56 years ago this week, the United States and Soviet Union were on the verge of all-out nuclear war. Suddenly, American families learned that they were in the crosshairs of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles stationed 90 miles away from Florida, and virtually the entire continental U.S. was now moments away from annihilation. We know how the Cuban Missile Crisis ended, but how did it come about in the first place?
During the early days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a big problem: mutually assured destruction only works when both sides can assure destruction. The United States could target Moscow with intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines. By deploying nuclear missiles to Italy and Turkey, the USSR could be devastated in just minutes. Sure, the Kremlin could target Western Europe and Alaska, but Washington, D.C. was well outside of the reach of the Soviets.
That was a problem. But Nikita Khrushchev saw a solution, and he declared his intention to “throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants.”