In 1959, the corrupt but pro-American dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista collapsed, unable to survive the uprising of a ragtag army of guerillas led by a charismatic young leftist named Fidel Castro. Castro's overthrow of the unpopular Batista appalled some Cubans—especially members of the upper classes who had prospered under the Batista regime—but enthralled many more. Despite his many flaws, Castro became a beloved hero to a solid majority of the island nation's impoverished masses.
Castro's relationship with the United States was always going to be difficult. Though Castro's revolution was not sponsored by the Soviet Union and Castro himself was not even initially allied with the Cuban Communist Party, the young revolutionary's left-leaning Cuban nationalism caused alarm in Washington. American corporations had dominated the Cuban economy since the Spanish-American War at the turn of the twentieth century; Castro's insistence upon land reform—in 1960 he seized millions of acres owned by American companies and redistributed them to Cuban peasants—led to the United States imposing economic sanctions against Cuba. Castro, always eager to pick a fight with his neighbors to the north, retaliated by nationalizing Cuba's oil refineries and other American-owned businesses. The next round of tit-for-tat saw the Kennedy administration sever diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, an affront that led Castro to seek a formal alliance with America's archenemy, the Soviet Union.
Castro's alliance with Soviet Russia was simply unacceptable to American leaders. Previously, the Soviets had been able to expand the scope of their Communist sphere of influence in places in Eastern Europe and Asia, but never in "America's own backyard," the Western Hemisphere. Cuba lay just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Castro's rise to power represented a major Cold War setback for the United States.
The Americans' solution was to attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. The CIA began training a band of anti-Castro Cuban exiles to lead an invasion against the island. The plan was for the exiles to land secretly at a place called the Bay of Pigs, then advance inland to rally a popular uprising to oust Castro's government. (The invasion's planners, Americans and Cuban exiles alike, wrongly assumed that the Cuban populace would back their efforts to depose Castro.) The Bay of Pigs invasion, launched in April 1961, proved to be a fiasco. The American-backed invaders, overpowered by Castro's army, never got off the beach. Their frantic pleas for support from the US Air Force were ignored, as President Kennedy refused to commit American forces to a direct attack against Cuba.
Kennedy, who had been in office for only three months, publicly accepted full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle, which seemed to betray his idealistic principles even as it made him appear weak and impotent. The humiliation of the Bay of Pigs loomed large two months later, when the young president encountered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for the first time at the Vienna Summit. Khrushchev—an intimidating figure who once accentuated a speech at the United Nations by banging his shoe on a tabletop and on another occasion stunned Western diplomats by shouting,"We will bury you!"—took Kennedy for a lightweight and sought to bully him into acceding to Soviet demands. A startled Kennedy managed to stand firm on US policy at Vienna, but he was very unsettled by how weak the Bay of Pigs had made him look, and he became obsessed with plotting Castro's overthrow.
The CIA began scheming to assassinate the Cuban leader. (The most memorable of the CIA's many failed attempts to take Castro's life involved an exploding cigar.) More menacingly, the Pentagon conducted several military exercises in the Caribbean, practicing for the armed overthrow of a hypothetical foreign leader unsubtly named Ortsac. (Yes, that's Castro spelled backwards.) These maneuvers led Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin covertly placing nuclear missiles on Cuba to defend the government of his new ally. As the Americans had recently deployed their own missiles in Turkey—which is as close to Russia as Cuba is to the United States—Khrushchev wrongly assumed that the Cuban missiles would not be seen as a threatening provocation in the United States. (The Soviets already possessed plenty of missiles that could hit the American mainland, so the placement of the weapons in Cuba didn't fundamentally alter the strategic balance.)
But President Kennedy didn't see things that way. On 14 October 1962, an American U2 spy plane snapped aerial reconnaissance photos that revealed Soviet workers building missile bases on Cuba. In Washington, the top echelon of the American government went into crisis mode. President Kennedy canceled all scheduled public appearances, falsely claiming to have caught a bad cold. In fact he had convened a special committee of top advisers, called the ExComm, whose members spent long hours in tense debate over how the US should respond. Military leaders urged Kennedy to launch air strikes immediately to destroy the missile installations before they became operational, or to order a fell-fledged American invasion of Cuba to get rid of Castro once and for all. But Kennedy feared that such an escalation would lead to full-blown nuclear war. (And subsequent revelations from post-Cold War Soviet archives reveal that Kennedy was almost certainly correct.) Instead of attacking Cuba, Kennedy determined to negotiate with the Soviets to ensure the missiles' removal. But he intended to negotiate from a position of strength, and to do that he needed to raise the stakes.
