Who blinked first? A defining moment in humanity's existence

Newspaper headlines from 1963 during the time of the Cuba crisis at the height of the Cold War. Pict

Newspaper headlines from 1963 during the time of the Cuba crisis at the height of the Cold War - Credit: DICK STURCH

Lots of interesting things were happening in October 1962. There was widespread excitement over a new pop group called The Beatles. Cinemagoers who went to see a new film called Dr No got to see special agent 007 James Bond on the big screen for the very first time.

But there was also a massive underlying danger threatening to end everything. For in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought humanity closer to destruction than anything that has occurred before or since.

Many people had been worried about the threat of nuclear war since the United States had dropped two massive atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Although many had been pleased the subsequent Japanese surrender had spared the Allies a potentially bloody land invasion, many had also been horrified by the scale of the devastation wrought by the powerful new weapons. As other countries such as the USSR (1949) and the UK (1952) got nuclear weapons too, many feared that an apocalyptic confrontation which could potentially kill everyone on Earth was not only likely but inevitable.

As the 1960s began, things were especially tense. In 1959, Americans had been horrified when a group of revolutionary guerrillas led by the charismatic, young, bearded cigar-chomping Fidel Castro came to power on the island of Cuba. Cuba was situated just eighty miles off the US state of Florida and had until that point been a popular holiday resort for many Americans. Now Cuba was openly aligning itself with America’s Soviet enemies.

In the spring of 1961, an attempt to overthrow Castro by a band of US-backed Cuban exiles had failed miserably as the rebels landed at an area of Cuba called the Bay of Pigs. The new US President John F Kennedy took full responsibility for the fiasco. Although the plan had been devised under his predecessors, Kennedy had made the disastrous decision to withhold air support for fear of making the US role in the invasion too obvious. The Bay of Pigs humiliation merely served to heighten global tensions still further.

In October 1962, however, US intelligence became aware that the Soviet Union had secretly planted nuclear missiles to Cuba and was in the process of transporting more. This news triggered a major crisis for the Kennedy Administration and the president drew upon an elite group of his top advisers dubbed “the best and the brightest” to decide what to do. The missiles represented an unacceptable incursion into the US’s sphere of influence and could not be ignored. Initially, Kennedy’s advisers almost universally recommended the US attempt to invade Cuba again. Only the president’s brother, the attorney-general, Bobby Kennedy warned against this: he argued an invasion would make the US look like an aggressor, bullying a smaller weaker country.

Following his brother’s advice, the President pulled back from an invasion and instead imposed a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent any more nuclear weapons being delivered. He also went public, telling the world what was happening and what he was doing. The general public suddenly became aware just how dangerous things had become. Would the Soviets attack the blockade?

Would both sides keep their nerve? There were reports of many people panicking or engaging in outbreaks of spontaneous reckless behaviour.

Kennedy was surely right to choose not to attack Cuba. We now know that if the US had done so, military forces on Cuba were under orders to counter-attack by firing a missile at the USA, a move that could easily have led to a full-blown nuclear war.

As it was, Kennedy’s naval blockade strategy worked. The missiles were removed from Cuba. It was not an unconditional victory: American missile sites were removed from Turkey soon afterwards in what seems to have been a trade-off. But the Soviets lost face and Kennedy’s popularity soared. The nuclear threat seemed to recede afterwards. “We were eyeball to eyeball,” Kennedy’s secretary of state said. “And the other fella just blinked.”

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