World War I was called the ‘War to end all wars’
Never before had the world seen conflict and slaughter of such a monumental magnitude.
It all began in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and soon the world was plunged into a grizzly conflict that would see much of Europe as its bloody battlegrounds until stability was finally achieved in 1918 with an armistice. Both the Allies and Central Powers had run out of gas. It was time to bring the troops back home – although that homecoming would be bittersweet as the world was being hit with one of the worse pandemics in modern history, namely, the Spanish Flu.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, placed punitive terms on Germany that eventually destabilized Europe and paved the path to the next global conflict, World War II.
World War I’s promise of being the war to end all wars was obviously just a misguided pipe dream. World War II would be the bloodiest war on record. 85 million people lost their lives, accounting for 4 percent of the entire world population.
The brutal war dredged on until Western Allies and the Soviet Union invaded Germany from the east, with Berlin being captured by Soviet troops. Then there was the suicide of Adolf Hitler, who knew all to well that his dreams of conquest and imperialism had come to an end. Finally, Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. The war was finally over.
You would think that after seeing two World Wars that caused such unfathomable death and destruction the world powers would be eager to not repeat the same story again.
Yet in 1962, the world was teetering on the edge of a nuclear cliff. That was the closest we had come to full-on nuclear warfare which would have likely amounted to mutually assured destruction if either side decided to actually press the button. We’re going to take a somewhat abridged look at one of the most fear-inspiring moments in history while taking time to be grateful that the globe isn’t covered in ash and radioactive fallout.
Facts Verse Presents: The Cuban Missile Crisis Almost Caused World War 3
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The Cuban Missile Crisis
During this rather tense and nerve-wracking crisis, The US and Soviet Union were engaged in a military standoff for 13 agonizingly uncertain days.
The Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. If you take a peek at a map, you’ll quickly see why that was such a monstrous problem. Cuba is only 90 miles away from the shores of Florida. If the Cold War was a game of chess, this was the Soviet’s ‘checkmate’ move.
John F. Kennedy went on the air and addressed the American public on October 22, 1962. In his address, he acknowledged the presence of the missiles and outlined his decision to enact a naval blockade surrounding Cuba.
He also made it very clear that the US was fully prepared to use military force by any means necessary to neutralize the enormous threat that was facing national security.
Following this address, many people rightfully assumed that we were on the verge of full-on nuclear war. World War III was right on the horizon, and it sure looked like a billowing mushroom cloud.
Fortunately, disaster was averted when the US made an agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that involved removing the missiles in Cuba so long as the US vowed not to invade Cuba and removed their secretive missiles from Turkey – which posed an equally ominous and existential threat to the Soviet Union.
How We Discovered The Missiles
Communist revolutionary, Fidel Castro seized power in the Caribbean Island Nation Of Cuba in 1959. They then allied themselves with the Soviet Union. Under Fidel’s leadership, Cuba was extremely dependent on the Soviets for economic and military aid.
Meanwhile, the US and the Soviet Union and their cohorts were in the invisible trenches of the Cold War – which meant a nearly endless series of political, technological, and economic skirmishes between the two superpowers. Although the Cold War may have looked like a pissing-contest at first glance, it was really the battle for democracy. The Marxists were trying to make gains that the United States had to put a stop to in order to preserve freedom.
On October 14, 1962, an American U-2 spy plane with Major Richard Heyser at the yoke, took snapshots of the Soviets installing an SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile on the island. Just like that, the two world powers were caught up in the largest confrontation of the Cold War.
Two days later, on October 16, JFK was briefed on the ongoing situation. He quickly assembled a team of expert advisors and officials to help grapple with the largest diplomatic crisis of his presidency. This team he would assemble was called the executive committee, or ExComm for short, and for almost 2 weeks they would ceaselessly wrestle with this beast that promised untold death and destruction if a compromise couldn’t be negotiated.
A Grave New Threat
To ExComm, the urgency of the situation was clearly elevated by the fact that the nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba were only 90 miles away from the mainland United States. From there, targets all up and down the eastern seaboard could be reached in a matter of minutes.
If this launching site was allowed to reach completion and become fully operational, the balance of nuclear power, which had been at the center of the rivalry between the United States and The USSR, would shift in favor of the Soviets. Up until then, the Americans had the upper hand.