In a dramatic and somber televised address on 22 October, Kennedy informed the American people for the first time of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and demanded their immediate removal. He also announced the imposition of a "quarantine" around Cuba to block further shipments of nuclear-related cargoes to the island. (The "quarantine" was actually a total American naval blockade, but since a blockade is officially an act of war under international law, Kennedy chose to call it a "quarantine" instead.) Kennedy also declared that any launch of missiles from Cuba would be seen as a direct attack on the United States by the Soviet Union, and that he would respond by nuking Russia. The threat of full-fledged nuclear war had never been more imminent.
Two days later, Soviet ships carrying more missiles to add to those already installed in Cuba continued to steam toward the island. They approached the blockade line, showing no signs they planned to stop. The US Navy discovered they were accompanied by armed submarine escort. Would the Soviets attempt to breach the blockade line? Would the Americans use force to stop them? Would the confrontation end in nuclear war?
As the crew of the USS Essex began preparing to intercept the Soviet freighters, the missile-bearing ships suddenly came to a halt, then slowly turned around and began sailing away. "We're eyeball to eyeball," said American Secretary of State Dean Rusk, "and I think the other fellow just blinked."
While the Soviets may have blinked, the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn't over. The blockade may have prevented more missiles from reaching Cuba, but Kennedy still insisted that the missiles already emplaced on the island had to go. Khrushchev could not simply capitulate without undermining his own reputation and the prestige of the Soviet Union. Leaders in Washington and Moscow engaged in frantic, confused negotiations to try to resolve the standoff. The tension began to take a toll; on 26 October, Khrushchev sent an incoherent, rambling message to Kennedy, at one point writing, "Mr. President, Mr. Kennedy, you and I are like two men pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle, the harder we pull, the tighter the knot until it will have to be cut with a sword. Now why we don't both let up the pressure and maybe we can untie the knot?" Khrushchev offered to withdraw his missiles if the Kennedy would vow publicly not to invade Cuba. While the Kennedy administration was contemplating this offer, a new message arrived from Moscow proposing an entirely different deal: the Soviet Union would remove their missiles from Cuba only if the US removed its own Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The unexplained, contradictory offers spooked the ExComm, making Kennedy's advisers wonder whether Khrushchev was even still in charge in Moscow.
Meanwhile the crisis escalated once again as a Cuban surface-to-air missile shot down an American U2 spy plane that was continuing reconnaissance over the island. Ameican policy in the case of a downed U2 called for immediate destruction of the anti-aircraft site, but Kennedy pushed his generals to accept restraint. Castro, fearing imminent American attack, urged Khrushchev to strike against the US. Khrushchev too held back, waiting for Kennedy's response.
Kennedy's team was befuddled by the two different offers from Khrushchev and was uncertain how to respond. Robert F. Kennedy—the president's brother and Attorney General—suggested that the Americans write back, accepting the terms of Khrushchev's first offer while simply not mentioning the second letter. Meanwhile, the Robert Kennedy met secretly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, promising that the US would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, but only on the condition that the Soviets never made the quid pro quo public. Kennedy did not want to appear to have given in to Soviet pressure or to have sold out his European allies. After thirteen long days of almost unbearable tension, the secret Kennedy/Dobrynin agreement brought the Cuban Missile Crisis to a peaceful conclusion.
The secrecy that surrounded the negotiations that ended the crisis allowed Kennedy to convey to the public the impression that he had prevailed through steely resolve in the face of Soviet pressure. Most Americans viewed the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis as an unalloyed triumph for John F. Kennedy, adding to the president's substantial mystique. The fact that disaster had actually been averted through negotiation and compromise would not become clear until much later. In the meantime, many Americans took their misconceptions of what had happened in the Missile Crisis as proof that they could prevail in Cold War confrontations by refusing to give an inch to their Communist foes. It was a dubious lesson that would not serve them well in Vietnam.
The mutual terror caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced Kennedy and Khrushchev that they needed to improve communication between the two nations to ensure that such a dangerous misunderstanding never happened again. They set up the famous hotline between their offices to allow for direct contact in times of crisis, and they signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty to slow the arms race. Kennedy became convinced of the need to pursue a more nuanced policy towards the Soviet Union and to accept a certain level of Soviet domination of Eastern European affairs. However, Khrushchev suffered politically at home and among his allies for the humiliation of his apparent capitulation in Cuba. Other Soviet leaders and Soviet allies were embarrassed by the turn of events, and in 1964 Khrushchev was forced into retirement, replaced as Soviet leader by hardliner Leonid Brezhnev.
By the late 1960s, cracks began to appear in the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain. Eastern European Communists, who had been forced into the Soviet orbit following World War II, sought to bring greater freedoms to their Communist societies. In 1968, the new leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, sought to enact a series of reforms to transform Czech Communism into "socialism with a human face," with greater freedom of expression than Soviet-dominated Czech regimes had previously allowed. Crowds of Czechs gathered in Prague to discuss the crimes of the past regimes and to learn about the new reforms. Two other relatively liberal and independent Communist leaders, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, visited Dubcek to show their support. Students in Poland and Yugoslavia demonstrated in sympathy with the reformers' cause. The flowering of support for new freedom and openness in Czech society came to be known as the "Prague Spring." The Czech people soon began to push for even greater reforms than Dubcek had proposed, and the nation became divided as Dubcek urged caution and moderation while other leaders pushed for even more drastic change.
