During the beginning years of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union spent lots of money for the development of nuclear weapons. They were also willing to play “chicken” with those weapons. By the late 1950s people were learning to live in fear of nuclear war all the time, and in 1962, John F. Kennedy almost became the last president ever when he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev faced off over nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Was this a good idea? Was the rush to build nuclear weapons and to fight every possible danger in every corner of the world a good idea? Were there other ways of pushing back against communists that might not have led to such expensive, dangerous results? Does building your own gun, ship, or nuclear bomb for each one your enemy has make you stronger or safer? Or does it just put everyone in more danger?
What do you think? Were American leaders smart about how they faced the danger of communism?
The United States developed the first atomic weapon during World War II and is the only country 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 country with nuclear weapons. But by 1964, all five of the Allied countries that had won World War II had built nuclear weapons.
When weapons get spread around the world, and especially when more countries have nuclear weapons, we call this proliferation. Today, a total of nine countries have nuclear weapons.
Nuclear proliferation began when the Soviet Union surprised the world by testing its first nuclear bomb in 1949. The Soviet Union had many good scientists, but they also spied on the American Manhattan Project to help them build their atomic bomb.
In 1952, the United Kingdom became the third country to have nuclear weapons in 1952. The British were upset that the United States hadn’t shared nuclear science after World War II, so the British made their own nuclear weapons. 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 country to make nuclear weapons in 1960, when they tested an atomic bomb in Algeria in North Africa.
In the late 1950s, China began building nuclear weapons with a lot of Soviet help. They traded their uranium ore with the Soviets for nuclear secrets. Later the Chinese and Soviets started to disagree so the Chinese made their own nuclear weapons without Soviet help. The People’s Republic of China became the fifth nuclear power in 1964 when they tested their first bomb at Lop Nur in western China.
So, twenty years after the nuclear bomb was invented by Americans during World War II, all five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council were members of the “nuclear club.”
THE ARMS RACE
American leaders hoped that having atomic weapons would balance the Soviet Union’s large land army so that Stalin would not think he could attack Western Europe. But under Stalin, the Soviet Union used spies to steal nuclear secrets and built their own nuclear bomb. In the end, both countries decided to try to build more nuclear weapons, stronger nuclear weapons, and more and better ways of using and delivering them. Arms is another word for weapons, so historians call this time the arms race as the two countries raced to outdo one another.
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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 bomber airplanes to attack the Soviet Union, but the opposite was not true. In the early 1950s, however, new jet-powered fighter airplanes made the American bombers less safe. The Strategic Air Command, which was in charge of the American bombers and missiles, started to build new jet-powered bombers. It was at this time that designers at Boeing produced the famous B-52 Stratofortress, giving America the ability to bomb the Soviet Union from bases in the United States.
In the early 1950s, the design of nuclear weapons was also changing. New warheads used fusion instead of fission and created much larger explosions. Also called thermonuclear warheads, or hydrogen or H-bombs, these weapons replaced the older style of bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the same time that scientists were inventing the hydrogen bomb, war planners were thinking about using small nuclear weapons on the battlefield in the way cannons had been used in earlier wars. These tactical nuclear weapons could be carried on small trucks and moved quickly. The United States even made a nuclear rocket so small it could be put on a tripod and carried by two soldiers. These small nuclear weapons had an added danger. Because generals and soldiers would choose when to use these very small nuclear bombs, the president lost the ability to decide if there would be a nuclear war. Of course, this made it more likely that a war could get out of control and lead to a much larger nuclear attack. In Korea, General Douglas MacArthur asked to have these small tactical nuclear weapons, but knowing that he might use them against China, President Truman said no.
Things changed when scientists and engineers created the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the Soviet Union first tested in August 1957. A missile was much faster and less expensive than a bomber. Stopping an ICBM was almost impossible because they flew through space and were very fast. This meant there was a greater chance that a missile would hit its target. ICBMs could be put on large trucks or buried in silos made of concrete in the ground. This made them hard to find and attack.
