Alternate history: what if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated?

What might have happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated? Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Mark White about how the world stood on the brink of World War III and nuclear Armageddon in October 1962 – all it needed was a single push...

Spy plane photos revealed that missile bases were being built on Cuba, prompting the crisis. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was just one rash judgement, one communication breakdown, or one incident getting out of control from turning the Cold War hot – and risking a nuclear war that would change the fate of the entire world in the 20th century. The Soviets had clandestinely deployed nuclear missiles to Communist-friendly Cuba to level the playing field against the US, which had placed Jupiter missiles on the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Turkey.

When the US discovered the presence of a medium-and intermediate-range ballistic missile launch sites under construction just 90 miles from Florida, tensions immediately began to rise. President John F Kennedy convened a special group of senior advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) to decide on a course of action – from doing nothing to an invasion. On 22 October, JFK declared a naval quarantine of Cuba.

While the Soviet leadership, under Nikita Khrushchev, could order their ships bound for Cuba to sail through the quarantine, they knew they would be at a severe disadvantage if war broke out and escalated into a nuclear shootout. Mark White, professor of history at Queen Mary University of London and author of The Cuban Missile Crisis, says: “The US had a huge lead in terms of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Soviets roughly achieved parity in the Cold War.”

In context

On 14 October 1962, a US spy plane obtained photographic evidence that nuclear missiles had been secretly shipped to Cuba, and that the Soviets were building medium-and intermediate-range launch sites. The US, even with an overwhelming nuclear superiority, could not tolerate anything this close – with Cuba just 90 miles from Florida – so President John F Kennedy and his advisory body, ExComm, considered a number of responses.

In a television address on 22 October, JFK announced a naval blockade, or quarantine, and his commitment to retaliation if attacked. It was after days of an agonisingly tense standoff that negotiations eventually prevailed. The 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis resolved with the Soviet ships sailing away and the missiles withdrawn. In return, the US secretly agreed to remove their own missiles from Turkey. It was the most dangerous episode of the Cold War, but the world eventually stepped back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

But so many things could have led to the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The U-2 spy plane that took the photographs of the missile launch sites on 14 October could have been delayed, meaning the information came later and JFK’s decisions had to be more rushed. Or, despite Khrushchev’s concerns, Soviet ships could have ignored the cordon and forced a response.

The most perilous incident on the blockade line came on 27 October, when two US destroyers, USS Beale and USS Cony, intercepted a Soviet sub and dropped ‘signalling’ depth charges. If the captain, who had launch capability, had not listened to his level-headed officer, Vasily Arkhipov, then there just may have been a nuke in the air.

A breakdown in communications; a failure in diplomatic efforts; or JFK giving in to the hawks in ExComm had the potential to escalate the situation. The moment the President could have snapped was the shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, killing the pilot Major Rudolf Anderson. White asserts, though, that JFK was “very good at crisis management, as seen in Berlin in 1961 and periodic civil rights crises. He tended to keep cool and calm.”

Did you know?

In the aftermath of the Crisis, it was clear that changes had to be made so such a near-disaster wouldn’t happen again. The hotline between Washington, DC and Moscow was set up to allow direct communication and a partial test ban on nuclear weapons was agreed.

 

Both superpower leaders demonstrated caution and willingness to negotiate. On 26 October, JFK received an offer to withdraw the missiles if the US promised not to invade Cuba, followed by another deal demanding the removal of US missiles from Turkey, which was agreed to in secret. “A big question is what JFK would have done had Khrushchev got back to him on the 28th adjusting the deal so that the removal of US missiles was a public part of the settlement,” says White. “Would JFK have accepted that, if it meant the world would have known about the concession?”

Things get heated

If not, or if another of the myriad possible catalysts had led to an outbreak of hostilities, then JFK would have likely ordered air strikes on strategic targets in Cuba, followed by an invasion. “The US had developed plans to attack Cuba all the way back to Eisenhower after Fidel Castro’s advent to power,” says White. “JFK regularly instructed his military to update those plans.”

Following air strikes, an amphibious landing in the north – comprising a planned 261,000 troops in 10-15 days – aimed to oust Castro and take control of the country. Pentagon reports released in 2012 show a projection of 18,500 American casualties in the opening days based on the number of troops that the US military believed they faced. “Any invasion would have meant engagement with Soviet troops on the island,” says White.

JFK addresses the nation on 22 October 1962. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
JFK addresses the nation on 22 October 1962. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

But that projection was flawed. There were more Soviets on Cuba than the US knew about, as well as tactical nukes. Extraordinarily, launch command had been given to field officers, so smaller tactical missiles could have been utilised to halt the invasion. That may have been enough to start an exchange of nuclear weapons. The US would destroy any remaining weapons on Cuba, while risking a retaliatory attack on some of their cities since the Soviets’ best hope, due to their nuclear inferiority, was an immediate strike.

The Soviets simultaneously had their eyes on other targets. “Khrushchev could have responded elsewhere, for instance Berlin,” says White. An attack there, with conventional forces, would have dragged Europe into a conflict that intensified by the moment. The result: nothing short of World War III and a global nuclear exchange. Of course, calmer heads could still have prevented such a disaster, but at a time of the highest emotions it would be all too plausible that it was already too late.

In the case of nuclear war, the Soviet Union was likely to be obliterated by the sheer number of missiles raining down. The US may have fared better, but major cities would certainly have been destroyed and tens of millions perished. The world we know today would never have been. And while clearly the most extreme alternative history, it all could have come from one man, JFK or Khrushchev, blinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed

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