Cuba and the Missile Crisis: The Soviet Decision to Deploy Nuclear Missiles

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

29 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Testing America’s Will or Trading Berlin?

3. In Defense of Cuba

4. The Nuclear Balance

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


It might perhaps be correct to say that never in history has any historical event assembled such great importance in all of its aspects, and been studied in such depth. I believe that is fully understandable, because never before had humankind been so close to the brink of nuclear holocaust.[1]

This short statement by Oleg Troyanovsky reveals that the Cuban missile crisis is indeed one of the most studied subjects in U.S. and Cold War history. Ever since the thirteen days in October 1962 there has been a lively discussion about the origins and the management of the crisis. Despite an enormous range of opinions, and an incredible output of books and articles by participants and scholars of the crisis, most of the approaches were limited to studying the events from an American perspective. However, during the last decade the discussion has continued due to the declassification of secret American documents. In fact it gained new speed after they became available for scholars to review.[2]

Another important development that led to reconsiderations of the whole approach to the crisis was the opening of the Soviet Bloc under Mikhail Gorbachev’s g lasnost efforts. The fall of the Soviet Union made it possible to reexamine the Cuban missile crisis by using Soviet information and questioning Soviet participants in the crisis. Between 1987 and 1992 a series of five conferences helped to bring together former participants and scholars from the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba.[3] Furthermore, Soviet documents now become available as the Russian government admits historians into the long well protected archives in Moscow. So now as more and more pieces of information are revealed it is possible to provide a more complex picture of how the Soviet leaders perceived the developments before and during the crisis of 1962. After studying American and Soviet material a more complete account of the crisis develops.[4]

One issue that has been heavily disputed since 1962 is the reason for the Soviet missile deployment to Cuba. Even after more than 35 years, it is unclear why Nikita Khrushchev ordered nuclear missiles to be sent to Cuba. Even President John F. Kennedy and his advisers in the Executive Committee (ExComm) could not agree on the reason for the missile deployment.[5] The official Soviet explanation states that the missiles were sent to defend Fidel Castro’s revolution and to deter American aggression in Cuba. However, this theory has been vigorously dismissed as facesaving propaganda for the test-of-will theory which states that the Soviets wanted to probe America’s resolve in Cold War politics.

I will show in this paper that Khruschev did not send the missiles to Cuba because he wanted to directly challenge Kennedy, but rather two reasons were responsible for stationing strategic missiles 90 miles off the U.S. coast. After reconsidering the defense-of-Cuba theme it becomes apparent that the Soviets and the Cubans believed that the deployment of troops and finally nuclear missiles was necessary to save Cuba. This threat perception was not known to the United States. Secondly, American nuclear policy and the Soviet perception of the nuclear situation led to the deployment of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs).

2. Testing America’s Will or Trading Berlin?

As mentioned above, it has been widely accepted in America that Khrushchev’s decision to send missiles to Cuba was directly linked with the idea of challenging the United States adverserial resolve in the Cold War

First of all, it was supposed that Khrushchev wanted to challenge and to weaken the American prestige, and to show that the Soviet Union had succeeded in becoming the first superpower. Apart from inflicting a political blow on the United States, the Soviets could also use the crisis to demonstrate their position as leaders of the communist world which was being challenged by the Chinese. It was also suggested that by reducing America’s credibility in the world, the Soviet Union could encourage other third world countries to follow Castro’s example of breaking away from American control.[6] Following the first ExComm meetings Theodore Sorensen summarized the discussion of this point by saying: „[I]t is generally agreed that the United States cannot tolerate the known presence of nuclear weapons in a country 90 miles from our shore, if our courage and commitments are ever to believed by either allies or adversaries.“[7] Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon stressed the importance of the third world nations:

[T]he Soviet Union has now deliberately initiated a public test of our intentions that can determine the future course of world events for many years to come. If we allow the offensive capabilities presently in Cuba to remain there, I am convinced that sooner or later and probably sooner we will loose all Latin America to Communism because the credibility of our willingness to effectively resist Soviet military power will have been removed in the eyes of the Latins. We can also expect similar reactions elsewhere, for instance in Iran, Thailand, and Pakistan.[8]

Therefore it has been argued that President Kennedy’s decision to impose a blockade and to reject any proposal for a diplomatic response to the missiles was influenced by the threat of losing control in other Latin American nation.

