Study Guide

Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente Introduction

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Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente Introduction

In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both won the presidency in part by positioning themselves as fierce anticommunist Cold Warriors.

In 1947, President Truman kicked off the Cold War sentiment with the Truman Doctrine, we lent a helping hand to countries like Greece and Turkey so they didn't fall to communism, and re-igniting witch-hunt paranoia, every man, woman, and child was looking under their beds at night for communists. 

Once in office, however, both presidents found their ambitions of rolling back worldwide communism thwarted by the threat of apocalyptic nuclear war. In the nuclear age, direct confrontation with the Soviet Empire simply became too dangerous to contemplate—a fact dramatized with terrifying clarity by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Cuba was a little close for comfort, so in 1959, when its government was overthrown by Big Bad Communists, America went through a series of fumbled attempts at dealing with our fear.

Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution, oppressed the opposition in Cuba, nationalized some land, and hindered American business in Cuba.

America was all, "Well, let's see what you do now if we throw some economic sanctions on ya?"

So, Cuba just became friends with the enemy: the Soviet Union. That was the painful kicker. 

Cuba and the Soviet Union are over here exchanging oil and sugar, and the U.S., third-wheeling with no power, decided to stomp its feet and make a scene. 

During President Eisenhower's last year in office, the CIA had already begun planning how to handle this Castro guy. With Kennedy in place, we went for an invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

If it sounds funny, you're on the right track. A Cuban guerrilla army trained by America was outnumbered, landing in the wrong place, and sinking their own ships on coral reefs. They were killed, taken prisoner, and surrendered after a mere 24 hours. We'd call that a fail. 

To add some salt to the wound, Castro let the Soviet Union build nuke launch sites in Cuba. The U.S. was none the wiser until an American spy plane flew over a huge fleet of Soviet warships going full steam ahead to Cuba.

What seemed to be a battle of egos, was now a more eminent reality of nuclear war, more real and more threatening than before. This was the Cuban Missile Crisis, where for six intense days in October 1962, we were in a nuclear standoff with the Soviets. In our own backyard. The whole country breathed a sigh of relief when America and the Soviet Union decided to dismantle some of their nukes. 

By the early 1970s, President Nixon—who had built his entire political career upon the principle of anticommunism—led a shift in American policy away from confrontation with the Soviet Union and toward détente, a policy of mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence.

What is Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente About and Why Should I Care?

Humankind has never come as close to apocalypse as it did in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves locked in stalemate over nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba.

For 13 days, the world teetered on the brink. Finally, the Soviets relented and agreed to remove their missiles from the island. "We're eyeball to eyeball," said the American Secretary of State, "and I think the other fellow just blinked."

Uh, hold that thought, Mr. Secretary.

Doomsday was averted, and Americans emerged from their backyard fallout shelters full of admiration for President John F. Kennedy, who had held his nerve with icy coolness to prevail in the standoff.

But everything Americans thought they understood about the Cuban Missile Crisis was wrong. Kennedy had not, in fact, prevailed through sheer resolve. He had defused the situation through negotiation and a secret compromise with the Soviet leadership. Kennedy's genius in the Missile Crisis was not truly his fearless refusal to bend to Soviet demands. To the contrary, it was his willingness to make a deal to avoid nuclear holocaust.

But Kennedy's deal remained a secret, so most Americans learned exactly the wrong lesson from the crisis. Their determination to emulate Kennedy's supposed uncompromising resolve would not serve them well in Vietnam.

The true story is here, so keep on reading. So is the story of how a ping-pong team changed the global geopolitical landscape.

What's not to like about that?

Cold War: Cuban Missile Crisis to Detente Resources


John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (2005)
Here's a great interpretation of Cold War events by historian John Gaddis.

David Reynolds, One World Divisible, A Global History Since 1945 (2000)
A detailed textbook history of the Cold War.

Margaret MacMillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World (2007)
A detailed account of the meetings between Nixon and Mao in China.

Robert F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969)
An insider's look at the Cuban Missile Crisis from the point of view of Robert F. Kennedy.


Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
Many of the songs on this record were inspired by the general fear of nuclear war that had defined Dylan's generation. But songs such as "Masters of War," "Talkin' World War III Blues," and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, became much more than reflections on the Cold War world. As the anti-Vietnam War movement grew in the late 1960s, this music became intimately associated with the struggle for peace.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)
The fourth album from an iconic American band, Willy and the Poor Boys is chock-full of CCR classics including "Down on the Corner,"the anti-Vietnam anthem "Fortunate Son," and "It Came Out of the Sky," a song that seemed to warn of a war far more destructive than the one in Southeast Asia.

