The first decades of the Cold War saw tremendous resources on both sides put into the development of weapons – especially nuclear weapons – and a willingness on the part of leaders to play “chicken” with those weapons. By the late 1950s people were learning to live in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, and in 1962, John F. Kennedy almost became the last president ever when he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev went head to head over the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Was this good policy? Was the headlong rush to build nuclear weapons and to counter every possible threat in every corner of the globe wise? Were there other ways of dealing with the communist world that might not have produced such costly, dangerous outcomes? Does matching your opponent gun for gun, ship for ship, warhead for warhead make you stronger or safer? Or does it just put everyone in greater danger?

What do you think? Did American leaders respond wisely to the threat of communism?


The United States developed the first atomic weapon during World War II and is the only nation in history to have ever used such a weapon in war when it bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For a few years, America was the only nuclear power. However, by 1964, all five of the victors of that war had developed nuclear weapons.

The process of spreading weapons around the world, and especially the spread of nuclear weapons is known as proliferation. Today, a total of nine nations possess nuclear weapons.

The Soviet Union surprised the world on August 29, 1949 when it tested its first nuclear warhead. Whereas the Soviet atomic project was first and foremost a product of local expertise and scientific talent, it is clear that espionage of the American Manhattan Project helped the Soviets in various ways and most certainly shortened the time needed to develop its atomic bomb.

In 1952, the United Kingdom became the third nation to possess nuclear weapons when it detonated an atomic bomb in Operation Hurricane on October 3, 1952. Despite major contributions to the Manhattan Project by both Canadian and British governments, the United States Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which prohibited multi-national cooperation on nuclear projects. The law fueled resentment from British scientists and Winston Churchill, as they believed that there were agreements regarding post-war sharing of nuclear technology, and led to Britain developing its own nuclear weapons. Britain did not begin planning the development of their own nuclear weapon until 1947. Because of Britain’s small size, they decided to test their bomb on the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of Australia.

France became the fourth nation to possess nuclear weapons on February 13, 1960, when the atomic bomb Gerboise Bleue was detonated in Algeria in North Africa, then still a French colony.

In the late 1950s, China began developing nuclear weapons with substantial Soviet assistance in exchange for uranium ore. However, when the Soviets and Chinese fell out in the late 1950s over competing interpretations of communist doctrine, the Chinese continued developing nuclear weapons without Soviet support and made remarkable progress in the 1960s. The People’s Republic of China became the fifth nuclear power on October 16, 1964 at Lop Nur in western China.

So, within twenty years of the first test of a nuclear device, all five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council were members of the “nuclear club.”


After the successful Trinity nuclear test July 16, 1945, which was the very first nuclear detonation, the Manhattan project lead manager J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”

Immediately after the atomic bombings of Japan, the status of atomic weapons in international and military relations was unclear. Presumably, the United States hoped atomic weapons could offset the Soviet Union’s larger conventional ground forces in Eastern Europe, and possibly be used to pressure Soviet leader Josef Stalin into making concessions. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union pursued its own atomic capabilities through a combination of scientific research and espionage directed against the American program.

The Soviets believed that the Americans, with their limited nuclear arsenal, were unlikely to engage in any new world wars, while the Americans were not confident they could prevent a Soviet takeover of Europe, despite their atomic advantage. The result of this insecurity on both sides was the massive development of more nuclear weapons, more powerful nuclear weapons, and more and better ways of deploying and delivering them.

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A B-52 Stratofortress unloading bombs in the 1960s. These aircraft could also carry nuclear warheads.

At the start of the Cold War, the United States and its allies in Europe had large enough bombers to strike targets in the Soviet Union, but the reverse was not true. In the early 1950s, however, the widespread introduction of jet-powered interceptor aircraft upset this imbalance by reducing the effectiveness of the American bomber fleet. General Curtis LeMay was placed in command of the Strategic Air Command which managed the American bombers and missiles, and instituted a program to update the bomber fleet to one that was all-jet powered. It was at this time that designers at Boeing produced the infamous B-52 Stratofortress, providing the ability to bomb the Soviet Union from bases in the United States.

In the early 1950s, the design of nuclear weapons was evolving. New warheads used fusion instead of fission and produced much larger and more devastating explosions. Referred to as thermonuclear warheads, or more commonly hydrogen or H-bombs, these weapons replaced the older designs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At the same time that scientists were developing the hydrogen bomb, war planners were thinking about using small nuclear weapons on the battlefield, much the way artillery had been used in earlier wars. These tactical nuclear weapons could be carried on small trucks and moved quickly. The United States even developed a nuclear rocket so small it could be mounted on a tripod and carried on foot by a pair of soldiers. There was a significant danger in deploying this class of weapons. In theory, field commanders would have the authority to order their use as needed for an ongoing battle. This doctrine took the authority to launch a nuclear strike, no matter how small, away from the president. Obviously, this posed a great risk that a war might spiral quickly out of control and result in a much larger nuclear exchange. In Korea, General Douglas MacArthur requested the authority to deploy these tactical nuclear weapons, but knowing that he might very well use them against China, President Truman refused.