The Soviets had resented the arsenal of nuclear weapons targeted towards them from sites in Western Europe and Turkey for quite some time. Nikita Khruschev had hoped that by sending the nuclear-equipped missiles to Cuba, it would help level the playing field a bit.
Additionally, the US and Cuban relationship was quite hostile. The US had already launched an attack on the island nation the year prior, with the failed mission that would be called the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Fidel Castro and Khrushchev saw this as their opportunity to deter further US aggression towards Cuba.
Kennedy Had To Weigh His Options
From the outset of the crisis, Kennedy and company had no question whether the presence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba was acceptable. They were clearly not welcome and posed a significant risk towards US national security.
ExComm had to overcome the significant hurdle of facilitating their removal without intensifying the tensions and initiating a far greater conflict that could potentially end in nuclear warfare. They painstakingly deliberated for nearly a week, losing a lot of sleep in the process before the commission came up with some options.
First up for discussion was the possibility of bombing the missile sites with a full-on invasion of Cuba. Maybe it was memories of what happened with the Bay of Pigs, but Kennedy decided to forego that option, opting instead for a more measured approach.
His solution involved establishing a Navy Blockade surrounding the island to prevent the Soviets from delivering supplies, or god-forbid additional missiles. With that naval quarantine, an ultimatum would also be delivered to the Soviets requesting that the existing missiles be speedily removed.
That was when Kennedy made his public address to the American people, explaining his blockade and the potential for the US to have to utilize force if necessary to deescalate the fragile situation if need be.
For almost a week, the world waited to hear the Soviet response. Many believed that the world was on the verge of nuclear war. People hoarded food, fuel, and supplies anticipating a war of apocalyptic proportions.
Showdown at Sea as US Blocks Cuba
Tensions ran especially high on October 24, when Soviet ships en route to Cuba reached the US naval blockade. If the Soviets attempted to breach the line, this would have likely been the moment that militarily confrontation would break out leading to a snow-balling escalation that could have quickly resulted in a nuclear exchange.
Fortunately, the Soviet ships made no such attempt to circumvent the blockade. This signaled a positive sign of hope that perhaps war wasn’t inevitable. Still, at this point, they made no attempts to denuclearize Cuba, the missiles remained in place and the standoff continued.
Three days later on October 27th, an American recon plane was shot down whilst flying over Cuba. The US readied a full-scale invasion force in Florida. It sure looked like a war was once again on the cards.
US secretary of defense Robert McNamara was quoted as saying that he had thought that that was the last Saturday that he would ever see. There was a distinct sense of morbid doom that hung in the air for both sides of the conflict. It was obvious that one wrong move could wipe both players off the face of the map.
A Deal is Reached and the Standoff Ends
During the crisis, the Soviets and the Americans stayed in constant commodification by means of letters and other forms of communication. On October 26, Kennedy received a message from Khrushchev that offered to disarm Cuba if the US promised to not invade.
The next day, the Soviet leader sent an additional piece of correspondence that proposed the USSR dismantling the nuclear missiles in Cuba so long as the Americans did the same with their missile site in Turkey.
Kennedy had agreed to the terms of the first message but officially ignored the second letter altogether – or at least publically. Secretly, however, America agreed to the terms and proceeded to remove their missiles from Turkey. The president himself would deliver the message directly to the Soviet ambassador in Washington on October 28th and the crisis was finally averted.
The Cuban Missile Crisis definitely an eye-opening moment for both superpowers. The next year, a direct line of communication was installed that linked Moscow and the White House. This hotline would hopefully help to diffuse further disputes before they reached such a heightened crisis point.
Of course, the Cold War was far from over – in fact, it would continue to wage on for 3 more decades. The Soviets may have been deterred from installing close-range missile sites near the US but that only led them to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the US from Soviet territory.
Fortunately, nuclear war was avoided back then. Those 13 days had to have been some of the most suspenseful – not to mention sobering on record. Let’s cross our fingers that the world never has to face another chapter such as that one.
What do you think would have happened if the US and the Soviets had gone to war back in 1962? Do you think that we would have ended up experiencing the devastating effects of global nuclear war? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
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