During the beginning years of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union spent lots of money for the development of weapons – especially nuclear weapons. They were also willing to play “chicken” with those weapons. By the late 1950s people were learning to live in fear of nuclear war all the time, and in 1962, John F. Kennedy almost became the last president ever when he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev clashed over the nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Was this good policy? Was the rush to build nuclear weapons and to fight every possible threat in every corner of the world a good idea? Were there other ways of dealing with the communist world that might not have produced such expensive, dangerous results? Does matching your enemy gun for gun, ship for ship, nuclear bomb for nuclear bomb make you stronger or safer? Or does it just put everyone in greater danger?
What do you think? Did American leaders respond wisely to the threat of communism?
The United States developed the first atomic weapon during World War II and is the only nation in history to have ever used such a weapon in war when it bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For a few years, America was the only nuclear power. However, by 1964, all five of the winning countries had developed nuclear weapons.
Spreading weapons around the world, and especially the spread of nuclear weapons is known as proliferation. Today, a total of nine countries have nuclear weapons.
The Soviet Union surprised the world on August 29, 1949 when it tested its first nuclear bomb. The Soviet Union had many good scientists, but they also, spied on the American Manhattan Project to help them build their atomic bomb.
In 1952, the United Kingdom became the third nation to have nuclear weapons when it exploded an atomic bomb on October 3, 1952. Even though Canada and the United Kingdom helped with the Manhattan Project, the United States Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which ended cooperation with other countries on nuclear projects. This was unpopular with British scientists and Winston Churchill who thought the United States had promised to share nuclear technology, so the British made their own nuclear weapons. Because of Britain’s small size, they decided to test their bomb on the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Australia.
France became the fourth nation to make nuclear weapons on February 13, 1960, when the atomic bomb Gerboise Bleue was tested in Algeria in North Africa, then still a French colony.
In the late 1950s, China began building nuclear weapons with lots of Soviet help. They traded their uranium ore with the Soviets for nuclear secrets. However, when the Soviets and Chinese started to fight about what communism was all about in the late 1950s, the Chinese made their own nuclear weapons without Soviet help. The People’s Republic of China became the fifth nuclear power on October 16, 1964 at Lop Nur in western China.
So, within twenty years of the first test of a nuclear bomb, all five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council were members of the “nuclear club.”
THE ARMS RACE
After the successful nuclear test July 16, 1945, the Manhattan project lead manager J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
The United States hoped that atomic weapons could balance the Soviet Union’s larger land army in Eastern Europe, and possibly be used to get Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, to give up. But under Stalin, the Soviet Union used spies to steal nuclear secrets and built their own nuclear bomb.
The Soviets thought that the Americans, with only a few nuclear weapons, would not want to start any new world wars, while the Americans were not sure they could stop a Soviet takeover of Europe, even with atomic weapons. So, both countries decided to try to build more nuclear weapons, stronger nuclear weapons, and more and better ways of using and delivering them.
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A B-52 Stratofortress unloading bombs in the 1960s. These aircraft could also carry nuclear warheads.
At the start of the Cold War, the United States and its allies in Europe had large enough bombers to attack targets in the Soviet Union, but the opposite was not true. In the early 1950s, however, new jet-powered fighter aircraft made the American bomber planes less safe. General Curtis LeMay was placed in charge of the Strategic Air Command which managed the American bombers and missiles and started a program to build new jet-powered bombers. It was at this time that designers at Boeing produced the famous B-52 Stratofortress, giving America the ability to bomb the Soviet Union from bases in the United States.
In the early 1950s, the design of nuclear weapons was also changing. New warheads used fusion instead of fission and produced much larger and more destructive explosions. Referred to as thermonuclear warheads, or more commonly hydrogen or H-bombs, these weapons replaced the older style of bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the same time that scientists were inventing the hydrogen bomb, war planners were thinking about using small nuclear weapons on the battlefield, much the way cannons had been used in earlier wars. These tactical nuclear weapons could be carried on small trucks and moved quickly. The United States even developed a nuclear rocket so small it could be put on a tripod and carried on foot by two soldiers. There was a big danger in using this type of weapons. Military leaders in the battlefield would be able to order their use as needed for a going battle. This way of thinking took the authority to start a nuclear attack, no matter how small, away from the president. Obviously, there was a great risk that a war might get out of control and lead to a much larger nuclear attack. In Korea, General Douglas MacArthur asked to have these small tactical nuclear weapons, but knowing that he might use them against China, President Truman said no.