One thing that disproves that the Soviet intentions in Cuba were solely driven by the desire to probe U.S. determination is Berlin. If the Soviets had wanted to test the American resolve, Soviet action in Berlin would have been easier to accomplish than attempting to send missiles to the other side of the globe, where the U.S. was the dominant power. In addition, to maintain support for the bases would have been difficult if not impossible. On this matter President Kennedy said, „If they doubted our guts, why didn’t they take Berlin?“[9] The American interest in the divided city had been obvious since the war, the last time during the Berlin wall crisis in 1961. If the Soviets had chosen Berlin instead of Cuba, much less effort would have achieved the same effect. This is also true for Cuba. A couple of MRBMs would have been enough to challenge America so that the deployment of IRBMs would not have been necessary. Therefore the „supreme Soviet probe of American intentions“ as the sole motivation for the deployment is questionable.[10]

It was also argued that Khrushchev not only doubted America’s determination in general, but also doubted President Kennedy’s ability as an effective leader. Therefore the reason for Khrushchev’s assumption that the missile bases on Cuba would not provoke a strong U.S. reaction was due to Khrushchev’s picture of Kennedy as a young and inexperienced leader. Two events, which allegedly influenced Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy, were the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and Kennedy’s bad performance in the Vienna Summit later that year. With the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s reluctance to support the invasion with American troops and air support was used often by analysts to prove this explanation. After the Vienna Summit, Khrushchev is said to have told the Central Committee Presidium: „Quite a guy. He comes to a meeting and can’t perform.“[11]

According to the test-of-will theory, Kennedy felt deceived by Khruschev. In September, he had explicitly warned the Soviets twice not to install any offensive weapons on Cuba. Before the crisis and even after he had just learned of the missile sites, he repeatedly received Soviet assurances that they did not intend to do so. „The Cuban crisis began with an act of deception, when the Soviets deployed missiles on the island while saying, or at leasr strongly implying, that this was something they would never do.“ This feeling led Kennedy to take a firm stand and to make every effort to get the missiles out of Cuba.[12] Parts of his radio/TV-speech on October 22, 1962 support this assumption:

This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base [...] constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas, in flagrant defiance of [...] my own public warnings to the Soviet Union on September 4 and 13.[13]

After a closer examination, it is obvious that the Soviet threat against the resolve of the United States was not an intention of the USSR, but rather a perception of the American leaders. As a result Kennedy and the members of the ExComm did not consider a diplomatic approach, but sought a clear and swift solution against the missiles. After having drawn a line by warning the Soviets Kennedy now felt bound by his word.[14]

Khrushchev in fact thought Kennedy to be a worthy adversary. In his memoirs he wrote of Kennedy after the Vienna summit: „[H]e rose in my estimation at once [...] He was, so to speak, both my partner and my adversary.“ Even if he might have had doubts, Kennedy’s firm handling of the Berlin issue should have taught him otherwise. Furthermore, Khrushchev should have realized that Kennedy, who had authorized the invasion at the Bay of Pigs and other operations to remove Castro from power was committed to the protection of American interests in Cuba.[15]

However, the argument of Kennedy’s resolve can be used in reverse. For example, Khruschev could have decided to place the missles because he respected Kennedy and because he knew Kennedy’s determination to further impose pressure on Cuba. As the crisis developed, the Soviet’s order not to challenge the imposed blockade, and to finally withdraw the missiles shows that Khruschev was convinced that Kennedy would not back down, but would rather use all available possibilities to avert any nuclear threat so close to the U.S.[16]

During the ExComm deliberations and in later studies of the crisis, another explanation for the Soviet decision to deploy the missiles was proposed. The missiles might have been installed as a result of the situation in Berlin. In the months and years prior to the October Crisis, Khrushchev had tried a couple of times to pressure the Western allies out of Berlin and to force the signing of a peace treaty. After Kennedy had resisted Khrushchev’s efforts, the missile deployment might have served to achieve a settlement for Berlin in a couple of ways. First, it has been supposed ever since the crisis that the missiles were intended to serve as a bargaining chip concerning the former German capital. A second assumption was that the Soviets considered the missiles to serve as a trap. If the United States reacted with military action to this provocation that was posed to them in their hemisphere, the Soviet Union then could justify military revenge, and therefore take Berlin.[17] Secretary of State Dean Rusk speculated about the Soviet motives in the ExComm:

I think that [...] Berlin is [...] very much involved in this. [...] [T]hey may be thinking that they can either bargain Berlin and Cuba against each other, or that they could provoke us into a kind of action in Cuba which would give an umbrella for them to take action with respect to Berlin. [...] If they could provoke us into taking the first overt action, then the world would be confused and they would have [...] what they would consider to be a justification for making a move somewhere else.[18]


[1] Oleg Troyanovsky, who was part of the Russian delegation, made this statement during the final press conference of the fifth international Cuban missile crisis conference in Havana on January 12, 1992. Quoted in Blight, James G.; Allyn, Bruce J.; Welch, David, Cuba on the brink, New York: Pantheon, 1993, 379.

