Before we go into the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s important to understand the world’s environment entering into October of 1962. In 1959, you have a revolution in Cuba led by Fidel Castro. And he is heading the Communist party there. Cuba is now a Communist nation right off of the coast of the United States. This is the middle of the Cold War. The U.S. believes in a strategy of containment, does not like this. So in 1961, the United States, the CIA, the Kennedy Administration, they try using Cuban exiles, people who have left Cuba, they try to support them to enter and invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But, the whole effort wasn’t planned properly. The support for the Cuban exiles, the counter-revolutionaries, those [who] were trying to oust Castro, it was kind of this half-hearted effort. And it was this big failure. So the Bay of Bigs invasion was a failure in 1961. And it made John F. Kennedy seem a little bit weak. It made the CIA seem [weak]. It didn’t make anyone on the American side look all that competent, because of that failure. On top of that, we’re in the middle of the Cold War, remember this. And at the same time, if you go to what the US was doing around the Soviet Union, it started placing missiles, starting [in] the late 50’s, all the way into 1961 and 1962 — it started placing medium-ranged ballistic missiles in Turkey and in Italy. These are where they were allocated. And the significance of that is that now these missiles could reach the major population centers of the Soviet Union in really a matter of minutes, in 10 to 20 minutes, I think. 16 minutes was how long most of these stayed airborne. And in a situation where both sides have nuclear weapons, there was this kind of notion of well, maybe if you’re able to get to the other guy faster, they wouldn’t be able to retaliate, and maybe you wouldn’t have that mutually assured destruction. So there’s this whole idea that you want to get your missiles as close as possible [to your enemies] so that they could reach the populations centers, the strategic centers of your opponent, as quickly as possible. And if you look up on the Web, you can actually find the actual missile sites, and where they were installed, and when they became operational. These are the ones that were in Italy, kind of right here, near the heel of Italy. So you have this environment, the United States was looking a little bit weak after the Bay of Pigs invasion. It looks like they wanted to oust Castro, but they weren’t able to do it. They weren’t able because they were slightly inept. And at the same time you could imagine that the Soviet Union did not appreciate the United States placing these missiles so close to its population centers. Missiles that could reach its population centers very easily. So now, we fast forward to October of 1962 and the entire Cuban Missile Crisis will occur over 13 or 14 days during October of 1962. So, on the 14th of October we’re sending these U2 spy planes over Cuba. So this right here is a U2 spy plane. That is a U2 spy plane. And it takes pictures that look like this. And on the next day, on October 15th, you have the CIA analysts. And they’re saying, “Wow – that looks like missiles over there. This looks like ballistic missiles that are being set up, that are being set up in Cuba”. And so all of a sudden, it looks like the Soviet Union is using Cuba to do the same thing that we used Turkey and Italy for, to set up ballistic missiles, really, right off of our coast — and ballistic missiles that could now now reach any of the strategic population centers, especially on the east coast or the midwest of the United States. So by the 16th– So this is literally two days after the pictures were taken. The next day, they’re analyzing them, [and] they tell the State Department about them. [On] the 16th, they tell Kennedy about them, and Kennedy holds a meeting of the Executive Committee. It wasn’t called “ExComm,” just [yet]. But it was really a subset of special advisors — a subset of the National Security Council and other advisors that essentially become the brain trust to figure out what to do about this forming crisis. Because of all of a sudden you have a state that we don’t like off of our borders — a Communist state — a state aligned with the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, it has nuclear missiles. it looks like these are offensive weapons. These are weapons being designed for a first-strike capability. Once again, if they’re being launched from Cuba, maybe they can attack — maybe they can obliterate the US before the US even has an opportunity to respond properly. So this really freaks out the Kennedy Administration. And so they start to think about what can they do about it and early on– Well, there’s a couple– You could just kind of call and talk to the Soviets about it and say: “Hey, we don’t like that. Why don’t you undo your missiles?” But they didn’t really think that that would have any significant effect on the Soviets. Especially, because they probably thought that Kennedy was weak at this point. And just to understand who was leading the Soviets at this time, it was Khrushchev. (This is Khrushchev right over here.) And he had even made remarks to the effect that he thought that Kennedy was young and may be naive, and maybe too intellectual to really play a good game of chicken here. And so the US kind of felt that it had to look strong here. And so the only real options on the table were: maybe blockade Cuba – and so a blockade could be an ‘all out’ blockade, so it would be an economic blockade. But then that’s actually considered an act of war because you are, to a large degree, starving a country. Another option for the United States, (because it was completely viewed as unacceptable that these missiles should be here, and that they should be deployable from Cuba), the other option would be to do air attacks on these missile silos. And then the most extreme action would be to actually invade Cuba. And ,obviously that goes in line with, the US’ general interest of not having a communist regime so close to its own borders. So, this is what Kennedy and his team was wrestling with. And really early on in these early days, most of the team was actually advising Kennedy that they should do a full-scale invasion of Cuba. They thought that this was the only thing that the Soviets would take seriously, it would show that the US is serious about this. And they didn’t think that the Soviet Union would really