For thirteen days in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. U.S. spy planes had detected what appeared to be nuclear missile sites being built on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Soviet ships, originally designed to carry cargo such as lumber or food, had been outfitted to transport nuclear warheads to their ally in the Caribbean.
President John F. Kennedy was caught between two groups of advisers: the Hawks, who advocated making an immediate and aggressive strike against Cuba, and the Doves, who recommended taking a less antagonistic approach. Kennedy, who was younger and less experienced than his senior advisers, chose an unpopular plan: to set up a blockade, or "quarantine," around Cuba to prevent the Soviets from importing additional nuclear weapons to the island. But how would Cuban president Fidel Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev respond to this tactic? No one knew, and for days people worldwide braced themselves for a full-scale nuclear war between two superpowers who, together, had enough firepower to destroy the world several times over.
In the end, Khrushchev, like Kennedy, proved ready to seek a compromise: the Soviets would dismantle their weapon sites if the Americans agreed not to invade Cuba and (as agreed upon in a secret deal) if the U.S. also removed their own nuclear weapons from Soviet neighbor and U.S. ally, Turkey. A recognition of shared humanity - and a dread of mutual destruction - ruled the day. Just a few months later, Kennedy delivered the following words, which seemed to have a particular resonance in the wake of this crisis: "In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
In the video below, John F. Kennedy addresses the American people on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This article was originally published in November 2011, and has been updated for the
February 2013 paperback release.
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