By 1960, the United States had three ways of attacking with nuclear weapons: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and bombers. Each way had advantages and disadvantages. Airplanes could carry heavy bombs and the pilots could turn around or change plans if needed. But bombers were slow, easier to attack while on the ground, and could be shot down. ICBMs were safe in their silos in the ground but were less accurate than bombers and could not be called back after launch. Submarines were safest from attack, but communication could be poor at times.
This nuclear triad was very important to keeping a good deterrent. A Soviet sneak attack might be able to hurt two of the parts of the triad but would be unlikely to stop all three. Being able to shoot back meant that the United States would always be able to shoot back, even if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear sneak attack. In other words, the American nuclear forces could survive. Of course, the Soviet Union and the other nuclear powers copied the American triad with bombers, 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.
RESPONDING TO THE ARMS RACE
In the early 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union were both really worried about the chance of war. The Strategic Air Command, the part of the Air Force that managed the nuclear bombs and missiles, began flying bombers with nuclear bombs every day, all day. At any moment, a group of B-52s was in the air near the Soviet Union waiting for orders to turn and attack. This program ended in 1968 after five of the B-52s crashed. Luckily, none of these crashes led to accidental nuclear explosions, but in the end, government leaders decided that the risk of an accident was greater than the risk of a Soviet attack.
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An advertisement to build fallout shelters from the 1950s.
Both the Americans and Soviets planned attacks on each other’s cities, which they hoped would stop the other side from wanting to fight. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent a lot of money on large “nuclear-proof” bunkers to protect its people. In the United States, smaller civil defense programs were started in the 1950s. Schools and other public buildings had basements filled with dried foods, canned water, first aid supplies, and Geiger counters. Many of the locations were given fallout shelter signs. Students watched videos about what to do in case of nuclear attack and practiced “duck and cover” drills in class. Early warning radar and satellites were used to provide notice of an attack that many people thought could happen at any time, and the civil defense siren system was started. Today these sirens are used to warn people about natural disasters such as tornadoes and tsunamis, but during the early part of the Cold War, they were ready to warn people about nuclear attack.
The thought of nuclear war was very scary. By the 1970s, both the Soviets and Americans were building multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). These were missiles with more than one thermonuclear warhead that would open up in space and then fly to many different places. With over 50,000 nuclear warheads spread around the world, humans had the ability to destroy themselves easily. In the end, if nuclear war had happened, millions of people would have died in the first few hours, and millions more in the following days from radiation sickness and the social and agricultural disaster as plants and normal society failed. The thought of such a nuclear winter made leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain stop to think. Military leaders might have made plans for nuclear war, but the idea of actually using out these plans was too horrible to think about.
Since people knew that a nuclear war could happen, the job of government changed. In addition to protecting freedoms and providing basic services like clean water and trash pickup, people also wanted their government to protect them from destruction. The scientists who were building the missiles, aircraft, and radars that could protect them became national heroes. Fictional characters who protected Americans from the evils of communism and nuclear war also became popular. Comic books with Captain America and Superman were popular with young people who were scared of nuclear war.
MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION
It may not make sense at first, but most people think nuclear weapons made the world safer.
Both Soviet and American tried to use nuclear weapons to threaten the other side, but using these weapons was so serious that they never dared. While some, like General Douglas MacArthur, said nuclear weapons should have been used during the Korean War, most leaders, including Presidents Truman and Eisenhower did not like the idea.
By the end of the 1950s, both the United States and Soviet Union had enough nuclear power to destroy the other side. Also, because of the nuclear triad, both sides could launch a nuclear counter-attack even after being attacked first. Anyone who decided to attack first was sure to be attacked back and would be killed. This was the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
What made MAD work was that both the Americans and Soviets knew what the other side could. Most weapons were invented in secret, but once they were completed it was important to show them off. The latest bombers were flown for the public and newspapers at airshows. At parades in Moscow, trucks carrying nuclear missiles were driven through the streets for people and watching American military leaders to see.