A revolution in nuclear strategy occurred with the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the Soviet Union first successfully tested in August 1957. A missile was much faster and more cost-effective than a bomber at delivering a warhead to a target and enjoyed a higher survivability due to the enormous difficulty of intercepting ICBMs, a result of their high altitude and extreme speed. ICBMs could be mounted on the backs of huge trucks or buried in underground silos encased in protective concrete.

By 1960, the United States had three ways of delivering a nuclear strike: ICBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and strategic bombers. These different forces had their advantages and disadvantages. Bombers could deliver large payloads and strike with great accuracy, but were slow, vulnerable while on the ground, and could be shot down as they flew toward their targets. ICBMs were safe in their underground silos while on the ground, but were less accurate than bombers and could not be recalled after launch. Submarines were least vulnerable but were also least accurate and communication could be poor at times.

This nuclear triad was critical to maintaining an effective deterrent. A Soviet sneak attack might be able to cripple two of the elements of the triad, but would be unlikely to eliminate all three. The possibility of a counterattack made it possible for the United States to impose unacceptable damage to the Soviet Union. In other words, the American nuclear forces had survivability. Naturally, the Soviet Union and the other nuclear powers replicated the American triad with aircraft, ICBMs, and submarines of their own.

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The USS Sam Rayburn, a ballistic missile submarine in port with its missile hatches open.


In the early 1960s, tensions were so high between the superpowers that the Strategic Air Command, the division of the US Air Force that managed the nuclear arsenal, instituted round-the-clock airborne alerts. At any moment, a group of B-52s armed with thermonuclear bombs was inflight near the borders of the Soviet Union waiting for orders to turn and attack. Eventually this program was ended in 1968 after five of the B-52s crashed. Luckily none of these incidents led to accidental nuclear explosions, but in the end, political leaders decided that the risk of disaster was greater than the risk of a Soviet attack.

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An advertisement to build fallout shelters from the 1950s.

Early ICBMs and bombers were relatively inaccurate, which meant that attacks on military targets such as bases and airfields would not necessarily prevent a counterattack. Consequently, both the Americans and Soviets planned attacks directly on the enemy population, which would theoretically lead to a collapse of the enemy’s will to fight. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested in extensive protected civilian infrastructure, such as large “nuclear-proof” bunkers and non-perishable food stores. In the United States, smaller scale civil defense programs were instituted in the 1950s, where schools and other public buildings had basements stocked with non-perishable food supplies, canned water, first aid supplies, and Geiger counters. Many of the locations were given fallout shelter designation signs. Students watched informational videos about how to respond in case of nuclear attack and practiced “duck and cover” drills in class along with regular fire drills. Early warning radar and satellites were deployed to provide notice of an imminent attack and the civil defense siren system was put in place. Today these sirens are used to warn of impending natural disasters such as tornados and tsunami, but during the early decades of the Cold War, they had a more sinister purpose.

The prospect of nuclear war was indeed terrifying. By the 1970s both the Soviets and Americans were developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), ballistic missiles containing several thermonuclear warheads that would open up in space and then be aimed at different targets. With over 50,000 nuclear warheads spread around the world, the ability of humanity to destroy itself was a reality. In the end, if all out nuclear war had actually happened, millions of people would have died in the first few hours, and millions more in the ensuing days from radiation sickness and the resulting social and agricultural catastrophe as crops and civil society failed. The prospect of such a nuclear winter gave leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain pause. Although military strategies developed plans for nuclear war, the idea of actually carrying out these plans was unimaginable.

Since nuclear war was an existential threat, the role of government changed. Instead of protecting freedoms and providing basic services, the government was now expected to protect the very existence of the nation. The scientists who were responsible for developing the warheads, missiles, aircraft, radars and all of the technologies that were meant to protect the world became national heroes. Fictional characters who represented protection from the evils of communism and nuclear war also became popular. Comic books featuring Captain America and Superman were a rage among young people frightened by the idea of sudden and unpredictable annihilation.


It may seem contradictory, but it was widely believed that nuclear weapons made the world safer.

