Imagine that it is October, the perfect time of the year for pumpkin carving, apple picking, and hunting for spooky costumes. What could go wrong? Now imagine that it is the year 1962 and the threat of a Nuclear War is imminent.

What is the Threat of a Nuclear War?

Nuclear warfare is a military conflict or prepared political strategy that uses nuclear weapons, one of the most dangerous feats of military technology on earth. The scale of their devastation and the effects of radioactive materials make it unlike any other weapon. Because they are capable of causing mass destruction and an alarming number of fatalities, the mere threat of one is enough to induce panic.

In a modern nuclear war, hundreds or thousands of detonations could occur within minutes of each other. This is no exaggeration – a single weapon can wipe out an entire city leaving thousands dead and injured. A nuclear attack has disastrous consequences which cause extensive damage, substantial fatalities, and injuries.

Aside from the devastation of property and loss of lives, significant radiological consequences may also arise. Large-scale nuclear attacks are capable of immense environmental damage with long-term effects that can include ozone layer depletion, famines, extreme weather conditions, and ocean acidity. Scientists estimate it would take 3-10 years for the earth to recover from the effects of a global nuclear war.

Consider this:

  • According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, direct radiation lasts less than a second but has a high lethal level.
  • The United Nations has worked to ban nuclear weapons but has been unsuccessful.
  • The B53, the heaviest nuclear weapon in the U.S arsenal after the Cold War, weighed 8,850 pounds though was disassembled in 2011
  • The U.S. paid at least $759,000,000 to Marshallese Islanders in the South Pacific  since 1956 to redress damages from nuclear testing including that from Bikini Atoll.
  • Nuclear explosions can release high levels of radiation energy that can damage DNA and range from skin damage and radiation sickness to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Judging from facts gathered, it is clear that the threat of a nuclear war, real or imagined, is scary.

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The Cold War Builds Global Tension

To understand the Cuban missile crisis, it is important to understand the historical context and the main countries involved. The Cold War, coined by George Orwell, was the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Once wartime allies during World War II, the two nations began to have a tense relationship.

Concerned about Soviet communism, and Stalin's tyrannical rule (up until his death in 1953), America began to grow wary of their one-time ally. The Soviet Union in turn was dissatisfied with the postwar sharing of Europe - dividing the globe into Eastern and Western blocks.. Other factors include America’s intervention in global affairs, the creation of NATO, and Stalin’s insincere negotiations.

Thus, the Cold War began: an ongoing political and ideological struggle between the capitalist West and communist East running from 1947 to 1991. Ultimately, historians have concluded that the Cold War was inevitable given the tense relationship, the emergence, and testing of nuclear weapons, and the competition between the two world powers.

Although the main conflict was between   the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Cuba was caught in the middle. This decades-long rivalry almost led to the brink of a nuclear disaster.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis Begins

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a period of global anxiety, fear, and panic for two weeks in October of 1962. The world watched and waited for a peaceful resolution.

A dangerous confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union teetered on the edge of war with the standoff based on the result  of mutually assured destruction.

~What Started the Potential Nuclear War?

~After the U.S. failed to overthrow Castro’s communist regime during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet Union secretly reached an agreement with Cuba in July of 1962 to stock their island nation with nuclear weapons - both for their assured safety from U.S. invasion and to place Soviet missiles within reach of U.S. soil. The Soviet Union began building their weapon sites on Cuba in late summer 1962, eventually ignoring public warnings made by U.S. President John F. Kennedy that September.

~The “crisis” started on the morning of October 15, 1962, when the president was shown photos taken by a U-2 spy plane from the day prior. The pictures indicated medium-range and intermediate-range Soviet ballistic sites under construction on the island of Cuba just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

What Were Kennedy’s Options?

Kennedy had meetings with top aides and Khrushchev to attempt to negotiate a solution. Meeting with a special team of advisers, many actions are known to have been considered:

  1. diplomacy with Castro and Khrushchev
  2. stern warnings to the Soviets
  3. naval quarantine of Cuba
  4. an air strike to destroy missiles and invasion of Cuba

Rejecting the air strike in order not to cause a counterattack, President Kennedy opted for a quarantine.

Demanding removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and warning that a strike on U.S. territory would trigger a strike on the Soviet Union, Kennedy declared that a naval quarantine would be in effect - which was understood to be the first steps in military readiness - called DEFCON3.

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The U.S Launches a Naval “Quarantine”

After careful consideration, the U.S. decided to place a naval “quarantine” on Cuba on October 22nd to prevent further shipments by sea. Kennedy notably used the term “quarantine” versus “blockade” to temper escalation and to gain public support since the term “blockade” is an action considered only during war time.

President Kennedy also warned that the U.S. would seize weapons and offensive materials from incoming vessels.

Khrushchev considered the quarantine a “blockade” and an “act of aggression,” commanding his ships to stay the course, though several ended up altering away from the quarantine zone. Some ships meeting the quarantine line were allowed to pass given that they had no weapons.

By October 24th, with tensions continuing to rise, both nations were at a stalemate.

~What Ended the Crisis?

~On October 28th, the crisis ended.

~Reports from the Kremlin reached ABC News reporter John Scali on October 26th indicating that if the US vowed not to invade Cuba, then the Soviets would concede to pulling their missiles. Meanwhile, the US military had reclassified its readiness to DEFCON2 - an advanced state of preparedness.

~Additionally, on October 27th, amidst further escalation of a US reconnaissance jet being shot down, Khrushchev also demanded in the deal that the US withdraw their missiles from Turkey.

~Ultimately, after two weeks of tense negotiations, an agreement was made: the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle its weapons facilities if the U.S pledged not to invade Cuba and also remove their Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the humiliation of the Soviets are widely believed to have led to the fall of Nikita Khrushchev.