Nuclear Deterrence: Cuban Missile Crisis

I am not going to give a full account of the crisis since it has been detailed elsewhere1. However I would like to point out the following points.

  • The US had a long campaign against Cuba including sponsoring the ‘Bay of Pigs Invasion’
  • The US had previously moved nuclear weapons into Turkey which threatened Moscow with a first strike attack.
  • That the single crisis resulted in several possible accidents that could have lead to nuclear war2,3

So did the theory of nuclear deterrence work in this situation?

The USSR could have tried a diplomatic threat when they noticed the nuclear weapons in Turkey. They could have said that they would move nuclear weapons to Cuba if the weapons in Turkey were not withdrawn.

When President Kennedy found out that the missiles were being moved several options were discussed. The US military wanted a full scale invasion of Cuba which would obviously could result in a US / USSR confrontation which they believe would lead to nuclear war. Also, unknown at the time, the USSR already had 90 tactical nuclear warheads in Cuba2.

It should have been obvious that attempts to overthrow Castro in Cuba and the missiles in Turkey could be contributing factors to the USSR’s action.

First of all Kennedy ‘forgets’ that they have moved missiles into Turkey and says

JFK: That’s right, but what is the advantage of that? It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that’d be goddam dangerous, I would think.

Bundy?: Well, we did, Mr. President.

U.A. Johnson?: We did it. We . . .

So Kennedy himself realises that moving missiles into Turkey was a dangerous provocation. In the evening Kennedy asks his advisers what motives the USSR may have for moving the missiles into Cuba. He is told that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev may want the U.S. to “live under the fear” of Soviet nuclear weapons the same way the Soviets live with missiles in Turkey.

What Kennedy did was order a blockade of Cuba. Although this was not as provocative as an invasion it still lead to a direct confrontation between US and USSR forces.

During the crisis there were at least 9 accidents which could have lead to a nuclear war3.

In the end after 13 days of crisis the issue is resolved by an option which was open to them on day one if not before. Also part of the negotiation was that the USSR would not mention the withdrawal of the missiles from Turkey.

Yes Kennedy was worried about the possibility of nuclear war – if it happened he might be impeached.

1 Cuban Missile Crisis, Wikipedia (

2 Apocalypse Soon, Robert MacNamara Foreign Policy, May 5, 2005 (

3 20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War, Alan F. Philips, M.D, (

4 Off the Record Meeting on Cuba, The White House,Washington, October 16, 1962, 6:30-7:55 p.m. (

5 Audio CLips From The Kennedy Whitehouse, National Security Archive, George Washington University (


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