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The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Sixty years ago in October 1962, the installation of medium-range missiles in Cuba by the Soviet Union created a security vacuum between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, and led the world to the brink of a nuclear war. The dossier held at Library am Guisanplatz sheds light on the levels of escalation of the crisis.

22.12.2022 | Library Am Guisanplatz, Mathias Kobel

The picture shows missile air bases in Cuba in October 1962. 
Missile sites in Cuba in October 1962 (US graphic) (Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The trigger

The photographs taken from an American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying over the west coast of Cuba on 15 October 1962 caused a great stir in Washington. The pictures showed S-75 anti-aircraft missiles ready for launch and launch pads for Soviet R-12 medium-range missiles, which could be equipped with a nuclear warhead. The threat of a nuclear attack was suddenly dangerously close to home.

The stationing of launch pads in Cuba was the USSR's response to the 1959 deployment of American medium-range Jupiter missiles at Izmir in Turkey and at Gioia del Colle near Bari in Italy with a range of 2,400 kilometres. This was part of the USSR's secret Operation Anadyr, with which the Soviet Union supplied the Cuban armed forces with weapons and material from 1961 onwards to counter direct military intervention by the US.

Creation of a crisis team

On 16 October 1962, immediately after being briefed on the events in Cuba, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), the 35th President of the United States of America, under great time pressure, set up a special group, the ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), which was composed of members of the National Security Council and other political and military actors. Robert McNamara (1916-2009), then US Secretary of Defence, advocated the use of a naval blockade.

In his radio and television broadcast on the evening of 22 October 1962, President Kennedy informed the public about the events, ordered a naval blockade against Cuba, and called on the USSR to  dismantle and withdraw all offensive weapons in Cuba. The US Armed Forces around the world were put on heightened operational readiness. Two days later, the blockade went into effect.

A time bomb

In the nerve-wracking six days that followed, various scenarios to avert the threat of a nuclear strike were considered at the highest levels.

In a secret correspondence, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and President Kennedy, eventually agreed on the dismantling and withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba under UN supervision. President Kennedy promised to lift the naval blockade and not attack Cuba if the intermediate-range missiles were withdrawn from the island.

Before a solution was reached, there was a critical incident on 27 October 1962 when United States Air Force pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. (1927-1962), was shot down and killed during a Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance mission over Cuba by one of two Soviet-supplied S-75 anti-aircraft missiles. Fortunately, the incident did not result in nuclear retaliation.

A concession by Khrushchev and Kennedy subsequently allowed the crisis to end. The Soviet Union committed to completely dismantling and withdrawing the missiles in Cuba, and Kennedy assured Khrushchev of the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

A ‘Hot Line’ agreement

After the end of the crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union decided to establish a direct communications link between the White House and the Kremlin. On 20 June 1963, the two countries signed the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link in Geneva. This was the first bilateral agreement between the two states that acknowledged the dangers of modern nuclear weapons systems, and was a first step to bring this threat under control.


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Bibliothek am Guisanplatz

Informations- und Dokumentationsservices
Papiermühlestrasse 21a
CH-3003 Bern