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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 60: An Imperfect Memory, but a Useful Warning

To say that Russia’s war against Ukraine has escalated in the past month is no understatement. In response to successful Ukrainian counteroffensive measures beginning in September 2022, President Vladimir Putin struck back by authorizing massive missile strikes against Ukrainian population centers and declaring martial law in illegally-annexed areas of Ukraine. Throughout the war, Putin has alluded to the possibility–sometimes not subtly–of using nuclear weapons in the conflict. While pundits disagree about predicting Russia’s next moves, a number of strategists think that Putin’s threats to employ nuclear weapons are, at the very least, credible. On October 6, 2022, President Joe Biden summed up these worries when he told fundraiser attendees, “we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis stands in public memory as the most dangerous moment in fifty years of U.S.-Soviet hostilities. We remember the Crisis as a near-catastrophe that utterly transfixed the nation and world as it unfolded. The mere mention of the Crisis evokes a unique gravitas: the specter of nuclear annihilation, the mortal dangers of diplomatic saber-rattling, and a reminder that, despite the Cold War’s end over thirty years ago, we still inhabit a planet alongside nearly 13,000 nuclear warheads. While the dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine differ significantly from those of the first decades of the Cold War, the Crisis still serves an important cultural function in the United States today, as a warning of how close we came to disaster.

Sixty years ago this week, the Cold War almost turned hot. For thirteen days in late October 1962, the global public watched as the Soviet Union and the United States stood at the brink of full-scale thermonuclear war. To study the American experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis is to become intimately acquainted with the fears that permeated the Pentagon and the Oval Office, as well as kitchen tables and classrooms across the country. While those fears clearly reverberate today, it is worth exploring how our public memory of this pivotal episode came to be.

Map of the western hemisphere showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis, October 16, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, https://microsites.jfklibrary.org/cmc/images/sub/oct16/cmc_map_missile_range.jpg, accessed October 23, 2022.

On October 16, 1962, American aerial surveillance confirmed the existence of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba, just ninety miles south of Florida. American officials had anticipated the move, at least in theory: for years prior, both the Soviets and Americans had installed missile systems in allied territories, leaving few places on earth out of range of a direct nuclear strike. The first years of the 1960s had also already witnessed the flaring of Cold War tensions over nuclear weapons testing, espionage, and the partition of Berlin. Cuba, too, had been a source of conflict: the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s installation as Prime Minister led to covert and overt American efforts to topple the new communist government. By late September 1962, 94 percent of Americans were aware of “our troubles with Cuba,” with 24 percent of those polled said that Cuba was the nation’s top problem.[1] Yet as events developed the following month, it was clear that the tension was running higher than in earlier months and years.

Following several days of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the situation, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22. In a sobering evening broadcast, Kennedy confirmed the presence of Soviet medium-range missiles that could reach as far as Washington, D.C. He also revealed that the United States had evidence that Cuba was constructing launch sites designed for intermediate-range missiles that could carry warheads twice as far. The presence of these installations, he told the nation, “constitute[d] an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.” Comparing these hostilities to those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Kennedy announced that the United States would be taking aggressive action to end Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “clandestine, reckless and provocative threat,” including a naval “quarantine” to stop incoming Soviet shipments to Cuba. He closed his address with a call to all Americans: “the cost of freedom is always high—and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”

In the hours and days that followed, Americans reacted. As news sources reported, people rushed to grocery and hardware stores to stock up on supplies in cities and towns across the country. Historical records indicate that anxious civilians flooded local emergency hotlines, asking for instructions and updates. Placed in the context of their time, these actions were not unexpected: ever since the late 1940s, federal, state, and local agencies had been urging Americans to take the steps needed to prepare for—and survive—a nuclear war. Duck and Cover (1951) and other civil defense initiatives had held a constant presence in public service announcements, school curriculum, and news articles throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. When the Berlin Crisis unfolded in 1961, President Kennedy himself urged Americans to build fallout shelters and promised that the federal government would do the same.

Despite media attention at the time and since, however, stories of frenzied stockpiling and urgent evacuation to underground shelters tell only part of the story. Some of the only public opinion polling conducted at the time reveals that Americans had profoundly ambivalent, at times apathetic, feelings about the emergency. A National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll conducted between October 27 and November 4, 1962, found that only 36 percent of people said that the week of the crisis was “different from most weeks,” and only about a third of that number said that Cuba was the cause of the difference. The same poll noted that the episode had little psychological impact on the public, either positive or negative.[2] Any careful historian will warn that opinion polls are hardly the final word in reconstructing the past, but such findings should serve as an important counterpoint to easy conclusions that the entire nation spent the crisis in a panic, glued to their televisions and radios.