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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 would lead to their own death, no one started a nuclear war. Building tens of thousands of nuclear weapons seemed crazy, and the idea that so many bombs was a way to make sure we had peace is hard to believe, but history has so far shown that fear of nuclear war is a good way to stop war from happening.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTING
Every country with nuclear weapons tested them to find out how they worked and to show off. Because of the dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear explosions, these tests needed to be done far from cities. The Soviet Union tested in the islands of the Arctic Ocean in Siberia. For China, testing was done in the empty 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 had its first nuclear test after World War II at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The 40 families who had lived on the atoll had to move before the test. Even today, Bikini Atoll is not safe to live on and the original islanders and their children have never been able to move back.
The United States tested the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, on Enewetak, another atoll in the Marshall Islands. It created a radioactive mushroom cloud 100 miles wide and 25 miles high, killing all life on the islands. Just like at Bikini Atoll, the people of Enewetak had to move. In all, the United States did 43 nuclear tests on Enewetak.
On March 1, 1954, the United States ran the Castle Bravo test of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. Scientists were wrong about the size of the bomb. Instead of 5 megatons, it turned out to be 14.8 megatons, which is the largest nuclear test ever by the United States. Fallout from the explosion fell on the people of Rongelap and Utirik Atolls and was carried by the wind around the world. Not only were the Americans wrong about the size of the blast, but they also were wrong about the wind and where the wind carried radiation from the test. People on other islands were not moved until three days after the test and many became very sick from the radiation. Twenty-three people on a Japanese fishing boat that was 50 miles away were also contaminated by fallout and got sick. After the Castle Bravo test, people around the world started to work to stop nuclear testing.
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The Castle Bravo Test
In all, the United States tested over 67 nuclear bombs 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 countries to travel to the United States without a passport. The United States gives free medical care for the hundreds of people who developed cancers because of radiation. The COFA countries give the American military use of their territory with the rule that the Americans do not use, store, or test nuclear weapons in the islands.
Today, the first five countries to build nuclear weapons have agreed never to test their nuclear weapons again. However, India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, and North Korea has tested its weapons many times since 2000.
THE SPACE RACE
German scientists built the world’s first long-range rocket during World War II. Hitler used these rockets to carry bombs to Britain. The German missiles missed a lot, so they didn’t do much damage, but they were very scary.
As the war was ending, hundreds of German rockets, and their scientists were found by both the Allies. Taken to the Soviet Union and United States, they were “encouraged” to work and share their knowledge.
Of course, rockets and satellites can be used to explore space, but they also can be used for the military. And leaders in both the East and the West thought intercontinental ballistic missiles would be great for carrying nuclear weapons.
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 mistakes, and after four months of waiting, the Americans finally launched their own satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.
The Soviets sent the first animal into space, a dog named Laika, and on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space. This was another embarrassment for the United States and showed the world again how good the Soviets had gotten at science.
NASA sent Alan Shephard, the first American astronaut into space in 1961, but the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the Space Race. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. While there was nothing important to be found in space, the space program became a matter of national pride. Also, research for the space program could be used by the military.
While the Soviets clearly led the way in the 1950s, the Americans took over as the leaders of the Space Race in the 1960s.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set a goal of having an American land a man on the moon before 1970. At the time, such a mission was impossible. Lots of money and scientists would be needed to make his goal happen but Kennedy thought it would be worth the price. At a speech at Rice University, he said, “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.”
Several years later, the United States started the Apollo Program to build the rockets and do the research needed for a mission to the Moon. 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 televisions. As he stepped off the Eagle Lander onto the Moon, Armstrong said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
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Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
By landing on the Moon, the Americans had won the Space Race. While both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well many other countries continued to explore space, the era of the Space Race was over.
In the end, the Space Race helped us learn more about science, and led to things we use in everyday life. For example, the satellites that give us our locations (GPS) and satellites that carry television, radio, and internet messages around the world, as well as weather satellites that tell us about dangerous storms are some of the good things that came from the competition of the 1950s and 1960s.