A change in nuclear strategy happened with the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the Soviet Union first tested in August 1957. A missile was much faster and less expensive than a bomber at delivering a nuclear bomb to a target. Stopping an ICBM was almost impossible because they flew through space and were very fast. This meant there was a greater chance that a missile would hit its target. ICBMs could be put on huge trucks or buried in silos made of concrete in the ground.
By 1960, the United States had three ways of attacking with nuclear weapons: ICBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and bombers. These different forces had their advantages and disadvantages. Bombers could carry heavy bombs and strike with great accuracy, but were slow, more unprotected while on the ground, and could be shot down as they flew toward their targets. ICBMs were safe in their silos in the ground but were less accurate than bombers and could not be called back after launch. Submarines were safest from attack, but communication could be poor at times.
This nuclear triad was very important to keeping a good deterrent. A Soviet sneak attack might be able to hurt two of the elements of the triad but would be unlikely to stop all three. Being able to shoot back made it possible for the United States to cause serious damage to the Soviet Union. In other words, the American nuclear forces had the ability to survive. Of course, the Soviet Union and the other nuclear powers copied the American triad with bombers, ICBMs, and submarines of their own.
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The USS Sam Rayburn, a ballistic missile submarine in port with its missile hatches open.
RESPONDING TO THE ARMS RACE
In the early 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union were both really worried about the chance of war. The Strategic Air Command, the division of the US Air Force that managed the nuclear arsenal, began flying bombers with nuclear bombs 24/7. At any moment, a group of B-52s was in the air near the Soviet Union waiting for orders to turn and attack. This program was ended in 1968 after five of the B-52s crashed. Luckily, none of these crashes led to accidental nuclear explosions, but in the end, government leaders decided that the risk of an accident was greater than the risk of a Soviet attack.
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An advertisement to build fallout shelters from the 1950s.
Early ICBMs and bombers were not very accurate, which meant that attacks on military targets such as bases, and airfields might not stop a counterattack. As a result, both the Americans and Soviets planned attacks on each other’s cities, which they hoped would stop the other side from wanting to fight. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent a lot of money for large “nuclear-proof” bunkers and other things to protect its people. In the United States, smaller civil defense programs were started in the 1950s, where schools and other public buildings had basements filled with food supplies that could last a long time, canned water, first aid supplies, and Geiger counters. Many of the locations were given fallout shelter signs. Students watched videos about how to respond in case of nuclear attack and practiced “duck and cover” drills in class along with regular fire drills. Early warning radar and satellites were used to provide notice of an attack that would happen soon, and the civil defense siren system was begun. Today these sirens are used to warn people about natural disasters such as tornados and tsunami, but during the early part of the Cold War, they had a more evil purpose.
The thought of nuclear war was very scary. By the 1970s, both the Soviets and Americans were developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), which were missiles with more than one thermonuclear warhead that would open up in space and then be sent to different targets. With over 50,000 nuclear warheads spread around the world, humans could destroy themselves easily. In the end, if all out nuclear war had happened, millions of people would have died in the first few hours, and millions more in the following days from radiation sickness and the social and agricultural disaster as plants and civil society failed. The thought of such a nuclear winter made leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain think. Military leaders made plans for nuclear war, but the idea of actually using out these plans was too horrible to think about.
Since nuclear war was a very possible event, the job of government changed. Instead of protecting freedoms and providing basic services, the government was now expected to protect the nation. The scientists who were building the missiles, aircraft, radars that were meant to protect the world became national heroes. Fictional characters who protection Americans from the evils of communism and nuclear war also became popular. Comic books with Captain America and Superman were popular with young people who were scared by the idea of dying in a nuclear war.
MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION
It may seem like it does not make sense, but most people think nuclear weapons made the world safer.
Both Soviet and American tried to use nuclear weapons to threaten the other side to agree to things, but the risk of using these weapons was so serious that they stopped. While some, like General Douglas MacArthur, said nuclear weapons should have been used during the Korean War, most leaders, including Presidents Truman and Eisenhower did not like the idea.