try to put up a fight in Cuba, so far away from their own borders. But Kennedy, probably thinking about it pretty reasonably, realized “Well, hey. They might not do anything in Cuba, and they might allow us to oust Castro and install a new regime there. But they might retaliate, in fact, they probably would retaliate in Europe, but specifically, in Berlin, probably in Germany as a whole. So, just for the sake of getting these things out of Cuba, we could sacrifice a lot in Europe. And even more, that any type of conflict between the US and the Soviet Union could easily escalate to a nuclear war”. So these were all on the table. The US goes on high alert. It prepares for any of these situations, because they really don’t know what’s going to happen. The Army, the Air Force and the Navy [start] mobilizing. So, on, kind of with hours notice, any of those options can, kind of, go into effect. By the 22nd, you have the Executive Committee — (And that just becomes formalized as an actual, official group that is advising the President in this capacity.) — and on the 22nd, Kennedy finally puts out his first salvo on what is the US’ position on what’s going on here. And before this — just to make things clear — on the 18th, he did meet, he did meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko — and I’m sure I’m butchering the pronunciations — and this is where the first time, Kennedy is like “Hey, you’ve got these offensive weapons…” And Gromyko is insisting that “No, they’re just defensive weapons”. And, to most people, defensive weapons would mean things like surface-to-air missiles, things that would stop planes from bombings. But not surface-to-surface missiles, not something that could attack a country. But we’ll see, in future letters from Khrushchev, that maybe they actually did perceive these missiles as somehow being defensive. But you fast forward. That was on the 18th, it kind of made, it made Kennedy and the US frustrated with the Russians, because it felt like the Americans are saying, “Look, we clearly know you have missiles there”, but Gromyko is saying “No, these are just defensive weapons – nothing to worry about. Why are you taking this so seriously?” The 19th: US goes on high alert. It starts thinking about all of these options. The 22nd: this Committee is formed formally. But more importantly, Kennedy gives a speech to state the United States’ opinion. And I’ll just read it right here: “To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargos of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life, as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.” So, the Kennedy administration’s position became slightly more nuanced. They said “We can’t do an all out blockade. 1) That is an act of war; 2) That is, to a large degree, inhumane. Why should we starve the Cuban people? What we’re gonna do is, kind of a filter on the cargo going into Cuba. We will only inspect things that we suspect are holding armaments, and we will only turn back the ships that are actually doing it.” But then on the 24th, there is a cable from Khrushchev, and it say,: “If you cooly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving away to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States — and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as an act of aggression, and that their ships will be instructed to ignore it.” So the game of chicken is beginning to emerge. The United States if just saying “Look, this is unacceptable. We’re gonna stop you from shipping arms to Cuba.” On the 24th, Khrushchev is saying “Who are you to tell us what to do?” and, you know, there’s this kind of under current like, “Wait, you’ve already got stuff set up in Italy and Turkey, not too far from us. How can you dare…” — (you know, and they call it a blockade, even though the US is calling it a quarantine) — “this is an act of aggression and we will ignore it.” So both parties are kind of saying, “We don’t care what you’re gonna do. We’re gonna do what whatever we have to do” And this whole time, both sides are getting tense, the whole world is kind of taking sides, they’re making public statements about what’s right or wrong. So, we really are getting very close to the brink of a very major confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. And you know, you can read the book “13 Days – Robert Kennedy”, there’s also the movie “13 Days,” which actually is not based on the book. But both of them really kind of give the account of what happened over this period. But then you fast forward to the 25th and Kennedy essentially replies, “Look, these are offensive weapons and these require the responses I have announced. I hope that your government will take necessary action to permit restoration of the earlier situation.” Ok, so he’s saying – “Look, we have to do this. These are offensive weapons. We cannot tolerate these weapons so close to US borders. And so, also on the 25th, the quarantine is in effect. It does get challenged. The US does start to inspect some ships. They try to inspect one ship that got away a little bit. So the Soviets, even though they’re speaking the game of chicken, they are turning back. They did turn back 14 ships. And the best guess is that those 14 ships probably did contain some type of armament. So even though, publicly, everyone is playing a very strong game, behind the scenes, there is a little bit of a softening of the stance. And then you fast forward to the 26th, and Khrushchev essentially sends his first proposal. And it’s interesting here. Because, in Khrushchev’s mind — (And this is a fascinating letter to read. It’s a fairly long letter, so I’m not gonna go into the whole thing and you can get it at this URL right over here. It’s a fascinating letter. Maybe I’ll do a whole video where I just read this letter.) He kind of goes into the nuance of what he views as a defensive or an offensive weapon. He implicitly admits that the missiles are there — That they’re not these benign weapons. But, in his letter, he kind of makes the nuance that he’d use them as defensive weapons. He says: “Look, you guys attempted to oust Castro already. We view Castro as an ally. We think that by placing these weapons here, that you will be less likely to be able to oust Castro, because you will be afraid of these weapons.” So, Khrushchev is kind of setting up– Kruschev is saying, “We don’t have the intention of using these to attack you for no reason. We’re just putting these here to essentially defend one of our allies.” So he’s saying