Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente Timeline
How It All Went Down
Castro in Cuba
In Cuba, a charismatic young leftist named Fidel Castro leads his guerilla forces triumphantly into Havana, toppling the government of Fulgencio Batista. While most Cubans initially celebrate Castro's victory over the unpopular, corrupt Batista, Americans fear that Castro will establish a Soviet-friendly regime just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Castro Tours US
New Cuban leader Fidel Castro tours the United States, hiring a prominent American PR firm to coordinate a charm offensive in hopes of reassuring Americans that the new revolutionary government in Cuba poses no threat to the United States. While Castro receives some positive coverage in the American press, President Dwight Eisenhower refuses to meet with him.
Cuba and US Sever Ties
Fidel Castro negotiates a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, allowing Cuba to import Soviet oil. Cuba's refineries—all owned by American corporations—refuse to process the Soviet crude, and Castro retaliates by nationalizing the refineries. Castro's seizure of this American property leads to the severing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
Cuban Sugar Quota Cut
The Eisenhower administration cuts Cuba's sugar quota, depriving Cuba of the opportunity to sell 7 million tons of sugar (one of Cuba's most important exports) in the American market. Castro threatens to nationalize all American-owned property in Cuba in retaliation.
OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) is founded by Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela to coordinate petroleum production and pricing.
Cuba Nationalizes American Property
Fidel Castro follows through on his threat to nationalize all American-owned property in Cuba. Lands and businesses worth more than $850 million become the property of the Cuban government.
The Missile Gap
Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, argues that the Eisenhower administration has allowed a "missile gap" to develop between the United States and the Soviet Union. He claims that the Soviets are outpacing the United States in missile production, and that he will reverse this gap if elected. (In fact, there is no missile gap; the United States possesses several times as many missiles as the Soviets.)
Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts is elected president, narrowly defeating Republican Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 elections.
President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address showcases the young president's idealism. Even while demonstrating his commitment to the Cold War by promising that he will not shrink from defending freedom, he also promises to be open to cooperation with the Soviet Union in the interest of peace and arms control: "Let us never negotiate out of fear," he says. "But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."
Alliance for Progress
President John F. Kennedy launches the Alliance for Progress, a massive program of economic aid for the Western Hemisphere akin to the earlier Marshall Plan for Western Europe. Kennedy hopes the Alliance will generate economic growth and social progress in the developing nations of Latin America, inspiring allegiance to the United States while making Communism a less attractive alternative.
President John F. Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps to send idealistic young Americans to aid developing countries around the world. Kennedy hopes the organization will create positive feelings towards the United States in Africa and Asia while undermining the appeal of anti-American revolutionary movements.
Hoping to make the use of nuclear weapons more feasible, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proposes the strategy of "no cities/counterforce," which would target Soviet military bases instead of cities in order to lower the number of potential casualties.
Soviet Becomes First Man in Space
The USSR's Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, successfully completing one orbit around earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.
Bay of Pigs
A CIA-organized force of anti-Castro Cuban exiles attempts to invade Cuba, landing at a place called the Bay of Pigs. Rather than toppling Castro's government, the invasion is quickly crushed by Cuba's armed forces. President Kennedy takes full responsibility for the debacle.
East Germans Isolated
East Germany closes the border between East and West Berlin in an attempt to cut off East Germans' flight to the more prosperous West.
East Germany builds the Berlin wall, dividing East and West Berlin. The wall separates families, cuts off workers from jobs, and devastates Berliners on both sides, becoming the most powerful symbol of the oppression of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination.
American and Soviet tanks face off for two days at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the few border crossings remaining between East and West Berlin following East Germany's closure of the border. After East German police violate an agreement allowing free transport of diplomats across Berlin's sectors, American general Lucius Clay sends in diplomats to test the East German response. After one of these tests, Soviet tanks menacingly approach the border; Clay calls out his tanks to meet them. The confrontation is only resolved when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy negotiate a deal: the Soviet tanks will back down if Kennedy will not protest the construction of the Berlin Wall.
A Russian bomber drops the Tsar bomb, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, in a test over the Arctic Ocean. The 57-megaton Tsar bomb is thousands of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
President John F. Kennedy initiates the CIA's Operation Mongoose, authorizing covert attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba. Operation Mongoose is a failure and pushes Castro closer to the Soviet Union.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis begins after American U2 surveillance flights confirm that the Soviets have placed nuclear missiles on Cuba. President John F. Kennedy rejects advice from military advisors to launch an immediate attack on Cuba.
President John F. Kennedy goes on national television to announce the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuba and the imposition of an American "quarantine" or naval blockade around Cuba. Kennedy begins negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, largely leaving Cuban leader Fidel Castro out of the loop.
Cuban Missile Crisis Resolved
The Cuban Missile Crisis ends after President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev reach a secret agreement: the Soviet Union agrees to remove its missiles from Cuba if the Americans will remove its own Jupiter missiles from Turkey (which is about as far from the USSR as Cuba is from the US). The deal is kept secret from the public, which believes that Kennedy has won his victory through pure resolve rather than through negotiation.