By the end of the 1950s, both the United States and Soviet Union had enough nuclear power to destroy the other side and because of the power built into the nuclear triad, both sides developed the ability to launch an attack even after being attacked first. Anyone who decided to attack first was sure to be attacked back and would be killed. This was the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
What made MAD work was that your enemy knew that you were able to fight back. Most weapons were invented in secret, but once they were completed it was important to show them off. The latest bombers were flown for the public and newspapers at airshows. At parades in Moscow, trucks carrying nuclear missiles were driven through the streets for cheering people and watching American military leaders.
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A truck-mounted nuclear missile on parade in Red Square in the heart of Moscow.
Since the Americans and the Soviets knew that any attack would lead to their own death, the theory of MAD stopped anyone from starting a nuclear war. Building tens of thousands of nuclear weapons seemed crazy, and the idea that so many bombs was a way to make sure we had peace is hard to believe, but history has so far shown that fear of nuclear war is a good way to stop war from happening.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTING
Every member of the nuclear club had a testing program, in part to find out how well their latest bomb designs were working, and to show off their power. Because of the dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear explosions, these tests needed to be done far from cities. For the Soviet Union, that meant the islands of the Arctic Ocean in Siberia. For China, testing was done in the empty areas of Central Asia. For the Americans and French, nuclear testing was carried out on the islands of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean.
The United States had its first nuclear test after World War II, called Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on 95 ships, including old German and Japanese ships. One plutonium implosion-type bomb was exploded over the fleet, while the other one was detonated underwater. The 40 families who had lived on the atoll were forced to move before the test. Even today, Bikini Atoll is too contaminated to be safe for living and the now-more-than-4000 children and grandchildren of the original islanders live on many islands, and in the United States.
The United States tested the first hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952, on Enewetak, another atoll in the Marshall Islands. Code-named Ivy Mike, the project was led by Edward Teller. It created a radioactive mushroom cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles high, killing all life on the islands that were close by. As was true at Bikini Atoll, the people of Enewetak had to move. In all, the United States did 43 nuclear tests on Enewetak.
On March 1, 1954, the United States ran the Castle Bravo test, of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. Scientists were wrong about the size of the bomb. Instead of 5 megatons, it turned out to be 14.8 megatons, which is the largest nuclear test ever by the United States. Fallout from the explosion fell on the people of Rongelap and Utirik atolls and spread around the world. Not only were the Americans wrong about the size of the blast, but they also were wrong about the wind and where the wind carried radiation from the test. People on other islands were not moved until three days after the test and suffered radiation sickness. Twenty-three people on the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru that was 50 miles away were also contaminated by fallout and got very sick. The test started an international movement to end nuclear testing above ground.
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The Castle Bravo Test
In all, the United States made over 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. Today, a Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the United States, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau allows citizens of these island nations to travel to the United States without a passport. The United States also gives free medical care for the hundreds of people who developed cancers because of radiation. The COFA nations give the American military use of their territory – with the rule that the Americans do not use, store, or test nuclear weapons in the islands.
France did most of its nuclear tests at Fangatuafa Atoll in French Polynesia, also known as the Society Islands. Just like in the Marshalls, the French tests contaminated the atoll with radiation and no people can live there.
Today, the original members of the nuclear club have agreed to end all nuclear testing. However, India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, and North Korea has tested its weapons many times since 2000.
THE SPACE RACE
The world’s first long-range rocket was the V-2, made by German scientists during World War II. The V-2, and other models like it, were designed to carry 1,000 kg bombs over a long distance and exploded upon impact. In 1944, Hitler decided to use his secret weapon and thousands of these rockets were launched at Britain. The German missiles missed a lot, so they caused very little damage, but they were very scary.
As the war was ending, hundreds of German rockets, and their scientists were captured. Taken to the Soviet Union and United States, they were “encouraged” to work and share their knowledge.
Of course, rockets and satellites could be used to explore space, but they also could be used for the military. Most leaders thought intercontinental ballistic missiles were the best nuclear weapons.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union showed the world that they had missiles able to reach any part of the world when they launched the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. After some embarrassing failures, and after four months of waiting, the Americans finally managed to launch their own satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.
In 1957, the Soviets sent the first animal into space – a dog named Laika – and on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go around the Earth. This was another embarrassing failure for the United States and showed the world again how good the Soviets had become at science.
