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This week in history: Adlai Stevenson and the Cuban Missile Crisis

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A soldier poses for a photograph on the outer casing of an old, empty Soviet missile on exhibit at the military complex Morro Cabana which is open to tourists in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.  The world stood at the brink of Armageddon for 13 day

A soldier poses for a photograph on the outer casing of an old, empty Soviet missile on exhibit at the military complex Morro Cabana which is open to tourists in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. The world stood at the brink of Armageddon for 13 days in October 1962 when President John F. Kennedy drew a symbolic line in the Atlantic and warned of dire consequences if Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev dared to cross it. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians now say it was behind-the-scenes compromise rather than a high-stakes game of chicken that resolved the faceoff, that both Washington and Moscow wound up winners and that the crisis lasted far longer than 13 days.

Ismael Francisco, Cubadebate, Associated Press

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson exposed Soviet duplicity for the world to see on Oct. 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite repetitive Soviet denials that it had supplied Cuba with offensive weapons, Stevenson revealed photographs to the UN to the contrary, and made a damning case against communist aggression.

Only 90 miles from the Florida coast, the island nation of Cuba had experienced a revolution in 1959 that removed the U.S.-friendly government of Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power. Though initially vague about his political leanings, Castro soon declared himself a communist and announced an alliance with the Soviet Union. After President John F. Kennedy's botched attempted to remove Castro during the April, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cubans sought military protection from the Soviets. Moscow declared it would send only defensive weapons to help Castro in the event of an American attack.

The Cuban Missile Crisis began when American U2 reconnaissance planes photographed Soviet medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. With the exception of Seattle, these nuclear-tipped rockets could hit every major American city in the continental U.S. and offered the real possibility of a Soviet first strike against the United States.

What made the location of these missiles so important was the dramatic cut in response time they represented to the United States. Intercontinental missiles fired from the Soviet Union itself would give the American government about 15-20 minutes notice, allowing time for a nuclear response before American cities and bases were hit. This time frame was crucial because it let the Soviets know the U.S. had the ability to respond in kind in the event of Soviet attack. The missiles in Cuba, however, cut the response time down to about five minutes.

From the Soviet standpoint, this was only fair. The United States enjoyed a similar advantage with with nuclear missiles stationed in West Germany and Turkey. In the event of an American first strike against the Soviets it would be theoretically possible to wipe out all major Soviet cities and bases before the Soviets could launch their own retaliatory strike. The scheme to place atomic rockets in Cuba had the been the idea of the Soviet general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev.

In his book, “The Cold War: A New History,” John Lewis Gaddis writes: “Just what Khrushchev intended to do with his Cuban missiles is unclear: it was characteristic of him not to think things through. ... The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis.” In short, it is possible that his love of the idea of a Soviet satellite so close the U.S. trumped his fear of nuclear annihilation. Whatever the calculations of the Soviet leaders, they consistently denied they were giving the Cubans anything but defensive weapons.

The whole scenario required a balancing act for Kennedy and his top advisers. They had to let the Soviets know that they would not accept that Soviet missiles remain in Cuba, but they could do nothing that might lead to war and the destruction of both the U.S. and the USSR. Even as the United States instituted a naval blockade (dubbed a “Quarantine” for legal reasons), the Soviets continued to deny to the world they had placed offensive weapons in Cuba and brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

In order to make the case that the Soviets had indeed threatened world peace, Kennedy turned to his ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson had served as governor of Illinois and had been the Democratic nominee for President against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in both the 1952 and 1956 elections, losing both times. In 1960, Kennedy had faced a passive challenge from Stevenson for the Democratic nomination, and at times the relationship between the two men had been frosty. Given his stature within the Democratic Party, however, Kennedy felt compelled to give him a high-profile position within his administration.

While many of Kennedy's advisers recommended a tough stand against the Soviets, Stevenson alone counseled negotiation and compromise, leading many in Kennedy's circle to believe Stevenson wanted to appease the Soviets as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had done with Hitler in 1938. With Kennedy's backing, on Oct. 25 Stevenson went before the UN and confronted the Soviet ambassador. Despite his reluctance to take the Soviets head on, however, Stevenson proved the perfect man to make America's case before the world.

In his book “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” Robert Dallek writes: “(Kennedy) watched a television confrontation at the U.N. between Stevenson and Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin. When Stevenson pressed Zorin to say whether the Soviets had put offensive missiles in Cuba, he replied, 'I am not in an American courtroom, and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion which a prosecutor puts questions.' Stevenson would not let him evade the question. 'You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no,' Stevenson shot back.”

When Zorin stated that Stevenson would have his answer “in due course,” Stevenson famously stated, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

Stevenson then had the U-2 photographs placed upon easels for all the assembly to see, clearly illustrating the brazen Soviet dishonesty. Back at the White House Kennedy said, “I never knew Adlai had it in him. Too bad he didn't show some of this steam in the 1956 campaign.”

Stevenson's dramatic, forceful exposure of Soviet lies ensured increased international pressure for the Soviets to back down. After a few more tense days of negotiation, which ultimately ended with Kennedy agreeing to dismantle American missiles in Turkey, Khrushchev announced that the offensives missiles in Cuba would be removed.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com