Cuban Missile Crisis: the 3 most surprising things you didn't know

Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Here are three things that many Americans don’t know about what historians routinely call “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

3. Nikita Khrushchev wasn’t an irrational warmonger

In the wake of the cable he received from Castro, Khrushchev was both alarmed and chastened, says Allyn. “Khrushchev was no more anxious to stumble into war than Kennedy,” he says.

Soon after receiving it, he “raced to broadcast over open radio the removal of the missiles from Cuba.”

In his cabled response to Castro, Khrushchev made clear his refusal to launch a preemptive strike on the US.

“You, of course, realize where that would have led,” Khrushchev wrote to Castro, according to Khrushchev’s memoirs. “Rather than a simple strike, it would have been the start of a thermonuclear war. Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I consider this proposal of yours incorrect, although I understand your motivation.”

Castro never forgave the Soviets for publicly announcing the withdrawal of their missiles before even discussing it with him, and years later he denied Khrushchev’s son Sergei a visa to attend a Cuban Missile conference in Havana.

Allyn further argues in his book that the iconic moment in which Khrushchev banged his shoe on the desk during a United Nations meeting – cementing his reputation as a hothead – was an overblown misunderstanding. A journalist had stepped on his shoe in the hallway, but Khrushchev was self-conscious about his weight and “didn’t want to bend over to pick it up.”

A UN staffer delivered it to his desk. Then, during the General Assembly debate, there was a point where “one country insulted a Soviet satellite country and there was a huge ruckus,” Allyn says. “Khrushchev stood up to get the floor, because he had to respond to the insult.”

He waved first one hand, then the other. “The [UN] chairman didn’t see him, and the shoe was sitting conveniently on his desk,” Allyn says. “He actually tapped it; he didn’t bang it.”

Khrushchev was “an emotional, strong-minded individual who used graphic metaphors, but the stereotype of him as a hothead” was the product of the “propaganda war” that both countries waged during the cold war, Allyn says.

To this day, however, the most commonly asked question on the UN tour in New York, Allyn notes, is, “Where was Khrushchev sitting when he banged his shoe?”

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