Both Soviet and American experts hoped to use nuclear weapons to extract concessions from the other in the form of high-stakes nuclear blackmail, but the risk connected with using these weapons was so grave that they refrained. While some, like General Douglas MacArthur, argued nuclear weapons should have been used during the Korean War, most elected leaders, including Presidents Truman and Eisenhower opposed the idea.

By the end of the 1950s, both the United States and Soviet Union had enough nuclear power to obliterate the other side and because of the resiliency built into the nuclear triad, both sides developed a capability to launch a devastating attack even after sustaining a full assault. Any attack would be met with a full response, meaning that any side that dared to order a first strike was ensuring its own annihilation. This was the heart of the idea known as mutually assured destruction (MAD).

What made MAD work as a deterrent was that your opponent knew that you had the capability to respond to a first strike. Although most weapons systems were developed in secret, once they were completed it was important to show them off. The latest bombers were flown for the public and press at airshows and especially at parades in Moscow, trucks bearing nuclear missiles were driven through the streets for cheering crowds, and watching American strategists.

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A truck-mounted nuclear missile on parade in Red Square in the heart of Moscow.

Since the Americans and the Soviets knew that any attack upon the other would be devastating to themselves, the theory of MAD prevented nuclear war. Indeed, the development of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons seemed crazy, and the idea that their very existence ensured peace seems even more illogical, but history has so far proven that fear of nuclear war is a powerful deterrent.


Every member of the nuclear club undertook a testing program, in part to find out how well their latest technological designs were working, and also to show off their power. Because of the dangers of radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear explosions, these tests needed to be done far from population centers. For the Soviet Union, that meant the islands of the Arctic Ocean in Siberia. For China, testing was conducted in the desolated areas of Central Asia. For the Americans and French, nuclear testing was carried out on the islands of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean.

The United States conducted its first post-war nuclear tests, called Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on 95 ships, including German and Japanese ships that were captured during World War II. One plutonium implosion-type bomb was detonated over the fleet, while the other one was detonated underwater. The 40 families who had lived on the atoll were forced to move before the test. Even today, Bikini Atoll is too contaminated to be safe for habitation and the now-more-than-4000 descendants of the original islanders are scattered across other islands, and the United States.

The United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952, on Enewetak, another atoll in the Marshall Islands. Code-named Ivy Mike, the project was led by Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American nuclear physicist. It created a radioactive mushroom cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles high, killing all life on the surrounding islands. As was true at Bikini Atoll, the residents of Enewetak had to move. In all, the United States fired 43 nuclear tests on Enewetak.

On March 1, 1954, the United States conducted the Castle Bravo test, of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. Scientists significantly underestimated the size of the bomb. Instead of yielding the expected 5 megatons, it produced and explosion of 14.8 megatons, which is the largest nuclear explosion tested by the United States. Fallout from the detonation fell on residents of Rongelap and Utirik atolls and spread around the world. Not only had the Americans not anticipated the size of the blast, but they also miscalculated how wind patterns would carry the resulting radiation. Residents on nearby islands were not evacuated until three days after the test and suffered radiation sickness. Twenty-three crewmembers of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, some 50 miles away, were also contaminated by fallout and experienced acute radiation syndrome. The blast initiated an international movement to end atmospheric thermonuclear testing.

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The Castle Bravo Test

In all, the United States conducted over 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. Today, a Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the United States, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau allows citizens of these island nations to travel freely to the United States without a passport. The United States has also provided free medical care for the hundreds of people who developed cancers as a result of radiation exposure. In exchange, the COFA nations grant the American military exclusive use of their territory – with the caveat that the Americans do not use, store or test nuclear weapons in the islands.

France conducted most of its nuclear tests at Fangatuafa Atoll in French Polynesia, also known as the Society Islands. As was the case in the Marshalls, the French tests significantly contaminated the atoll with radiation, making it off-limits to humans.

Today, the original members of the nuclear club have agreed to end all nuclear testing. However India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, and North Korea has tested its weapons multiple times since 2000.


The world’s first long-range rocket was the V-2, made by German scientists during World War II. The V-2, and other models like it, were designed to carry 1,000 kg bombs over a long distance and exploded upon impact. In 1944, Hitler decided to unleash his secret weapon and thousands of these rockets were launched at Britain. The German missiles were notoriously inaccurate, so they caused very little physical damage, but their ability to produce psychological terror was tremendous.

As the war was drawing to a close, hundreds of German rockets, and their scientists were captured. Taken to the Soviet Union and United States, they were “encouraged” to work and share their knowledge.

Apart from the desire to explore outer space, the development of rockets and satellites served an important military purpose. Intercontinental ballistic missiles had long been regarded the ideal platform for nuclear weapons, and were a more effective delivery system than strategic bombers.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union showed the world that they had missiles able to reach any part of the world when they launched the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. After some embarrassing failures, and after four months of waiting, the Americans finally managed to successfully launch their own satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.

