Cuban Missile Crisis - what if the United States didn't confront the USSR?

Even with missiles in Cuba, the chances of the Soviets nuking the United States were low, and there would have been retaliation from the United States in any such attack anyway. Furthermore, the United States did have Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

So let’s say the Kennedy administration decided, “Yes, the Soviets are placing missiles in Cuba, but we’ll just let it be.” What would have happened from that point on?

It would have appeared a weakness for the US to admit that the Soviets had emplaced missile installations in Cuba, especially after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year. On the other hand, it would have appeared to bolster the alleged (and false) “missile gap” that Kennedy had campaigned to the Presidency upon. It would have widely been seen in the US as a provocative move by the Soviet Union, although as you point out the US already had the intermediate range PGM-19 ‘Jupiter’ missiles in Turkey and Italy, as well as PGM-17 ‘Thor’ missiles in the United Kingdom, all of which could reach Moscow in twenty to thirty minutes.

Given that the Soviet missiles were of poor accuracy and even worse reliability, it seems probable that the Soviets would have been willing to trade retracting the missiles in exchange for the US removing IRBMs from Western and Southern Europe, which is what we were planning to do any as the first LGM-30A ‘Minuteman I’ wings were fully deployed. Although I’ve never seen any confirmation of the following hypothesis, I have the suspicion that this exchange may have been the primary objective of putting missiles of questionable operational status in Cuba and allowing such information to be leaked through Penkovsky whom the Soviets already knew to be an agent providing information to American and British intelligence services. (According to Peter Wright, there is good reason to believe that Penkovsky may have actually been a double agent, but even if he was not he could have been used to send false intelligence to the the CIA and MI-6.)

In the case of the scenario proposed by the o.p., Khrushchev may have appeared stronger and held his position as General Secretary and Chairman/Premier longer, but given the unpopularity of his attempted economic reforms in the Politburo and the alignment of factions against him, it likely still would have been deposed sometime in the mid-'Sixties by the Brezhnev faction with Kosygin or some other functionary as Premier. So, I wouldn’t expect major alterations to history. However, the negotiations to remove missiles from Cuba and Europe might have been public accord rather than the secret negotiations which transpired, and could have potentially lead to more interchanges that could have reduced tensions and alienated some of the needless brinksmanship in the strategic arms race. The various proxy wars through client states in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa, however, seems an inevitable consequence of the two nations facing off.


There probably would have been another international crisis in 1963.

Khrushchev had formed the opinion that Kennedy was weak and was afraid to stand up to the Soviet Union. If Kennedy had quietly acquiesced to Soviet missiles being based in Cuba, this would have reinforced that belief and Khrushchev would have pushed for further advantage in some other area, probably Southeast Asia.

The same misunderstanding about the cuba crisis keeps coming up again and again.

It wasn’t about the US standing up against the Soviets!
It was the Soviets that were standing up against the US. About the placement of those missiles in Turkey.

The Soviets threatened to do the same to the US and place missiles near their border.
The US caved in and removed the missiles in Turkey.

The use of the term “caved” implies that the United States gave up some strategically useful capability. In fact, as detailed above, the Jupiter and Thor IRBMs were expensive to field, difficult to secure, and of questionable reliability, as well as being stored in unprotected above ground shelters. Both used cryogenic liquid oxygen as the oxidizer and therefore had to be fueled just before launch, therefore requiring significant advance notice before launch. With the storable liquid LGM-25C ‘Titan II’ and solid propellant LGM-30A ‘Minuteman I’ ICMBs coming being operationally deployed from the continental United States and ready to fire within a few minutes notice, the need for the European-based IRBMs was eliminated, and they were retired essentially on the planned schedule regardless of the agreement following the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Point remains that the Soviet ships turned back on the assurance that the missiles would be removed. Not because Kennedy faced them down.

Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to save face and give him an out. Kennedy absolutely faced Khrushchev down in the public and international eye. Hindsight being 20/20 Russia wouldn’t have put the missiles in Cuba to begin with. Removing the missiles in Turkey was a silly concession, there were still missiles all over Western Europe.

OK, but were the Cuban missiles worth the American fuss?

The Jupiter missiles were deployed to Turkey in 1959. They were rendered obsolete in 1961, replaced by the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missiles. However, Turkey would not allow the US to remove the missiles. When the US agreed to remove the missiles, the Soviets had no knowledge at the time the missiles were no longer vital and online. The US did not cave at all; the missiles were already off-line.

I disagree. You can perhaps make an argument that the terms for both sides were equal - both withdrew missiles from a country that neighbored its opponent. But if you’re going to argue that one side got the short end of the deal, I can’t see it being the United States. The American missiles had been deployed for two years already and would remain deployed until the following year. And they were withdrawn quietly and the American government was able to claim there had been no explicit swap and it was acting on its own initiative. The Soviets, on the other hand, withdrew their missiles as they were being deployed and had to do so publicly in response to American protests. So it’s hard to say the Americans “caved” when they got much better terms than the Soviets did.

No…but nobody knew that at the time.

The Vietnam war wasn’t worth the fuss, but we didn’t have the wisdom or will to avoid it. (In contrast, standing firm over West Berlin definitely was worth it.)

Cuban IRBMs would have drastically cut the warning time of an attack against the continental US, and would presumably have been somewhat more accurate than ICBMs launched from the Soviet Union. It was not complete paranoia (at least for what the US knew at the time) that they were intended for a decapitation first strike. It wasn’t just a matter of strategic position, it was feared that having that capacity might actually encourage the Soviet Union to consider launching a nuclear war when it might otherwise have not.

There were short and medium range missiles in Europe (the MGM-13 ‘Mace’ and MGM-31A ‘Pershing I’) in Europe, but they couldn’t reach Moscow or any other critical Soviet installations, which is the essential point. Kennedy faced Khrushchev down in the public view, and that the concessions to remove IRBMs from Italy and Turkey were secret (and in accordance with already planned retirement) no doubt hurt Khrushchev’s standing within the Soviet leadership. Far from ‘saving face’, this likely contributed to Khrushchev’s removal from power and possibly extending the Cold War. In retrospect, we had a very poor understanding of the political situation in the Soviet Union (understandable, since the ostensible government had little control and the Communist Party apparatus actually made all critical decisions) and undermined what was likely the best opportunity for détente for almost a decade. This ironically benefited the Nixon Administration which campaigned against Kennedy’s supposed “weakness” against communism.


The Soviets would not have developed that many delta ballistic missile subs and they wouldn’t have cranked out that many ICBM sites on soviet soil. Maybe they would not have over-spent militarily and the Soviet Union will still be alive and well.