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On the Brink of War: How Was the Cuban Missile Crisis Resolved?

How Was the Cuban Missile Crisis Resolved?
The Cuban Missile Crisis nearly provoked a nuclear conflict between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. In this Historyplex post, we delve deeper into how it was eventually resolved.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
You will never believe how close we came.
That was the tag line of Director Roger Donaldson's film Thirteen Days, which depicted the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, from an American perspective.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba. It began on October 15, 1962, a day after a U-2 spy-plane discovered Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.
These 13 days of chaos had the entire world on its toes, as aggression on the part of either the United States or the Soviet would have flared into a full-fledged world war, and this time around there was a lot more at stake, as nuclear weapons had made their way into the arsenal of many countries.
What Caused the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Over the course of the Cold War, the closest that the United States and the Soviet Union came to a war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or October Crisis. In 1962, the Soviet Union orchestrated Operation Anadyr, and covertly placed nuclear-armed missiles in communist-led Cuba in the garb of empowering them to defend themselves. Their main objective was to keep the United States in check, so as to ensure that it would not interfere in their attempt to force West Berlin to join East Germany. Besides, it was also important to protect Cuba―a fellow communist country―from American invasion, and to reduce the gap with the United States in terms of nuclear arsenal.

As part of Operation Anadyr, the Soviet Union deployed SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), with a range of 1,266 miles, in Cuba. The nuclear warhead used in these missiles were 60 times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Additionally, over 100 tactical nuclear weapons were also deployed. While they were not as powerful as the MRBMs, the deployment of these weapons was a cause of worry, as the local Soviet commander had the authority to launch them at his discretion without seeking permission from Moscow.
How was the Cuban Missile Crisis Resolved?
It was the photographic evidence of ballistic missile facilities in Cuba―collected on October 14―that set the ball rolling for the United States. President John F. Kennedy led from the front during the crisis. Ironically, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had dismissed him as too liberal to fight.
US president John F. Kennedy
An excerpt of President Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis address to the nation.

It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) was formed to serve as an advisory council to the President. Most members of EXCOMM were in favor of a military strike to destroy the ballistic missile facilities in Cuba before the missiles became operational. After deliberating over the issue, President Kennedy decided to quarantine Cuba to prevent the installation of nuclear missiles. The word 'quarantine' was used instead of 'blockade', as the latter amounted to an act of war, as per international law. While the quarantine of Cuba did not diffuse the crisis per se, it did give the US enough time to deliberate further course of action.
During the deliberations that followed, two options were ruled out: (i) attacking Cuba, and (ii) accepting the presence of nuclear missiles in the Western Hemisphere. The defining moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis came on October 27, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy―the President's brother―met the Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, with a public deal to diffuse the crisis peacefully.
According to this deal, the US was to assure that it would never invade Cuba, and withdraw its missiles deployed in Turkey within six months if the Soviet Union was to withdraw its missiles from Cuba immediately. The withdrawal of missiles from Turkey was kept a secret, as the US feared that it would lead to political embarrassment. The offer was accompanied by a thinly veiled threat, that the US would attack Cuba within 24 hours if the same was rejected.
Some historians believe that it was this threat that worked in the United States' favor, as it was unlikely that Khrushchev would have risked a war. On October 28, Khrushchev accepted the deal, and announced that the Soviet Union would withdraw their missiles from Cuba with immediate effect. Even after the crisis was over, the quarantine of Cuba continued for a considerable time, with the US keeping a close watch on the region to ensure that the missiles were completely dismantled and sent back to the Soviet Union.
Post Script: For his part, Khrushchev thought that the assurances he got from the United States of never invading Cuba and withdrawing missiles from Turkey came as significant concessions. (He even acknowledged it openly at a later part of his life.) Back at home, however, his decisions were perceived as weak. The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the reasons why he was eventually ousted from power in 1964.