Limited Test Ban Treaty
The United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which bans atmospheric nuclear tests in hopes of slowing the arms race and protecting against nuclear fallout.
Lyndon Baines Johnson assumes the presidency after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. "I will do my best," Johnson says, in his first public statement as president. "That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and God's."
First Woman in Space
Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova makes the first flight by a woman in space.
The American and Soviet governments set up a telephone hotline to ensure that the two country's leaders will always be able to establish direct communications during future Cold War crises.
South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, a corrupt and unpopular ruler, is killed in a military coup carried out with US approval. Rather than improving the situation, Diem's murder plunges South Vietnam even deeper into crisis.
Mutually Assured Destruction
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara develops the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction, which holds that in a world in which both the US and USSR possess enough nuclear weapons to wipe each other off the map, both sides' fears of nuclear retaliation will prevent either from ever using the weapons for aggressive purposes. Thus nuclear weapons are the best deterrent against nuclear war. Although critics decry McNamara's nuclear "balance of terror" policy as mad (MAD, conveniently, is the acronym for Mutual Assured Destruction), McNamara believes his policy will help maintain a stable nuclear world.
Gulf of Tonkin Incident
In the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of Vietnam, the Communist North Vietnamese allegedly attack American ships that have strayed near Vietnamese waters. The "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" gives the Johnson administration a pretext to justify sending American troops to intervene in Vietnam.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by a unanimous vote in the House and a nearly unanimous vote of 88-2 in the Senate, giving President Lyndon Johnson the authority to send American troops to Vietnam and to use "all necessary measures to repel armed attack."
Chinese Atomic Bomb
Communist China detonates its first successful atomic bomb.
Leonid Brezhnev Rules
Leonid Brezhnev replaces Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Brezhnev will rule the Soviet Union until 1982.
In the 1964 presidential election, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson crushes Republican Barry Goldwater to win a second term as president.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong initiates the Cultural Revolution, which aims to renew support for revolutionary Communism and rid Chinese society of bourgeois elements. In support, some Chinese students launch the Red Guards, an anarchic and sometimes violent student movement against party leaders and intellectuals who do not fully support Mao and his policies. China comes close to civil war with massive purges of intellectuals and political opponents. Estimates of the number of people killed in the Cultural Revolution range from 500,000 to 3 million. The Cultural Revolution lasts a decade and brings higher education in China to a halt.
Six Day War
Israel battles Egypt in the Six Day War. After the Israelis launch a pre-emptive strike upon learning that Egypt is contemplating war, triumphant Israeli forces seize Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerursalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The fighting surprises the US government.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain (among other nations) sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, agreeing not to spread nuclear weapons to other countries and to limit nuclear delivery systems. The treaty gives the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency the job of inspecting nuclear facilities.
The Nixon Doctrine of President Richard Nixon states that the United States will continue to lend support to its allies with money and weaponry, but will largely leave them responsible for manning their own defenses.
The Prague Spring begins when Alexander Dubcek replaces Antonin Novotny as general secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubcek presses for reform, seeking to create a more open Communist society that he calls "socialism with a human face." Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania visit Dubcek to show their support, and students in Poland and Yugoslavia protest in sympathy with Czechoslovakia. The Czech people soon demand even greater reforms, beyond those proposed by Dubcek's government. Dubcek, who counsels moderation, finds himself divided from other influential leaders.
Soviet forces invade Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring. Czech leaders are flown to Moscow, where they are forced to renounce their earlier reforms, leading to the reintroduction of censorship.
The Brezhnev Doctrine of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev justifies repressing the Prague Spring reformers in Czechoslovakia by stating that no socialist state can adopt policies endangering the interests of international socialism, and that the Soviet Union can intervene in any Soviet-bloc nation if communist rule there is threatened.
Republican Richard Nixon defeats Democrat Hubert Humphrey and segregationist American Independent Party candidate George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election.
Chacellor Willy Brandt and Ostpolitik
Willy Brandt, the first West German Chancellor from the Social Democratic Party, becomes the first chancellor to visit East Germany and also begins Ostpolitik—recognizing East Germany as a state in order to improve relations within Germany.
A meeting in Helsinki, Finland, between the United States and Soviet Union initiates the first phase of a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), freezing both sides' number of ballistic missile launchers at current levels.
Ping Pong Diplomacy
The United States and China engage in "Ping Pong Diplomacy" as the US Table Tennis Team becomes the first officially-sanctioned group of Americans to set foot in Beijing since the Communist takeover in 1949.
Salvador Allende Becomes President of Chile
In Chile, leftist Salvador Allende heads a political coalition supported by both the ChileanSocialist and Communist parties. Despite CIA attempts to weaken his support, Allende is freely elected president, putting Marxists in power by democratic means. Allende nationalizes the country's vital copper industry, gives free milk to schoolchildren, and begins to put the economy under state control.
