Half a century ago, in October 1962, the world woke up to the Cuban missile crisis. The Russians were unloading nuclear missiles on Cuba, and the Americans were demanding they be withdrawn. For some people, perhaps for many, it seemed the moment to drag out the old evangelical poster: The End of the World is Nigh. One prominent anti-nuclear campaigner fled noisily to the west coast of Ireland, imagining mistakenly that there she might be safe. It was a frightening time. Even today I can remember the chill in the air, something not just the result of autumnal bad weather.
I spent most evenings that week demonstrating outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. It was a small demonstration and, as I recall, no one bothered much to protest outside the Russian embassy. We thought that the Americans were going to invade Cuba, a repeat of their efforts the previous year at the Bay of Pigs. We knew that they had plans to sabotage Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Years later, having read almost everything available about the crisis, I suspect that it was not quite as serious as it seemed at the time. The cold warriors liked to play it up, and so too did Bertrand Russell and other spokesmen for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Yet it is clear from the record that those in charge behaved in an exemplary manner. President Kennedy in particular outfaced those of his advisers – like the long-lived General Curtis LeMay – who wanted immediate military action. The president never allowed the affair to escape from his capable hands.
The British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was worried about the inexperienced young president, and the two men spoke on the phone every evening (in the middle of the night for Macmillan). The prime minister probably imagined that he was introducing a note of calm into the fevered atmosphere of the White House. Yet Kennedy was well up to the job, and clearly found the evening conversations a dull but necessary chore. The British were just happy to be on side.
The Cubans suffered the most. They were happy to host the Soviet missiles, but were alarmed by Khrushchev’s insistence that they should be installed secretly. Indeed, they argued consistently with the Soviets that these new defence arrangements should be made public from the start.
Khrushchev thought differently. He wanted to surprise the Americans. He thought that once the missiles were installed the Americans would be confronted with a fait accompli. He imagined that he was saving Cuba from attack, which was, after all, the logic of the nuclear deterrent. He also despatched a vast conventional arsenal, creating the largest foreign military base ever seen in the history of the Caribbean.
Inevitably Khrushchev’s deception was eventually uncovered. On 14 October a US spy plane detected a missile-launching site west of Havana, and a week of serious secret discussions began in the White House, followed by a television announcement by the US president on the night of 22 October that launched the public phase of the week-long crisis.
The presence of the missiles put the Cubans in great danger, and when the missiles were eventually withdrawn they remained hurt and angry. They had lost the power to control their own destiny: Castro never quite trusted Khrushchev again. He refused to allow international inspection of the process of missile withdrawal.
Yet the Cubans certainly won a small victory, securing a tacit assurance from the Americans that the Bay of Pigs would not be repeated – an assurance that has lasted for 50 years. It has even survived the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Indeed, of all the participants in the crisis, Cuba has changed the least.
Most of the world thought that Khrushchev had gambled and lost. The Chinese in particular thought he had behaved in an irresponsible fashion, and stepped up the Sino-Soviet dispute. The Soviet politburo had a similar view, and two years later they quietly removed Khrushchev from power.
The Cubans remained distrustful of the Soviets (and of their allies within the Communist party of Cuba), and they did not finally sign up as a loyal member of the Soviet camp until the end of the 60s.
The impact and significance of the missile crisis will be argued about for another half-century and beyond. It is taught in schools and discussed in university seminars. Yet although dramatic – and traumatic for some – it may not have been as important as other seminal events of that decade – the assassination of President Kennedy a year later, and the stepping up of the attacks on North Vietnam the year after that.
The crisis was certainly an important milestone, and it may have made the great powers more careful. It may also have speeded up the signing of the test-ban treaty of 1963, a worthwhile legacy in itself. It also allowed the Cuban revolution to survive. It may have been a foolish and dangerous strategy on Khrushchev’s part, but it worked.
Richard Gott is a writer and historian.