In Moscow, Soviet leaders began to worry that the spirit of reform in Czechoslovakia would spiral out of control, possibly carrying the country out of the Soviet orbit entirely. They feared that the mass enthusiasm for freedom unleashed by the Prague Spring might spread throughout Eastern Europe, threatening the Soviet stranglehold on that region. In the end, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sent in the Red Army to crush the Czechs' growing spirit of independence. Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Prague. Czech leaders were flown to Moscow and forced to renounce their own reforms. Censorship returned to Czechoslovakia.
The Prague Spring of 1968 represented a brief moment of hope for Czechoslovakia and for the subjects of other Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain. But that hope died with the Soviet invasion.
The American public was stunned by the invasion, which provided shocking images for display on the front pages of their newspapers and on their television screens. Nightly news broadcasts sympathized with the Czech reformers and vividly portrayed the brutality of the Soviet response with film smuggled out of Czechoslovakia. American scholars compared the Soviets' behavior to that of Adolf Hitler.
Even as the Soviets sought to reimpose their control over Eastern Europe with an iron fist, they encountered new problems in Asia, where longtime ally Mao Zedong sought to make China, not Russia, the world's foremost Communist power.
By 1972, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger saw an opportunity to divide China from Russia, allowing them to pursue a new, multipolar Cold War strategy. Communist China was eager to take its rightful place in world affairs, and Chairman Mao was irked by what he perceived as the Soviets' attitude of condescension toward his country. Mao had predicted the "East Wind rising over West Wind"—China (the East Wind) would surpass the Soviet Union (the West Wind) as the world's leading Communist nation. Meanwhile, the United States—reeling from defeat in Vietnam—sought to appear strong in foreign policy, giving the impression that the Vietnamese debacle did not mean a broader disaster for the US in the Cold War. If all went well, Nixon and Kissinger could exploit the Sino-Soviet split by playing China off the Soviet Union.
Nixon's approach to China marked a dramatic reversal of American policy toward the world's most populous nation. Since 1949, the official American position regarding Red China had been that it did not exist. (In 1949, the Chinese Civil War ended with Mao's Communists taking control of the entire mainland, while Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists fled to the island province of Taiwan. Thereafter both the Communists in Beijing and the Nationalists in Taipei claimed to be the legitimate government of all of China—both mainland and Taiwan. The United States continued to recognize Chiang's Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China, allowing the Nationalists to hold China's powerful permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council until 1972.)
In a strange twist, China opened up the possibility of rapprochement by inviting the American ping-pong team—then playing in Japan—to visit the country in the spring of 1971. The team's nine players, along with some of their spouses and a few officials and journalists, were the first Americans given official sanction to enter China since the Communists gained control of the mainland more than twenty years before. Tim Boggan, one of the American officials for the ping-pong team, later recalled the odd juxtaposition of being greeted with smiles from the Chinese team and diplomats while seeing Chinese propaganda posters that portrayed caricatures of a pygmy Nixon alongside slogans such as "Down with the US imperialists and all their running dogs!"1 The Americans may have lost their exhibition matches against China's talented table tennis players, but they won much goodwill in China by meeting with students and workers and touring the Great Wall. Back in the United States, Americans were enthralled by newspaper and television reports on the team's "ping-pong diplomacy." Time magazine called it "the ping heard round the world."2 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said to the US team, "You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people. I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples."3 Surely ping-pong has never before or since served such a vital diplomatic function.
The United States responded to "ping-pong diplomacy" by sending Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971 to lay the groundwork for Nixon to travel there later. Kissinger kept his own mission a secret so that Nixon could surprise the world by announcing the first-ever presidential visit to Communist China. Nixon's journey in February 1972 drew attention away from the war in Vietnam and towards a positive relationship with China. The United States recognized Communist China's existence and reversed its longstanding resistance to admitting the country to the United Nations, and after Mao's death in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping finalized a formal agreement to restore diplomatic relations between the two nations. China took over Taiwan's seat on the Security Council.
While any other American leader would have been sharply criticized for considering diplomacy with China, Nixon's lifelong reputation as a ferocious Cold Warrior was so strong that people found it difficult to charge him with going "soft on Communism." Having built his political career on targeting suspected communists in the government, Nixon's anticommunist credentials were unassailable and certainly beyond those of any preceding president. It's ironic, then, that the most hardline American president of the Cold War era was the only one who could open the United States to friendship with Communist China. "Only Nixon could go to China" has since become almost an American political cliché.