida in preparation.

24 October 1962

US Strategic Air Command is ordered to Defcon (Defence Condition) 2, the highest level it has ever reached.

Over Europe, American bombers are in the air 24 hours a day. Each bomber carries nuclear weapons, each one has a target and each one is ready to launch at a moment's notice.

25 October 1962

14 Soviet ships turn back from the blockade.

26 October 1962

Khrushchev offers Kennedy a deal by letter – they will remove missiles in return for an end to the blockade, and a promise not to invade the island without direct provocation.

27October 1962

Kennedy replies to Khrushchev's letter accepting the offer.

By secret agreement the Turkish missiles will also be removed.

28 October 1962

Khrushchev goes on air to announce the removal of Russian missiles from Cuba.

Kennedy thanks Khrushchev by telegram, before publically acknowledging the end of the crisis.

Modern day historians note that the standoff nearly turned into a global calamity. With bombers in the air and nearly 3000 American nuclear weapons alone in a state of readiness, the Cuban Missile Crisis could have led to the end of the world in mere minutes.


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