For the grand majority of the Cold War, the United States’ mainland was rarely in direct danger. There was the looming anxiety that nuclear weapons created, but an invasion of the US mainland was never to be something to fear. The problem of nuclear weapons became a very real and present fear at one single moment during the Cold War. For one month and four days during the fall of 1962, the US mainland was in the direct sights of nuclear warheads.
In a combined response to the US placing ballistic missile launch sites in Italy and Turkey as well as the United State’s failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to place a similar missile site in Cuba. Altogether, the missile crisis was the boiling point of both nations encroaching upon each other and getting a bit too close for comfort. U.S. planes had been spotted over Soviet and Chinese territory in the East during August and September leading to the US losing a plane over Taiwan. In response, the U.S. Air Force restricted flights over Cuban air space. Shortly after, alarming intelligence indicated that ballistic missile launch sites were being constructed less than 100 miles from the mainland. In Cuba. On October 9th a mission was authorized to investigate, and 928 photos were taken of the launch site. President Kennedy was then informed on October 15th.
Faced with an enormous decision, President Kennedy was provided with several courses of action. On October 9th, he authorized an investigation, and 928 photos were taken of the launch sites. President Kennedy was then informed on October 15th. With this confirmation, Kennedy now had to decide his next course of action. He could elect for a full-scale invasion of Cuba but that might lead to an all-out nuclear war. He could threaten Castro with an invasion if he did not break ties with the Soviets. In end, Kennedy narrowed his options down to two: use air strikes to bomb the launch sites or use the Navy to form a blockade around Cuba.
The Kennedy administration chose the blockade. On October 22nd, 1961 Kennedy addressed the nation about the crisis. In this speech he announced the intention for the blockade, but most importantly he made a clear threat to the Soviet Union. He made it clear to the Soviet that if there was an attack against any country in the Western Hemisphere by the missiles in Cuba, the retaliation would be full scale attack against the Soviets. The Crisis intensified following this declaration with the blockade being challenged and both party’s allies rallying around them. Further on what would be known as “Black Saturday” by the Americans, a Soviet submarine came dangerously close to launching a nuclear torpedo, believing a war had already begun. The Soviets had a single key demand in order to end the conflict and remove the weapons. The US would be required to remove their missiles from Turkey. On October 27th, President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev both agreed to remove their weapons, effectively ending the crisis.
Though the situation ended peacefully, for a few days in October 1962, the world came within inches of an all-out nuclear war.
Garrett is an intern at the FHA and an undergraduate History major attending Saginaw Valley State University.
We are proud to present History at Home! History at Home is a virtual learning program that includes fun educational content, including a blog and our podcast. Even if you cannot visit us in person, there is still so much to do!