Cuban Missile Crisis

How Cigars, Plots and Nukes Defined Early U.S.-Cuba Enmity

In October 1960, the U.S. announced the first of several embargo restrictions applicable to most exports to Cuba.

When Castro restricted the staff of the U.S. embassy to eleven persons, the U.S., on January 3,1961, severed diplomatic relations and withdrew its ambassador, setting the stage for escalation that lead to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

U.S-Cuba friction swelled following Castro’s revolution, and the U.S. embarked on a more aggressive policy towards the Castro regime.

Groups of Cuban exiles were being trained, under the supervision of U.S. officials, in Central American camps for an attack on Cuba. The internal situation on the island then seemed propitious for an attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime. Although Castro still counted on significant popular support, that support had progressively decreased. His own 26th of July movement was badly split on the issue of communism. Also, a substantial urban guerrilla movement existed throughout the island, composed of former Castro allies, Batista supporters, Catholic groups, and other elements that had been affected by the Revolution, and significant unrest was evident within the armed forces.

Cuban Missile Crisis
An overhead view of the battleship USS IOWA (BB-61)

The Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 17-19, 1961, was a tragedy of errors. Although the Cuban government did not know the date or the exact place where the exile forces would land, hints of an invasion put Castro on alert. The weapons and ammunition that were to be used by the invading force were all placed in one ship, which was sunk the first day of the invasion. The site for the invasion was sparsely populated, surrounded by swamps, and offered little access to nearby mountains, where guerrilla operations could be carried out if the invasion failed.

The invading forces failed to find help from the nearby population.

At the last minute, a confused and indecisive President Kennedy canceled some of the air raids by Cuban exiles that were intended to cripple Castro’s air force. Perhaps trying to reassert his authority over the CIA-sponsored invasion, to stymie possible world reaction, or to appease the Soviets, Kennedy ordered no further U.S. involvement.

In early 1962, President John F. Kennedy called his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, into his office to discuss an urgent matter.

JFK smoking cigar
photo credit: Cecil (Cecil William) Stoughton

“I really need some help,” said Kennedy.

“What do you want, Mr. President?” Salinger replied.

“I need some cigars,” JFK replied.

“Fine,” Salinger answered. “How many do you need?”

“A thousand,” said the president.

“When do you need them?”

JFK said, “By tomorrow morning”

“That’s a very tough assignment, but I’ll see what I can do” Salinger replied.

Kennedy not only needed an urgent delivery but he wanted H. Upmann Petits, his favorite Cuban cigars. Hiding in Kennedy’s desk was Proclamation 3447, which would impose additional sweeping restrictions on all US trade with Cuba – this is the embargo that remains today. By 8am the following day, Salinger delivered a shipment of 1,200 Cuban Petits, and the President signed the most restrictive elements of the embargo into law.

The disillusionment and frustration caused by the Bay of Pigs disaster among anti-Castro forces, both inside and out of Cuba, prevented the growth of significant organized opposition. Meanwhile, U.S. prestige in Latin America and throughout the world sank to a low point.

The single most important event accelerating Soviet military involvement in Cuba was the Bay of Pigs plot and failure. The failure of the U.S. to act decisively against Castro gave the Soviets some illusions about U.S. determination and interest in Cuba. The Kremlin leaders now perceived that further economic and even military involvement in Cuba would not entail any danger and would not seriously jeopardize U.S.-Soviet relations.

This view was further reinforced by President Kennedy’s apologetic attitude concerning the Bay of Pigs invasion and his generally weak performance during his summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961.

Following the Bay of Pigs, Castro visited multiple Russian cities, factories, and military bases, and brokered a deal to receive free Soviet military equipment in exchange for providing Russia with sugar. Here is Castro meeting Kuschev at the Kremlin, smoking a Cuban Cohiba cigar, his personal brand, and wearing several Rolex watches. A portrait of Karl Marx hangs on the wall behind the two leaders.

castro khrushchev rolex

By mid-1962 the Soviets had embarked on a dangerous gamble by surreptitiously introducing nuclear missiles and bombers to the island. Khrushchev and the Kremlin leadership hoped to alter the balance of power and force the U.S. to accept a settlement of the issues surrounding Germany. A secondary and perhaps less important motivation was to extend to Cuba the Soviet nuclear umbrella and thus protect Castro from any further hostile U.S. actions.

On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy publicly reacted to the Soviet challenge, instituting a naval blockade of the island and demanding the withdrawal of all offensive weapons from Cuba. For the next several days, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

In the sweltering control room of a wounded submarine patrolling the Cuban coast, Soviet military officer, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, refused to push the nuclear missile launch button, despite protests from the submarine’s captain, who believed war had started and needed Vasili’s consent. The missile was never fired, but that day was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear holocaust.

How Cigars, Plots and Nukes Defined Early U.S.-Cuba Enmity was last modified: September 22nd, 2017 by Simons Chase