By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Nearly 60 years ago, Russian arms in Cuba led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. For two weeks, the world waited for the United States to respond to the Soviet Union’s missile stockpile on America’s doorstep. Now, Russia may deploy troops to Cuba and Venezuela.
In late 2021, Russia made a show of force by sharply escalating its military presence near the border of Ukraine. In response, talks between Russia and the United States were scheduled and held, only to recently stall. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that if Russia-U.S. tensions escalate further, Russia wouldn’t rule out the possibility of sending a military installation to Cuba and Venezuela.
If Russian encroachment on Cuba in a move against the United States sounds familiar, there’s good reason. Sixty years ago this year, the Cuban Missile Crisis kept a Cold War world on edge. In his video series The Agency: A History of the CIA, Dr. Hugh Wilford, Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, explains how it happened.
Road to Crisis
The historical event known as the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when the United States caught the Soviet Union shipping nuclear weapons into Cuba in 1962. This was no minor incident; Dr. Wilford referred to it as “the defining episode of the Cold War” and “the moment when the world came closest to a nuclear confrontation.”
Cuban leader Fidel Castro had been a target of the United States for some time. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s gambit of putting missiles in Cuba was risky and may have come about in a moment of desperation, since the United States had just taken the lead in the nuclear arms race. It’s been well-documented that Khrushchev wished to be seen as standing up for his communist allies like Castro, which was likely a factor as well.
“In the summer of 1962, Castro decided to go along with Khrushchev on deploying nuclear missiles on Cuba, hoping that doing so might deter the Americans from further aggression,” Dr. Wilford said. “Although the CIA was not the driving force—that would have been the Kennedy brothers—its anti-Castro operations did contribute to the siege mentality that opened Cuba up to Soviet missiles.”
In July 1962, analysts noticed an uptick of shipments from the Soviet Union to Cuba. Much of Washington believed these were conventional, defensive weapons, but CIA Director John McCone repeatedly said in August and September of that year that he believed the Soviets were installing offensive weapons on Cuba. President John F. Kennedy had ordered a cessation of U-2 flyovers of Cuba, fearing they would be shot down, but McCone’s insistence helped persuade him to change his mind.
“On October 9, Kennedy relented, and authorized a resumption of U-2 flights over Cuba,” Dr. Wilford said. The very first of these flights changed history.
A World on the Brink
The first flyover of Cuba took place on October 14. The following day, CIA analysts looked at the images it captured and found three missile sites around the Cuban town of San Cristobal. Future flights found five more.
“In a national TV address on October 22, Kennedy demanded that the Soviets withdraw the missiles,” Dr. Wilford said. “And he announced that he was imposing a naval quarantine on Cuba to prevent any more Soviet shipments from reaching it. The world held its breath as Soviet ships sailed toward the quarantine line, but on October 24, they began turning back.”
Unfortunately, the crisis wasn’t over. On October 27, two U-2 planes—one near Alaska that accidentally flew into Soviet airspace and another in a Cuban flyover—were shot down by Soviet forces. Amazingly enough, these weren’t the largest incidents to occur that day.
“Khrushchev sent Kennedy an impassioned letter voicing his fear of nuclear war, and offering to withdraw the missiles in return for a pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba,” Dr. Wilford said. “But only hours later, the Soviet premier followed up with a second letter demanding that the United States remove some of its nuclear armory near the Soviet Union. These were the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.”
Before the night was through, Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador Antoly Dobrynin and agreed to Khrushchev’s terms in secret. The entire agreement happened without Castro’s involvement and both the Americans and Soviets withdrew their nuclear missiles from the discussed areas.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.