In 1957, the Soviets launched the first animal into space – a dog named Laika – and on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. This was another embarrassing blow to the United States and showed the world again how technologically advanced the Soviets had become.

NASA launched Alan Shephard, the first American astronaut into space in 1961, but the United States was lagging behind its communist rival in the Space Race. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. While there was nothing particularly important to be found in space itself, the development of the space program became a matter of national pride, and served to advance scientific research that was used by the military. While the Soviets clearly led the way in the 1950s, the Americans were the pioneers of the 1960s.

In 1961, shortly after taking office, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) challenged the United States to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the time, such a mission was impossible. Enormous financial, and human resources were necessary to make his goal a reality but Kennedy believed it would be worth the price. At a speech at Rice University, he declared, “We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

To the surprise of many, the Apollo Program met Kennedy’s challenge. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon, on July 21, 1969. Over 300 million people around the world watched the event through their television screens. It was a terrific achievement that more than made up for the bad start in the Space Race. As he stepped off the ladder of the Eagle Lander onto the lunar surface, Armstrong delivered his famous line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon.

By landing on the Moon, the Americans had decisively won the Space Race. While both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as European nations, China, Japan, and a host of other countries continued to explore the heavens, the era of the Space Race, which coincided with the Arms Race is over.

In the end, the exploration of space advanced our understanding of the universe, but provided a host of benefits for everyday life that we often do not realize are consequences of the rush to beat the Soviets during the Cold War. For example, the network of satellites that provide locations (GPS) and satellites that transmit television, radio and internet signals around the world, as well as weather satellites that track dangerous storms are products of the intense competition of the 1950s and 1960s.

Many technologies that were first developed for the space program have been spun off and are now found in everyday products. Invisible braces, memory foam mattresses, solar panels, ski boots, UV-blocking sunglasses, and cordless tools are all children of the space program.


In the 1960 presidential election, the incumbent president Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had already served two terms and thus was not eligible to run again. The Republican Party nominated Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president, while the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts. It was one of the closest elections in American history.

Senator Kennedy initially faced opposition from some Democratic Party elders who claimed he was too young and inexperienced to be president. However, JFK, as he came to be known, had an effective campaigning strategy even in the primaries.

At the Republican National Convention, Nixon was the overwhelming choice of the delegates. Nixon chose United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to be his running mate. Lodge’s foreign-policy credentials fit into Nixon’s strategy of campaigning more on foreign policy than domestic policy.

Both Kennedy and Nixon drew large and enthusiastic crowds throughout the campaign. In August of 1960, most polls gave Nixon a lead over Kennedy. However, Nixon was plagued by bad luck throughout the fall campaign. In August, President Eisenhower was asked to name some important ideas that Nixon had contributed to his administration. When he hesitated, it made it seem as though Nixon hadn’t been involved in any of Eisenhower’s important decisions. In addition, Nixon had to cease campaigning for two weeks early in the campaign to recover from a knee injury. Despite this delay in campaigning, he refused to abandon his pledge to visit all 50 states. Thus, he ended up wasting time visiting states that he had no chance of winning and states that had few electoral votes.

Kennedy benefited from his selection of Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. Johnson vigorously campaigned for Kennedy and was instrumental in helping to carry several Southern states. Lodge, on the other hand, ran a lethargic campaign and made additional mistakes that hurt Nixon.

The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates. These were the first televised presidential debates, and they attracted enormous publicity. In the first debate, Nixon looked pale, sickly, underweight, and tired as a result of his hospital stay. Kennedy, by contrast, appeared strong, confident, and relaxed during the debate.

The election on November 8, 1960 remains one of the most famous election nights in American history. In the national popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by just one tenth of one percentage point (0.1%)—the closest popular-vote margin of the 20th century. In the Electoral College, Kennedy’s victory was larger, as he took 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219.

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Kennedy and Nixon held three live debates, the first televised debates in presidential election history.


Compared to Eisenhower, President Kennedy was young and glamorous. The youngest president ever elected, Kennedy and his stylish wife Jacqueline had two young children. The Kennedys were exciting, attractive and energetic. Before the inauguration, the Kennedys had even attended a ball hosted by Hollywood superstar Frank Sinatra.

Kennedy and most of his advisors were part of a new generation, later labeled the Greatest Generation, who were among the GIs and Rosie the Riveters who had sacrificed so much to win World War II. Highlighting the transition of power from the leaders of that war to the men and women who had been its soldiers, Kennedy said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…”

He went on to confirm his willingness to stand up to communism and support nations around the world who were on the front lines of the Cold War. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge – and more.”