that’s the reason. That’s the reason that they placed those weapons there in the first place. He’s kind of saying “Look, you did Bay of Pigs. You were the ones that took the first shot. Now we are defending it.” That might have been the rationale. Another rationale for why they did it — and it’s just, and probably the more strategic rationale — is that we already did have these missiles that were pointed at the Soviet Union in Turkey and Italy. And the Soviet Union just wanted to have parity. So, they wanted to put missiles near the US [in] some ally’s country, from the Soviet Union’s point of view. So, on the 26th, Khrushchev’s first proposa,l that was given through a cable, says: “If assurances were given by the President and the Government of the United States that the USA itself would not participate…” – so ‘assurances’… (Let me underline this in a different color.) — “assurances that the USA itself would not participate in an attack on Cuba, and would restrain others from actions of this sort” — probably the Cuban exiles — “… if you would recall your fleet, this would immediately change everything. I am not speaking for Fidel Castro, but I think that he and the government of Cuba evidently would declare demobilization and would appeal to the people to get down to peaceful labor. Then, too, the question of–” (And, you know, the Communists always like talking about “labor.”) — “then, too, the question of armaments would disappear, since, if there is no threat, then armaments are a burden for every people.” So in this first proposal that came over a cable, he’s essentially saying: “Look, if you guys just promise not to attack Cuba, if you just make ‘assurances’ that you will not attack Cuba, then we’ll essentially undo everything. We’ll give in to your wishes.” And this stance right here really does make it look like their main interest in having those missiles was, kind of, to protect Cuba — so that the US would not try to oust the Communists from there. But then on the next day, Khrushchev has a public broadcast where he kind of changes his tone a little bit. Now he’s saying that they would undo the situation in Cuba only if the United States removed their missiles from Italy and Turkey. So, he’s sending little mixed messages. His first message was kind of a softer stance: “Look, you guys just promise not to invade Cuba and we’re gonna pull out of Cuba.” The second stance is saying: “No, no. We’re only gonna take our missiles out of Cuba if you take your missiles out of Italy and Turkey.” And on the same day, another U2 spy plane gets shot down over Cuba. This is when both armies are really at, kind of, they’re at hair-trigger notice, it’s a really scary situation. And this was actually done by– It was a local decision by a Soviet commander. (And Khrushchev actually did not want this to happen.) And lucky for, I guess, the world, the US did not use this, alone, as a reason to engage in war. They said: “Maybe it’s an accident. If this happens again, then we’ll use it as [a pretext for] war.” So it was lucky that this did not trigger an immediate war with the Soviets. But the Kennedy Administration still had the question: “Which of these was a more serious, you know, which of these requests were the Soviets really making? This is a more significant request. Are they requesting for both? And so it was eventually decided, on the 27th, that: “Hey, let’s just pretend like we didn’t even know — that the Americans didn’t even know about the second request that asked for more — and let’s just reply to this first request.” So, you essentially have Kennedy agreeing [with] Khrushchev, and saying: “Ok, we’ll do your first request. We will agree not to invade Cuba if you remove your missiles.” And then, essentially, what happens–.
And that puts Khrushchev in a weird situation. (Because this is something that he did recommend. But they were ignoring this over here.) But through back channels we said “Well, we’ll offically agree to this.” But through back channels the Kennedy administration said: “And we would also be on an understanding, we will also have an understanding on the missiles in Italy and Turkey.” That, “Look, this isn’t part of the deal, but we see what you’re saying and we’re probably, we’re probably going to remove them.” And what the Soviets also didn’t know at that time is that the Americans were planning on — that these missiles, to a large degree, by this point in time, were already obsolete. Because we already Polaris missiles that were deployable by submarines. And clearly, submarines can deploy things much closer to the action, and they’re much harder to track. You can’t surveil them and all the rest. So the US kind of agreed to it. But they did it secretly. And the whole point here is that neither side wanted to look like they’re giving in. Neither side wanted to look weak. But on the 28th, there was finally an agreement. And so, publicly, the first Khrushchev proposal was agreed to by both Khrushchev and the United States. Khrushchev agreed to remove — to not send any more weapons, and also dismantle the weapons that were there, and the Americans agreed that they would not invade Cuba. So you can imagine the big winner here. The big winner here is probably Fidel Castro, because the whole time he’s paranoid that the US is planning another attack on him. And, at least publicly now, they’re saying that they cannot invade him. And if they did, it would like they’re going back on their word. And privately, the US agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy. They didn’t wanna do this publicly, because then it would like they were being weak. Then it would like the Soviets were able to do this aggressive action. And by doing it, they were able to extract something out of the United States. Which is actually the reality. They were able to — By doing this action, they were able to get these missiles removed from Turkey and Italy. But the United States wanted to look strong. Kennedy has, well — there’s always an approaching election. Especially after the Bay of Pigs, he needed to look like a strong leader. And so, to some degree, you have to give Khrushchev credit for this. He kind of swallowed his pride and allowed it to publicly look like he lost the negotiation. He publicly made it look like he got nothing in return for backing down, but in reality he did. He just didn’t necessarily get credit for it. But this was a big deal. Because this was the closest that the Soviet Union and the US ever got to really the brink during the Cold War.