Even prior to October 1962, many Americans had become disillusioned with the idea of preparing for a nuclear war. Since the creation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) in early 1951, the idea of civil defense had gone through the wringer several times over. The FCDA and its descendent organizations consistently struggled to find budgetary support on Capitol Hill. Moreover, federal planning recommendations—first for public bomb shelters, then urban evacuation, then private fallout shelters—had changed several times over the course of the 1950s. To observers, these plans never seemed to keep pace with rapidly-advancing nuclear weapons technology, which became more and more destructive with each passing year. By the early 1960s, civil defense critics charged that these programs were “fostering a cruel deception on the American people” when they claimed that most civilians could survive a nuclear war.[3]

For those Americans who did take measures to prepare for an attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it quickly became apparent that the nation’s decade-plus civil defense pledges were empty promises. Those who contacted civil defense officials were disappointed to hear that public shelters—if they existed at all, and few did—were not stocked with necessary supplies. The crisis in Cuba revealed that some cities had critical vacancies in civil defense command positions, rendering crisis coordination and communication impossible.[4]

But tepid public attitudes toward civil defense came from a more complex, personal place, too. The public’s enthusiasm for civil defense had waxed and waned repeatedly along the contours of the various flashpoints of the early Cold War. I count myself among scholars who can easily identify the public “psychic numbing” that resulted from experiencing nuclear crisis after nuclear crisis.[5] For those of us who have recently experienced the breakneck news cycle of the last several years likely have some personal experience with this phenomenon.

Additionally, an undercurrent of nuclear nihilism gained traction in American culture in the late 1950s. By then, Americans had become well acquainted with the horrors of nuclear war. A vocal movement against peacetime nuclear testing had made common knowledge of the invisible radiological dangers of a nuclear explosion. Such threats not only could imperil one’s own health, but that of generations of people to come. Popular films, novels, and television—think On the Beach (1959), Twilight Zone (1959), Alas, Babylon (1959), and Fail-Safe (1962), just to name a few—all grappled with the moral ambiguity and grisly realities inherent in nuclear war. When strategist Herman Kahn infamously claimed in 1960 that survivors of a nuclear war “will not envy the dead,” he was responding to a growing public attitude that held just the opposite.[6] As they confronted the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans would have drawn on all of this complex historical context.

Between October 16 and the conclusion of the crisis on October 28, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, and a host of advisors negotiated via official and unofficial channels. Ultimately, all sides reached a public agreement that the Soviet Union would withdraw missiles from Cuba in exchange for a promise that the United States would not invade the island. Secretly, the United States also agreed to remove their own nuclear installations from NATO sites in Turkey, an unpublicized mission that would not be complete until the following year.

The intervening decades, however, have colored today’s collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For one thing, many details of the Crisis were not available to the public until years or decades after the fact. Published memoirs, declassified documents, and greater access to Soviet sources have given historians a fuller picture of the very real dangers and contingencies of the crisis. Popular entertainment has also done much to depict the Cuban Missile Crisis imperfectly as an event that held the undivided attention of Americans at the time. Likewise, Kennedy’s assassination just over a year after the Crisis undoubtedly has shaped its public memory: the Cuban Missile Crisis became the greatest triumph of a presidency and a life cut short.

Given this history, it is perhaps no surprise that it was easy for Biden to summon the memory of Cuba to help make sense of the dangers of our current moment. In the weeks since his remarks, much has been made about critical strategic differences between 1962 and today’s war in Ukraine. Indeed, the Biden administration was quick to clarify that the president’s reference to Armageddon did not indicate a change in U.S. diplomatic strategy or military posture. Biden had simply called upon an imperfect analogy, built on an imperfect collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nevertheless, viewed as public memory, the Crisis has an extraordinarily useful function today: a nuclear warning for the future. Let us hope that it remains our only one.

Sarah E. Robey is an assistant professor of history at Idaho State University and the author of Atomic Americans: Citizens in a Nuclear State (Cornell University Press, 2022).


[1] Tom W. Smith, “Trends: The Cuban Missile Crisis and U.S. Public Opinion,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 67 (Summer 2003), 275–76.

[2] Ibid., 272–73.

[3] New Jersey Governor Robert B. Meyner, “The Cruel Deception of Civilian Defense,” The Progressive (June 1960), 14.

[4] Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture (New York, 2001), 192–202. See also Alice L. George, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chapel Hill, 2003).

[5] Robert Jay Lifton, “Beyond Psychic Numbing: A Call to Awareness,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 52 (October 1982), 619–29; Paul Boyer, “From Activism to Apathy: The American People and Nuclear Weapons, 1963–1980,” Journal of American History, 70 (March 1984), 821–44; William M. Knoblauch, Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race (Amherst, 2017), 11–13.

[6] Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960), 96.

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