Cuban Missile Crisis in Atomic Arms Race


The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was precipitated by ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba by the Soviets. It took place between October 16th and 28th, 1962.1 The two countries were drawn into a political and military confrontation. On October 22, 1962, President John Kennedy notified the Americans about the presence of missiles in Cuba.

He also mentioned that the U.S was prepared to use military force as the crisis was a national threat. After tough negotiations, the two countries came to an agreement that averted a disaster. The agreement stated that the US was to publicly declare and agree never to invade Cuba. It was also to secretly remove its missiles from Turkey and Italy. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was to remove and destroy its offensive weapons and sites in Cuba.2

Arms race describes the competition between rival nations during periods of peace to increase the quantity and quality of their military. During the Cuban missile crisis, there was a worldwide fear that there would be a nuclear war. It was the closest the world had come to such a catastrophe. Measures were taken to avoid and manage the crisis in the event that it did occur. People had stocked their reserves, while others made structural adjustments to their residential buildings.

Governments increased their research and development of nuclear weapons. Military expenditure grew exponentially. At the same time, secrecy was highly upheld. It led to an atomic arms race between rival states, in particular, the US and the Soviet Union. Over time, other nations joined in to defend themselves against a possible nuclear attack from nations that had the weapons, especially their rivals. The sequence of events during the Cuban missile crisis provides an insight into the atomic bomb-related emergency. In this paper, the author seeks to show how the nature of the atomics arms race changed after the Cuban missile crisis. The major changes seen were in how to handle such a crisis in case it occurs again.

The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Atomic Arms Race

Discovering the Missiles

The crisis began on October 15th, 1962. It started when the US discovered that the Soviets were building medium-range missile sites in Cuba. It was confirmed by aerial photographs taken by the U-2 spy plane.3 President Kennedy received a briefing about the crisis. Consequently, he formed an advisory committee to look into the matter. ExCom demanded the dismantlement of the sites. The discovery led to speculations that there may be a global nuclear war.4

A New Threat to the US

The setting up of the missile sites in Cuba posed a threat to the US. The reason is that it involved nuclear weapons as opposed to the traditional armaments. To counter the threat, President Kennedy met with the ExCom and top advisors to mitigate the risk. They intended to use diplomatic pressure to force the Soviet Union to abandon the setting up of the site. The US embarked on blockages of Soviet war vessels at sea to prevent them from proceeding with the operation. The naval blockade was then replaced by a quarantine pillared by the Organization of the American States and the Rio Treaty. It was mainly meant as a countermeasure against the offensive weapons. However, it had far-reaching implications on the global arena.5

Weighing the Options

As the crisis escalated, the US was determined to find a solution. The aim was to avoid an outbreak of war, which posed many challenges. Initially, President Kennedy was to do nothing. He favored the invasion of Cuba. The missiles were to be left there, and action is taken only when the potential risk occurs. On October 18th at the 11:00 am ExCom meeting, Bobby Kennedy began adopting positions for the crisis. In the meeting, he supported McNamara.6 The two main options included the use of military power and blockage. On 19th October, the authorities seemed to be in favor of imposing blockages as opposed to military intervention. They were on high alert over the Soviet’s response to the blockages.7

Showdown at Sea

As a result of the ExCom meetings and discussions, blockages were used to counter the threat. On 22nd October, President Kennedy made the public aware of the secret deal the two countries had made against the US. During the press conference, he also talked about imposing the quarantine. The move indicated the avoidance of a possible confrontation. There were hope and a possibility for a lasting solution to the crisis.8

A Deal Ends the Standoff

In the two weeks during which the tension lasted, tensions were high, especially considering that the Cold War was well underway. It was difficult to come to an agreement mainly because the two nations were enemies prior to the event. The two countries had to uphold their dominance on the global security sphere with respect to the power equation at the time.9 On one hand, the US had to maintain its status as the world’s super power. The Soviets, on the other hand, had to keep their commitment to the Cubans. They had promised to liberate them from the US imperialism.10

The Atomic Arms Race

The Beginning of the Atomic Arms Race

The atomic arms race was a competition between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The main agenda was to achieve superiority fast. The first successful atomic bomb was made on July 16th, 1945. The objective of the weapon was to end World War II and help the US gain control over global policy. As time progressed, the Soviets obtained the blueprint for the nuclear missile project. At the time, they were driven by fear given that they were the most likely culprits of such an attack.

By August 29th, 1949, the Soviets had successfully come up with their first atomic bomb. In October 1961, they had already developed a 58 megatons nuclear weapon. It was the most technologically sophisticated nuclear warhead in history.11

The Escalation of the Arms Race

The arms race became a key factor in the Cold War. The reason is that the country with the most advanced and sophisticated warfare technology was deemed to be the likely winner. The Cuban missile crisis escalated the quest for this technology. Countries put in more effort to outdo their competition. The crisis led to a worldwide arms race that saw France and China join the group. Today, governments have incurred huge expenses in efforts to come up with the technology.12 For instance, the US has developed the B52 Nuclear Bomber. The plane can do an average of 6,000 miles just to deliver a nuclear warhead. Similarly, the Soviets increased their military spending during the 1960s.

As a result of the increased spending and drive associated with the nuclear arms race, the US has acquired 8,000 ICBMs. On its part, the Soviet has 7,000 ICBMs as of 1986. At the time, it was presumed that an over 40,000 nuclear warheads were available in the world. Warfare was advancing rapidly.13 On January 8th, 2014, the world was shocked by the American ambitions to increase its military power. The plan was made public by the Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel. The project had provisions for intercontinental missile sites. It enhanced the country’s political ties and raised fear among rival nations and their allies.14

Policies have also been implemented to manage and control nuclear weapons as a result of the Cuban crisis. For example, President Obama has embarked on efforts to improve the country’s foreign policy. The major aim of such efforts is to give rise to a world that is free of nuclear weapons.15 The near term policies would require a minimum amount of nuclear weapons to be available globally. To achieve this goal, countries have to reduce their nuclear threat. In addition, they have to promote and participate in disarmament efforts.16

In Russia, there was an emphasis on the renewal of the talks on arms control. With the impending expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), such strategies are bound to improve relations between countries.17 In China, the government was required to be transparent with the country’s military activities. The move called for renewed and closely monitored discussions on military operations between the two countries. The post-Cold War effects have prompted the US to restructure its stand on the global platform. The government does this with regards to the nuclear weapons policy.18

Changing Trends in the Nuclear Arms Race

The drive towards a world free of nuclear weapons has been changing ever since the Cuban missile crisis. A recent example is in Germany, where 93% of the citizens voted against the weapons in 2015. Institutions have also joined the ‘plea for partition with variable reasons’.19 Initially, the arms race was based on the development of more sophisticated weapons. However, governments have been coming under pressure to not only cut down on their nuclear related projects, but also to ban them completely.20

Effects of a Nuclear War

The Cuban crisis portrayed the possible impacts of a nuclear arms race in the world. For example, the resultant deaths and side effects of these bombs will have a catastrophic effect on the human race. The weapons lead to further suffering years after the explosion. The environment will also be affected. The ballistic missiles are known to impact on complex life forms. Famine may also arise as a result of the war. Another effect includes disruptions of the global climate. Security is also affected as mistrust between nations tends to increase. Governments spend a lot of funds to counter the constant threat.21

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

The crisis was the closet the world ever came to a nuclear war. As such, it provides important lessons on atomic weaponry. For example, governments can learn how the nature of an atomic crisis evolves and ways to react to manage it. Major developments have been made in the 25 years since the crisis. It has become paramount for nations to look into prevention and management strategies to deal with such a problem. Other lessons touch on the role of the key stakeholders in security and intelligence departments and their stands on the diplomatic engagements between different nations. In addition, global institutions need to keep an eye on the arms race to avoid such a crisis in the future.22

Nuclear War May Become a Reality

The crisis and the resulting arms race showed that a nuclear war is actually a possibility. The reality was contrary to the perceptions at the time given that there had been four decades of relative global peace. It was only during the World War II that there had been a war that entailed the US bombing Japan to end a standoff. The unpredictable nature of the crisis calls for a dynamic evaluation of the current affairs in the world.23

The nations engaged in a nuclear war are likely to suffer from the catastrophic effects of the altercation. Consequently, nations should strive to improve their foreign relations regardless of past disagreements. There is also a need to enact policies on a global scale in relation to such a crisis. Preventive measures should be put in place to manage the outcomes of a nuclear attack. In addition, nations should work on technological advancements to widen their radar coverage. Such a move would enable them deal with the crisis early enough by firing down the weapon headed towards their direction.24

A Nuclear War Involves Principles that are Uncontrollable

During the Cuban crisis, the two presidents were constantly faced with unexpected challenges. For example, the first American U-2 in the Soviet Union was escorted outside the airspace as per orders from Khrushchev. However, the second one was bombed. Moscow claimed that it had not authorized the attack. President Kennedy was under pressure to retaliate. However, he decided to stay calm, buying time by gathering further evidence into the situation.25 The crisis led to a period uncertainty, which may have led to war if the Americans reacted out of fear.

Misconceptions can fuel an uncontrollable event. At the time, the Soviets had deduced that an attack on Cuba was imminent. Positioning themselves to act on behalf of the Cubans looked like a strategic move to counter their rivals. It made them feared at the time. The proposed attack on the missile sites would have had the Soviet military as victims. It would have led to a defensive attack against the US, primarily based on human nature. In spite of the fact that President Kennedy was running out of time, he maintained a calm reaction towards the crisis. The Shooting of the UU-2 plan and the Ballistics sites in Cuba had become operational.26

The reaction of the two presidents showed the world how to manage such a crisis. The dialogue and discussions between the two nations were fully implemented. It is the major reason why an agreement was reached. If either of the two leaders had reacted forcefully to the situation, a nuclear war may have occurred.27

The Reality of Nuclear Interdependence

The US was the first nation to successfully develop and test a nuclear weapon. During the Cold War, the Soviets felt that it was necessary to come up with their own defense. It was clear that if a nuclear attack was to occur, they were likely to be the first target. It led them to hasten efforts to develop their own atomic weapons.

However, during the Cuban missile crisis, the idea was seen as a bad move. In spite of the fact that the major objective of the Soviets was self-defense, they had the missiles set up in Cuba. The aim was to engage the US in a nuclear war in case of an attack on Cuba. Initially, interdependence was seen as a necessary move.28 However, the crisis showed that the insecurity of one country may affect that of other countries. As such, the importance of mutual security and participation was made evident.

Crisis Management and Exposure to Danger

The probability of a nuclear war at the time was high. However, it was averted by the use of strategic moves by the two nations. Either side had the option of using military power to get its way.29 The actions would have led to a chain reaction, resulting in war. The situation provides insights on how to avert such a crisis in the future.

Communication channels need to be opened up. President Kennedy expressed his disappointment on the fact that the Soviets were meddling with issues in the western hemisphere. Setting up of the ballistic missiles in Cuba was a violation of the “rules of the precautions status quo”.30 The challenge was that the rule was one of those statutes that had not been written down at the time.31 President Kennedy hoped that the statute would lead to a diplomatic agreement between the two nations.

Since the standoff, efforts have been made to comprehend these silent rules. Consequently, most of them have been amended and written down. Today, the rules require the participation of the key stakeholders associated with a given problem. The interests of such parties have to be taken into consideration in the formulation of the laws.32

Multilateral Solution

At the time of the Cuban crisis, the US was the superpower. It had a great influence on global foreign policy. It was viewed as unchallengeable. The ExCom discussions during the crisis recalled the naval blockades, which signified an act of war. They settled for quarantine, which was a ‘softer’ approach to the situation. The Organization of American States was consulted. The move was not necessary based on the supremacy of the parties. The actions made it difficult for Khrushchev to support the claim of an act of aggression from the US.33

Multilateralism was not highly considered. However, it played a key role in resolving the crisis. The situation shows the importance of involvement of regional and global institutions in dealing with crises. The actions of the US did showed the need for cooperation in coming up with a solution. Nations need to take into consideration the welfare of other parties regardless of their status in the global arena.34


It is evident that the Cuban missile crisis had a major impact on the global arms race. Governments started using a lot of money on the development of nuclear weapons. As a result, new members joined the nuclear ‘club’. The US was the largest owner and controller of nuclear weapons at the time. As such, the country had a huge impact on foreign policy. The emergence of new and strong economies, such as China, poses a threat to the nation.

However, in spite of the fact that governments are advancing their nuclear technology, there is pressure to regulate the efforts. President Obama’s first major foreign policy was to have a nuclear-free world. The future of the atomic bomb has greatly evolved as a result of increased awareness. There are better risk management strategies in place in the event that such a crisis occurs.


Bonin, Madeline. “Spotlights Flip the Switch on an Evolutionary Arms Race.Nature. Web.

Chrisp, Peter. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Milwaukee: World Almanac Library, 2002.

Dougherty, Kevin. Weapons of Mississippi. Jacksonville: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Judge, Edward, and John Langdon. The Cold War: A History Through Documents. New York: Pearson, 1998.

Lindaman, Dana, and Kyle Ward. History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History. New York: New Press, 2006.

Lodgaard, Sverre. Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World?. London: Routledge, 2010.

Merrill, Dennis, and Thomas Paterson. Major Problems in American Foreign Relations: Documents and Essays. Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2005.

Stern, Sheldon. Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Widmer, Ted, and Caroline Kennedy. Listening in: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. New York: Harchette Books, 2012.


  1. Peter Chrisp, The Cuban Missile Crisis (Milwaukee: World Almanac Library, 2002), 55.
  2. Ted Widmer and Caroline Kennedy, Listening in: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy (New York: Hachette Books, 2012), 65.
  3. Edward Judge and John Langdon, The Cold War: A History Through Documents (New York: Pearson, 1998), 119.
  4. Widmer and Kennedy, 212.
  5. Chrisp, 2.
  6. Sheldon Stern, Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 24.
  7. Widmer and Kennedy, 44.
  8. Judge and Langdon, 120.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Chrisp, 23.
  11. Madeline Bonin, “Spotlights Flip the Switch on an Evolutionary Arms Race,” Nature. Web.
  12. Judge and Langdon, 119.
  13. Kevin Dougherty, Weapons of Mississippi (Jacksonville: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 23.
  14. Sverre Lodgaard, Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World? (London: Routledge, 2010), 200.
  15. Stern, 34.
  16. Dennis Merrill and Thomas Paterson, Major Problems in American Foreign Relations: Documents and Essays (Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2005), 61.
  17. Lodgaard, 20.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Bonin, 2.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Bonin, 2.
  22. Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History (New York: New Press, 2006), 88.
  23. Lindaman and Ward, 20.
  24. Judge and Langdon, 119.
  25. Stern, 24.
  26. Lindaman and Ward, 27.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Chrisp, 77.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Lindaman and Ward, 24.
  34. Ibid.