The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Luckily, thanks to the bravery of two leaders, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev, war was averted. The United States armed forces were at their highest state of readiness in the history and Soviet field commanders in Cuba were prepared to use battlefield nuclear weapons to defend the island of Cuba if it was invaded.
In 1962, the Soviet Union was long way behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were powerful enough to be launched against Europe but the United States territory was out of reach at the time. On the other hand, United States had modern missiles that were capable of striking upon the entire Soviet Union.
Weapons race was heated up when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev considered doubling the Soviet strategic arsenal and provide a real deterrent to a potential attack against the Soviet Union. Deploying missiles in Cuba, a faithful ally at the time, seemed like a logical idea.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, after several unsuccessful operations by the United States to overthrow the Cuban regime (best known are Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose), was looking for a way to defend his island nation from an attack. Consequently, he approved of Khrushchev's plan to place missiles on the island.
Beginning of the crisis
In August of 1962 the Soviet Union secretly began to build bases in Cuba for a number of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles with the ability to strike most of the continental United States. United States President Kennedy was faced with several difficult choices. Both countries in conflict were nuclear superpowers, with arsenal of missiles large enough to destroy most of the developed world. The burden of responsibility was immense.
After careful consideration and consultation with his advisers, he concluded to impose a naval quarantine around Cuba. President Kennedy wanted to prevent the arrival of more Soviet offensive weapons on the island. On October 22, the discovery of the missile installations was announced to the public together with the decision to quarantine the island. President Kennedy also proclaimed that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba.
Premier Nikita Khrushchev answered in a letter to Kennedy that his quarantine of navigation in international waters and air space constituted an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. In those moments, the world was a few hours away from a nuclear disaster. Fortunately, secret back-channel communications initiated a proposal to resolve the crisis.
Nuclear war averted
Diplomatic communication was finally established between the two leaders, who decided common sense, cooperation and little trust was preferred over nuclear conflict. The actual confrontation ended on October 28, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy and United Nations Secretary General Thant reached a public and secret agreement with the Soviet leader Khrushchev.
Publicly, the Soviets agreed to dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a United States public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba. Secretly, the United States agreed that it would dismantle all Thor and Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles deployed in Europe and Turkey.