Many technologies that were first developed for the space program are now found in everyday products. Clear braces, memory foam mattresses, solar panels, ski boots, UV-blocking sunglasses, and battery tools all came from the space program.
In 1960, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower had already served two terms and was not able to run again. The Republican Party chose Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice president, while the Democrats picked John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts. It was one of the closest elections in American history.
Some older Democrats thought Senator Kennedy was too young to be president. However, JFK, as he was called, was good at being a candidate.
Because he was vice president, Nixon was the first choice of most Republicans. Nixon picked United Nations Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to be his running mate. Lodge’s experience working with other countries fit into Nixon’s plan to show Americans that he was the best person to be president.
Both Kennedy and Nixon drew large and excited crowds to their speeches. In August of 1960, most polls gave Nixon a lead over Kennedy. However, Nixon had bad luck in the fall. In August, President Eisenhower was asked to name some of Nixon’s important ideas. When he did not answer, it made it seem as though Nixon had not been involved in any of Eisenhower’s important decisions. Also, Nixon had to stop campaigning for two weeks to rest after hurting his knee. Even with these problems, Nixon still wanted to visit all 50 states. So, he ended up wasting time visiting states that he had no chance of winning and states that had few electoral votes.
Kennedy was helped when he picked Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. Kennedy was from the North, so Johnson helped him win support in the Southern states. Lodge, on the other hand, was boring and made more mistakes that hurt Nixon.
The key turning point of the campaign was the Kennedy-Nixon debates. These were the first presidential debates on television, and many people watched. In the first debate, Nixon did not look healthy because of his hospital stay. However, Kennedy looked strong, confident, and relaxed during the debate.
In the national popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by just one tenth of one percentage point (0.1% ) — the closest popular-vote difference 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.
THE NEW FRONTIER
President Kennedy was very different from Eisenhower. The youngest president ever elected, Kennedy and his stylish wife Jacqueline had two young children. The Kennedys were exciting, attractive and had a lot of energy. Before moving into the White House, the Kennedys had even attended a party hosted by Hollywood singer Frank Sinatra.
Kennedy and most of his advisors were part of a new generation, later called the Greatest Generation, who were among the GIs and Rosie the Riveters who had worked so hard to win World War II. In his first speech as president, Kennedy talked about the change of power from the leaders of World War II 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 say that he was ready to fight against communism and support countries 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.”
Kennedy had talked about the future he wanted to build as a New Frontier, and he brought with him to the White House a group of young, forward-looking 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 selected Robert McNamara, the President of the Ford Motor Company, to be Secretary of Defense. A great lawyer, Ted Sorenson became one of Kennedy’s closest advisors and wrote many of the president’s most famous speeches.
The excitement around Kennedy led to the myth of his time as president as a modern Camelot. Like the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Kennedy’s time as president was short, full of hope, energy, and mystery.
When Kennedy became president in 1960 it was becoming clear that Eisenhower’s plan to build so many nuclear weapons that no country would dare to start a war with America was not going to work for all problems. Eisenhower’s plan, called massive retaliation, wasn’t going to work for smaller problems. Kennedy wanted more options. He wanted to be able to fight in smaller wars that weren’t against the Soviet Union without needing to use nuclear weapons.
Flexible response meant that the army, navy and air force would need to build up its regular forces, not just the nuclear triad, since it might be called on to fight more than one war at the same time in different parts of the world. Kennedy got Congress to pay for more troops, tanks, airplanes, and ships, not just nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines.
THE PEACE CORPS
President Kennedy knew that the United States would not beat communism by only using the military. Since the Cold War between East and West was about ideas, the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world. So, he started the Peace Corps. This volunteer program sent young Americans who had just finished college around the world to work as teachers, scientists, doctors and nurses. Kennedy thought that people would choose freedom and democracy instead of communism if they met Americans who wanted to help others, not just the soldiers of America’s army.
The Peace Corps was a big success and continues its work even today. In all, Almost 220,000 Americans have served in more than 140 countries.
