The Cuban Missile Crisis Timeline
It’s a rollercoaster ride to the edge of nuclear apocalypse and back
20 January 1961: Kennedy becomes U.S. President
John F. Kennedy is sworn in as the 35th president of the United States after narrowly beating Republican candidate Richard Nixon to the White House.
17 April 1961: Bay of Pigs
A failed landing operation on the southwestern coast of Cuba by exiles who oppose Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, this operation is covertly financed and directed by the U.S. government. Its failure sets in motion the events that lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The invasion is a U.S. foreign policy failure and solidifies Castro’s role as a national hero, whilst widening the political division between the two formerly-allied countries of the United States and Cuba. It also pushes Cuba closer to the Soviet Union, and these strengthened Soviet-Cuban relations lead directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
4 June 1961: Crisis in Berlin
Lasting until 9 November 1961, this is the last political-military crisis concerning the occupational status of Berlin and post-World War II Germany. The crisis starts when the USSR issues an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of armed forces from Berlin, including the Western armed forces in the city.
The crisis culminates in the city’s partition with the Berlin Wall.
4 July 1962: Soviet missiles are sent to Cuba
By May 1962, Khrushchev and Castro had already secretly agreed to place strategic nuclear missiles in Cuba. Like Castro, Khrushchev believes a US invasion of Cuba is imminent by this point and that losing Cuba would do great harm to the communists, especially in Latin America. He had stated that he wants to confront the Americans “with more than words…. the logical answer was missiles”.
The Soviets maintain their tight secrecy for the siting of the missiles, writing their plans longhand, which are then approved by Marshal of the Soviet Union, Rodion Malinovsky (and by Khrushchev three days later).
Specialists in missile construction under the guise of “machine operators,” “irrigation specialists,” and “agricultural specialists” arrive in Cuba throughout July, with 43,000 foreign troops ultimately being brought into the country.
Chief Marshal of Artillery Sergei Biryuzov, Head of the Soviet Rocket Forces, also leads a survey team that visits the island. He reports to Khrushchev that the missiles will be camouflaged by palm trees.
10 August 1962: U.S. suspicions are raised
CIA director John A. McCone sends a memo to President Kennedy in which he speculates that the Soviets are preparing to introduce ballistic missiles into Cuba. In the memo, McCone states that sending antiaircraft missiles into Cuba “made sense only if Moscow intended to use them to shield a base for ballistic missiles aimed at the United States”.
The memo comes after US intelligence services have gathered information about sightings by ground observers of Russian-built MiG-21 fighters and Il-28 light bombers on the island, as well as U-2 spy planes reporting that S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile sites are established at eight different locations on Cuba.
8 September 1962: Soviet missiles arrive in Cuba
The first consignment of Soviet R-12 missiles arrive during the night (to be followed by a second on 16 September). The R-12 is a medium-range ballistic missile, capable of carrying a thermonuclear warhead, with an effective range of 1,200 miles, located in nine sites, as well as three sites for R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 2,800 miles.
11 September 1962: Warnings
The Soviet Union publicly warns that a U.S. attack on Cuba or on Soviet ships that are carrying supplies to the island will mean war. The Soviets also continue what is known as the Maskirovka programme, to conceal their actions in Cuba, while denying the weapons being brought into Cuba are offensive.
TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) announces that the USSR has no need or intention to introduce offensive nuclear missiles into Cuba.
20 September 1962: Responses
The U.S. Senate approves Joint Resolution 230, which states that the U.S. is determined “to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally-supported military capability endangering the security of the United States”.
The U.S. also announces a major military exercise in the Caribbean (PHIBRIGLEX-62).
7 October 1962: Misdirection
Soviet embassy official Georgy Bolshakov brings Kennedy a personal message from Khrushchev reassuring him that “under no circumstances would surface-to-surface missiles be sent to Cuba.”
13 October 1962: Further misdirection
U.S.-Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin is questioned by former Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles about whether the Soviets plan to put offensive weapons in Cuba. He denies any such plans to do so.
14 October 1962: Evidence
The U.S. government obtains U-2 photographic evidence of the missiles when a flight piloted by Major Richard Heyser takes 928 pictures, capturing images of an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal in western Cuba.
15 October 1962: Escalation
The CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center reviews the U-2 photographs and identifies objects that they interpret as being medium-range ballistic missiles. In the evening, the CIA notifies the Department of State and William Bundy, deputy to Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs, decides to wait until the next morning to tell the President. McNamara is briefed at midnight.
16 October 1962: The crisis builds
The next morning, Bundy meets with Kennedy, shows him the U-2 photographs and briefs him on the CIA’s analysis of the images.
Kennedy later convenes a meeting of the nine members of the National Security Council and five other key advisers in a group he formally names the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM).
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara suggests either diplomacy with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, a naval blockade of Cuba, or an air attack to destroy the missile sites.