Kennedy had described the future he wanted to build as a New Frontier, and he brought with him to the White House a group of young, visionary advisors who became known as the New Frontiersmen. Among them were his brother Robert “Bobby” Kennedy who served as Attorney General and Dean Rusk the Secretary of State. Kennedy tapped Robert McNamara, formerly the President of the Ford Motor Company, to be Secretary of Defense. A brilliant lawyer, Ted Sorenson became one of Kennedy’s closest advisors and the speechwriter who drafted many of the president’s most famous lines.

The excitement that surrounded Kennedy everywhere he went eventually gave rise to the myth of his presidency as a modern Camelot. Like the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Kennedy’s administration was fleeting, full of hope, noble struggles, energy and intrigue. After his assassination in 1963, his widow launched the metaphor when she told Life Magazine, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot… There’ll never be another Camelot again…”


When Kennedy became president in 1960 it was becoming clear that Eisenhower’s strategy of amassing a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons that would enable massive retaliation was becoming obsolete.

Kennedy wanted more options. He wanted to be able to respond to smaller conflicts in other parts of the world without resorting to threats of nuclear annihilation. He cited General Maxwell Taylor’s book “The Uncertain Trumpet” and its conclusion that massive retaliation left the United States with only two choices: defeat on the ground or the resort to the use of nuclear weapons.

Technology had improved since massive retaliation was adopted. Improvements in communication and transportation meant American forces could be deployed more effectively, quickly, and flexibly than before. Advisers persuaded Kennedy that having multiple options would allow the president to apply the appropriate amount of force without risking escalation or losing alternatives. This would improve credibility for deterrence as the United States would now have low-intensity options and therefore would be more likely to use them, rather than massive retaliation’s all-or-nothing options.

Flexible response meant that the military would need to build up its convention forces, not just its nuclear triad, since it might be called on to fight multiple wars simultaneously in different parts of the world, against different types of enemies. Rather than reducing the size of the military, Kennedy greatly increased it, and especially increased the size of the traditional means of warfare: troops, tanks, aircraft, and warships, not just nuclear bombers, missiles and ballistic missile submarines.


President Kennedy understood that the United States and supporters of economic and political freedom would not defeat communism with force alone. Since the struggle between East and West was at its core an ideological struggle, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world. Therefore, he aggressively promoted a new Peace Corps. This volunteer program sent young Americans, typically recent college graduates, around the world to provide technical assistance to promote economic development and help promote goodwill toward the United States and its ideas. Kennedy believed that people would choose freedom over communism if they met Americans who wanted to serve others, not just the uniformed soldiers of America’s armed forces.

The Peace Corps was an enormous success and continues its work even today. Over its history, nearly 220,000 Americans have served their two-year commitments in more than 140 countries.


One of President Kennedy’s first challenges was Cuba. Located just 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba had a long and checkered relationship with the United States. Freed from Spanish colonial rule in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War, Cuba had enjoyed only partial sovereignty. While the Teller Amendment had promised the United States would ensure Cuban independence after the conclusion of a peace treaty with Spain, the Platt Amendment enshrined America’s right to intervene in Cuban affairs.

And intervene they did. At least four times, American troops landed in Cuba to put down rebellions and protect American business interests. The United States had good reason to be interested in Cuba’s internal affairs. American companies controlled 60% of the island’s sugar cane industry.

In the 1930s the United States supported a coup led by Fulgencio Batista who went on to rule Cuba for nearly 20 years. The Batista era witnessed the almost complete domination of Cuba’s economy by the United States, as the number of American corporations continued to swell. Corruption was rife and Havana became a popular sanctuary for American organized crime. Of course, Batista and his cronies used their positions in government to enrich themselves.

In 1958, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro initiated a rebellion against Batista and his regime. From his bases in the mountains of the interior, Castro capitalized on popular discontent and growing anti-American feeling to turn the people against the government. In January 1959, Castro and his rebel army marched into the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Batista fled to Spain.

At first, Kennedy supported the Cuban Revolution. Castro was seen by many Americans as a breath of fresh air. Although Batista had protected American businesses in Cuba, Castro might promote democracy, which Batista had not. However, it soon became clear that Castro had more communist leanings. His new government nationalized the wealthy organizations and business of the island. They took possession of the Catholic Church and the estates of the mafia dons. They seized American sugar plantations. Thousands of upper class Cubans moved to South Florida to escape Castro.

