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.”

1 of 3

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.