In 1962, Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch, placing the world on the brink of nuclear war.
The Soviets had started shipping nuclear weapons to Cuba, an island just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. In response, John F. Kennedy launched a naval blockade around the island. Stalemate.
For 13 days, the planet watched with bated breath, fearful of escalation. It was, many agree, the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war.
But how did the Cold War become so heated? What led the two nations to such hostilities, and how did Cuba get involved? Here’s an explainer on the 5 key causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
1. The Cuban Revolution
In 1959, Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera overthrew the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The guerrilla rebels established Cuba as the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere and seized any US-owned businesses for the state.
The United States, then diametrically and vocally opposed to communism, found itself with a communist neighbour just 90 miles from Florida’s southern tip.
2. The Bay of Pigs Disaster
2 years after the Cuban Revolution, in April 1961, the United States launched a failed invasion of Cuba. Relations had worsened between the two nations after the revolution, with US sugar and oil companies falling under Cuban control.
John F. Kennedy’s government had the CIA arm and train a band of anti-Castro Cuban exiles. The US-backed force landed in the Bay of Pigs in southwest Cuba on 17 April 1961.
Castro’s Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces swiftly crushed the assault. But fearful of another US-led attack, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for support. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviets were more than willing to oblige.
3. The arms race
The Cold War was characterised by the rapid development of nuclear-armed weapons, especially by the US and the USSR. This so-called ‘arms race’ saw both nations, and their respective allies, produce countless atomic bombs and warheads.
The US held some of their nuclear weapons in Turkey and Italy, easily within reach of Soviet soil. With American weapons trained on the USSR, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev began shipping missiles to the Soviet Union’s new ally: Cuba.
4. The discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba
On 14 October 1962, a U-2 stealth plane from the United States made a pass over Cuba and photographed the production of a Soviet missile. The photo reached President Kennedy on 16 October 1962. It revealed that almost every key US city, bar Seattle, was within range of the warheads.
The Cold War was heating up: Cuba’s Soviet missile sites put America under threat.
5. America’s naval blockade
After learning of the Soviet missiles on Cuba, President Kennedy decided not to invade the island or bomb the missile sites. Instead, he enacted a naval blockade around the country, shutting off any Soviet weaponry shipments and isolating the island.
At this point, the crisis reached its peak. The ensuing stalemate was viewed by many as the closest the world has come to nuclear war.
Thankfully, Kennedy and Krushchev resolved the conflict. The Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba and the US agreed to never invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly removed America’s warheads from Turkey.