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Tracking the Soviet Ships During the Cuban Missile Crisis

JFK signs proclamation for Cuba blockade in the Oval Office. 23 October 1962.

JFK signs proclamation for Cuba blockade in the Oval Office. October 23, 1962.
Photo by Abbie Rowe | National Archives

One of the earliest signs of the Soviet military buildup in Cuba was the increase in the numbers and frequency of Soviet ships arriving in Cuban ports in the summer of 1962, with an especially abrupt increase in late-July. From January through July, 14 Soviet dry cargo ships per month called at Cuban ports, on average. By August, it was more than double. In September, it was 46.

Not all of those ships were owned by the Soviet Union. Many were chartered from owners in other countries, including some close allies of the United States, a factor that became a thorny issue during and after the crisis, as ships of some U.S. allies were being used to ship goods to Cuba.

As concerns grew, bolstered by refugee reports, aerial surveillance, and other intelligence, tracking Soviet shipping to Cuba became an intelligence priority. And when the crisis broke, cutting off the flow of Soviet ships arriving in Cuba was considered crucial.{{1}}

In his televised speech of October 22, President Kennedy announced that he was ordering the U.S. navy to blockade Cuba. Rather than use the word “blockade,” a term burdened with provocative connotations in international law and recent history, the action was described as a “quarantine.” As he explained the action in his speech:

To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers.{{2}}

Exactly 24 hours after his speech, Kennedy signed the proclamation establishing the naval quarantine. It specified prohibited materiel as being:

Surface-to-surface missiles; bomber aircraft; bombs, air-to-surface rockets and guided missiles; warheads for any of the above weapons; mechanical or electronic equipment to support or operate the above items; and any other classes of materiel hereafter designated by the Secretary of Defense for the purpose of effectuating this Proclamation.{{3}}

Tracking Soviet Ships

Soviet Ships October 22

October 22

This was the latest intelligence information as President Kennedy announced the quarantine.

October 23 Soviet Ships

October 23

On the eve of the quarantine going into effect, 22 ships were enroute to Cuba.

Cuba Quarantine Line

October 24: The Quarantine Line

A map showing the initial deployment of the quarantine line.

October 25 Soviet Ships

October 25

Fourteen of the 22 ships had turned around, but 8 were continuing on towards Cuba and the blockade line.

[[1]]Chief of Naval Operations, “The Naval Quarantine of Cuba,” 1963, in Naval Historical Center, CNO, box 10, Post 1946 Report File.[[1]]
[[2]]”Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba,” October 22, 1962, in Public Papers of the President: John F. Kennedy: 1962 document 485.[[2]]
[[3]]”Proclamation 3504: Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba,” October 23, 1962, in Public Papers of the President: John F. Kennedy: 1962 document 486.[[3]]