2. The Cuban Missile Crisis
From October 16 to 28th the world stood on the verge of nuclear war. The Soviet Union had attempted to install nuclear weapons in Cuba to counter American nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, as well as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba, meanwhile, wanted the Soviet missiles on their soil in order to counter any threats from the United States.
Further, the Soviet Union was looking to counter the major advantage in nuclear armaments enjoyed by the United States. In 1962 the Soviet Union had only 20 or so nuclear missiles capable of being launched from the Soviet Union and striking the United States. On the other hand, the United States had nuclear weapons positioned across Europe, and countless long-range nuclear weapons within the United States.
Cuba seemed like an easy solution but Soviet leaders wondered if their Cuban counterparts would even be open to placing nuclear weapons on the island. However, when a delegation of Soviet military experts arrived in Cuba with an agriculture delegation, they found Cuba’s leaders ready and willing. The Cubans were worried that the United States would launch a full scale invasion following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Under extreme secrecy Soviet soldiers began constructing nuclear missile silos in Cuba. The Soviet Union was so determined to keep the plans secret that they even lied to their own troops, telling them that they were going to a cold climate, and equipping them with cold weather gear. Meanwhile, Soviet diplomats lied and reassured American diplomats that any weapons placed in Cuba would be defensive in nature.
By August of 1962 the United States was growing wary, believing that the Soviets were up to something more than agricultural development and defensive weapon deployment. Anti-aircraft missile batteries as well as the tens of thousands of Soviets on the ground hinted at something larger. As a result, the United States worked harder to gather intelligence.
On October 14th a U-2 spy plane took photographs of nuclear missile silos under construction. As a result, the United States scrambled to contain the growing Soviet threat in Cuba. The United States launched a military blockade of Cuba on October 22, publicly announcing it to the world. This blockade meant no more nukes were heading to Cuba. President Kennedy also demanded that the Soviets remove the weapons already present on the island. Meanwhile, American troops massed in Florida, preparing for an invasion.
By October 25th 14 Soviet ships had already been turned away from Cuba. Just a day later, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a letter, offering to to remove the missiles. In exchange, the United States would have to end the blockade, and also remove then-secret missiles from Italy and Turkey, and promise to never invade Cuba without provocation.
On the 27th of October, just as the USA and USSR were hammering out a deal, a U-2 spy plane accidentally crossed into Soviet air space. The plane was unable to use stars to navigate, as planned, and got lost. The Soviets feared it was a bomber and scrambled fighters to intercept the U-2. Meanwhile, the Americans scrambled their own aircraft with nuclear tipped missiles. Luckily, the U-2 aircraft made it out of Soviet space without incident.
Apparently, an officer in the Air Force also accidentally sent orders to the Okinawa Air Force base to launch nuclear missiles. Luckily, the officer in charge didn’t follow orders blindly and noticed that some things were amiss. The United States wasn’t at DEFCON 1, and the orders came at the end of a weather report. After following up to confirm, it was discovered to be a mistake.
Throughout those tense few days, the nuclear armaments of both the United States and the Soviet Union were ready to be fired within minutes. Had the Soviet ships tried to run the blockage, or had Khrushchev not sued for peace, who knows what could have happened.