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Fidel Castro (right) and his second-in-command, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) mounted a concerted effort to assassinate Castro. The assassination attempts included exploding and poisoned cigars, a tuberculosis-infected scuba-diving suit (Castro loved cigars and scuba diving), a ballpoint pen containing a hypodermic syringe preloaded with lethal poison, bombings and other more straight forward mafia-style execution endeavors. While all of these plots failed, they convinced Castro that the Americans were out to get him, which they were, and that he needed protection from the Soviet Union.

On April 17, 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the most brazen attack on Cuba, using 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles. The exiles were to invade Cuba through the Bay of Pigs in southwestern Cuba. The forces made many mistakes. The Cuban people did not rise up against Castro as expected and trapped on the beach they urgently called to Washington for American air support. Kennedy, who had naively believed his CIA advisors when they told him the plan was flawless, hesitated. He did not want to become involved in an outright war with Cuba. He refused to send in the air force. Within days, Castro’s forces crushed the exiles. It was a humiliating defeat for the new president. Kennedy never trusted military or intelligence advice again, and the Soviet Union concluded that Kennedy was a weak leader. The invasion also angered many Latin-American nations who saw it, yet again, as American arrogance and disrespect for their sovereignty.


In 1962, the Soviet Union was falling desperately behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe, but American missiles were capable of striking the entire Soviet Union. In late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. A deployment in Cuba would double the Soviet strategic arsenal and provide a real deterrent to a potential attack against the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro was looking for a way to defend his island nation from another attack by the United States. Since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro believed a second attack was inevitable. He approved of Khrushchev’s plan to place missiles on the island.

The resulting confrontation between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev is considered by many historians to be the climactic moment of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is now known, was closest the world ever came to nuclear war.

The crisis began on October 15, 1962 when reconnaissance photographs taken by U-2 spy planes revealed Soviet missile sites under construction in Cuba. Kennedy convened a special committee of twelve of his most important advisers to help him handle the crisis. After seven days of secret and intense debate, this executive committee, or EX-COMM, concluded that it had to impose a naval quarantine around Cuba, which would prevent the arrival of more Soviet offensive weapons on the island.

On October 22, Kennedy announced the discovery of the missile installations to the public and his decision to quarantine the island in an evening television address. He was somber and sought to project an air of determination. He demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba. Since a naval blockade is technically an act of war according to international law, Kennedy euphemistically called it a quarantine.

Khrushchev reacted furiously. In a letter and speech on October 24, he called Kennedy’s bluff. He wrote, “If you weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the USA.” He said that the quarantine was an illegal act of aggression that Soviet ships would be instructed to ignore, and that Kennedy’s actions might lead to war.

The United Nations Security Council convened to deal with the mounting crisis. The Soviets had publicly claimed that they were not installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, and that their support for Castro was purely defensive. Many nations believed that Kennedy was concocting an excuse to invade the island and depose Castro after his first attempt at the Bay of Pigs had failed. On October 25, Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council. The resulting exchange is now one of the most famous moments in United Nations history.

Stevenson began, “All right sir, let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation: yes or no?”

Zorin responded, “I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”

Stevenson, not about to let the Soviets off the hook, replied, “You are in the court of world opinion right now and you can answer yes or no.”

Zorin tried to brush Stevenson off. “Sir, will you please continue your statement. You will have your answer in due course.” But Stevenson was tenacious. “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I’m also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”

With that, Stevenson’s aids brought out poster-sized copies of the U-2 photographs of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The incontrovertible evidence as Stevenson called it, turned the world against the Soviet Union. Clearly, it was not Kennedy, but Khrushchev who had put the crisis in motion.

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Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the Security Council in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On October 26, Khrushchev cabled an impassioned letter to Kennedy. He proposed removing the Soviet missiles and personnel from Cuba if the United States would guarantee not to invade the island or attempt to remove Castro.

While the EX-COMM debated Khrushchev’s offer, a U-2 was shot down as it flew high over Cuba. The joint chiefs of staff demanded that Kennedy give them the go-ahead to mount an invasion. The Soviets had clearly initiated the war. If Kennedy refused, they argued, it would be the Bay of Pigs all over again.

Kennedy refused anyway.

In the midst of this, Kennedy received a second letter from Khrushchev. This time, the Soviet leader demanded the removal of American missiles in Turkey in exchange for his missiles in Cuba.

This put Kennedy in a terrible position. Time was running out to mount an invasion. If he waited even a day or two, the military could not guarantee that they could destroy the Soviet missiles before they could be launched. Khrushchev’s first letter seemed reasonable, but the second letter was more demanding. Perhaps he had lost power and hardliners in Moscow had taken over. Alternatively, it was possible that Khrushchev was terrified Kennedy might actually launch a first strike and he was desperately searching for a way out of the crisis.