[2] Some of the most relevant secret American documents were published in 1992 e.g. by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh after a series of Freedom-of-Information-Act lawsuits succeded in making them accessible after declassification orders had been issued: Chang, Laurence; Kornbluh, Peter, The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962. A National Security Archives Documents Reader, New York: The New Press, 1992.

[3] The first conference took place in March 1987 in Hawk’s Cay, Florida and only brought together American participants and scholars. After the second meeting in October 1987 in Cambridge, Mass., already included a Soviet delegation the third conference was in January 1989 in Moscow. Here for the first time a Cuban delegation was invited. After another exchange in 1991 a Russian and an American delegation followed an invitations by the Cubans to take part in a fifth conference in Havana in January 1992. Here besides Robert McNamara even Fidel Castro participated. The long awaited exchange with Castro shed new light especially on the role of Cuba during the crisis. For the proceedings of this conference see: Blight et al., Cuba on the brink.

[4] One example is Fursenko, Aleksandr; Naftali, Timothy, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy 1958-1964, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

[5] In the summary of the first two Executive Committee meetings Theodore Sorensen states: „The Soviet purpose in making this move is not understood - whether it is for purposes of diversion, harassment, provocation or bargaining.“ The quote is from “Theodore Sorensen, Summary of Agreed Facts and Premises, Possible Courses of Action and Unanswered Questions, October 17, 1962“, in Chang/Kornbluh, Cuban Missile Crisis Documents, 114.

[6] Cf. Allison, Graham T., Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Boston: Little, Brown, 1971, 50.

[7] “Theodore Sorensen, Summary of Agreed Facts...“, in: Chang/Kornbluh, Cuban Missile Crisis Documents, 114.

[8] „Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon’s opinions favouring an airstrike against Cuba, ca. October 17, 1962“, in: Ibid., 116.

[9] Quoted in Allison, Essence of Decision, 52.

[10] Ibid.; The quote is from page 50.

[11] Cf. Lebow, Richard Ned, „The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly“, in: Political Science Quarterly 98.3 (1983), 439-441; Finkelstein, Norman H., Thirteen Days/Ninety Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis, New York: Simon&Schuster, 1994, 20 and White, Mark J., Missiles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis, Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1997, 39-40 The quote is from Fursenko/Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 134. Finkelstein even claims on page 9 of his book that already the Berlin crisis in 1961 had been set up by Khrushchev to challenge the new American president’s determination.

[12] Cf. Trachtenberg, Marc: „Commentary: New Light on the Cuban Missile Crisis?“, in: Diplomatic History 14.2 (1990), 247 and Allison, Essence of Decision, 51-52. The quote is from Trachtenberg.

[13] „Kennedy’s Television Address, October 22, 1962“, in Paterson, Thomas G.; Merrill, Denis (Eds.), Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, II: Since 1914, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1995, 482-483.

[14] Cf. Lebow, Richard Ned; Stein, Janice Gross, We all lost the Cold War, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994, 330.

[15] Cf. Lebow, „The Cuban Missile Crisis“, 441-443 and Garthoff, Raymond L., Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington: Brookings, 1989, 22. The quote is from Lebow, 442.

[16]Cf. Lebow/Stein: We all lost, 5-6.

[17] Cf. Allison, Essence of Decision, 43-46; Hilsman, Roger, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy, Westport: Praeger, 1996, 80; George, Alexander L., „Kennedy’s Prudent, Successful Crisis Management, in: Paterson/Merrill, Major Problems, 517 and White, Mark J., The Cuban Missile Crisis, Basingstoke: McMillan, 1996, 77.

[18] “Transcript of the first Executive Committee meeting, October 16, 1962“, in: Chang/Kornbluh, Cuban Missile Crisis Documents, 93.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Cuba and the Missile Crisis: The Soviet Decision to Deploy Nuclear Missiles
University of Kassel  (FB 8)
The United States in the 1960s
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
599 KB
Kubakrise, cuban missile crisis, USSR, JFK, Kennedy, UdSSR, Kuba
Quote paper
Ralf Käcks (Author), 1999, Cuba and the Missile Crisis: The Soviet Decision to Deploy Nuclear Missiles, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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