NASA sent Alan Shephard, the first American astronaut into space in 1961, but the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union, in the Space Race. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. While there was nothing important to be found in space, the space program became a matter of national pride, and served to advance scientific research that was used by the military. While the Soviets clearly led the way in the 1950s, the Americans were the leaders of the 1960s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) said that the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the time, such a mission was impossible. Lots of money and scientists would be needed to make his goal happen but Kennedy thought it would be worth the price. At a speech at Rice University, he said, “We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
Several years later, the United States started the Apollo Program. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon, on July 21, 1969. Over 300 million people around the world watched the event through their televisions. As he stepped off the Eagle Lander onto the Moon, Armstrong delivered his famous line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
By landing on the Moon, the Americans had won the Space Race. While both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as European countries, China, Japan, and a host of other countries still explore space, the era of the Space Race, which happened about the same time as the Arms Race, was over.
In the end, the Space Race helped us learn more about science, and led to things we use in everyday life. For example, the network of satellites that give locations (GPS) and satellites that carry television, radio, and internet messages around the world, as well as weather satellites that track dangerous storms are some of the good things that came from the competition of the 1950s and 1960s.
Many technologies that were first developed for the space program are now found in everyday products. Clear braces, memory foam mattresses, solar panels, ski boots, UV-blocking sunglasses, and battery tools all came from the space program.
In 1960 it was time for another election for the next president. President Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had already served two terms and was not able to run again. The Republican Party chose Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president, while the Democrats picked John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts. It was one of the closest elections in American history.
Senator Kennedy was not popular at first with some older Democrats who thought he was too young to be president. However, JFK, as he came to be known, was good at being a candidate.
Because he was vice president, Nixon was the first choice of most Republicans. Nixon picked United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to be his running mate. Lodge’s foreign-policy experiences fit into Nixon’s plan to show American that he was the best person to deal with other countries.
Both Kennedy and Nixon drew large and excited crowds throughout the campaign. In August of 1960, most polls gave Nixon a lead over Kennedy. However, Nixon had bad luck in the fall. In August, President Eisenhower was asked to name some of Nixon’s important ideas. When he did not answer, it made it seem as though Nixon had not been involved in any of Eisenhower’s important decisions. Also, Nixon had to stop campaigning for two weeks early in the campaign to rest after hurting his knee. Even with these problems, Nixon still wanted to visit all 50 states. So, he ended up wasting time visiting states that he had no chance of winning and states that had few electoral votes.
Kennedy was helped when he picked Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. Johnson did a lot to get people to vote for Kennedy and was helpful in several Southern states. Lodge, on the other hand, ran a boring campaign and made more mistakes that hurt Nixon.
The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates. These were the first presidential debates on television, and they attracted a lot of attention. In the first debate, Nixon did not look healthy because of his hospital stay. However, Kennedy appeared strong, confident, and relaxed during the debate.
The election on November 8, 1960 is one of the most famous election nights in American history. In the national popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by just one tenth of one percentage point (0.1%)—the closest popular-vote difference of the 20th century. In the Electoral College, Kennedy’s victory was larger, as he took 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219.
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Kennedy and Nixon held three live debates, the first televised debates in presidential election history.
THE NEW FRONTIER
Compared to Eisenhower, President Kennedy was young and fancy. The youngest president ever elected, Kennedy and his stylish wife Jacqueline had two young children. The Kennedys were exciting, attractive and had a lot of energy. Before the inauguration, the Kennedys had even attended a ball hosted by Hollywood superstar Frank Sinatra.
Kennedy and most of his advisors were part of a new generation, later called the Greatest Generation, who were among the GIs and Rosie the Riveters who had given up so much to win World War II. Noting the change of power from the leaders of that war to the men and women who had been its soldiers, Kennedy said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…”
He went on to say again that he was ready to fight against communism and support nations around the world who were on the front lines of the Cold War. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge – and more.”
Kennedy had talked about the future he wanted to build as a New Frontier, and he brought with him to the White House a group of young, forward-looking advisors who became known as the New Frontiersmen. Among them were his brother Robert “Bobby” Kennedy who served as Attorney General and Dean Rusk the Secretary of State. Kennedy selected Robert McNamara, the President of the Ford Motor Company, to be Secretary of Defense. A brilliant lawyer, Ted Sorenson became one of Kennedy’s closest advisors and the speechwriter who wrote many of the president’s most famous lines.
