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. By the Pentagon’s estimates, had the crisis not been averted, more than 150 million people would have been killed and the strikes would have ushered in a “nuclear winter” in the Northern Hemisphere.

Here are three things that many Americans don’t know about what historians routinely call “the most dangerous moment in human history.” 

1. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a US military coup

Desmond Boylan/Reuters
A deactivated Soviet-era SS-4 medium range nuclear capable ballistic missile is displayed at La Cabana fortress in Havana.

The Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted to President Kennedy that a preemptive surgical strike of Cuba was the only way to respond to the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles in Cuba.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara instead proposed the idea of a US Navy “quarantine” of the island. (US officials avoided using the word “blockade” because it’s an overt act of war.)

The Joint Chiefs “were not at all happy with this,” says Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington. These Pentagon officials “were prepared to go to war if the Soviets had not accepted the withdrawal of the missiles.”

US officials later learned that had the US military invaded Cuba, the Soviets were prepared to launch tactical nuclear weapons at the US, adds Dr. Pastor, who was national security adviser on Latin America in the late ’70s and McNamara’s son-in-law.

Robert Kennedy recalled in his memoirs that “the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimous in railing for immediate military action” and “forcefully presented their view that the blockade would not be effective.”

Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay in particular “strongly argued with the president that a military attack was essential,” according to the Robert Kennedy memoirs.

The memoirs also say that the State Department proceeded with preparations “for a crash program on civil government in Cuba to be established after the invasion and occupation of the country” and that McNamara reported the military’s conclusion that “we should expect very heavy casualties in the invasion.”

President Kennedy ultimately decided on a blockade.

During negotiations with the Soviets, however, Robert Kennedy warned them that “there were indeed people in the Pentagon that would take action if Kennedy did not – that there could be a military coup,” Pastor says, adding that Robert Kennedy “wasn’t bluffing.”

After the crisis, McNamara went to the president and said, “We need to replace LeMay and [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. George Whelan] Anderson. They were both insubordinate, and we need to send a clear message on that,” Pastor says. “Bob McNamara told me this personally.”

The president told McNamara that for political reasons, he could only publicly discipline one person and told McNamara to choose. McNamara picked Anderson, whom Kennedy then nominated to be ambassador to Portugal.

Robert Kennedy for his part reflected on the president’s discussion with the US military leaders in his memoirs. “Like all meetings of this kind, certain statements were made as accepted truisms which I, at least, thought were of questionable validity. One member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, argued that we could use nuclear weapons, on the basis that our adversaries would use theirs against us in an attack,” he recalled.

“I thought, as I listened, of the many times that I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.”

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