19 Things We Should All Remember About the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

By Larry Holzwarth

The autumn of 1962 saw a year winding down in the United States, which had been for the most part one of peace and hope for the future. In February, astronaut John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth, and the growing promise of America’s space program – President Kennedy had established the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade – had put much of the nation under the influence of space fever. Toy rockets, missiles, and space capsules began to dominate the shelves in stores. America’s astronauts were celebrated in magazines and television programs. Americans watched with fascination on their black and white television screens as rockets lifted off from Cape Canaveral. A futuristic new television program, The Jetsons, appeared that September.

Just a few weeks later, as the Kennedy Administration prepared for its first mid-term elections, Americans were forcefully reminded that rockets and missiles had a more sinister purpose as well. An American spy plane, flying a reconnaissance mission over the island of Cuba, discovered evidence of Soviet missile installations under construction, featuring medium range and intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads on American cities. For months the Soviets had been issuing denials of a military buildup in Cuba; in October the young American president had definitive proof of its existence. The question was what would be done, what could be done, to ensure their removal. His military advisers recommended bombing the sites and invading the island. The world had never been closer to nuclear war.

A missile launch site near San Cristobal in the process of being removed in early November, 1962. US Air Force

Here are just some of the events of the thirteen days of October, 1962, which became known to history as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The San Cristobal launch site photographed on October 27, 1962, at the height of the crisis. JFK Presidential Library

1. The Cubans and Soviets began deploying the missiles months earlier

In early 1962 the Soviets, agreeing with their Cuban allies, believed that another invasion of Cuba, larger and with greater air and naval support from the United States, was imminent. A series of meetings between representatives of Soviet and Cuban leaders Krushchev and Castro agreed to the deployment of Soviet offensive nuclear weapons on the island, supported by defensive weapons systems to protect them from American air and naval attack. Soviet secrecy was so great that not even the technicians and military support units knew where they were being deployed to, and in a deception the units were equipped with arctic gear, implying that they were to be stationed somewhere near the Aleutians. The Soviets named the deployment Operation Anadyr, the name of a river which empties into the Bering Sea.

By late July the large amount of Soviet shipping reaching Cuba and the activities of American (and British) intelligence had revealed a Soviet arms buildup in Cuba, which the Soviets vehemently denied. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1962 two separate events involving American U-2 flights in Asia caused the administration embarrassment. In one, a U-2 “strayed” over Soviet airspace and although it was not shot down, the Soviets protested and demanded an apology, which it received. In the second, a U-2 over China operated from Taiwan, was shot down, the pilot lost. Fearing another international incident as a result of a U-2, in early September American officials restricted their use over Cuba, just as the Soviet installation of the nuclear capable missiles was getting underway. Navy reconnaissance aircraft continued to photograph Soviet ships bound for Cuba, but for five weeks reconnaissance over the island was curtailed.