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The missile crisis
How the United States and the Soviet Union stumbled to the brink of war over Cuba in late 1962, based on document's that came to light in the years that followed

James Blight and Tom Blanton, two scholars of the Cuban Missile Crisis, have described Oct. 27, 1962, the day the crisis peaked, as "the most dangerous day in recorded history."

It had been two weeks since a U-2 overflight of Cuba confirmed the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy had laid down the gauntlet to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, demanding removal of the missiles and imposing a naval quarantine on Soviet shipping to the island.

Late the day of Friday, Oct. 26, and again the following morning, two messages came in from Khrushchev, the first a long and rambling one that held the seeds of a resolution to the crisis if Kennedy would agree not to invade Cuba. The second was much more intransigent. Kennedy responded to the first, ignoring the second. Khrushchev accepted. A nuclear catastrophe was averted.

Here is how the United States and the Soviet Union almost stumbled into a nuclear war over Cuba:

MAY 1962

Khrushchev, believing that the United States may invade Cuba, decides to send nuclear-tipped missiles to the island as a "deterrent."


Caravans of Soviet vehicles, bristling with cannons, rocket launchers and missiles, rumble through Cuban highways.


Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser flies a U-2 spy plane 70,000 feet over Cuba.


McGeorge Bundy, national security assistant, walks into President Kennedy's bedroom; "Mr. President," he says, "there is now hard photographic evidence."

The Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or ExComm, assembles later in the White House. The group includes Bundy; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director John McCone.

President Kennedy says the missiles in Cuba do little to alter the balance of power with Moscow, but the rest of the world will view America as weak if they are allowed to remain. He rejects two options doing nothing or confronting the Soviets through diplomatic channels and considers two others: airstrikes to destroy the missiles, or a naval blockade to stop delivery of more missiles. No decision is reached.


The president quietly orders a massive movement of military aircraft to MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.


Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force chief of staff, argues for a military attack on Cuba. Kennedy rejects the idea.


Kennedy opts for a blockade. The Navy, already conducting war games near Vieques, Puerto Rico, sends 180 vessels into the Caribbean.


After the U.S. ambassador in Moscow persuades aides to roust a sleeping Khrushchev, Kennedy shocks the world with a nationally broadcast speech in which he describes the installation of missiles in Cuba, announces the naval blockade and issues a warning:

"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."


Moscow puts on alert all forces throughout the Soviet bloc. McNamara tells ExComm that as many as 25 Soviet-bloc ships heading for Cuba are subject to search.


At 10:25 a.m., the six Russian ships closest to the blockade line stop dead in the water. Some begin to turn around. Kennedy orders the U.S. Navy to give the Russian vessels an opportunity to turn back.


At 6 p.m., the White House receives a letter from Khrushchev: "We are of sound mind and understand perfectly well that if we attack you, you will respond the same way. But you, too, will receive the same that you hurl against us." He offers to remove the missiles if Washington ends the blockade and guarantees it will not invade Cuba.


At 10 a.m., Air Force Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr., 35, on a follow-up U-2 flight over Cuba, is shot down and killed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. He's the sole casualty of the missile crisis.

Kennedy receives a second letter from Khrushchev, asking him to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. Ignoring the second letter, Kennedy accepts the terms of Khrushchev's first message. Washington later claims the agreement not to invade Cuba is not binding because Cuban leader Fidel Castro refuses to allow U.S. inspections of vacated missile sites, as required by a pact.


Khrushchev declares the missiles will be removed and claims victory because the United States promises not to invade Cuba.


Kennedy lifts the blockade. Secretary of State Rusk writes the epitaph for the October crisis: ";We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."


Americans learn for the first time that in addition to 60 nuclear warheads for medium and intermediate-range missiles, the Soviets also sent about 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba 80 for 16 tactical cruise missile launchers, 12 for six Luna rocket launchers, six bombs for a special squadron of IL-28 bombers and four to six naval mines.