The excitement around Kennedy led to the myth of his presidency as a modern Camelot. Like the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Kennedy’s time as president was short, full of hope, energy, and mystery. After he was killed in 1963, his widow introduced the metaphor when she told Life Magazine, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot… There’ll never be another Camelot again…”
When Kennedy became president in 1960 it was becoming clear that Eisenhower’s plan to build many nuclear weapons that would let America return a Soviet attack would not work anymore. Massive retaliation was the use of a huge military force by a country when attacked by another country.
Kennedy wanted more options. He wanted to be able to respond to smaller wars in other parts of the world without needing to use nuclear weapons.
Technology had gotten better since massive retaliation was invented. Better communication and transportation meant American forces could be moved more easily and quickly than before. Advisers told Kennedy that having many options would allow the president to use the right amount of force without needing to make every fight a nuclear war.
Flexible response meant that the military would need to build up its regular military forces, not just its nuclear triad, since it might be called on to fight more than one war at the same time in different parts of the world. Rather than making the military smaller, Kennedy made it bigger, especially by getting more troops, tanks, airplanes, and ships, not just nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines.
THE PEACE CORPS
President Kennedy knew that the United States and supporters of freedom would not beat communism with force alone. Since the Cold War between East and West was basically about ideas, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world. Therefore, he started the idea of a new Peace Corps. This volunteer program sent young Americans, mostly recent college graduates, around the world to give scientific help, be teachers and medical help to people in many countries. Kennedy thought that people would choose freedom or democracy instead of communism if they met Americans who wanted to help others, not just the soldiers of America’s army.
The Peace Corps was a big success and continues its work even today. Over its history, almost 220,000 Americans have served in more than 140 countries.
THE CUBAN REVOLUTION
One of President Kennedy’s first problems was Cuba. Located just 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba had a long and difficult relationship with the United States. Cuba became free from Spain in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War, but Cuba had enjoyed only half freedom. While the Teller Amendment had promised the United States would give Cuba independence after the war, the Platt Amendment gave America the right to get involved to keep order in Cuba.
And America got involved a lot. At least four times, American soldiers went to Cuba to stop rebellions and protect American businesses. The United States had good reason to be interested in Cuba. American companies owned 60% of the island’s sugar cane farms.
In the 1930s the United States supported a coup, or takeover, led by Fulgencio Batista who went on to run Cuba for nearly 20 years. During Batista’s time in power, the United States controlled almost all of Cuba’s economy. There was lots of corruption and Havana became a popular place for American organized crime. Of course, Batista and his friends used their positions in government to become rich.
In 1958, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro got rid of Batista. From his bases in the mountains, Castro got support from people who did not like the United States. In January 1959, Castro and his rebel army marched into the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Batista escaped to Spain.
At first, Kennedy liked the Cuban Revolution. Castro was seen by many Americans as having new ideas. Batista had helped American businesses in Cuba, but some Americans thought Castro might be good for democracy, which Batista was not. However, it soon became clear that Castro had more communist ideas. His new government nationalized or took over the business of the island. They took control of the Catholic Church and the homes of the mafia dons. They took over American sugar plantations. Thousands of rich Cubans moved to South Florida to escape Castro.
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Fidel Castro (right) and his second-in-command, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) started to try to kill Castro. They used exploding and poisoned cigars, a tuberculosis-infected scuba-diving suit (Castro loved cigars and scuba diving), a pen with a hypodermic syringe full of poison, and bombings. While all these plans failed, they made Castro think that the Americans were out to get him, which they were, and that he needed protection from the Soviet Union.
On April 17, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his ok for an attack on Cuba, using 1,500 CIA-trained Cubans who did not like Castro. They planned to land in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, but they made many mistakes. The Cuban people did not join them to fight against Castro as expected and the fighters were stuck on the beach. They called to Washington for American air support. Kennedy, who had believed his CIA advisors when they told him the plan was perfect was angry. He did not want to become involved in a war with Cuba. He refused to send in the air force. Within days, Castro’s army beat the exiles. It was an embarrassing loss for the new president. Kennedy never trusted military advice again, and the Soviet Union got the idea that Kennedy was a weak leader. The attack also made many Latin-American nations angry who saw it, yet again, as American disrespect.