George Clinton, Computer Games (1982)
Released during the early years of President Reagan's administration, Computer Games is both whimsical and foreboding—kind of like the 1980s. Take "Atomic Dog," for instance. Once that thumping bass kicks in and Clinton's ensemble croons and barks those familiar lyrics, you're transported to a dark yet sensual netherworld. Yep, like the '80s.

Prince, 1999 (1983)
Have you considered that Prince's iconic "party like it's 1999" song, released in 1983, was actually a Cold War apocalyptic anthem?

U2, War (1983)
Perhaps one of this Irish band's most political albums, War commented on the state of the world in the early 1980s, a world that seemed to U2 to be increasingly defined by warfare and its repercussions. It includes some of their most memorable and poetic songs, like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," and "Surrender."


Aerial Espionage
Satellite reconnaissance images of a Soviet airfield.

President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson walking to a ceremony on the South Lawn.

Inside ExComm
Photo of an ExComm meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nixon Goes to China
President Richard Nixon meets Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Movies & TV

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey provides an eerie vision of the 21st century, one that features human hibernation, artifacts of alien life forms, and evil technology. It was produced during the height of the Cold War and amid the fierce competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the field of space exploration. Check out futuristic 21st-century technology as it was imagined in 1968, and watch out for rogue computers.

Topaz (1969)
One of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser-known films, Topaz is a fictional depiction of the circumstances surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this Cold War thriller, a Russian official defects to the U.S. and reveals both a pro-Soviet French spy ring and a secret alliance between the Soviets and the Cubans. Not good. It's up to U.S. secret agent Michael Nordstrom and his French sidekick to prevent a full-blown nuclear war. Maybe not one of Hitchcock's best films, but Topaz is worth seeing, if only to observe the way the director has chosen to depict each of the regimes involved in the 1962 crisis.

Thirteen Days (2000)
This 21st-century take features Kevin Costner and depicts the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and White House aide Kenny O'Donnell. This film is not a documentary, though the screenplay is based broadly on historical events.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
This Academy Award-winning documentary consists primarily of archival footage and interviews with Robert McNamara, the man who served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense during some of the most troublesome years of the Cold War Era, from 1961 until late 1967. McNamara reveals errors in judgment, mistakes in policy, and the many failures of the presidential administrations that were charged with containing communism during the Cold War. It's a sobering peak at the complicated, imperfect, and uncertain decisions that can and do lead to war.

The Good Shepherd (2006)
Good Shepherd is about the history of the U.S. Central Intelligence Service (CIA). See Brad Pitt struggle to be a good son, a loyal husband, and a dedicated father all while trying to help save the post-World War II world from nuclear war. That's quite a plateful.


CNN's Cold War
The website for CNN's documentary miniseries The Cold War contains transcripts of the program and a wealth of additional materials. One of America's leading Cold War historians, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, consulted on the program.

Cold War Museum
The Cold War Museum is a touring exhibit about the Cold War, dedicated to honoring Cold War veterans. One of the museum's founders is Francis Gary Powers, Jr., son of the pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down in his U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960.

Kennedy Library
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library contains collections of presidential papers with documents, photographs, and speeches online.

Johnson Library
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library contains collections of presidential papers with documents, photographs, and speeches online.

Video & Audio

Audio of JFK's Speeches
IN JFK's online presidential library, you'll find audio recordings of Kennedy's speeches.

Nixon's China Speeches
Nixon's library includes audio recordings of his speeches on his visit to China.

Nixon's Foreign Policy Recordings
Conversations between Nixon and others related to foreign affairs.

JFK Inaugural
Video of Kennedy's inaugural address can be viewed here. 

Historical Documents

Yale University's Avalon Project: Cold War Documents
The Avalon Project is a collection of documents organized in categories of events, and then in chronological order, so you can piece together what unfolds.

Mt. Holyoke College: Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy—The Cold War
Here's Mt. Holyoke's well-organized list of links and documents relating to the Cold War, organized by year of event.

Wilson Center: Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center is a large archive of documents with an international focus.

George Washington University's National Security Archive
GWU's National Security Archive features a collection of secret government documents, received via the Freedom of Information Act.

UC Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project
USB has made available a collection of the public papers of American presidents.

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