Kennedy favours a blockage to allow for negotiations.
Without informing the members of EXCOMM, Kennedy tape records these proceedings, and Sheldon M. Stern, head of the Kennedy Library transcribes some of them.
21 October 1962: Blockade plans
Kennedy meets with members of EXCOMM and other top advisers throughout the day, specifically considering an airstrike against the Cuban missile bases or a naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara supports the naval blockade as a strong but limited military action that leaves the U.S. in control. The term “blockade” is viewed as problematic, however.
According to international law, a blockade is an act of war, but the Kennedy administration does not believe that the Soviets would be provoked into a military response attack by such a blockade.
The term “quarantine” is favoured instead.
Additionally, legal experts at the State Department and Justice Department conclude that a declaration of war can be avoided if another legal justification, based on the Rio Treaty for the defence of the Western Hemisphere, is obtained from a resolution by a two-thirds vote from the members of the Organization of American States (OAS).
22 October 1962: Kennedy speaks
Kennedy formally establishes EXCOMM with National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 196. He then meets with Congressional leaders who contentiously oppose a blockade and demand a stronger response.
Kennedy prepares to speak on television concerning the crisis and shortly before this, he calls former President Dwight Eisenhower. In the conversation, the two men anticipate that Khrushchev will respond to the U.S. (and the West more generally) by attempting to trade off Berlin in any negotiations that follow.
Before the speech, U.S. delegations also meet with Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, French President Charles de Gaulle and Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, José Antonio Mora, to brief them on the U.S. intelligence and their proposed response.
All are supportive of the U.S. (except Macmillan who advocates appeasement).
In his dramatic television speech, Kennedy announces “unmistakable evidence” of the Soviet missile threat on Cuba, and states that the U.S. will prevent ships carrying weapons from reaching the island while demanding that the Soviets withdraw the missiles.
During the speech, a directive goes out to all U.S. forces worldwide, placing them on DEFCON 3.
In Moscow, Ambassador Foy D. Kohler briefs Khrushchev on the pending blockade and Kennedy’s speech to the nation, and delivers a letter from the president that states, “The one thing that has most concerned me has been the possibility that your government would not correctly understand the will and determination of the United States in any given situation, since I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”
23 October 1962: Turkey in focus
A cable, drafted by the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic and Agricultural Affairs, George Wildman Ball, to the U.S. Ambassador in Turkey and NATO, notifies them that the U.S. government is considering making an offer to withdraw what the U.S. knows to be its practically obsolete missiles from Italy and Turkey in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. Turkish officials reply that they would “deeply resent” any trade involving the U.S. missile presence in the country.
24 October 1962: Sabre rattling
TASS broadcasts a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy in which Khrushchev warns that the United States' “outright piracy” will lead to war.
That is followed by a telegram from Khrushchev to Kennedy, which states that “if you weigh the present situation with a cool head without giving way to passion, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot afford not to decline the despotic demands of the U.S.A.” and that the Soviet Union views the blockade as “an act of aggression” and their ships will be instructed to ignore it.
Kislovodsk, a Soviet cargo ship, reports a position north-east of where it has been 24 hours earlier, indicating it had “discontinued” its voyage and turned back towards the Baltic.
25 October 1962: United Nations
Reports show more ships originally bound for Cuba have altered their course.
Castro reaffirms Cuba’s right to self-defence and states that all of the country’s weapons are defensive and Cuba will not allow inspection of them.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson confronts Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles.
Ambassador Zorin refuses to answer.
Kennedy responds to Khrushchev’s earlier telegram by stating that the U.S. has been forced into action after receiving repeated assurances that no offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba and when the assurances proved to be false, the deployment “required the responses I have announced… I hope that your government will take necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation.”
The U.S.S. Essex and U.S.S. Gearing attempt to intercept the Bucharest but fail to do so. Fairly certain that the tanker does not contain any military material, the U.S. allows it through the blockade.
Later, the U.S. commander of the blockade orders the destroyer U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. to intercept and board the Lebanese freighter Marucla.
Reports indicate that the missiles in Cuba are still actively being worked on (later verified by a CIA report that suggests there has been no slowdown at all).
In response, Kennedy issues Security Action Memorandum 199, authorising the loading of nuclear weapons onto aircraft under the command of SACEUR, which has the duty of carrying out first airstrikes on the Soviet Union.
Later in the day, the Soviets respond to the blockade by turning back 14 ships that are presumably carrying offensive weapons. The first indication of this comes from a report from the British GCHQ sent to the White House containing intercepted communications from Soviet ships reporting their positions.
26 October 1962: Confusion
Kennedy informs the EXCOMM that he believes only an invasion will remove the missiles from Cuba. He is persuaded to give the matter time and continue with both military and diplomatic pressure. He agrees and orders the low-level flights over the island to be increased from two per day to once every two hours. He also orders a crash programme to institute a new civil government in Cuba if an invasion goes ahead.
