Early Cold War: 1945–1962

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban missile crisis, a 1962 confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over nuclear missiles, brought the two countries to the brink of a nuclear war.

The Cuban missile crisis was a major confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1962. It nearly brought them to war and was partially the result of the arms race. The confrontation was over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles, weapons that use a nuclear reaction to generate explosive power, in Cuba.

The Soviet Union developed friendly ties with Cuba and its communist leader, Fidel Castro, in the early 1960s. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised to defend Cuba with Soviet arms. This was especially important to Castro after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States in April 1961. In 1960 Eisenhower had instructed the CIA to plan an invasion of Cuba to remove Castro. Over a year later the invasion took place. It was a complete failure, as U.S. forces were overwhelmed by Castro's troops, but the United States continued to watch events in Cuba closely. Cuba is located just 90 miles south of the Florida coast. If the Soviet Union placed its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, they could easily target the United States. In July 1962 the United States learned the Soviets were sending missiles to Cuba. On October 14, 1962, President Kennedy was informed that U.S. spy planes had sighted missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), on a launch site in Cuba. After much debate within the administration, Kennedy placed a naval blockade on Cuba to prevent further Soviet missile shipments. Kennedy announced the quarantine on October 22. He warned the Soviet Union that U.S. forces would seize any "offensive weapons and associated matériel," namely military materials and equipment, the Soviet Union might try to deliver to Cuba.

As nuclear war loomed, Khrushchev and Kennedy tried to resolve the issue. Finally, on October 28, 1962, Khrushchev agreed to halt work on the Cuban missile sites, and the nuclear missiles in Cuba returned to the Soviet Union. In return Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba as long as Castro ruled. He also secretly agreed to withdraw the U.S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey since 1961, although the missiles were obsolete and no longer operational. They were removed six months after the agreement. Both superpowers fulfilled their promises, and the crisis was over.

The Cuban missile crisis marks the point at which the world came closest to global nuclear war. As a result of the crisis, however, the two powers signed a Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in 1963. It banned aboveground nuclear weapons testing. However, when Khrushchev was replaced as leader of the Soviet Union in 1964, the country maintained its buildup of weapons, including conventional and strategic forces, which the United States matched. The Cold War and the arms race ended only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Soviets established a missile launch site at San Cristóbal, Cuba, in 1962. This photo confirmed the presence of missiles and led to a naval blockade by the United States.
Credit: United States. Department of Defense. Department of Defense Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Materials. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston