James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Learning More About the Cuban Missile Crisis

by James M. Lindsay
October 16, 2012

A U-2 photograph of an MRBM Field Launch Site in San Cristobal, Cuba. (Dino A. Brugioni Collection, The National Security Archive, Washington, DC) A U-2 photograph of an MRBM Field Launch Site in San Cristobal, Cuba. (Dino A. Brugioni Collection, The National Security Archive, Washington, DC)


The Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than any other event during the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy put the odds of war at “somewhere between one out of three and even.” To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis in 2012, I posted each day of the crisis as it unfolded:

Many books have been written on the Cuban missile crisis. Several U.S. officials involved in the crisis wrote firsthand accounts of their experience:

Scholars and journalists have explored the crisis in great depth. Here are some of the best:

Two movies have been filmed about the Cuban missile crisis. The Missiles of October , which was released in 1974 and stars William Devane and Ralph Bellamy among others, was based on Robert Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, Thirteen Days. Hollywood’s first crack at the Cuban missile crisis was shot on video tape to give it a “you-are-there crispness,”  but it misses some of the crisis’s critical events because they weren’t known at the time the film was shot.  Thirteen Days, which was released in 2000 and starred Kevin Costner, has more of a big-budget Hollywood feel. Although it is based on more recent scholarship, the movie has some historical inaccuracies. University of Virginia historian and Cuban missile crisis expert Philip Zelikow says, however, that it is “accurate where it counts.”

If you don’t trust how Hollywood portrays the events of October 1962, you can take advantage of one of the things that makes the Cuban missile crisis so unusual, and so attractive to scholars and journalists: President Kennedy secretly taped the meetings he had with his advisers in the White House. Almost none of his advisers knew that their remarks were being taped, so we have a frank, fly-on-the-wall view of their deliberations. Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow collected the transcripts of the secret tapes in The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (2002). You can listen to audio clips of the meetings online at the National Security Archive.

PBS commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis by airing two sixty-minute special programs: The Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War and Secrets of the Dead: “The Man Who Saved the World”, both of which debuted on October 23, 2012.

The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard created a website to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary. The website offers historical context for the crisis, including information on the people involved, primary documents, and lessons learned.

The National Security Archive at the George Washington University commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the crisis by creating a website that includes declassified documents, audio clips, photographs, and chronologies.

Finally, if you want a timeline of the crisis, choices abound. Some of the best timelines can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the New York Times. The Times has also compiled some of the articles it published during the crisis.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by JCM

    Any mention on the American Jupiter Missiles placed in Turkey the previous year?


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