Cold War: Nuclear politics in the 1950s and 1960s Return to the gallery menu
Worksheets Big Question    

What are the key points arising from Case study 2 which every visitor should know about?

Cuba is an island in the Caribbean Sea, just south of the US state of Florida. Until the late 1950s it was dominated by the USA. There was a huge US naval base at Guantanamo. Rich Americans often came on holiday to enjoy the beaches and spend money in the bars and casinos of the capital, Havana. American business owned the major industries - sugar and tobacco.

In the midst of the wealth there was terrible poverty. There was also corrupt government. Cuba was ruled by a dictator called Batista. In 1958 he was overthrown by a young Communist revolutionary called Fidel Castro. Castro had a lot of support among the Cuban people. He took control of the US owned industries. He resisted attempts by the American secret service, the CIA, to overthrow him. The most spectacular was at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Castro's forces defeated a force of Cubans backed by President Kennedy who wanted to overthrow Castro. The Bay of Pigs was a major humiliation for the USA.

Not surprisingly, any enemy of the USA was seen by Soviet leader Khrushchev as a friend of the USSR. It was a time of great tension in superpower relations. In May 1960 the USSR shot down an American U2 spy plane flying illegally over the USSR. In August 1961 Khrushchev and Kennedy had clashed over the building of the Berlin Wall. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s the two sides had tried to reach agreements on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons but neither side had much confidence in the good faith of the other.

It was especially enjoyable for Khrushchev to have an ally in America's 'back yard'. Khrushchev saw this as a similar situation to the presence of the Western powers in Berlin. The USSR was soon giving Cuba economic aid, technical support and military 'advisers' from the USSR. As the USA became more aggressive to Cuba, the USSR provided more support.

* Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4 Source 5

The Crisis
In October 1962 an American U2 spy plane revealed just how much Russian support Cuba had. Its photographs showed missile bases and launchers on Cuba (and missiles, of course). It was soon clear that Soviet ships were on their way to Cuba carrying more nuclear missiles to be set up in Cuba.

The world was about to enter its most serious Cold War confrontation so far. Kennedy set up a special committee called Excomm to advise him. Some advisers wanted to attack the missile sites and even invade Cuba. Others advised a careful diplomatic approach.

In the end Kennedy opted to use a naval blockade of Cuba, cutting off military supplies to the island. This was still dangerous. It was likely to involve stopping Soviet ships, and nobody knew how Khrushchev would react. The tension reached its highest point on October 27th, when US and Soviet ships seemed sure to clash. A Third World War looked very likely indeed. However, Soviet leader Khrushchev then sent two letters to Kennedy offering a suggested compromise.

Kennedy was just as eager as Khrushchev to get out of this terrible situation. Khrushchev agreed to pull the missiles out of Cuba. Kennedy agreed to end the blockade of Cuba. He also promised not to invade Cuba - this meant he had to agree to accept a Communist state as his neighbour. Recent evidence suggests that there was also an understanding that some US missiles in Turkey and Europe would be removed. This was not announced at the time.

The aftermath
Both sides claimed credit for avoiding a nuclear war over Cuba. They also realised how close they had come to a nuclear war. In the years that followed Cuba the superpowers did make greater efforts in nuclear disarmament. They also set up the direct 'Hot Line' between Washington and Moscow.

Your Task
In this case study you are going to look at sources which cover all of these issues, but will focus on these broad areas:

  • The reasons why Cuba became the centre of a Cold War crisis
  • How serious the crisis was
  • The consequences of the Cuban Crisis.

At the end of the case study you will have to decide what you will write in your soundtrack for the presentation.

Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4 Source 5 Source 6 Source 7

For more information on the Cuban missile crisis visit the following websites