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View series: The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991

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The Cuban missile crisis

This map is part of a series of 9 animated maps showing the history of The Cold War and Confrontation between East and West 1947-1991.

In 1959, Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces overthrew Batista, the pro-American dictator in Cuba. Castro’s decision to nationalize all foreign assets in the country angered the United States. After 1960, with the new regime suspected of being a Soviet agent in Latin America, the US secret service, the CIA, used this as a pretext to organize an invasion of the island.

The operation was a failure and, in 1961 and 1962, the USSR began to deliver arms, including nuclear missiles, to launch pads located in northern and western Cuba.  The island lies just 170 kilometres from the coast of Florida and, as the most powerful missiles had a range of 4000 kilometres, this arms program threatened almost the entire territory of the United States.

On 14 October 1962, an American U2 spy plane detected the presence of these missiles.

On 22 October, after a week of reflection, President John Kennedy went on television to inform the nation of the presence of missile launch sites. He threatened the USSR with reprisals if the weapons were not removed and announced that a ‘quarantine’ would be established in a large area around Cuba.

On 23 October, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the USSR Communist Party, ordered the Soviet ships, which had set out for Cuba two weeks earlier, to continue their journey.

On 24 October, 4 Soviet submarines were already in the quarantine zone and two more ships arrived shortly afterwards. However, Khrushchev told them not to force their way through to Cuba.

For two days, 26 and 27 October, the situation was extremely tense and many people thought that the world was about to experience nuclear war. In the Caribbean Sea, the US Navy hunted down the Soviet submarines and forced them to surface. Then an American U2 plane was shot down off Cuba, and the mobilization of the US army in Florida gave the impression that a land attack was imminent.

After 28 October, the crisis was defused. Khrushchev made a live broadcast via Radio Moscow in which he ordered the ships closest to the blockade region to turn back.

In order not to lose face, he received a guarantee that the United States would not attack Cuba and would withdraw their missiles installed in Turkey the previous year.

The US Navy ended the naval blockade on 2 November, and work began to dismantle the Cuban weapon bases.

War was narrowly avoided, and both American and Soviet leaders understood that it was of the utmost importance to be able to communicate without intermediaries.  This led to the decision, in June 1963, to set up a teletype “hotline” between the Kremlin and the White House, sometimes referred to as the “red telephone”. 

The outcome of the Cuban crisis was seen as a victory for Kennedy, while Khrushchev’s power in Moscow was weakened.