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Cuban Missile Crisis


The Cuban Missile Crisis was the name given to the 14-day period in October 1962 that began when the United States discovered that Cuba had secretly installed Soviet missiles able to carry nuclear weapons capable of hitting targets across most of the United States. Many regard it as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war.


In 1962, the Soviet Union lagged seriously behind the United States in the arms race. Hoping to correct this imbalance, in late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came up with the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Meanwhile, Castro, who felt that a second attack on Cuba was inevitable after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, was looking for a way to defend his nation and approved of Khrushchev's plan. In the summer of 1962 Khrushchev began secretly building missile installations and deploying missiles to Cuba.


On October 14, 1962, U.S. U.S. spy planes flying over Cuba spotted the first ballistic missile under construction in Cuba. On October 16, intelligence officials presented Kennedy with photographs showing nuclear missile bases under construction in Cuba. The photos suggested preparations for medium-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These missiles could reach most major U.S. cities—including Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City—placing them within range of nuclear attack. Kennedy also saw evidence of nuclear-capable bombers.


Kennedy immediately assembled a small group of advisors, called EX-COMM, to handle the crisis. After seven days of discussions during which the group decided to launch an air strike, Kennedy instead imposed a pre-emptive naval quarantine around Cuba to prevent the arrival of more Soviet offensive weapons. On October 22, Kennedy announced the discovery of the missile installations to the public and his decision to quarantine the island and to use U.S. naval vessels to intercept and inspect ships to determine whether they were carrying weapons. At the same time, the U.S. military began moving soldiers and equipment into position for a possible invasion. Kennedy also proclaimed that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as a Soviet attack on the United States and that the result would be “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”


On October 25, Kennedy pulled the quarantine line back and raised the level of military readiness. Then on the 26th EX-COMM received a coded message from Khrushchev in which he proposed removing Soviet missiles and personnel if the United States would guarantee not to invade Cuba. On October 27, perhaps the most serious day of the crisis, the Cubans shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane. EX-COMM also received a second message from Khrushchev demanding the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles in Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, however, suggested ignoring the second message and contacted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to tell him of U.S. agreement with the first.


On October 28, tensions began to subside as Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations and return the missiles to the Soviet Union, expressing his trust that the United States would not invade Cuba. Further negotiations worked out details of the agreement.