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
In 1962, the Soviet Union was falling behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were only strong enough to be launched against Europe, but American missiles could hit the entire Soviet Union. In late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev thought of the idea of placing missiles in Cuba. Nuclear missiles in Cuba would make an attack against the Soviet Union harder because the Soviets would have missiles so close to the United States.
At the same time, Fidel Castro was looking for a way to protect his island nation from another attack by the United States. Since the failed Bay of Pigs attack, Castro thought a second attack was coming. He said ok to Khrushchev’s plan to put missiles on the island.
The face-off between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev that came because of this choice probably the most important event of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is now known, was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.
The crisis began on October 15, 1962 when photographs taken by U-2 spy planes showed the Soviet missiles being set up in Cuba. Kennedy put together a special committee of twelve of his most important advisers to help him handle the crisis. After seven days of secret and tense talks, this executive committee, or EX-COMM, decided that it had to start a naval quarantine around Cuba, which would stop the Soviets from bringing more missiles to the island.
On October 22, Kennedy went on television and told America that they had found the missiles and that he had decided to blockade the island. He called the blockade a quarantine because a blockade is an act of war. He was serious and tried to show that he would not back down. He said that the Soviets had to take all their missiles out of Cuba.
Khrushchev was very angry. In a letter and speech on October 24, he called Kennedy’s bluff. He said that the Soviet Union would never be bossed around by the United States and that the quarantine was an illegal act. He told his ships to ignore the quarantine and warned that Kennedy’s choices might lead to war.
The United Nations Security Council met to deal with the growing crisis. The Soviets had told the world that they were not putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, and that their support for Castro was only to help him defend Cuba. Many nations believed that Kennedy was looking for an excuse to attack the island and get rid of Castro after his first try at the Bay of Pigs had failed. On October 25, Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson faced-off with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in a meeting of the Security Council. Their conversation is now one of the most famous moments in United Nations history.
Stevenson began, “All right sir, let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation: yes or no?”
Zorin answered, “I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”
Stevenson, not about to let the Soviets off the hook, replied, “You are in the court of world opinion right now and you can answer yes or no.”
Zorin tried to ignore Stevenson. “Sir, will you please continue your statement. You will have your answer in due course.” But Stevenson would not give up. “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I’m also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”
With that, Stevenson’s helpers brought out poster-sized copies of the U-2 photographs of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The photos turned the world against the Soviet Union. Clearly, it was not Kennedy, but Khrushchev who had started the crisis.
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Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the Security Council in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 26, Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy. He proposed removing the Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States would promise not to invade the island or try to get rid of Castro.
While the EX-COMM thought about Khrushchev’s offer, a U-2 was shot down as it flew high over Cuba. The military leaders wanted Kennedy to give them the go-ahead to attack. The Soviets had clearly started the war. If Kennedy refused, they said, it would be the Bay of Pigs all over again.
Kennedy refused anyway.
In the middle of this, Kennedy got a second letter from Khrushchev. This time, the Soviet leader wanted America to take its missiles out of Turkey in exchange for his missiles in Cuba.
This put Kennedy in a hard position. Time was running out to start an attack on Cuba. If he waited even a day or two, the military would not be able to destroy the Soviet missiles before they could be launched. Khrushchev’s first letter seemed ok, but the second letter was more demanding. Perhaps he had lost power and hardliners in Moscow had taken over. Or it was possible that Khrushchev was scared that Kennedy might actually order a first strike and he was trying to find a way out of the crisis.
The members of EX-COMM all agreed that making a deal with the Soviets was risky. If the Soviet Union could use the threat of missiles in Cuba to get something from the United States, what would stop them from trying it again a year or two later? What would they ask for next? Berlin?
Finally, the president’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy said that they should ignore the second letter and agree to the first. However, the United States would secretly agree to take the missiles out of Turkey – many months later – so it would not seem to be part of a deal. He met late on the night of October 27 with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to pass along the message, and to stress that the Soviets would have to agree the next day, or there would be war.
On October 28, Khrushchev said that he would remove the missiles from Cuba, so long as the United States would not attack Cuba. The crisis had lasted 13 days. In the end, Kennedy’s cool-thinking, patience, and because he found a way for Khrushchev to save face paid off. Although nuclear war had been only hours away, the world had not blown itself up.