The members of EX-COMM all agreed that making a deal with the Soviets was risky. If the Soviet Union could use the threat of missiles in Cuba to extract concessions from the United States, what would prevent them from trying it again a year or two later? What would they demand next? Berlin?

Finally, the president’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy suggested ignoring the second letter and publicly agreeing to the terms of the first. However, the United States would secretly agree to remove the missiles from Turkey – many months later – so it would not seem to be part of a deal. He met late on the night of October 27 with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to pass along the message, and to stress that the Soviets would have to agree the next day, or there would be war.

On October 28, Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations in Cuba and return the missiles to the Soviet Union, expressing his trust that the United States would not invade Cuba. The crisis had lasted 13 days. In the end, Kennedy’s cool-headedness, patience, and determination to find a way for Khrushchev to save face payed off. Although the unthinkable had been only hours away, the world had not descended into nuclear war.

Primary Source: Photograph

The members of Ex-Comm gathered around a table with President Kennedy at the center during the Cuban Missile Crisis.


The Cuban Missile Crisis had both short-term and long-term effects. Seeing the need for better communication, a direct link was established between the White House and Kremlin. Although in popular culture it is known as the red telephone on the president’s desk, the hotline was never a telephone line, and no red phones have ever been used. The first implementation used Teletype equipment, then a fax machine, and since 2008, a secure computer link over which messages are exchanged by email.

The crisis was a great boost for Kennedy. Erasing doubts about his ability to stand up to communists, his reputation as a determined cold warrior was restored. On the other hand, the final compromise was viewed in the Soviet Union as an embarrassment. Two years afterward the Politburo forced Khrushchev out of power, replacing him with Leonid Brezhnev.

The United States kept its promise never to invade Cuba. Castro remained in power as a communist dictator well into the 21st Century. When he died in 2016 at age 90, his younger brother Raul took over, continuing the regime’s hold on power. Accepting Castro’s government, however, did not mean that relations between the two nations were any warmer. Americans continued to restrict all travel and trade with Cuba. As the decades progressed, Cuba became more and more impoverished. After 54 years of embargo, in 2014 President Barack Obama announced a change in policy, allowing direct flights from the United States to Cuba, and granting travel visas for American tourists. Obama himself visited Cuba in 2016. In 2017, the new Trump Administration, weary of being seen as soft on America’s enemies, and aware of the importance of Cuban-American voters, cancelled Obama’s agreements.


The arms race and the brinksmanship that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis were such a dangerous game that Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly let things slip out of control. The nuclear standoff between East and West produced a strange stalemate that seems to have prevented war. But, was this a good way to deal with the Soviets? Was the outcome we achieved worth the price we paid – both financially and in our physical and emotional security?

What do you think? Did American leaders respond wisely to the communist threat?



BIG IDEA: The Soviet Union and United States developed huge numbers of extremely dangerous nuclear weapons as they raced to outdo the other side. This competition for military dominance extended even into space and nearly led to nuclear war over Cuba.

When World War II ended, the United States was the only country with an atomic bomb. Within a few years, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China had also developed nuclear weapons.

Since the Cold War was essentially a long face off, both sides wanted to be prepared with the most powerful weapons.  This led to an arms race in which the United States and Soviet Union tried to outdo each other to develop more powerful and more plentiful nuclear bombs, missiles, tanks, and airplanes.  Both superpowers ended up having nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, in bombs delivered by airplanes, and missiles launched from submarines.

In the United States, people were terrified of the possibility of death from sudden, unpredictable nuclear attack. Many Americans built fallout shelters. Students practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, and superheroes fought communists in comic books.

By the end of the arms race, both nations had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other many times over. However, both sides were afraid to shoot first, for fear of a retaliatory attack. This mutually assured destruction prevented nuclear war.

All nuclear nations tested their weapons. The United States and France tested weapons in the islands of the Pacific, with disastrous results for the health of the islanders.

The race for technological superiority extended into space. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite, first animal, and first person into space, but the United States was first to send a man to the Moon.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president in a close election over Vice President Richard Nixon. It was the first election that featured televised debates.

Kennedy wanted more conventional weapons so he would have other options besides nuclear war. He also wanted Americans to travel abroad to help other nations so that people around the world would think positively about the United States.

In 1959, communists took over the island nation of Cuba. Americans tried to help anti-communist Cubans retake the island, but their invasion failed and Kennedy refused to help. This was embarrassing for Kennedy and made the Soviets think Kennedy was weak.

In 1962, Soviet leader Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The 13 days of standoff between Khrushchev and Kennedy were the closest the two superpowers ever came to nuclear war. After the crisis, both sides decided to try to talk more and find ways to reduce their nuclear arsenals.



