The Cuban Missile Crisis, 40 Years Later
Havana Conference Ponders Lessons of Nuclear Brinksmanship

audio icon Oct. 13, 2002: NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis meeting in Havana.

audio icon Oct. 12, 2002: The conference, hosted by Fidel Castro, gets underway in Havana.

audio icon Oct. 11, 2002: Gjelten gives a preview of the Havana conference and background on the crisis in 1962.

click for more Audio extras: President Kennedy's Oct. 22, 1962 speech to the nation and Adlai Stevenson at the U.N.

Castro and Khruschev
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Castro embrace at the United Nations, September 1960.
Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library

Guns in Cuba
File photo from October 1962 showing a Cuban Army anti-aircraft battery placed along Havana's famous Malecon.
Photo Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

"We must be careful now and refrain from any steps which would not be useful to the defense of the states involved in the conflict, which could only cause irritation and even serve as a provocation for a fateful step. Therefore, we must display sanity, reason, and refrain from such steps."

Nikita Khrushchev's letter to President Kennedy calling for an end to the crisis, Oct. 28, 1962

Adlai Stevenson at the U.N.
Adlai Stevenson urges the U.N. Security Council to support a resolution stopping the flow of weapons to Cuba.
Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library

October 23, 1962: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba.
Oct. 23, 1962: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba.
Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library

"I think that you and I, with our heavy responsibilities for the maintenance of peace, were aware that developments were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable."

President Kennedy's Oct. 28, 1962 reply to Khrushchev's letter calling for an end to the crisis

Fidel Castro
Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks Oct. 11 at the opening session of a conference on the 40th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Photo Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

Oct. 11-13, 2002 -- The world's closest brush with nuclear war came 40 years ago this month, when the U.S. government learned the Soviet Union was preparing to put nuclear missiles in Cuba. For 13 days, President John F. Kennedy and his administration stared down their counterparts in Moscow, and the world braced for a holocaust.

Some of the people who played key roles in the missile crisis are meeting in Havana, Cuba over the weekend to reflect on the experience and its relevance today. The Bush Administration has said Kennedy's handling of the missile crisis was an example of the effectiveness of pre-emptive action -- the kind it may soon take against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But others say the crisis shows how war can be avoided. "The gravity of the Cuban missile crisis -- the fact that the world's fate hinged on how it was resolved -- means the events of October 1962 will be debated for decades," says NPR's Tom Gjelten, who journeyed to Havana to cover the conference.

In the fall of 1962, just 18 months after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, America was primed to view Fidel Castro as its enemy. "Frankly (Castro) wasn't that much different from Saddam Hussein," says James Blight of Brown University. "He was regarded as a brutal dictator... He was the devil incarnate."

Soviet troops were pouring into Cuba, making a tense situation worse. And then, on Oct. 14, 1962, an American reconnaissance plane spotted medium-range ballistic missile sites. The Soviets were preparing installations that could be used for a nuclear strike on the United States.

Eight days later, President Kennedy broke the news. "Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island," he said on live television.

But what Kennedy did not tell Americans that night was, at that point, how close the country was to war already. Military leaders were considering air strikes and an invasion -- this time, led by U.S. forces, going head-to-head against Soviet troops. "War would be avoided only if one side or the other backed down," Gjelten reports.

Tape recordings of Oval Office conversations during the crisis show President Kennedy was a reluctant warrior, and resisted calls by his top military advisors for "direct military action."

President Kennedy settled on a naval quarantine of the island, stopping incoming Soviet ships to check for nuclear weapons. Air Force Gen. Curtis Lemay told Kennedy the move amounted to appeasement.. Before any ships were stopped, however, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.

In exchange, Kennedy promised never to threaten to invade Cuba again. "In the American view, Kennedy and Khrushchev had gone eye to eye," Gjelten says. "And Khrushchev blinked."

Historian John Lewis Gaddis says the key point about the crisis is what Kennedy did not do -- and the example should guide the current debate about "pre-emptive" action against Iraq.

"In the missile crisis, at a period of maximum danger for the United States, the option of pre-emption was discussed," Gaddis tells Gjelten. "It would have taken the form of taking out the Soviet missiles in Cuba But it was rejected."

However, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations supports the Bush Administration stance. The key point, he says, is that Kennedy "choose to do something."

"He saw the activation of those missiles as a looming threat to the United States, and he sent out the U.S. Navy to... quarantine Cuba, and to cut off Russians ships that were supplying more of those missiles."

Several key figures in the missile crisis will be in Havana to review the events of 40 years ago -- including one very persistent Cuban leader. "Fidel Castro, of course, is still in power," Gjelten says. "He's hosting the gathering."

Audio Extras

audio icon President Kennedy addresses the nation on Oct. 22, 1962, revealing the threat of missiles in Cuba.

audio icon Aldai Stevenson berates his Soviet counterpart at the United Nations to admit to putting nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Other Resources

Cuban missile crisis overview at the John F. Kennedy Library Web site.

Missile crisis documents and photos, presented by the National Security Archive.

Khruschev's letters to President Kennedy and other Cold War relics at the Library of Congress.