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Resources: When the world held its breath...

Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, writes Colin Hynson

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Fifty years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, writes Colin Hynson

It began at 8am on Tuesday 16 October 1962. US president John F. Kennedy was woken up to be told that the CIA had proof that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear missiles on Cuba, less than 100 miles from American soil. For the next 13 days, the US and the Soviet Union led the world to the brink of nuclear war in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, or "the 13 days in which the world held its breath".

In the classroom, the 50th anniversary of the crisis presents the ideal opportunity to explore fears of nuclear war (largely replaced now by issues such as climate change, terrorism and the current economic crisis). It also provides a good way to examine a situation from different viewpoints - those of the US, the Soviet Union and Cuba. Pupils can reflect on whether the Cold War is over or has simply taken a different form.

The background to the Cuban Missile Crisis lies in the rise of the Cold War after the end of the Second World War and the division of Europe. For nearly 20 years, the Soviet Union and the US had been engaged in a military, political and economic struggle in which the two protagonists never fired a shot at each other. The Soviet Union installed communist governments in Eastern Europe, Germany was divided and Berlin was divided again. An attempted blockade of West Berlin by the Soviet Union in 1948, followed by the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, heightened tensions between the two superpowers.

After the 1959 overthrow of an American-backed government in Cuba, the new government, led by Fidel Castro, faced increasing hostility from the US and turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. By 1961 Cuba was being supplied with Soviet weapons. The Soviet Union saw its links with Cuba as defending an ally from an aggressive neighbour. But to the US, a Soviet presence in Cuba represented a communist threat that could spread throughout Latin America.

When the US discovered that these missiles existed, it felt it had to take action. President Kennedy had several options: a naval blockade, an air strike to destroy the missiles or a full-scale invasion. They all carried risks.

Teachers could discuss these options with their pupils. For instance, the Americans had to try to guess what the Soviet reaction to any of these actions would be. On top of that, they needed an option that had some guarantee of success - while gaining support from their allies. On 21 October the naval blockade option was taken. Three days later, Soviet ships bound for Cuba halted outside the boundary of the blockade. On 26 October, a Soviet ship sailing to Cuba was searched by the American Navy, but nothing was found on board and it was allowed to continue. Both sides appeared to be waiting to see what the other side would do.

One of the major problems was that communication between the two sides was slow and difficult. There were no faxes or email and not even a direct telephone link between President Kennedy and his counterpart in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev (pictured below). This made understanding and making decisions about what the other side was thinking very difficult. It was only through a broadcast on Radio Moscow on 28 October that the Americans learned that the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuban soil.

Teachers could create a situation in the classroom in which two sides have to negotiate with each other but cannot communicate directly and where none of the communications are instant - something almost unthinkable in today's world.

Both sides learned important lessons from an event in which just one misunderstanding, one unexpected event, could have led to nuclear war. The Americans agreed to dismantle nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy; a telephone "hot line" was established between Washington and Moscow; and in 1963 the Test Ban Treaty, which banned all but underground nuclear tests, was signed between the US and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War did not end with the Cuban Missile Crisis and both sides continued to fight "proxy wars" in order to weaken the other. The people of Vietnam, the former Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and various countries in Africa and Latin America were caught up in a clash where there was no direct conflict. (It is interesting to note that during the Cuban Missile Crisis the Cubans themselves were sidelined and their views ignored by both sides.)

Most people consider that the Cold War ended with fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, some rivalry still exists between Russia and the US. Russia is still a nuclear power and is wary of American intentions. It has opposed Western involvement in Yugoslavia, Libya and Syria. Under President Medvedev, it threatened to move nuclear missiles closer to the Polish border when a plan was announced to place NATO missiles on Polish soil.

Then again, with the economic powerhouse of China, another nuclear power, beginning to flex its muscles on the world stage, America may find itself in a new "Cold War". This anniversary leaves much to discuss.

Colin Hynson is an educational writer and consultant. He has written more than 30 textbooks for children, including World War II: A Battle Against Tyranny and D-Day.


Plot the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis day by day with resources from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum bit.lyJFKcrisis

Explore the crisis from the perspective of participants bit.lyCrisisPOV

For source material visit the National Security Archive's US website bit.lyUSsources


Key stage 1: Fall of the wall

Introduce pupils to the city of Berlin with a BBC Class Clips - MFL video introducing icons such as the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate bit.lyberlintour

Key stage 2: The main events

Follow the history of modern America with Myrras's images - great for displays bit.lyUStimeline

Key stage 3: Recipe for war

Help students to understand the causes of the Cold War with an introduction by SallyAber bit.lywarrecipe

Key stage 4: Spotlight on Cuba

For a unit of work on the crisis, try resources shared by deputydenton bit.lyCubanSOW

Key stage 5: Crisis build-up

Explore the Cuban Missile Crisis with a video from Khan Academy bit.lycrisiskhan

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