THE CUBAN REVOLUTION
One of President Kennedy’s first problems was Cuba. Just 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba had a long and difficult relationship with the United States. Cuba became free from Spain in 1898 because of the Spanish-American War, but Cuba was never fully free. The United States promised to give Cuba independence after the war, but the Platt Amendment gave America the right to get involved to keep order in Cuba whenever it wanted.
And America got involved a lot. At least four times, American soldiers went to Cuba to stop rebellions and protect American businesses. The United States had good reason to be interested in Cuba. American companies owned 60% of the island’s sugar cane farms.
In the 1930s the United States supported a coup, or takeover, led by Fulgencio Batista who went on to run Cuba for nearly 20 years. During Batista’s time in power, the United States controlled almost all of Cuba’s economy. There was lots of corruption and Havana became a popular place for American organized crime. Of course, Batista and his friends used their positions in government to get rich.
In 1958, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro got rid of Batista. Many of Cuba’s poor people did not like Batista or the United States and helped Castro. At first, Kennedy liked the Cuban Revolution. Castro was seen by many Americans as a good chance to start over. Batista had helped American businesses in Cuba, but some Americans thought Castro might be good for democracy, which Batista was not. However, it soon became clear that Castro liked communist ideas. His new government nationalized, or took over, the business of the island. They took control of the Catholic Church and the homes of the mafia bosses. They took over American sugar plantations. Thousands of rich 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) started to try to kill Castro. They used exploding and poisoned cigars, a tuberculosis-infected scuba-diving suit (Castro loved cigars and scuba diving), a pen with a hypodermic syringe full of poison, and bombings. While all these plans failed, they made Castro think that the Americans were out to get him, which they were, and that he needed help from the Soviet Union to protect him.
On April 17, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his ok for an attack on Cuba. The CIA’s plan was to have 1,500 Cubans who did not like Castro invade the island at a place called the Bay of Pigs, but they made many mistakes. The Cuban people did not join them to fight against Castro as they had thought. Stuck on the beach, they called to Washington for American help. Kennedy, who had believed his CIA advisors when they told him the plan was perfect, was angry. He did not want to get into a war with Cuba. He refused to send in the air force. In just a few days, Castro’s army beat the exiles. It was an embarrassing loss for the new president. Kennedy never trusted military advice again, and the Soviet Union got the idea that Kennedy was a weak leader. The attack also made many Latin-American countries angry. They saw it, yet again, as American disrespect for their independence.
THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
In 1962, the Soviet Union was falling behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were only strong enough to attack Europe, but American missiles could hit anywhere in the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev thought of the idea of having Soviet missiles in Cuba. Nuclear missiles in Cuba would make an attack against the Soviet Union harder because the Soviets would have missiles close to the United States.
At the same time, Fidel Castro was looking for a way to protect his island from another attack by the United States. Since the failed Bay of Pigs attack, Castro thought a second attack was coming. He said OK to Khrushchev’s plan to put missiles on his island.
The face-off between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev over Soviet missiles in Cuba is probably the most important event of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is now known, was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.
The crisis began on October 15, 1962 when photographs taken by American U-2 spy planes showed the Soviet missiles being set up in Cuba. Kennedy put together a special committee of twelve of his most important advisers to help him figure out what to do. After seven days of secret meetings, this executive committee, or EX-COMM, decided that the United States should start a naval quarantine around Cuba, which would stop the Soviets from bringing more missiles to the island.
On October 22, Kennedy went on television and told America that they had found the missiles and that he had decided to quarantine the island. He was serious and tried to show that he would not back down. He said that the Soviets had to take all their missiles out of Cuba.
Khrushchev was angry. In a letter and speech on October 24, he called Kennedy’s bluff. He said that the Soviet Union would never be bossed around by the United States and that the quarantine was illegal. He told his ships to ignore the quarantine and warned that Kennedy’s choices might lead to war.
