This Day in History… October 16, 1962

Item #M8728 – President Kennedy helped avoid war in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Cuban Missile Crisis Begins

On October 16, 1962, missiles were discovered in Cuba that could easily reach the U.S., beginning the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In April 1961, a group of CIA-trained soldiers attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba. Dubbed the Bay of Pigs Invasion (after one of the landing sites), it ultimately failed and strengthened Castro’s leadership and Soviet support. In fact, Castro met secretly with Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to request nuclear missiles to prevent future actions against them. Construction on these missile launch facilities began that summer.

Item #M7614 – Stamps of Cuba (like these above) were embargoed months before the invasion.

Early in the morning of October 16, 1962, a U.S. reconnaissance plane snapped aerial photos of a Soviet missile site capable of launching missiles with a range of up to 1,200 miles, more than enough to reach targets within the United States. It was apparent this site was fully operational, complete with two missile silos and two launch pads. Another series of pictures revealed a shipload of warplanes that was bound for Havana.

President John F. Kennedy showed his skill as a great leader. His initial reaction was to call the U.S. Armed Forces in to remove the threat. However, once the shock of the event subsided, Kennedy attempted to see things from the point of view of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy knew that if he reacted with force to the threat, Khrushchev would surely strike back and a full-scale nuclear war would be inevitable.

Item #3608 – Stamps of the Soviet Union weren’t embargoed, though they often depicted communist themes.

Instead of launching air strikes against Cuba (as Congress was urging), Kennedy decided the best course of action was a blockade. He intended to show that the U.S. was serious about having the missile site removed. Kennedy even reduced the blockade perimeter from 800 miles to 500 miles, in an attempt to give Khrushchev time to consider his options. As it turned out, Kennedy made the right choice with his cautious actions. A joint 1987 conference of U.S. and Soviet officials determined that Khrushchev installed the missile sites without considering that there may have been a negative response from the United States.

In the end, Kennedy came up with a compromise. He vowed not to invade Cuba, as long as the Soviet Union removed the missile sites. Khrushchev agreed and the sites were dismantled, thus ending the standoff that could have led to war.

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