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The members of Ex-Comm gathered around a table with President Kennedy at the center during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
EFFECTS OF THE CRISIS
The Cuban Missile Crisis had both short-term and long-term effects. Seeing the need for better communication, a phone line was set up between the White House and Kremlin. In popular culture it is known as the red telephone on the president’s desk, but the hotline was never a telephone line, and no red phones have ever been used. The first hotline was a teletype machine, but after 2008, a computer with email is used.
The crisis helped Kennedy. Now everyone knew he would stand up to communists. On the other hand, the final deal was seen in the Soviet Union as embarrassing. Two years later the Politburo forced Khrushchev out of power, replacing him with Leonid Brezhnev.
The United States kept its promise never to attack Cuba. Castro remained in power as a communist leader well into the 21st Century. When he died in 2016 at age 90, his younger brother Raul took over, continuing the Castro Family’s hold on power. Letting Castro stay in power, however, did not mean that relations between the two nations were any warmer. Americans continued to stop all travel and business with Cuba. Over the years, Cuba became more and more poor. After 54 years of embargo, in 2014 President Barack Obama announced a change in policy, allowing direct flights from the United States to Cuba, and giving travel visas for American tourists. Obama himself visited Cuba in 2016. In 2017, the new Trump Administration, tired of being seen as soft on America’s enemies, and aware of the importance of Cuban American voters, stopped Obama’s deals.
The arms race and the brinksmanship (acting like you are about to go to war) that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis were such a dangerous game that Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly let things get out of control. The nuclear standoff between East and West produced a strange stalemate that seems to have prevented war. But was this a good way to deal with the Soviets? Was the end worth the price we paid – both in money and in our mental health?
What do you think? Did American leaders respond wisely to the communist threat?
BIG IDEA: The Soviet Union and United States developed huge numbers of extremely dangerous nuclear weapons as they raced to outdo the other side. This competition for military dominance extended even into space and nearly led to nuclear war over Cuba.
When World War II ended, the United States was the only country with an atomic bomb. Within a few years, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China had also developed nuclear weapons.
Since the Cold War was essentially a long face off, both sided wanted to be prepared with the most powerful weapons. This led to an arms race in which the United States and Soviet Union tried to outdo each other to develop more powerful and more plentiful nuclear bombs, missiles, tanks, and airplanes. Both superpowers ended up having nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, in bombs delivered by airplanes, and missiles launched from submarines.
In the United States, people were terrified of the possibility of death from sudden, unpredictable nuclear attack. Many Americans built fallout shelters. Students practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, and superheroes fought communists in comic books.
By the end of the arms race, both nations had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other many times over. However, both sides were afraid to shoot first, for fear of a retaliatory attack. This mutually assured destruction prevented nuclear war.
All nuclear nations tested their weapons. The United States and France tested weapons in the islands of the Pacific, with disastrous results for the health of the islanders.
The race for technological superiority extended into space. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite, first animal, and first person into space, but the United States was first to send a man to the Moon.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president in a close election over Vice President Richard Nixon. It was the first election that featured televised debates.
Kennedy wanted more conventional weapons so he would have other options besides nuclear war. He also wanted Americans to travel abroad to help other nations so that people around the world would think positively about the United States.
In 1959, communists took over the island nation of Cuba. Americans tried to help anti-communist Cubans retake the island, but their invasion failed and Kennedy refused to help. This was embarrassing for Kennedy and made the Soviets think Kennedy was weak.
In 1962, Soviet leader Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The 13 days of standoff between Khrushchev and Kennedy were the closest the two superpowers ever came to nuclear war. After the crisis, both sides decided to try to talk more and find ways to reduce their nuclear arsenals.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Curtis LeMay: General who led the Strategic Air Command, responsible for America’s nuclear bombers and missiles.
Nuclear Club: The group of countries who have nuclear weapons.
Captain America and Superman: Superheroes who became popular during the Cold War by fighting against communist enemies in comic books.
Laika: A dog. The first animal in space.
Yuri Gargarin: Soviet Cosmonaut and first human in space in 1961.
Alan Shephard: First American in space in 1961.
Valentina Tereshkova: Soviet cosmonaut. She became the first woman in space in 1963.
