The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 Years Later

U2 photo of launch site at San Cristobal
One of the photos Bundy showed JFK on the morning of 10/16/62, of the Soviet missile launch site at San Cristobal – Kennedy Presidential Library

Fifty years ago this morning, American national security adviser McGeorge Bundy showed President John F. Kennedy photographs taken by U-2 spy planes that had flown over Cuba two days earlier. CIA analysts concluded that the photos revealed that the Soviet Union had succeeded in deploying medium-range ballistic missiles to bases within mere minutes’ flight of Washington, New York, and other cities on America’s eastern seaboard. Kennedy convened a special group of advisers that night, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was underway — not to resolve until October 28, when Soviet state radio announced that the missiles would be withdrawn.

If you’re interested in reliving this most dangerous of the nuclear crises in the Cold War, check out:

• This day-by-day review of the crisis at the Kennedy Presidential Library. Each page links to documents and audio related to the day’s events. Or see the 50th anniversary site hosted by the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School at Harvard, which includes resources for teachers (e.g., reading lists, case studies, lesson plans) and the “lessons” of the crisis as learned by presidents, other policymakers (including Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, and U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara), and scholars.

• For a more comprehensive review, see the declassified documents, audio clips, photos, timeline, and historical essays at the National Security Archive’s 40th anniversary page.

• From the Presidential Recordings archive at the University of Virginia, an audio recording and transcript of Air Force chief of staff Gen. Curtis LeMay briefing Kennedy on October 19th. Bellicose as ever, LeMay warned that “a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too.” The segment ends with this unforgettable exchange:

LeMay: In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time.

Kennedy: What did you say?

LeMay: You’re in a pretty bad fix.

Kennedy: You’re in there with me.

• Kennedy’s speech to the nation on the evening of October 22nd, when he revealed the existence of the missiles to the American people and announced that the US would respond with a “quarantine” of Cuba — both to keep further missiles from being delivered and to give diplomacy some time to unfold.

• The day after, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin sent this analysis of the American response to Moscow, just one of many Soviet and Cuban documents from the crisis now available at Digital Archive of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP).

Tomorrow at 3:30pm EDT the CWIHP will be webcasting a discussion of the crisis featuring National Security Archive fellow Svetlana Savranskaya, editor of the forthcoming The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November, by Sergo Mikoyan (who accompanied his father, Soviet leader Anastas Mikoyan, on a trip to Cuba during the crisis and reveals that the Soviets planned to leave behind 100 tactical nuclear weapons, but changed their mind because of Castro’s behavior).

• A newsreel report on the events of October 25th, when American UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson, the erstwhile Democratic senator and presidential nominee, confronted his Soviet counterpart, Valerian Zorin, in a dramatic session of the UN Security Council.

• From near the end of the crisis, the White House recording of a conversation among Kennedy, Bundy, and Alexis Johnson of the State Department, as they considered the proposal that the US withdraw outdated missiles from Turkey (across the Black Sea from the USSR) in exchange for the Soviets removing theirs from Cuba. After Johnson and Bundy worry that such an exchange would be perceived as a “quid pro quo,” with Bundy concluding the segment with the warning that the deal would weaken American credibility with NATO and other allies. (In the end, this deal did help to resolve the crisis, but the missiles in Turkey weren’t removed until months later, to avoid the appearance of appeasement.)

8 thoughts on “The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 Years Later

  1. I was a young boy of five, living in on the east coast of Florida (Lake Worth, near West Palm Beach) at the time. One of my earliest and strongest childhood memories is from this time: going out with my father and watching the trains traveling south, headed toward the various military bases south of us, loaded with tanks and artillery. I don’t remember being particularly scared at what was happening, but knew that it was something big. The “duck and cover” exercises at school came later, when I was a little older.

    Another memory from this time–not the Cuban missile crisis, but related: we always seemed to know when the Kennedys came south, to their family compound. It was an interesting time to be a young kid growing up in Florida.

    1. The Atlantic has had tons of good Missile Crisis stuff yesterday and today, hasn’t it? Some more… Alexis Madrigal’s post on JFK’s doodling: And the key section of a 2010 interview with Castro:

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