To the Brink: Turkish and Cuban Missiles during the Height of the Cold War.

AuthorFuelling, Cody

The events of the Cuban missile crisis, during which the Cold War between the American and Soviet superpowers nearly went hot, were, according to Jeffrey D. Sachs, "the most perilous in the planet's history" and the closest belligerent forces have ever come to engaging in mutual thermonuclear conflict. (1) The thirteen days of the crisis--which took place during the latter half of October, 1962--hallmarked the pacifying, diplomatic intentions of the American and Soviet heads of state. By offering an analysis of the events of the crisis, this paper will demonstrate that cooperation between capitalists and communists could occur in the interests of the preservation of their respective systems and states. Both superpowers publicized the progress of the situation to their citizens, with frequent updates via newspapers, radio broadcasts, and television features. However, the diffusion of the Soviet-American tensions around Cuban shores was not won precisely the way either country's public media announced. Negotiations focusing on nuclear missiles stationed by NATO in Turkey were central to the rise of the crisis and were an important bargaining chip in American President John F. Kennedy's and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's diplomatic strategy, a secret which was held by both parties for over twenty years. (2)

Sputnik's 1957 success is renowned for bringing the United States and Soviet Union into the Space Race, with humankind taking, as Neil Armstrong famously put it, a "giant leap" into the future. (3) However, this contest to conquer space before the Soviets was analogous to a dangerous, earthly American campaign to close a "confidence gap" that emerged when Sputnik caused the Eisenhower administration to fear "that the Soviets were leading the West in nuclear armament." (4) To reinforce Western interests, President Eisenhower secured the unanimous approval of NATO states to position intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Europe, but only Britain, Italy, and Turkey actually agreed to host the weapons. In October 1959, it was arranged to place fifteen Jupiter IRBMs in Turkey, with the Turkish government agreeing to keep the armaments sovereign to the US and to keep the negotiations and acceptance of the missiles secret from the Turkish nation. (5)

Earlier that year, Eisenhower predicted that positioning warheads near the USSR could cause a backlash and that "If Mexico or Cuba... began getting arms and missiles from [the Soviets], we would be bound to look on such developments with the gravest concern and... it would be imperative for us to take... even offensive military action." (6) John F. Kennedy, who took over the operation upon his 1961 inauguration, shared these concerns. He believed the Soviets would use the Turkish IRBMs to justify arming Cuba--if Turkey could attack across the Black Sea for the US, Cuba could attack across the Gulf of Mexico for the USSR--so, three months before the crisis, he urged US officials to see what needed to be done to remove the missiles, telling Undersecretary of State George Ball to progress the issue. However, Ball, after discussing the issue with the Turkish ambassador, allied with other State Department officials and decided to not try to remove the missiles so as to preserve US-Turkish relations. (7)

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were right: the seemingly ubiquitous nature of the American presence around the Soviet Union was on Premier Nikita Khrushchev's mind as early as 1958 when the he said that the Soviets "see [themselves] surrounded by military bases" in Europe. (8) Fearing encirclement, Soviet leaders criticized NATO missile installations, with special emphasis on the project in Turkey. Moscow had warned Ankara that such construction of IRBM bases would jeopardize their standing with the USSR, only to receive the (perhaps extraordinary) Turkish reply that the missiles' installations were "not aimed at the Soviet Union." (9)

Despite Turkey's facade that hosting American nuclear warheads had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, the installation process of the Jupiter missiles in the subsequent years furthered Khrushchev's concerns about American encirclement and, along with other reasons, motivated the Soviet Union to covertly install their own intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Premier believed placing such missiles had several advantages: 1) they would put the same pressure on the US that the USSR was feeling by the Turkish IRBMs; 2) involvement with Cuba would capitalize on Kennedy's earlier Bay of Pigs fiasco; 3) the placement would be relatively inexpensive; 4) the Soviets could bargain with them later to secure contested issues. (10)

Khrushchev had also placed missiles in Cuba, according to historian Martin Walker, because of "honor," as the Kremlin felt great pride in Cuba becoming communist without the "help" of the Red Army. To maintain their beloved system in the Western Hemisphere, the Soviets felt duty-bound to defend Cuba against future American invasion. The threat of nuclear retaliation from Cuban bases would be a sufficient deterrent for the current American president and his successors should they ever consider another assault on Cuba. Additionally, because the USSR had an inferior set of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the way for it to create balance in the nuclear field was to place its IRBMs more strategically, which meant locating them closer to the American homeland. Cuba--a Communist state only ninety-three miles from the tip of Florida that had just survived a U.S. military incursion at the Bay of Pigs--was prime real estate to host the intermediate-range Soviet missiles. (11) Khrushchev wanted to gain from the venture, but "the one thing that [he] did not want from this move was war. " (12)

In the time before missiles were placed in Cuba, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and their respective advisors analyzed the probable situation that would emerge should armed conflict take place between the US and USSR. Both sides concluded that if the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT