What Was at Stake in 1962?

A closer look at the nuclear stockpiles of the world's two superpowers as the Cuban Missile Crisis began.

National Security Archives
National Security Archives

Fifty years on, it is difficult to comprehend just how high Cold War tensions were in the summer of 1962, and to recall how that evolved into the crisis of October, when the world’s most powerful states were on the brink of nuclear war.

In 1962, the nuclear stockpile of the United States, consisting of more than 3,500 warheads, was six times that of the Soviet Union. The most powerful weapons — Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) — had ranges greater than 8,600 miles and were capable of hitting targets almost anywhere within the Soviet Union from American soil. The United States had 203 missiles of this type, with a combined nuclear yield greater than 635 megatons, the equivalent of 635,000,000 tons of TNT. By way of comparison, the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II — resulting in between 90,000 and 166,000 deaths — had a yield of around 15,000 tons of TNT.

The Soviet Union had only 36 missiles capable of covering a similar distance, with a combined yield  in the range of 108-204 megatons. Although much lower than the long-range missiles held by the Americans, these weapons still represented a nuclear power between 7,560 to 14,280 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb.

The U.S. also held significant superiority in its strategic bombing forces. At the end of the crisis in October, a total of 1,306 American bomber planes were deployed with the ability to deliver 2,962 nuclear weapons. By the time the Strategic Air Command (SAC) reached its maxiumum strength on November 4, these weapons were either continually in the air or on a fifteen minute alert. The equivalent Soviet force at the time consisted of just 138 bombers.

The deployment of arms abroad was another crucial factor in the balance of international power. By 1962, 30 “Jupiter” Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) had been stationed in Italy by the United States, with a further 15 in Turkey. (See photograph above.) This was in addition to 60 “Thor” medium range missiles deployed in Britain, each with equivalent power and range to the Jupiter. These European bases provided another 126 megatons of nuclear throw-weight capable of reaching the Soviet Union.

The decision by the Soviet Union in 1962 to deploy missiles to Cuba — often regarded as the genesis of the crisis in October — therefore represented an attempt to shift the nuclear status quo in favor of the USSR.

Medium range missiles stationed in the Soviet Union were of little danger to the United States but, if placed in Cuba — just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland — they would pose an immediate threat to American territory similar to that felt by the Russians. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would later write that, “Our missiles would have equalized what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power.'” These weapons were officially committed to Cuba in a memorandum issued by Khrushchev on May 24 and included:

24 R-12 MRBM launchers and 36 missiles with 1-megaton warheads. These would be targeted on the U.S. eastern seaboard and were known by the CIA intelligence as “SS-4s.” 

National Security Archives – image shows an R-12 missile in Red Square, Moscow.

14 R-14 MRBM launchers. Referred to as “SS-5s” by the CIA, these never reached Cuba as the ships carrying them turned around in the Atlantic on October 23.

15 FKR missiles (from the Russian ‘Frontovaya Krylataya Raketa’ meaning Frontline Winged Rocket). These were tactical weapons capable of firing nuclear cruise missiles at targets such as the U.S. Guantanamo naval base and any potential American landing sites. 

2002 Cuban Missile Crisis Conference, Havana



Six atomic bombs for nuclear-capable Il-28 bombers.

12 Luna nuclear-capable missiles. These were considered tactical nuclear weapons, to be targeted at potential landing sites. Within the U.S. these were referred to as “FROGs” (Free Rocket Over Ground) due to the road-based mobility of the missile launchers.
National Security Archives – image shows Luna missile transporters at a military camp near Remedio, Cuba


Khrushchev viewed the deployment of nuclear weapons to Cuba as an opportunity for the United States to “learn what it feels like to have her own land and her own people threatened.” Of course, their dispatch to Cuba was not something the Soviet Union wanted advertised: the missiles’ shipment across the Atlantic in the summer of 1962 was launched in secret, and the Kennedy administration was unable to confirm their presence in Cuba until October 13.

As much as missiles and megatons, it was these human elements — the Soviet desire to address a perceived injustice and the failure of American intelligence to recognize the growing threat — that made the Cuban Missile Crisis so dangerous. As the events of 1962 unfolded, this mixture of force and fallibility would push two superpowers to the very edge of mutual destruction.

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