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Letter from Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to President John F. Kennedy, October 24, 1962

Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, 1894-1971
1962 October 24

Letter from Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to President John F. Kennedy, October 24, 1962, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston,

After two days of meetings with his advisers, Khrushchev responded by writing a private letter to Kennedy. The Soviet Union also put its military forces on high alert and spied on US forces. Notice that Khrushchev based his argument on international rules. Under those rules, no country could set up a blockade of ships around another country, or stop the ships of a third country in international waters. Both were potentially acts of war. What did he state that the Soviet Union would do about the missiles, the quarantine, and the US naval blockade of Cuba? What is the tone of his letter? By arguing that Cuba was an independent, sovereign state, Khrushchev was challenging the way that the United States had always treated Cuba as a dependent. Khrushchev also charged that the election campaign in the United States played a role in the Cuban situation. How could an election campaign or domestic politics in general influence a major international crisis?

Khrushchev initially refused to remove the missiles or honor the blockade. To support his position, he evoked the norms of international law. He argued that Cuba as a sovereign state had the right to accept weapons from their ally, and the Soviet Union had the right to provide such military help. Therefore, the action of a military blockade in the international waters around Cuba was illegal. However, his tone was not as confrontational as Kennedy’s was, and he appealed to Kennedy to calm down and avoid emotion. Khrushchev did charge that Kennedy was motivated by his desire to be re-elected, and he called his actions “banditry,” but he surrounded those charges with conciliatory language and appealed to reason.

Our ties with the Republic of Cuba, like our relations with other states, regardless of what kind of states they may be, concern only the two countries between which these relations exist. And if we now speak of the quarantine to which your letter refers, a quarantine may be established, according to accepted international practice, only by agreement of states between themselves, and not by some third party. Quarantines exist, for example, on agricultural goods and products. But in this case the question is in no way one of quarantine, but rather of far more serious things, and you yourself understand this.
You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. … You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us. …
We firmly adhere to the principles of international law and observe strictly the norms which regulate navigation on the high seas, in international waters. We observe these norms and enjoy the rights recognized by all states.
You wish to compel us to renounce the rights that every sovereign state enjoys, you are trying to legislate in questions of international law, and you are violating the universally accepted norms of that law. And you are doing all this not only out of hatred for the Cuban people and its government, but also because of considerations of the election campaign in the United States. What morality, what law can justify such an approach by the American Government to international affairs? No such morality or law can be found, because the actions of the United States with regard to Cuba constitute outright banditry or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism. …
Therefore, Mr. President, if you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States. When you confront us with such conditions, try to put yourself in our place and consider how the United States would react to these conditions. I do not doubt that if someone attempted to dictate similar conditions to you — the United States — you would reject such an attempt. And we also say — no.
The Soviet Government considers that the violation of the freedom to use international waters and international air space is an act of aggression which pushes mankind toward the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war. Therefore, the Soviet Government cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading that Island. Our instructions to Soviet mariners are to observe strictly the universally accepted norms of navigation in international waters and not to retreat one step from them. And if the American side violates these rules, it must realize what responsibility will rest upon it in that case. … We will then be forced on our part to take the measures we consider necessary and adequate in order to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so. ...