On October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy appeared on television to inform Americans that U.S. spy planes had uncovered a “clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace” – Soviet missile sites in Cuba, under construction but nearly complete, that could soon house nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States. Kennedy demanded the missiles’ removal and announced a naval blockade of Cuba to stop Soviet ships from bringing more weapons to the island.
Thus began some of the tensest days of the twentieth century as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. stood at the brink of nuclear war. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev warned that his subs might sink U.S. Navy ships attempting to stop Soviet vessels. “If the U.S. insists on war, we’ll all meet together in hell,” he growled. Kennedy certainly did not want war, but he refused to back down. “The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing,” he told the American people.
The world held its breath as Soviet ships approached the blockade line. The crisis deepened when a U.S. reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba and its pilot killed. Americans stockpiled emergency supplies and even fled large cities.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Soviet officials traded urgent proposals and counter-proposals. On October 28, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the sites in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba, as well as the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy just blinked,” commented a relieved Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
Historians have debated who came out on top in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy or Khrushchev. But there is no doubt that in standing up to Soviet totalitarianism, the young president turned back a dangerous threat to the nation’s security and to world peace.