John F. Kennedy (JFK): Democratic president from 1961-1963. He was president during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Neil Armstrong: First man to set foot on the Moon in 1969.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Vice president for John F. Kennedy and president from 1963-1968.
New Frontiersmen: The group of young intellectuals who served as Kennedy’s advisors.
Fulgencio Batista: Corrupt dictator of Cuba. He was supported by the United States and was overthrown by Castro.
Fidel Castro: Communist leader who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Nikita Khrushchev: Soviet leader from 1953-1964. He was leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Adlai Stevenson: Democratic presidential candidate and ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Robert Kennedy: John F. Kennedy’s younger brother. He was Attorney General during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ex-Comm: The group of experts who advised Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Politburo: The group of the leaders of the Soviet Union. Roughly equivalent to the President’s cabinet.
Leonid Brezhnev: Soviet leader from 1964-1982.
Raul Castro: Fidel Castro’s younger brother and leader of Cuba from 2008 to the present.
Proliferation: The spread of weapons, especially nuclear weapons to multiple countries.
Nuclear Winter: The time period after a major nuclear exchange during with crops would be destroyed and most humans would starve.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): The situation in which both the United States and Soviet Union could destroy one another in a nuclear exchange. Because starting a war meant assured destruction, no side would start the war.
Blockade: The use of a navy to prevent the entrance and exit of ships from a port.
Embargo: A block on trade.
Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: President Kennedy’s speech in 1961 and occasion of some of his most famous statements.
We Choose to Go to the Moon: Speech by JFK in 1961 in which he challenged America to send a man to the moon before 1970.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind: Armstrong’s statement as he stepped onto the Moon’s surface.
B-52 Stratofortress: Long-range bomber designed to carry nuclear bombs deep into the Soviet Union.
Thermonuclear Warhead: A nuclear warhead that uses fusion to produce a much larger explosion than the fission bomb used against Japan. Also known as a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Small nuclear weapons meant to be used on the battlefield the way artillery might be used.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM): Nuclear-armed missiles that are fired from one continent to targets in another.
Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM): Nuclear-armed missiles fired from submarines.
Nuclear Triad: The three methods of attacking with nuclear weapons: land-based bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles.
Multiple Independent Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV): Missiles that separate in space and deliver nuclear warheads to many different targets.
Fallout Shelter: A place that would be safe during an atomic attack. They were often stocked with food, water, and medical supplies.
Sputnik: First man-made satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.
Explorer 1: America’s first satellite, launched in 1958.
U-2: American spy plane.
Red Telephone: Nickname for the direct communication link between the White House and Kremlin.
GOVERNMENT & MILITARY AGENCIES
Strategic Air Command: The organization in the American military responsible for America’s nuclear bombers and missiles.
Civil Defense: The local organizations who plan for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear attack.
Apollo Program: NASA program to develop the technology to send a man to the Moon.
Peace Corps: A group of young American volunteers who travel to developing nations to provide support and help spread goodwill.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): America’s spy agency.
Bikini Atoll: Atoll in the Marshall Islands used by the United States for testing nuclear weapons. It was the site of the Castle Bravo test.
Enewetak: Island in the Marshall Islands used by the United States for testing nuclear weapons. Location of the first hydrogen bomb test.
Castle Bravo: Nuclear test on Bikini Atoll that was much larger than expected.
1960 Presidential Election: Election between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy won in a close popular vote.
Kennedy-Nixon Debates: The first televised presidential election debates.
Cuban Revolution: Communist overthrow of Batista’s Cuban government in 1958, led by Fidel Castro.
Bay of Pigs Invasion: 1961 attack by anti-communist Cuban exiles who had been trained ty the CIA in an effort to start a revolution against Castro. The invasion failed and Kennedy refused to support the invaders.
Cuban Missile Crisis: 13-day standoff in 1962. The Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and Kennedy demanded that they be removed. It was the closest the world every came to nuclear war.
POLICIES & TREATIES
Compact of Free Association (COFA): Agreement between the US, Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia.
New Frontier: Kennedy’s agenda, including more domestic spending and a shift away from massive retaliation.
Flexible Response: Kennedy’s policy of having more conventional (non-nuclear) weapons so that the United States could use military power without resorting to a nuclear attack.