In October 1962, the world came the closest it has ever been to a nuclear war. Since Cuba was tied into not only an economic relationship with the Soviet Union but also a political one, the USA decided that the time had come to remove Castro and his regime from Cuba after Castro nationalised US owned oil companies and seized $1 billion of US assets on Cuba in October 1960. In defending Cuba from US attack, the Soviets chose to send a huge range of nuclear and military equipment to Cuba. The causes of the Cuban missiles crisis, however, can be linked to the rationale behind Khrushchev’s decision in deploying missiles in Cuba, which is only 90 miles away from the coast of the United States. Thus, this essay will examine the background of the the Cuban missiles crisis in terms of recent historical background of Latin America followed by resolution of the crisis and its consequences.
The USA provided economic aid for some of the states of Latin America, but its motives were not entirely selfless. In return the Americans expected to be able to exert political influence in order to prevent socialist or communist governments from gaining power. They had no hesitation in intervening in any Latin American country whose government was deemed unacceptable to them. Consequently, Republican presidents in particular were constantly suspicious that the USSR was trying to forge a Soviet-Latin American Axis, which would give the communists a clear advantage and pose a threat right on the USA’s door step.
Khrushchev declared after the crisis had ended that their purpose was only the defence of Cuba since they saw a possibility of defending the freedom-loving people of Cuba by stationing missiles there. However, historians argue that he could have opted for something far less provocative to the USA and infinitely less risky in terms of world peace.
Some historians have argued that given the knowledge of missile gap between USA and the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s only hope of rapidly redressing the Soviet-American missile imbalance was to place nuclear missiles on Cuba.
However, J.L. Gaddis rejects the idea that redressing the missile imbalance was Khrushchev’s primary motive for the deployment. He writes, “Khrushchev intended his missile deployment chiefly an an effort to spread revolution throughout Latin America.” One of Khrushchev’s priorities was to address the challenge that China had mounted against the Soviet Union’s leadership of international communism. Placing nuclear missiles in a newly revolutionised developing country 90 miles from the American border represented a spectacular move and one which would clearly neutralise Chinese anti-Soviet propaganda. Essentially, the deployment would contribute significantly not only to the protection of Cuba but also to the preservation of communism in the Latin American region and this wider protection would be facilitated by Soviet actions.
Some historians have suggested that Khrushchev saw intervention in Cuba as a way of putting pressure on the powers over Berlin. Khrushchev may have hoped to develop a linkage strategy between Cuba and Berlin where, despite considerable efforts between 1958 and 1961, he had failed to remove the Western power. Not only was this Western presence a political embarrassment to Khrushchev; it also had significant implications in terms of the security of the communist bloc in eastern Europe.
Lastly, the Cuban missiles would have given Khrushchev a bargaining tool to use against US missiles in Turkey.
The crisis brought the world closer to a nuclear war than had ever happened at any other time. The immediate response to this reality was the creation, in 1963, of a so-called ‘hotline’ connecting the Kremlin and the White House. Some historians have taken the view that its symbolic value has been greater than its practical application. This crisis also led to a growing awareness of the need to create some control over the nuclear arms race by placing restrictions on nuclear tests. Despite its shortcomings of Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons, the treaty was a major contributory factor in the development of detente.
The crisis had only lasted a few days, but it was extremely tense and it had important results. Both sides could claim to have gained something, but most important was that both sides realised how easily a nuclear war could have started and how terrible the results would have been. It seemed to bring them both to their senses and produced a marked relaxation of tension. Ultimately, aspects of the dynamics of international relations and Cold War interaction had shifted and moved the bipolar world closer towards greater cooperation though US commitment to containment and the Truman Doctrine had failed since Cuba remained a communist state in the USA’s ‘back yard’ at the end of the crisis.