The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis – those 13 days in October 1962 that were probably the closest the world has come to a major nuclear war. The lessons of that brief but perilous episode remain valid today, as the world confronts anew the threat of nuclear proliferation.

CAMBRIDGE – This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis – those 13 days in October 1962 that were probably the closest the world has come to a major nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy had publicly warned the Soviet Union not to introduce offensive missiles into Cuba. But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to cross Kennedy’s red line surreptitiously and confront the Americans with a fait accompli. When an American surveillance plane discovered the missiles, the crisis erupted.

Some of Kennedy’s advisers urged an air strike and invasion to destroy the missiles. Kennedy mobilized troops, but also bought time by announcing a naval blockade of Cuba. The crisis subsided when Soviet ships carrying additional missiles turned back, and Khrushchev agreed to remove the existing missiles from the island. As then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

At first glance, this was a rational and predictable outcome. The United States had a 17-to-1 advantage in nuclear weaponry. The Soviets were simply outgunned.

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