Cold War

Following the defeat of Hitler in 1945, U.S.-Soviet relations began to deteriorate. Between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union (current day Russia) were locked in the Cold War. Because both the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear weapons and were in competition around the world, nearly every foreign policy decision was intricately examined for its potential impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. During this period, both the Soviet Union and the United States devoted vast resources to increasing their military might and competed to extend their influence in every corner of the globe. Because neither country engaged in direct military action against the other the war was characterized as "cold." The fact that each country developed nuclear arsenals large enough to completely destroy the world many times over causes some to question just how "cold" the war actually was.


"During the Kennedy administration, they designed a 100 megaton bomb. It was tested in the atmosphere. I remember this. Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!"   

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


At the heart of U.S. strategy were the ideas of George Kennan, the State Department's principal expert on the Soviet Union. Kennan proposed that the United States work to halt both overt Soviet military expansion and the covert spread of communist influence through subversion and armed insurrection. The United States adopted a policy of containing the spread of Soviet communism, leading to U.S. intervention around the world in the decades to follow-most notably, in Vietnam.


"It's impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair's breath of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year for seven years as Secretary of Defense, I lived the Cold War."

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


The U.S. policy of "containment" was first applied to defeat Soviet-supported rebels in Greece and to counter Soviet political pressure against Turkey. In a speech before Congress on March 12, 1947, President Harry S Truman outlined what would later become known as the "Truman Doctrine."


"At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

-President Harry S Truman


In the early 1960s the United States entered a violent conflict between North and South Vietnam for fear that a victory by the Communist North could lead to the spread of communism. U.S. involvement came at a grave cost. Tens of thousands of American soldiers (along with countless Vietnamese) died in the Vietnam War, a war that ended over a decade later with few decisive outcomes to show for the struggle.


"[The Vietnamese] believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war."

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


Another critical moment of the Cold War came in 1962 when President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union had placed several nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. The thirteen days that ensued are known as the Cuban missile crisis and were defined by extraordinary tension between the two nuclear superpowers in their mutual effort to protect their national interests, however necessary, while at the same time recognizing that the outbreak of nuclear war would spell disaster for all of humanity.


"On the calendar are engraved the dates: October 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23,24, 25, 26, 27, and finally 28, were the dates when we literally looked down the gun barrel into nuclear war."

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


This heightened level of mutually-felt military threat that comes with the inclusion of nuclear weapons in warfare has come to be expressed in the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The idea of MAD is that if one nuclear power attacks another, a nuclear response on behalf of the originally attacked is sure to occur. With the United States and the Soviet Union, for example, each country knew when considering military action that an attack would be a decision not only to destroy the enemy but also to destroy themselves.


"It horrifies me to think what would have happened in the event of an invasion of Cuba! . It would have been an absolute disaster for the world.... No one should believe that a U.S. force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster."                                                     -Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

Cuban Missile Crisis


Perhaps the tensest phase of the Cold War commenced on October 12, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy was confronted with an earth-shattering revelation: the Soviet Union was placing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the United States.


Under a cloak of deceit, the Soviet Union introduced nuclear missiles into Cuba, targeting 90 million Americans. The C.I.A. said the warheads had not been delivered yet. They thought twenty were coming on a ship named the Poltava. We mobilized 180,000 troops. The first day's air attack was planned at 1080 sorties, a huge air attack.

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States had been high since the late 1940s and had only grown stonger as the Cold War unfolded. For every U.S. president since Truman, this ideological standoff known as the Cold War had shaped foreign and domestic policy. Kennedy had worried for months about Soviet intentions toward West Berlin and in Southeast Asia, but the news from Cuba indicated that the threat was much closer to home than anyone had expected. Kennedy realized that, if launched, these missiles could hit the United States in minutes. The Cold War seemed about to boil over.


Cuba presented a thorny problem for the president. Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro, welcomed in the United States with open arms just a few years before, had recently aligned himself with the Soviet Union and fallen from U.S. graces. At the time that Kennedy realized that Cuba would have nuclear missiles, feelings in the United States were already running high against Castro and Cuba. Many Americans felt that Castro's revolution was a rejection of the U.S. effort to bring American skills and values to the region. The island had become a focal point for U.S. anxiety about the world. In 1961, Kennedy had authorized a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro. Known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, it was a disastrous failure. Castro's forces overwhelmed the invaders within days and forced them to surrender.


Despite Castro's victory, the American-backed attack convinced him that the United States would soon make another, more forceful attempt to attack Cuba. As a result, Castro believed that he needed to strengthen the island's defenses. In a quest to protect Cuba from the might of the United States, Castro turned to the other super power, the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, having already made a committment to defending Cuba against a U.S. invasion, backed up this commitment by supplying the Cuban military with sophisticated weapons along with officers and technicians to teach Cuban soldiers the tactics of modern warfare.

".the Cold War [will] not be won in Latin America, it [might] very well be lost there."

-President John F. Kennedy


President Kennedy had met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev the previous year in an effort to improve relations between the two nuclear powers but with little success. Khrushchev, convinced that the Soviet Union was an ascendant power and emboldened by advances in Soviet rocket technology, saw little reason to compromise with the United States. Nonetheless, Khrushchev had promised not to do anything that might affect the upcoming U.S. elections. Furthermore, he had promised not to place offensive weapons in Cuba.


When U.S. leaders discovered that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, they were stunned. No one was sure of Khrushchev or Castro's intentions. Would the nuclear missiles be used to threaten Cuba's Latin American neighbors, or even intimidate the United States? Did the communist leaders believe that the United States would not oppose their plan?


