A nuclear war never seemed as real as it did in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It began October 15 when the United States discovered that the U.S.S.R. had installed (on Cuba) medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as far as Washington, D.C. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s strategy was to deter the United States from attacking the Soviet Union while Cuban leader Fidel Castro needed a way to defend his nation from another U.S. incursion after the Bay of Pigs.
Speaking to the American people on October 22, President John F. Kennedy said, “…a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” He added that any missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an attack on the United States, “requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” and called on Khrushchev “to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace…”
Kennedy deliberated with his closest advisors, weighing both diplomatic and military options. He imposed a naval blockade of Cuba, which the Soviets declared “an act of aggression,” and placed the Strategic Air Command’s military readiness at DEFCON 2 (the second-highest level). Finally, four days after Kennedy’s speech to the nation, Khrushchev proposed dismantling the missiles if the United States agreed not to invade Cuba. It didn’t help tensions a day later when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba. But the United States finally agreed to Khrushchev’s terms, and the threat of annihilation was averted at last on October 28.