Cuban Missile Crisis

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis begins with Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Baptista’s regime in Cuba.  Batista had established a dictatorship in Cuba with close economic ties to the United States and while tourism and sales of sugar cane provided a robust economy little of the wealth made it down to the average Cuban worker.  Fidel Castro united the communists, socialists and anti-Batista liberals in a revolution against the Batista regime.  After his eventual victory against Batista’s forces Castro turned on his one time allies and consolidated his control over Cuba.  Eventually Castro created a one-party state with a Soviet-style command economy.

In 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to begin training Cuban nationals in an attempt to overthrow Castro.  While preparations were being completed, John F. Kennedy was elected and sworn in as President.  Upon being briefed President Kennedy decided to continue the operation.  On April 17, 1961, 1,400

Life magazine article on the Bay of Pigs

Life magazine article on the Bay of Pigs

Cuban exiles attacked the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.  The invasion was short lived and with few exceptions all were killed or captured within three days.  Castro responded to the invasion by officially declaring himself part of the Soviet sphere of influence.

Disappointed that the Soviet Union would not formally enter into a military treaty with him, Castro never the less allowed Khrushchev to place Russian made and controlled nuclear missiles on Cuban territory.  This move placed American cities arcing from New York City to Chicago to Dallas within the range of Soviet nuclear weapons.  Unlike the ICBMs and strategic bombers based within Soviet territory, these missiles would afford little to no warning time for response.  To Kennedy and the American leadership this represented an unacceptable change in the status quo.

President Kennedy ordered an immediate naval blockage of Cuba which began a thirteen day stand off between America and the Soviet Union.  Khrushchev and the Soviets underestimated the American mindset and had not predicted their response.  Fortunately a peaceful solution was found publicly resulting in the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and a pledge from the United States to not overthrow the Castro government.  Additionally a secret agreement was reached for America to remove its missiles from Turkey.

Divisions and Detente

American foreign policy during this time, containment, was predicated upon a monolithic view of communism.  That is to say, that in order to be contained communism must be one threat, if some communist nations were not hostile or even friendly then the whole justification behind containment failed.  Ironically, as America embraced containment world events would show that communism was not monolithic, this inconvenient fact was ignored.  The event was the 1948 expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform.  Yugoslavia was led by Josip Broz Tito who was a fervent

Josip Broz Tito

Josip Broz Tito

nationalist who happened to also have deep personality conflicts with Joseph Stalin.  He refused to allow Yugoslavia to become a Soviet state and pursued foreign policy without consulting Stalin.  Tito even went so far as to accept American aid in the form of the Marshal Plan.  The enmity between Tito and Stalin is said to have been so great that after the resolution

Russian cartoon showing Stalins displeasure with Tito

Russian cartoon showing Stalin's displeasure with Tito

of the Korean War Stalin planned on invading Yugoslavia.

Despite knowing conclusively that communism was not monolithic, America continued to act as if it were.  Another communist split occurred when Mao Zedong finally took over China in 1949.  Mao, like Tito, had always had clashes with Stalin but unlike Tito swallowed his pride in return for Soviet assistance.  In the 1960s, after Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union began to fall short on their promised aid to China.  This eventually lead to a thaw in relations with the United States, culminating in a visit by President Nixon in 1972.  This thaw led to the “most favoured nation” status that China enjoys today.

Similarly, the Soviet Union viewed capitalism as a monolith and from their point of view saw several splits between Western powers.  Most notably was the 1956 Suez Canal crisis.  In that year, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, a vital economic passageway for the world.  Fearing what the socialist leaning Nasser would do if he controlled the canal France, the United Kingdom and Israel invade, securing the canal and the Sinai Peninsula.  They withdrew only after intense

Invasion routes used by the British, French and Israelis

Invasion routes used by the British, French and Israelis

pressure from the United States.

After years of conflict the Soviet Union and the United States began a short period of co-operation.  This period, known as détente, was an attempt to de-escalate tension and maybe eventually find peaceful co-existence.

An early example of co-operation was the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear testing to ground tests only.  But most détente treaties revolved around arms limitation and non-proliferation.  In 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed, signatories pledge not to develop nuclear weapons or if already possessing them not to help others develop them.  In 1972, President Nixon went to Moscow, the first such visit by an American president, and signed an interim arms control agreement, limiting the numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles, anti-ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles the two nations would deploy.  This was the first time either side acknowledge that their weapons development had gotten out of control and that the ability to destroy the world once was more than enough.  During the late 1970s, especially because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, tensions would rise again until the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.

Power and Principle

Détente was an attempt to see if the Soviet Union and the United States were indeed mortal enemies, dedicated to each others destruction because of ideological difference or if they were rational state actors who could find peaceful accord with one another.  This debate will probably never be resolved and it is certainly too soon to make a conclusive statement.  But the reality, as in so many cases, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

The Soviet Union viewed every move by the United States as capitalist expansion and coming from an “old world” perspective could not understand the naive “white horse” way America viewed its every action.  America on the other hand saw Soviet moves to strengthen its traditional weaknesses, such as a buffer zone against traditional steppe invasion routes and the desire for a warm water port, as communist conspiracy against freedom and liberty.

In reality, the Soviet Union during and after Stalin rarely acted as a “communist” nation should.  It instead was a rebirth of the Russian empire only with communist rhetoric.  At the same time, America allied itself with numerous nefarious actors who were the antithesis of freedom and liberty but were anti-communist.  America preferred a known evil to the unpredictable results of elections and the possible election of communist leaders.  This policy would have long reaching implications as America found world wide backlash and ill will towards its actions and hypocrisy.

Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore the fundamental differences between the two systems.  Capitalism must search out new markets, a system that is completely inconsistent with communist command economies.  Survival of the two systems without a total and permanent division of the world is impossible.  So it can be imagined that the Soviet Union and the United States either faced conflict or permanent divide.  While the period was mired by misunderstanding and ill conceived policy all told the leaders of both nations could have done much worse.


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1 Comment so far

  1.    Judith17 on August 1, 2013 2:38 pm

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