Curtis LeMay: General who led the Strategic Air Command, responsible for America’s nuclear bombers and missiles.

Nuclear Club: The group of countries who have nuclear weapons.

Captain America and Superman: Superheroes who became popular during the Cold War by fighting against communist enemies in comic books.

Laika: A dog. The first animal in space.

Yuri Gargarin: Soviet Cosmonaut and first human in space in 1961.

Alan Shephard: First American in space in 1961.

Valentina Tereshkova: Soviet cosmonaut. She became the first woman in space in 1963.

John F. Kennedy (JFK): Democratic president from 1961-1963. He was president during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Neil Armstrong: First man to set foot on the Moon in 1969.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Vice president for John F. Kennedy and president from 1963-1968.

New Frontiersmen: The group of young intellectuals who served as Kennedy’s advisors.

Fulgencio Batista: Corrupt dictator of Cuba. He was supported by the United States and was overthrown by Castro.

Fidel Castro: Communist leader who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Nikita Khrushchev: Soviet leader from 1953-1964. He was leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Adlai Stevenson: Democratic presidential candidate and ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Robert Kennedy: John F. Kennedy’s younger brother. He was Attorney General during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Ex-Comm: The group of experts who advised Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Politburo: The group of the leaders of the Soviet Union. Roughly equivalent to the President’s cabinet.

Leonid Brezhnev: Soviet leader from 1964-1982.

Raul Castro: Fidel Castro’s younger brother and leader of Cuba from 2008 to the present.


Proliferation: The spread of weapons, especially nuclear weapons to multiple countries.

Nuclear Winter: The time period after a major nuclear exchange during with crops would be destroyed and most humans would starve.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): The situation in which both the United States and Soviet Union could destroy one another in a nuclear exchange. Because starting a war meant assured destruction, no side would start the war.

Blockade: The use of a navy to prevent the entrance and exit of ships from a port.

Embargo: A block on trade.


Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: President Kennedy’s speech in 1961 and occasion of some of his most famous statements.

We Choose to Go to the Moon: Speech by JFK in 1961 in which he challenged America to send a man to the moon before 1970.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind: Armstrong’s statement as he stepped onto the Moon’s surface.


B-52 Stratofortress: Long-range bomber designed to carry nuclear bombs deep into the Soviet Union.

Thermonuclear Warhead: A nuclear warhead that uses fusion to produce a much larger explosion than the fission bomb used against Japan. Also known as a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Small nuclear weapons meant to be used on the battlefield the way artillery might be used.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM): Nuclear-armed missiles that are fired from one continent to targets in another.

Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM): Nuclear-armed missiles fired from submarines.

Nuclear Triad: The three methods of attacking with nuclear weapons: land-based bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles.

Multiple Independent Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV): Missiles that separate in space and deliver nuclear warheads to many different targets.

Fallout Shelter: A place that would be safe during an atomic attack. They were often stocked with food, water, and medical supplies.

Sputnik: First man-made satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

Explorer 1: America’s first satellite, launched in 1958.

U-2: American spy plane.

Red Telephone: Nickname for the direct communication link between the White House and Kremlin.


Strategic Air Command: The organization in the American military responsible for America’s nuclear bombers and missiles.

Civil Defense: The local organizations who plan for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear attack.

Apollo Program: NASA program to develop the technology to send a man to the Moon.

Peace Corps: A group of young American volunteers who travel to developing nations to provide support and help spread goodwill.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): America’s spy agency.


Bikini Atoll: Atoll in the Marshall Islands used by the United States for testing nuclear weapons. It was the site of the Castle Bravo test.

Enewetak: Island in the Marshall Islands used by the United States for testing nuclear weapons. Location of the first hydrogen bomb test.


Castle Bravo: Nuclear test on Bikini Atoll that was much larger than expected.

1960 Presidential Election: Election between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy won in a close popular vote.

Kennedy-Nixon Debates: The first televised presidential election debates.

Cuban Revolution: Communist overthrow of Batista’s Cuban government in 1958, led by Fidel Castro.

Bay of Pigs Invasion: 1961 attack by anti-communist Cuban exiles who had been trained ty the CIA in an effort to start a revolution against Castro. The invasion failed and Kennedy refused to support the invaders.

Cuban Missile Crisis: 13-day standoff in 1962. The Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and Kennedy demanded that they be removed. It was the closest the world every came to nuclear war.


Compact of Free Association (COFA): Agreement between the US, Marshall Islands, and Federated States of Micronesia.

New Frontier: Kennedy’s agenda, including more domestic spending and a shift away from massive retaliation.

Flexible Response: Kennedy’s policy of having more conventional (non-nuclear) weapons so that the United States could use military power without resorting to a nuclear attack.

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