The 1962 stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba, which posed a threat to the United States and Canada, brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Although Canadian forces were placed on heightened alert, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's hesitant response to the crisis aggravated U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and fuelled already difficult relations between Canada and the U.S. in the 1960s.

Missiles Discovered

The Cuban Missile Crisis began on 15 October 1962, at the height of the Cold War, when an American spy plane took photographs of ballistic missiles, belonging to the Soviet Union, being installed in Cuba. The missiles, designed to deliver nuclear warheads, were capable of hitting targets anywhere in the United States or Canada.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors secretly discussed what to do about this unexpected threat for a week. After rejecting calls from his military to launch air strikes against the missile sites, Kennedy mounted an immediate naval blockade of Cuba. He announced the crisis, and the blockade, in a televised address to the American public on 22 October, threatening further action if the missile sites were not dismantled.

Canada Hesitates

Like other NATO leaders, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was personally informed by Kennedy of the U.S. plan, shortly before the televised broadcast. The two leaders did not get along well at the best of times. On the phone with Kennedy, Diefenbaker was sceptical about the Soviet Union's intentions. He asked to see further proof of what was taking place on the ground in Cuba. Diefenbaker urged Kennedy to send a team of United Nations inspectors to Cuba to verify what the Soviets were doing there.

The main issue for the Canadian government was whether to comply with an American request to move Canadian forces to a higher alert status known as "DEFCON-3." Diefenbaker was reluctant. Not only did he dislike Kennedy, he was angry that the U.S. hadn't consulted Canada earlier in the crisis. He and Canada's Foreign Minister, Secretary of State for External Affairs Howard Green, were also wary of falling quickly into line with U.S. wishes.

The Canadian government was also concerned that placing its military on alert might provoke the Soviet Union.

"DEFCON-3"

In spite of these concerns and delays, National Defence Minister Douglas Harkness allowed Canadian units to quietly raise their readiness alert level to "DEFCON-3." Formal authorization, however, was delayed while the Cabinet debated the matter over the next two days. Harkness argued that the nature of the crisis, combined with existing international defence arrangements, made the alert necessary (Canada was a member, along with the U.S., of both NATO and NORAD ).

About half of Canada's ministers remained undecided on the issue. But as Soviet ships approached the quarantine zone later in the week – and other NATO members announced their support for the blockade – Harkness’ position gained support. On 24 October the Diefenbaker government authorized the "DEFCON-3" alert. Canadian ships and aircraft also participated in patrols at this time to locate Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic.

Canada's hesitant response reflected in part the desire of the government to preserve the independence of Canadian foreign policy, and to maintain a balanced posture in crisis conditions. The delay, however, was widely criticized in Canada, and contributed to a growing perception of indecisiveness in the Diefenbaker government.

It also made worse already difficult relations with the Kennedy administration, and fuelled controversy and confusion in Canada – underway since the 1960 debate on Bomarc missiles – over Canadian policy on nuclear weapons.

Crisis Defused

The Cuban Missile Crisis continued for 13 tense days, at which time the world's two atomic superpowers came uncomfortably close to nuclear war. The stand-off was resolved with the help of United Nations diplomats. It ended on 28 October, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the Soviet missiles, in return for Kennedy's promise not to invade Cuba.