On 14 October 1962, an American spy plane secretly photographed Soviet nuclear missile sites being built on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the US coast. US President John F. Kennedy called an emergency meeting. The next two weeks would go down in history as the closest point that the world has ever come to nuclear war. 

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Cold War rhetoric had dominated the 1960 US presidential campaign. Kennedy had promised to take a tough stand against the Soviet Union and international communism. In 1961, an American-backed attempt to depose revolutionary leader Fidel Castro failed, and Cuba became more militarily and economically dependent on the USSR.

That same year, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev threatened to cut off access to West Berlin, located in Soviet-controlled East Germany, and ordered construction of the Berlin Wall. Kennedy approved substantial increases in US intercontinental ballistic missiles, targeting them at the USSR from Western Europe and Turkey. The Soviets sent missiles to Cuba with the goal of deterring the US. 

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After the discovery of the Cuban sites, Kennedy placed a ring of US ships around the island to “quarantine” Cuba. This would cut off Soviet military supplies, but not prevent all trade and travel, which seemed too provocative a move. Kennedy demanded that the Soviets destroy the missile sites and remove the weapons. On 27 October things took a really alarming turn. A US plane was shot down over Cuba. Hours later, a Soviet submarine was detected in the Atlantic Ocean by the US Navy and forced to surface. It very nearly fired a nuclear-armed torpedo in response, but then decided not to. The following day, Khrushchev sent his answer. 


While the peaceful resolution of the crisis was hailed as a victory for America, Kennedy as well as Khrushchev had compromised: the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, while America secretly agreed to remove theirs from Turkey. In 1963, tensions had eased so much that an international treaty was signed limiting nuclear weapons testing, and a “hotline” was set up between the Kremlin and the White House to improve communications. In language very different from that of his inaugural address, Kennedy urged Americans to rise above Cold War stereotypes, stating that: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. … And we are all mortal.”