What happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- the 13-day standoff that almost ended the world

The ongoing feud between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has prompted repeated comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although it’s debatable how similar the two situations really are, some experts have noted that the threat to the United States was the same in each instance — both Russia and North Korea had developed the capability of reaching the US with nuclear missiles, eliciting sharp responses from the respective American presidents.

In 1962, a feverish 13-day standoff took place, during which time it wasn’t clear whether the US would face an attack from Soviet missiles launched from Cuba.

Here’s what went down:

An American spy plane on Oct. 14 took photos that clearly showed construction sites for nuclear-armed medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles

The standoff officially began on Oct. 16, when President John F. Kennedy was briefed on the photos

JFK Library
Map of the western hemisphere showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis.

Kennedy, anxious to maintain the appearance that the situation in the White House was business-as-usual, kept up his official schedule but met frequently with advisors to strategize.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged Kennedy to launch an air strike followed by a full-on invasion of Cuba, but others called for a naval quarantine.

On Oct. 17, more surveillance photos captured additional sites and 16-32 missiles, as US military units moved to southeastern bases

JFK Library
A map of Cuba, with a partial listing of Soviet military equipment, used during the President's meetings with political and military advisors.

Kennedy, meanwhile, kept up a normal schedule, attending a church service, eating lunch with the Crown Prince of Libya, and travelling to Connecticut to campaign for congressional candidates.

By Oct. 20, Kennedy and his advisers had decided on a course of action: enforce a naval 'quarantine' on Cuba to prevent military equipment and arms from being delivered

Department of Defense
In this handout from the Department of Defence, Soviet ships are shown inbound to Cuba, purportedly carrying crates containing Ilyushin 28 (Beagle) fuselages as a deckload, Oct. 23, 1962.

The Kennedy administration used the term 'quarantine' rather than 'blockade,' as the latter would have legally implied a state of war. A quarantine, however, allowed the US to continue receiving the support of the Organisation of American States, the 35-member continental organisation.

Kennedy also sent a letter to Khrushchev urging his government not to take action that would 'widen or deepen this already grave crisis'

JFK Library
Page 2 of President Kennedy's letter to Premiere Khrushchev, October 22, 1962.

Here's an excerpt: 'In our discussions and exchanges on Berlin and other international questions, the one thing that has most concerned me has been the possibility that your Government would not correctly understand the will and determination of the United States in any given situation, since I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.'

Kennedy officially signed Proclamation 3504 on Oct. 23 authorizing the naval quarantine, and the Organisation of American States endorsed the action

JFK Library
October 23, 1962: President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba.

Kennedy then requested that Khrushchev halt any Soviet ships en route to Cuba, out of fear the US would be forced to exchange fire and launch a war between the two nations.

On Oct. 24, Khrushchev issued an angry rebuttal to Kennedy's letter

JFK Library
Dept. of State translation of Chairman Khrushchev's letter to President Kennedy of October 24.

Here's an excerpt: 'You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one's relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.'

New photographs emerged on Oct. 26 showing further missile site construction, and Castro sent Khrushchev a private letter urging him to annihilate the US with nuclear weapons

'However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other,' Castro wrote to Khrushchev.

Castro, in his letter, explained to Khrushchev that should the US attempt to invade and occupy Cuba, the country would pose such a threat that the Soviet Union could not risk the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike by the US.

'I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists' aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba -- a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law -- then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defence. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other,' Castro wrote.

Meanwhile, Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy declaring he was willing to remove the missiles from the island if the United States would pledge never to invade Cuba.

Here's an excerpt of his letter: 'I propose: We, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, will not carry any kind of armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces and will not support any sort of forces which might intend to carry out an invasion of Cuba. Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.'

Tensions between the US and the USSR reached their peak on Oct. 27 -- also known as 'Black Saturday'

Khrushchev sent Kennedy another letter demanding stronger terms, such as the removal of the US's Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

An American U-2 plane was also shot down over Cuba by a Soviet-supplied missile. Its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed.

Kennedy ultimately ignored the latest letter from Khrushchev, responding only to the warmer letter he had sent the previous day. 'I have read your letter of October 26th with great care and welcomed the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem,' he wrote.

That evening, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin reached an agreement that the USSR would withdraw its missiles from Cuba under the supervision of the United Nations. In turn, the US would vow not to invade Cuba and remove its missiles from Turkey.

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