The Cienfuegos Crisis begins when an American U2 spy plane spots a submarine base in Cuba. The US wants the removal of Soviet missile submarines from Cuba, but fears that any public confrontation will escalate into a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger thus chooses to handle the issue with quiet diplomacy.
Soviet-German Pipeline Agreed
The Soviet Union and West Germany make a deal, agreeing to build an oil pipeline between the two nations. These negotiations demonstrate West German leader Willy Brandt's strategy of showing his openness to working with the Soviets in order to build better relations with Soviet-controlled East Germany.
In the Moscow Treaty, the USSR and West Germany agree to existing borders and to normalize relations between the two nations.
The Polish army violently puts down strikes of protesting workers in Gdansk, Poland. Communist Party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka resigns and is replaced by Edward Gierek.
Antiballistic Missile Treaty
The US and USSR sign the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to limit anti-ballistic missile systems, which could potentially defend against missiles carrying nuclear weapons. This treaty formalizes Mutual Assured Destruction.
East Open to Détente
East German leader Walter Ulbricht is forced out of power and is replaced by Erich Honecker, who is more open to détente with the West.
Kissinger Tours Asia
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tours Asia, secretly visiting Beijing to open up diplomatic relations with Communist China.
Four Powers Agreement Reached
The Four Power Agreement on Berlin between the four World War II allies—Britain, France, the United States, and Soviet Union—finally resolves critical issues created during the occupation of Germany in 1945. The Western powers agree to recognize East Berlin as the capital of East Germany and the Soviets agree to improve access between East and West Berlin.
Nixons Opens China
President Richard Nixon travels to China and meets Chinese leader Mao Zedong. This visit opens the door to rapprochement with China.
Basic Treaty Signed
West and East Germany sign the Treaty for the Basis of Relations (also known as the Basic Treaty), which gives East Germany de facto recognition of its statehood and borders though not de jure recognition. This means that while West German leader Willy Brandt is willing to recognize that East Germany operates as a sovereign state in practice, he is not willing to legally define East Germany as a separate from the German nation. Brandt adopts this stance because he hopes for the eventual reunification of Germany. This distinction between de facto and de jure recognition plays out in East and West Germany's exchange of permanent representatives rather than ambassadors.
President Richard Nixon travels to the USSR for a summit with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin. They agree to seek a policy of détente, neither seeking an advantage at the expense of the other.
SALT I Signed
The signing of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) by the United States and USSR in Moscow heralds the beginning of détente. The treaty freezes the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) held by each country for five years. The treaty also shows an acceptance of equal strategic arsenals—both the US and USSR realize that they each will continue to have a large number of weapons no matter how vigorously they compete in an arms race.
Republican Richard Nixon is re-elected president, crushing Democrat George McGovern in the presidental election of 1972.
The Paris Peace Treaty establishes a ceasefire in Vietnam.
In Chile, the military bombs the presidential palace, overthrowing the elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende, who is either murdered or commits suicide. Army commander Augusto Pinochet installs himself as dictator.
Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War begins as Egyptian and Syrian troops, using Soviet tanks, cross the Suez Canal to launch a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday. Israel requests arms from the United States, and the Americans attempt to send them; however, European countries (except for Portugal) refuse to let the Americans use air bases on their soil for this purpose. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat temporarily regains the territory his country lost in the Six-Day War of 1967, but will not then accept a ceasefire, continuing the war. Israeli forces recover from their initial setbacks, counterattacking to retake the land captured by Egypt. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger puts America's nuclear weapons on DEFCON III, an unprecedented level of high-alert.
Yom Kippur Resolution
United Nations Security Council Resolution 338, coauthored by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, calls for a ceasefire to end the Yom Kippur War.
OPEC Imposes Oil Embargo
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi King Faisal, imposes an oil embargo on the United States and other Western powers in retaliation for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
Peace Talks Begin
Egypt and Israel begin peace talks to end the Yom Kippur War. Leaders from both countries meet at Kilometer 101, a point of passage between the two nations located between Cairo and the Suez Canal.
Yom Kippur Peace Treaty Reached
An agreement ending the Yom Kippur War is reached between Egypt and Israel, and the US resumes diplomatic relations with Egypt. Still, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) continues its oil embargo against the US. American oil prices skyrocket by 400% in 1974.
President Gerald Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev meet in Vladivostok to sign accords limiting offensive nuclear weapons. This lays the groundwork for another Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), which further restricts the arms held by both nations.
Oil Embargo Ends
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ends its oil embargo against the United States.
Cold War Stable
1975 marks the high point of détente between the United States and Soviet Union. The Vietnam War is over, China is America's friend, relations between East and West Germany are improving, and the US and USSR have made a number of agreements to slow the nuclear arms race. The Cold War seems to have stabilized, with reduced tensions on both sides.