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John F. Kennedy's greatest triumph as President of the United States came in 1962, as the world's two largest superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, edged closer and closer to nuclear war. The Soviet premier of Russia was caught arming Fidel Castro with nuclear weapons. The confrontation left the world in fear for thirteen long days, with the life of the world on the line. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, employed a daring gambit. He secretly ordered the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. Earlier the Soviet premier had promised Soviet protection to Cuba ("Cuban" 774).
This was the first time any such weapons had been placed outside of Eurasia (Hersh 345). Several explanations for his actions have been offered by historians. One factor in Khrushchevs decision was a strategic one (Hersh 346). A year earlier, the United States had placed several medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey ("Cuban 774). The missiles were just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, within sight of Khrushchev's summer home (Hersh 346). President Kennedy had earlier ignored his advisors and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey.
Another factor was a threat by the US to one of the Soviet Union's satellite countries, Cuba (Hersh 346). The United States had, in the past, attempted to kill Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba (Brinkley 1047). In July of 1962, the United States found out that nuclear missile shipments were being made to Cuba. United States U-2 spy planes flew over the island, bringing back reports of construction and ballistic missiles ("Cuban" 744). The CIA found that five thousand Russian military technicians were in Cuba, and various military weapons were being unloaded onto the island. When U-2 activity was increased, reports showed the presence of SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) and torpedo boats with ship-to-ship rockets (Mills 233).
On September 4, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with Robert Kennedy to discuss a message from Khrushchev. According to the message, the military buildup was defensive in nature and not militarily threatening. Robert F. Kennedy informed the ambassador that the United States would closely watch all military activity in Cuba and warned of severe consequences should the Soviets place offensive weapons (Mills 233). President Kennedy apparently did not believe the message. He asked Congress for the authority to mobilize over 100,000 reservists into active duty. The Soviets response was that they could fire rockets from Russia just as easily as from Cuba.
Offensive missiles in Cuba, they argued, were therefore unnecessary for an offensive base(Mills 234). Furthermore, the United States had over 3,000 nuclear warheads and nearly 300 missile launchers, opposed to the Soviet Union's 250 warheads and 24 to 44 missile launchers (Hersh 343). Still, John Kennedy thought that Cuba could become a base for military operations at any given moment. The United States had to be prepared to face it (Mills 234). At this point in the crisis, John McCone, the CIA director, was regularly sending President Kennedy reports of missiles capable of launching a nuclear warhead being sent to Cuba. According to McCone, medium-range ballistic missiles(MRBMs) would be next (Hersh 348). U-2's were sent to scout the west end of Cuba.
On October 14, the CIA reported that construction had begun for MRBMs (Mills 235). Despite the increased state of readiness in the US, many people did not realize that the Soviet Union had done nothing on its home territory during the crisis. Its fleet of ICBM launchers were not mobilized and neither were Soviet reserves. There were not even any threats against Berlin (Hersh 343). Regardless of what the Soviets said, the United States was still far ahead in the nuclear arms race. ICBM's were expensive to build and the Soviet Union did not have an abundance of money.
Installing the smaller missiles in Cuba was much cheaper than building more ICBMs. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy would not oppose the building of the missile bases in Cuba because the United States President had not opposed Khrushchev in the past (Mills 236). Not only did he secretly place the missiles in Cuba, but Khrushchev used Georgi Bolshakov and others to tell President Kennedy that missiles were not being shipped to Cuba. The Soviet premier was cautious to avoid a direct lie, even though he was clearly deceptive. Eventually, Kennedy chose to believe Khrushchev over the CIA reports that were being dropped on his desk. Excom, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, was secretly called.
These were hand-picked advisors of Kennedy. The newest U-2 reports were shown and explained. Ninety miles off the coast of Florida, missiles were being prepared (Hersh 348). Finally, on October 16, Kennedy realized that Khrushchev had been continuously lying to him. The President could have been humiliated by Khrushchev. He, however, turned the tables, and chose to humiliate the Soviet premier instead (Hersh 344-5). President Kennedy directed Excom to devise several possible courses of action, and Kennedy would decide which to follow (Mills 236).
The next meeting of Excom raised more questions. The members of Excom wanted to know why was the Soviet Union building missile bases in Cuba. Several ideas were brought forward. They hypothesized that he could be trying to get the US to remove the missiles that were placed in Turkey. Another theory is that Castro was alarmed at Republican insistence to invade Cuba and had asked for military assistance. "One member of Excom quoted an old Russian adage: 'If you strike steel, pull back.
If you strike mush, keep going.'" He implied that if President Kennedy didn't respond, Khrushchev would think he could get away with other things (Mills 237). By October 17, U-2 reports showed that anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two medium-range ballistic missile sites and would be ready within seven days. Construction for intermediate-range missile sites was already under way and would be operational by December. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a member of Excom, suggested that the United States place a naval "quarantine"n Soviet Ships on the way to Cuba. This was to serve as a warning to Khrushchev (Mills 238). The members of Excom that wanted an air strike were against the proposal. Those in favor of immediate, pre-emptive airstrikes argued that the missiles that were already on the island would not be affected by the blockade.
They could not promise the success of an air strike, however. It would be extremely difficult to bomb all the sites, and if even one site was missed, it might mean nuclear war. The Pentagon suggested a massive bombing to destroy all kinds of military equipment, and perhaps even Castro himself (Mills 238). Arguments were raised, and debate continued. Some felt an invasion was called for, while others opposed air strikes. On October 18, photographs revealed that construction on the missile bases was occurring at a faster rate than originally thought. The first medium-range missile site would be completed within the next day and a half. The missiles were targeted at several U.S.
cities. It was estimated that almost eighty million Americans would be killed, just minutes after the firing of the missiles (Mills 238). Kennedy had decided not to bring up the issue of the missiles in a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and listened to his comments. Gromyko said that the few Soviet defenses that existed were set up to defend from possible American attack. Later the President was reported saying, "I was dying to confront him with our evidence. It was incredible to sit there and watch the lies coming out of his mouth" (Mills 239).
According to recently declassified files in Moscow, Khrushchev had sent over 100 nuclear warheads into the Caribbean island, in case of Americ ....
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