A Sports Dispute Started the Cuban Missile Crisis and Other Bizarre Facts

Nixon with Kissinger and his deputy, Alexander Haig. Vanity Fair

38. “Cubans Play Baseball. Russians Play Soccer”

The Cold War superpowers came eyeball to eyeball over the Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, until the Soviets blinked. An understanding was reached between JFK and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, whereby America agreed to not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from the island. Things then calmed down for 8 years, until soccer and Cuba helped trigger another crisis.

In 1970, Cuba began expanding naval facilities in Cayo Alcatraz, an island in the port of Cienfuegos, just as a flotilla of Soviet nuclear missile submarines was headed there. That September, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger burst into the office of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and slapped U2 photos of the Cuban naval expansion, including soccer fields near Cienfuegos. “Those soccer fields mean war, Bob”, Kissinger exclaimed. “Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer”. A Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0 was in the offing.