The Marucia is boarded and cleared through the blockade after its cargo is checked.
John A. Scali of ABC News has lunch with Aleksandr Fomin, the cover name of Alexander Feklisov, the KGB station chief in Washington, at Fomin’s request.
Following the instructions of the Soviet Politburo, Fomin notes, “War seems about to break out.” He asks Scali to use his contacts to talk to his “high-level friends” at the State Department to see if the U.S. would be interested in a diplomatic solution.
He suggests that the language of the deal should contain an assurance from the Soviet Union to remove the weapons under U.N. supervision and that Castro would publicly announce that he would not accept such weapons again in exchange for a public statement by the U.S. that it would avoid invading Cuba.
The U.S. responds by asking the Brazilian government to pass a message to Castro that the US would be “unlikely to invade” if the missiles are removed.
In the early evening, the State Department starts receiving a message that appears to be written personally by Khrushchev. The long letter takes several minutes to arrive, and it takes translators additional time to translate and transcribe it.
Robert F. Kennedy describes the letter as “very long and emotional”. In the letter, Khrushchev reiterates the basic outline that had been stated to Scali earlier in the day.
After this, news of Fomin’s offer to Scali is finally heard and is interpreted as a “set up” for the arrival of Khrushchev’s letter.
The letter is then considered official and accurate. Additional study of the letter is ordered and continues into the night.
Castro also sends a telegram to Khrushchev that appears to call for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the U.S. in case of attack.
In a later 2010 interview, Castro would express regret about his earlier stance on the first use of nuclear weapons:
”After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it at all.”
Castro also orders all anti-aircraft weapons in Cuba to fire on any U.S. aircraft.
Later in the evening, the U.S. raises the readiness level of SAC forces to DEFCON 2.
For the only confirmed time in U.S. history, B-52 bombers take to the skies on continuous airborne alert, and B-47 medium bombers are dispersed to military and civilian airfields where they are made ready to take off, fully equipped, on 15 minutes’ notice.
One-eighth of SAC’s 1,436 bombers are on airborne alert, and 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stand on ready alert, some targeted at Cuba.
Air Defense Command (ADC) redeploys 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours, with one-third maintaining 15-minute alert status, while 23 nuclear-armed B-52s are sent to orbit points within striking distance of the Soviet Union so that its leadership will believe that the U.S. is serious.
27 October 1962: Close to war
Early in the morning, the CIA delivers a memo reporting that three of the four missile sites at San Cristobal and the two sites at Sagua la Grande appear to be fully operational.
Three hours after this, Radio Moscow begins broadcasting a message from Khrushchev, which offers a new trade, specifically that the missiles on Cuba will be removed in exchange for the removal of the US Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey.
An hour later, the executive committee meets again to discuss the situation and concludes that the change in the message is because of an internal debate between Khrushchev and other party officials in the Kremlin and there is little enthusiasm for the new offer.
At the meeting, McNamara advises that another tanker, the Grozny, is about 600 miles out and from Cuba and should be intercepted.
While the meeting progresses, a new message begins to arrive from Khrushchev.
The message states:
”You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But… you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us… I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive… Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States… will remove its analogous means from Turkey… and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfilment of the pledges made.”
The executive committee continues to meet and at midday a U-2F piloted by USAF Major Rudolf Anderson Jr. is struck by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile launched from Cuba and shot down, killing Anderson Jr.
Just after midday, the U.S. informs its NATO allies that “the situation is growing shorter…. the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary.”
The U.S. Navy drops a series of “signalling” depth charges on Soviet submarine B-59 at the blockade line, unaware that it is armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo with orders that allow it to be used if the submarine is damaged by depth charges or surface fire.
As the submarine is too deep to monitor any radio traffic, the captain of the B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, decides that a war might already have started and wants to launch a nuclear torpedo. The decision to launch these requires agreement from all three officers on board, but one of them, Vasily Arkhipov, objects and no nuclear launch takes place.
A U-2 spy plane also makes an accidental, unauthorised ninety-minute overflight of the Soviet Union’s far eastern coast. The Soviets respond to this by scrambling MiG fighters from Wrangel Island, which prompts the U.S. to launch two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea.
Later in the day, several U.S. Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft, on low-level photo-reconnaissance missions, are also fired upon.
In the evening JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, meets with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and advises that the United States already planned to remove its missiles from Turkey, but cannot say so publicly.
28 October 1962: High point/low point
Mid-morning, Kennedy first learns of Khrushchev’s solution to the crisis in the form of the U.S. removing the 15 Jupiters in Turkey and the Soviets removing the rockets from Cuba. Kennedy had earlier deployed the Jupiters in March, prompting a stream of angry outbursts from Khrushchev.
