Castro, Cuba, and Missles U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State

In early 1961 President John F. Kennedy concluded that Fidel Castro was a Soviet client working to subvert Latin America. After much debate in his administration, Kennedy authorized a clandestine invasion of Cuba by a brigade of Cuban exiles. The brigade hit the beach at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, but the operation collapsed in spectacular failure within 2 days. Kennedy took public responsibility for the mistakes made but remained determined to rid Cuba of Castro.

In November 1961 Kennedy approved Operation Mongoose, a secret plan aimed at stimulating a rebellion in Cuba that the United States could support. While the Kennedy administration planned Operation Mongoose, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev secretly introduced medium-range nuclear missiles into Cuba. U.S intelligence picked up evidence of a general Soviet arms build-up during routine surveillance flights, and on September 4, 1962, Kennedy issued a public warning against the introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba. A U-2 flight on October 14 provided the first proof of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Kennedy called together 18 of his closest advisers to try to resolve the most dangerous U.S.-Soviet confrontation of the Cold War. Some advisers argued for an air strike to take out the missiles and destroy the Cuban Air Force followed by a U.S. invasion of Cuba; others favored warnings to Cuba and the Soviet Union. The President decided upon a middle course. On October 22 Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba. He sent a letter to Khrushchev calling upon him to remove the missiles, thus initiating an exchange of correspondence between the two leaders that continued throughout the crisis. On October 24 Soviet vessels approached the quarantine line but turned back; 3 days later, the Cubans shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane. After these near flash points, Kennedy responded on October 27 to the first of two letters sent by Khrushchev on October 26 and 27 proposing various settlements of the crisis. Kennedy accepted the Soviet offer to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in return for an end to the quarantine and a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. The same day Attorney General Robert Kennedy told Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that if the Soviet Union did not remove the missiles the United States would do so. Robert Kennedy also offered an assurance that Khrushchev needed: several months after the missiles were removed from Cuba, the United States would similarly remove its missiles from Turkey. On the basis of those understandings, the Soviet Union agreed on October 28 to remove its missiles from Cuba. The quarantine and the crisis lingered until the removal of the Soviet missiles was verified at sea on November 20, and the Soviet Union agreed to remove the medium-range Il-28 bombers it had also introduced into Cuba. Exactly how close the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear war over Cuba remains one of the most keenly discussed issues of the Cold War.

Additional Reading:
Graham T. Allison and Phillip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999).
Raymond G. Garthoff. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989)
Earnest R. May and Phillip Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1997)