In 1962, on this day at 10:00 AM, President John F. Kennedy met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and approved the plan to threaten preemptive nuclear strike. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had never been tauter.
Kennedy Approves Nuclear Action Since World War II, the two superpowers had checked one another and maintained aggressive military build-up, though the Americans found themselves greatly outpaced by the Russians as the '50s progressed. Russians first caught up by developing their own atomic weapons after the war.
In '48 and '49, America and its allies had cowed the Russian attempt at fencing West Berlin with the Berlin Airlift, keeping them from leading world affairs. Korea had turned into a draw, though Communism continued to spread in places such as French Indochina. By '56, however, the USSR had come to the forefront with their launch of Sputnik.
The Russian lead in the Cold War struck closer to home when, in 1959, Castro and his system of nationalization overthrew Batista, just miles from the Florida coastline. While Cuba and the Soviet Union were establishing relations, the US moved forward with plans to establish missile bases in Turkey, which became operational in April of 1962. Just months later, the Soviet Union would begin its own missile bases in Cuba. In September of 1962, American U-2 high-altitude spy planes discerned these bases, and reports were presented to the president. On October 21, he made his decision for action.
Kennedy had considered the use of a naval quarantine, but a blockade was considered an act of war under international law. While the Russians might not dare consider it so great, they might also consider the action too little to be a threat to their activities. The Russians might even step up to the challenge with their own "Cuban Airlift" as a thumbed-nose toward the Americans. International embarrassment was the lesser of evils if missiles were to be launched from Cuba, but the Cold War had long been a game of nerves.
Monday, October 22, Kennedy gave a televised address about the discovery of the weapons. He concluded by telling the Soviet Union that America would strike if these bases were not disassembled immediately. Truman had authorized nuclear attacks on Japan as well as several key supply lines in Korea, and Kennedy would authorize attack on every known Soviet missile base, Cuban, Russian, or any other member of their bloc. He likened the situation to discovering a man with a gun, and he insisted Premier Khrushchev "put the gun down". If not, he would "shoot the gun-hand".
Internationally, the threat was taken in a variety of reactions. Many questioned validity of the spy photos, others applauded America for taking action, and far more feared what might come. Khrushchev wrote a letter of reply, saying, "I must say frankly that the measures indicated in your statement constitute a serious threat to peace and to the security of nations...We reaffirm that the armaments which are in Cuba, regardless of the classification to which they may belong, are intended solely for defensive purposes in order to secure [the] Republic of Cuba against the attack of an aggressor. I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace".
Kennedy replied that no nuke was merely defensive; Khrushchev scoffed and waited for America to blink. The two stood at an impasse for nearly a week until October 27, when Castro's forces shot down a U-2 spy plane. Kennedy noted the evidence of fully operational missile bases that, if merely defensive, would not need to shoot down spy planes. Khrushchev said the same about the American missiles in Turkey. While there may have been a diplomatic action to dismantle both, an accidental flight of a U-2 plane over Soviet airspace caused a dogfight between Soviet MIG fighters and American F-102s, whom Kennedy granted permission to fire.
The war began as the fighters fired nuclear-tipped missiles over the Bering Sea. Limited missile exchanges followed, destroying bases in the Soviet Union, Cuba, Europe, and the United States. Submarines were blown up by charges in both navies. After the horrific volley, utter devastation gave way to cries from the UN to stop the madness. World War 3 would last two days and cost thousands of lives, ultimately millions as the world began to deal with radioactive fallout.
The display of aggression also caused a worldwide movement for the banning of nuclear weapons. Through the course of the Sixties and early Seventies, the governments of the world would give up their atomic arms and return to heavy traditional weaponry for defense (China being the last, finally persuaded by Nixon's system of economic benefits). For countries developing new weapons, sanctions would slow them or military action would put a stop to the programs.
After a short era of good feelings, however, the Cold War would creep up again with the USSR moving into Afghanistan in 1979. The war would prove costly and ultimately contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union. As the only remaining superpower, the United States would undergo the extremely expensive position of policing the world and being aware of potential developers of nuclear programs. Under the administration of George W. Bush, America would occupy both Iraq and Iran under suspicion of weapons of mass destruction. Many fear that these costly wars may do to the US what Afghanistan did to the Soviets.