Khrushchev makes his offer in a public statement.
Despite opposition from his senior advisers, Kennedy quickly embraces the Soviet offer.
”This is a pretty good play of his,” Kennedy says, according to a tape recording that Kennedy (secretly) makes of the Cabinet Room meeting.
“Most people will think this is a rather even trade and we ought to take advantage of it,” Kennedy also says.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson is the first to endorse the missile swap, but others continue to oppose the offer. Finally, Kennedy ends the debate by saying, “We can’t very well invade Cuba with all its toil and blood, when we could have gotten them out by making a deal on the same missiles on Turkey. If that’s part of the record, then you don’t have a very good war.”
Kennedy responds to Khrushchev’s letter, issuing a statement calling it “an important and constructive contribution to peace”.
He then continues to state his position in a formal letter.
In the late afternoon, Kennedy recalls members of EXCOMM to the White House and orders that a message should immediately be sent to U. Thant asking the Soviets to suspend work on the missiles while negotiations are carried out.
During the meeting, General Maxwell Taylor delivers the news that Major Anderson Jr.’s U-2 has been shot down over Cuba.
Kennedy had earlier claimed he would order an attack on such sites if U.S. aircraft were fired upon, but he decides not to act unless another attack is made.
He also suggests taking Khrushchev’s offer to trade away the missiles. The EXCOMM is against the proposal because it could undermine NATO’s authority and the Turkish government had repeatedly stated it was against any such trade.
As the meeting progresses, a new plan emerges, and Kennedy is persuaded of its merits. The new plan calls for him to ignore the latest message and instead return to Khrushchev’s earlier one.
Kennedy is initially hesitant, feeling that Khrushchev would no longer accept the deal because a new one had been offered, but is persuaded that it is still possible. White House Special Counsel and Adviser Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy leave the meeting and return 45 minutes later with a draft letter to that effect.
The President makes several changes and has it typed up and sent.
After the EXCOMM meeting, a smaller meeting continues in the Oval Office. The group at the meeting argue that the letter should be underscored with an oral message to Dobrynin that states that if the missiles are not withdrawn, military action would be used to remove them.
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk adds that no part of the deal should mention Turkey, but that there should also be an understanding that the missiles would be removed “voluntarily” in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
The president agrees to this and the message is sent.
At Rusk’s request, Fomin and Scali meet again.
Scali asks why the two letters from Khrushchev are so different and Fomin claims it is because of “poor communications”. Scali replies that the claim is not credible and shouts that he thought it represents a “stinking double cross”.
He goes on to claim that an invasion is only hours away, and Fomin states that a response to the U.S. message is expected from Khrushchev shortly and urges Scali to tell the State Department that no treachery is intended. Scali, though sceptical of what might happen, agrees to deliver the message.
The two go their separate ways and Scali immediately types out a memo for the EXCOMM.
Within the U.S. establishment, it is understood that ignoring the second offer and returning to the first may put Khrushchev in a difficult position. Military preparations continue, and all active duty Air Force personnel are recalled to their bases for possible action.
According to Robert Kennedy, “We had not abandoned all hope, but what hope there was now rested with Khrushchev’s revising his course within the next few hours. It was a hope, not an expectation. The expectation was military confrontation by Tuesday (30 October), and possibly tomorrow (29 October) ….”
In the evening, the letter drafted earlier in the day is delivered. The letter is also released directly to the press to ensure it could not be “delayed”.
Following this, the EXCOMM meet again to review the actions for the following day. Plans are drawn up for airstrikes on the missile sites as well as other economic targets, notably petroleum storage facilities. McNamara states that they have to “have two things ready: a government for Cuba because we’re going to need one; and secondly, plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure as hell they’re going to do something there”.
When Khrushchev hears about Kennedy’s threats relayed by Robert Kennedy to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, he immediately drafts his acceptance of Kennedy’s latest terms from his dacha without involving the Politburo, as he had done previously, and has them broadcast over Radio Moscow, which he believes the US will hear.
In his broadcast, Khrushchev states that “the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as ‘offensive’ and their crating and return to the Soviet Union.”
2 November 1962: Crisis over
President Kennedy addresses the U.S. via radio and television, describing the dismantlement process of the Soviet R-12 missile bases located in Cuba.
9 November 1962: Soviet forces leave Cuba
The last Soviet ships leave Cuba, with the U.S. making a final visual check as each of the ships passes the blockade line.
Eleven days later the U.S. government announce the end of the Cuban blockade.
24 April 1963: Clean-up
After the U.S. dismantles the missiles in both Italy and Turkey the last U.S. Jupiter missiles are disassembled and flown out of Turkey. This follows Robert Kennedy earlier proposing during his negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that these missiles will be removed “within a short time after this crisis was over”.