The White House was shocked that the Soviets had ignored U.S. warnings against putting missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy was especially indignant at the secrecy surrounding the Soviet operation. Kennedy administration officials recognized that members of Congress and the American media would press for a strong U.S. response.


In the White House, there was little disagreement that nuclear missiles in Cuba would pose a grave threat to U.S. security. For the first time, American territory would be highly vulnerable to Soviet nuclear attack. From the U.S. perspective, the question was not whether the missiles should be removed but how.


President Kennedy and his advisers were particularly concerned about the operational status of the missiles in Cuba. The original U-2 reconnaissance photos had shown that the missiles and their silos were not yet ready for use. Kennedy, however, was uncertain of the progress being made on the missile bases. As far as the president and his advisers were concerned, they were maneuvering in a minefield.


Initially, President Kennedy and his advisers decided to keep their knowledge of the missiles secret from the Soviets and the American public. On October 16, the president called together his closest and most trusted advisers to help him manage the crisis. This group was the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or "ExComm." Several options from invasion to diplomacy were considered.


On October 20, President Kennedy decided on a blockade of Cuba by the U.S. Navy to prevent further shipments of military supplies to the island. This option allowed the president to steer a middle course between ExComm's varied options. On the evening of October 22, Kennedy announced in a televised speech to the American public that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. He then informed the nation of his decision to enforce a "quarantine" of Cuba until the missiles were removed.


As the crisis intensified, many Americans feared that war, possibly nuclear war, was probable. The U.S. naval quarantine went into effect October 24. Initially, Khrushchev ordered Soviet ships to race toward the quarantine line. The Soviets threatened to sink any U.S. vessel that tried to prevent their passage to Cuba. That same day, U.S. nuclear forces were placed on DEFCON 2 alert for the first and only time in history: bombers remained airborne, and missile silo covers were opened in preparation for launching. On October 25, at least a dozen Soviet ships en route to Cuba turned back, but preparations at the missile sites on the island accelerated. Soviets and Cubans started working around the clock to make the missiles operational.


The tension was reaching a breaking point. If the Soviets refused to back down, the United States would be faced with the options to allow the missiles to remain in Cuba, launch an air strike, or to invade the island.


Two letters written by Khrushchev to Kennedy marked a new stage in the crisis. The first letter, received October 26, was an emotional appeal apparently composed by Khrushchev himself, calling on Kennedy to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear war. Khrushchev indicated that the Soviet Union would take its missiles out of Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade the island. On October 27, a second letter arrived signed by Khrushchev. This letter took a much more hardline position, insisting that the United States remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey in return for a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Kennedy found the demands contained in the second letter unacceptable because Turkey and other U.S. allies on the Mediterranean counted on U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles to deter an attack by the Soviet Union.


After hours of analyzing and discussing the two letters, Kennedy and his advisers decided to respond only to the first letter and to ignore the second one. On the evening of October 27, the president offered to "give assurances against the invasion of Cuba" and to "remove promptly" the quarantine measures that were in effect. In return, Kennedy expected the Soviet missiles to be removed from Cuba under international observation and supervision.


That same evening, President Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. During the course of his meeting, Robert Kennedy warned Ambassador Dobrynin that events were spiraling out of control. Unless the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, Kennedy stated, the president would order U.S. forces to destroy them. He also revealed to Dobrynin that the U.S. missiles in Turkey were outmoded and that the United States had already made plans before the crisis to remove them. However, he advised Dobrynin that if the Soviets tried to present the withdrawal as a missile trade, the United States would deny that any such agreement existed.


Neither the president nor his advisers were confident that Khrushchev would accept the final American offer. U.S. preparations for an air strike against the missile sites and an invasion of Cuba intensified. Over 100,000 battle-ready troops had massed in Florida to await the president's orders.


Khrushchev was faced with a difficult decision. Should the Soviet leader refuse the U.S. offer, risk military confrontation, and a possible invasion of Cuba? Should he stick to his proposed swap of Turkish missiles for Cuban missiles and hope that the United States would give in? Or should he accept President Kennedy's offer?


Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were very anxious about the possibility that events could spiral out of control and into nuclear war. Disaster was avoided only at the last moment when Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, U.S. President Kennedy agreed not to attack Cuba, and Cuban President Castro agreed to permit the Soviets to remove the weapons.

What We Know Now


Newly discovered evidence suggests that their fears of a nuclear war were justified. At a 1992 meeting in Havana, Cuba, General Anatoly Gribkov, the head of operational planning for the Soviet General Staff in 1962, disclosed information that shocked United States officials at the meeting.


"It wasn't until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, "Mr. President, let's stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I'm not sure I got the translation right."

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


Gribkov confirmed that there were not only missiles on the island of Cuba in 1962 but that some of them (approximately 90) were short-range tactical nuclear warheads and that, it the expected U.S. attack and invasion had come, they could have-and probably would have-been launched by the Soviet commander in Cuba without authorization from Moscow. Although the members of President Kennedy's ExComm had debated the possibility that medium range missiles might be on the island and potentially operational, they had not considered the possibility that there were tactical nuclear weapons on the island at the time. Americans at the 1992 meeting knew that the attack may have been just hours away. What they had not known at the time was that ships carrying the invading forces would likely have been destroyed and any U.S. marines making it to the beaches would have been incinerated.


"We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today."

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War


"The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today there are 7,500 strategic offensive nuclear warheads, of which 2,500 are on 15 minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being?

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War



This background reading is adapted from readings in The Cuban Missile Crisis: Considering its Place in Cold War History Copyright, Choices for the 21 st Century Education Program