Cuban missile crisis 50 years on: from the archive

Far from being just a political storm in the Caribbean, the Cuban missile crisis came dangerously close to triggering a nuclear war between two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union – both nations having stockpiled enough missiles that a conflict between them would have destroyed much of the planet.

The deadly standoff came about mainly because Cuba, under Fidel Castro, had lurched towards communism in 1959. Desperate to beat back the ‘cancer’ of socialism from its doorstep, the US aided a military task force to overthrow Castro, which landed south of Havana at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

Published in the Guardian on 16 April 1961. Click on the article to read in full

The rebels were easily put down by a well-armed Cuban army that had strong links with the Soviet Union.

Russia pledge
Published in the Guardian on 3 September 1962. Click on the article to read in full

Knowing that the Soviets were eager to prop up fellow communist regimes, the US remained watchful of the Kremlin’s relationship with Castro. In 1962, tensions grew as American spy planes provided evidence that Soviet missiles were being shipped to Cuba. Knowing that Soviet ballistic missiles on Cuban soil were capable of striking the US’s eastern seaboard within a few minutes of being launched, President John F Kennedy warned US citizens they might once again have to pay “the price for freedom”, as conflict, this time with the Soviet Union, could not be ruled out.

Washington’s hawkish stance did not receive the backing from her allies that Kennedy had hoped for, though support eventually came, notable from the British government.

British support
Published in the Guardian on 24 October 1962. Click on the article to read in full

Kennedy pulled back from his initial plan to invade Cuba, deciding instead to deploy US navy ships, including aircraft carriers, to enforce a “quarantine”, or blockade, on Cuba to prevent more “offensive weapons” being shipped in. Kennedy also called upon his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, to “halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace”.

Soviet Ships
Published in the Guardian on 22 October 1962. Click on the article to read in full

In an unbearably tense showdown, a flotilla of Soviet ships, which were already on their way to Cuba, kept their cours despite stern warnings from the US. As the world held its breath, the Soviet ships edged ever closer to their destination only to receive instructions from Moscow to turn back, so averting a confrontation with the US.

Days later, the deadly game of nuclear brinkmanship between the two nations ended, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a message that Soviet missiles would be taken back. In return, Kennedy committed the US never to invade Cuba.

Published in the Guardian on 29 October 1962. Click on the article to read in full

Kennedy also secretly promised to withdraw US nuclear-armed missiles located in Turkey.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro was left frustrated by the Soviets’ retreat but realised he was effectively excluded from the negotiations.

With a catastrophic war averted, a hotline between the US and Soviet Union was set up to prevent such a crisis happening again.

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