Military History Cuban Missile Crisis
by
Michael E. Weaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0223

Introduction

Works on the Cuban Missile Crisis generally pursue one of two objectives: conveying events with the greatest accuracy and using the crisis to examine or illustrate a related issue. Works written before the mid-1980s suffer from an absence of important primary sources. The release of American and Soviet sources has made substantiating arguments easier, has overturned a couple of tropes, and has introduced new and startling information. Major topics and questions include why the Soviets installed ballistic missiles in Cuba, the Kennedy administration’s strategy for forcing their removal, reasons the Soviets removed the missiles, assessments of individuals, the extent to which the crisis could have escalated into general nuclear war, the roles of allied states such as Cuba and the United Kingdom, gaps between political actors’ perceptions and the reality of what was actually taking place, and key moments and actions. Among the greatest revelations resulting from the expansion of available sources was the Soviet installation of dozens of short-range nuclear rockets and cruise missiles for incinerating an American seaborne invasion force. The Americans were unaware of these weapons in 1962. One Soviet submarine commander considered using a nuclear-tipped torpedo against US Navy warships that were hounding the submarine. While American forces, nuclear and conventional, were at a very high state of alert, operational plans for attacking the missile sites relied solely on conventional weaponry. Attorney General Robert Kennedy favored military action; it was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who first made comparisons between American military options and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Soviets put the ballistic missiles in Cuba primarily to deter an American invasion; reconfiguring the nuclear balance in favor of the Soviet Union was a secondary goal. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson was no appeaser. Cuban president Fidel Castro encouraged Premier Nikita Khrushchev to initiate a war against the United States. Termination of the crisis began when President John F. Kennedy promised to not invade Cuba and also to remove the sixteen Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles the United States still had in Turkey, as long as the Soviets successfully kept the promise of a missile swap an absolute secret. Administration officials insisted this never took place. Understanding of the events during the crisis is good, but new revelations from the Soviet Union and Cuba leave room for additional synthetic works. Since 1962 three kinds of scholars have produced most of the literature: presidential historians, historians of foreign relations, and political scientists. The first group set the narrative, and the central question has been “How well did John F. Kennedy respond to the crisis?” Students of the crisis should be aware that the initial examinations celebrated Kennedy and had almost no access to historical records. Indeed, Kennedy’s friends wrote the first histories. Presidential biographers have become more nuanced and balanced as records have been declassified. Political scientists have made great contributions by assessing questions beyond what happened and why. Starting with Graham Allison, these scholars have attempted to wrest practical lessons for policy makers. Scholars of diplomatic history have written at the pace at which archives have opened and adjusted to the revelations that American, Soviet, and Cuban sources have made. Later scholars have attempted to raise the visibility of participants other than the elites in the United States and the Soviet Union. Scholars of the history of war and warfare soon find only a history of the mobilization of military forces; approaches from diplomatic history and international relations produce fruit that is more well developed. (The views in this bibliography are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the US government, the Department of Defense, or Air University.)

General Overviews

Three overviews are good places to begin learning about the crisis: Munton and Welch 2007 is the briefest overview, followed by Garthoff 1989, which also functions as a bridge to the period in which more sources were declassified. Dobbs 2008 stands alone and also addresses many of the questions the history of the crisis has raised. From there one can move on to works like Fursenko and Naftali 1997, which incorporated new sources from the Soviet Union as well as the United States. Polmar and Gresham 2006 steers readers toward military details—not as trivia but as strategically significant factors. Voorhees 2020 challenges “settled history,” successfully arguing that the risk of nuclear escalation was very low and that President Kennedy was at least as concerned about the effects of the crisis on Democrats’ midterm election prospects as about the security danger the missiles presented. Plokhy 2021 makes just as convincing a case that the danger of escalation was great and makes extensive use of Cuban and Soviet documentary materials. George 2003 conveys how challenging effective civil defense would have been and shares what life felt like during those thirteen days. Stern 2012 tackles the actions and reputations of several key players, defending the presented perspective with evidence. Sherwin 2020 proves that scholarship and analysis on the crisis is far from becoming stale.

  • Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

    The best large overview. Uses the newest sources and clarifies and corrects several shibboleths. Superbly written. The informed public will find it completely accessible; scholars and politicians will reference its sources and research. Should be the starting point for graduate-level and professional assessments of the crisis.

  • Fursenko, Aleksandr V., and Timothy J. Naftali. “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

    Great reliance on Soviet documentary sources, the American National Archives, and files at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. A deliberately international history, it refines and balances the narrative of events and decision-making.

  • Garthoff, Raymond L. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989.

    Excellent short narrative. Among the first to use newly available sources. Makes use of Soviet sources. Addresses the interaction of American and Soviet perceptions and actions entering the crisis and in resolving it. Recommended for all readers.

  • George, Alice. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

    Argues that American civil defense preparations were a “charade” and a “shell game.” Examples of fearful reactions by ordinary people, governmental officials, and elites during the thirteen days.

  • Munton, Don, and David A. Welch. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Good very short account. Helpful bibliographic essay. The crisis shows that great powers ignore small powers and that national leaders may not understand one another as well as is needed. Good introduction for undergraduates.

  • Plokhy, Serhii. Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton, 2021.

    Focuses on leaders’ mistakes. Great use of Soviet and Cuban archival sources. Missiles were to redress the nuclear balance and protect Cuba from invasion. Concludes that the risk of escalation was very great. An essential source.

  • Polmar, Norman, and John D. Gresham. DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Foreword by Tom Clancy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

    Well-researched narrative. Thematically addresses military capabilities, weapons, and close calls. Pays close attention to the details. Closes with analyses of twenty-seven years of aftereffects.

  • Sherwin, Martin J. Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1945–1962. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

    Mostly covers the Cuban Missile Crisis. Extensive mining of archival sources. Much more than an effort to update the facts of the conflict, this book interprets and analyzes the ways in which choices and luck shaped the course of the crisis. Exposes Robert F. Kennedy as a hawk and resuscitates Adlai Stevenson’s reputation.

  • Stern, Sheldon M. The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    Reexamines the roles of Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Llewellyn Thompson, McGeorge Bundy, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, and also the Trollope ploy (which Stern calls a “fable”). Concludes that President Kennedy, not the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), made the key decisions and that the president required his advisers to conform to his agenda.

  • Voorhees, Theodore, Jr. The Silent Guns of Two Octobers: Kennedy and Khrushchev Play the Double Game. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.11441532

    Argues that both Kennedy and Khrushchev readily made concessions to deflate the crisis because neither wanted to escalate; thus, the risk of war was much lower than has been claimed. Effects of the crisis on the 1962 midterm elections were a central concern for President Kennedy, who made concessions to Khrushchev for domestic political gain.

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