The United Nations had been created to try to solve this exact sort of problem, so the Security Council met. The Soviets had told the world that they were not putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, and that their support for Castro was only to help him defend Cuba. Many countries believed that Kennedy was looking for an excuse to attack the island and get rid of Castro after his first try at the Bay of Pigs had failed. On October 25, Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson faced-off with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in a meeting of the Security Council. Their conversation is now one of the most famous moments in United Nations history.
Stevenson began, “…let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR 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 answered, “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 ignore Stevenson. “Sir, will you please continue your statement? You will have your answer in due course.” But Stevenson would not give up. “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 helpers brought out poster-sized copies of the photographs of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The photos turned the world against the Soviet Union. Clearly, it was not Kennedy, but Khrushchev who had started the crisis.
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Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the Security Council in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After getting embarrassed at the United Nations, Khrushchev sent a letter to Kennedy. He said he would take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba if the United States would promise not to attack Cuba or Castro.
While the EX-COMM thought about Khrushchev’s offer, Kennedy got a second letter from the Soviet leader. This time, Khrushchev said he wanted America to take its missiles out of Turkey in exchange for his missiles in Cuba.
This put Kennedy in a hard position. Time was running out to start an attack on Cuba. If he waited a day or two, the military would not be able to destroy the Soviet missiles before they could be launched. Khrushchev’s first letter seemed ok, but the second letter was more demanding. Perhaps he had lost power and someone new had taken over. Or it was possible that Khrushchev was scared that Kennedy might start the war and he was trying to find a way out of the crisis.
The members of EXCOMM all agreed that making a deal with the Soviets might be a bad idea. If the Soviet Union could use the missiles in Cuba to get something from the United States, what would stop them from trying it again a year or two later? What would they ask for next? Berlin?
Finally, the president’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy said that they should ignore the second letter and agree to the first. However, the United States would secretly agree to take the missiles out of 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 said that he would remove the missiles from Cuba, so long as the United States would not attack Cuba. The crisis had lasted 13 days. In the end, Kennedy succeeded in avoiding nuclear war because of his cool-thinking, patience, and because he found a way for Khrushchev to save face. Although nuclear war had been only hours away, the world had not blown itself up.
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The members of Ex-Comm gathered around a table with President Kennedy at the center during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
EFFECTS OF THE CRISIS
The Cuban Missile Crisis had both short-term and long-term effects. Seeing the need for better communication, a phone line was set up between the White House and Kremlin. In popular culture it is known as the red telephone on the president’s desk, but the hotline was never a telephone line, and no red phones have ever been used. The first hotline was a teletype machine, but now a computer with email is used.
The crisis helped Kennedy. Now everyone knew he would stand up to communists. On the other hand, the final deal was seen in the Soviet Union as embarrassing. Two years later the top Soviet leaders, called the Politburo, forced Khrushchev out of power, and picked Leonid Brezhnev to take over.
The United States kept its promise never to attack Cuba. Castro remained in power as a communist leader well into the 21st Century. When he died in 2016 at age 90, his younger brother Raul took over, continuing the Castro Family’s hold on power. Letting Castro stay in power, however, did not mean that relations between the two countries were any warmer. Americans continued to stop all travel and business with Cuba. Over the years, Cuba became more and more poor. After 54 years of embargo, in 2014 President Barack Obama decided to let American tourists visit Cuba. Obama himself went to Cuba in 2016. But in 2017, President Trump undid this change to make sure he would get the votes of Cuban-Americans who still didn’t like the communist government of Cuba.
The arms race and the brinkmanship (acting like you are about to go to war) that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis were such a dangerous game that Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly let things get out of control. The nuclear standoff between East and West led to the strange situation of mutually assured destruction that seems to have stopped war. But was this a good way to deal with the Soviets? Was the end worth the price we paid both in money and in our mental health?
What do you think? Were American leaders smart about how they faced the danger of communism? 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 sided 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.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
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.
GOVERNMENT & MILITARY AGENCIES
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.
POLICIES & TREATIES
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.