We're either a first class power or we're not!
-- Richard B. Russell, Jr., October 22, 19621
It is generally believed that the U.S. and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war over missiles in Cuba than at any time during the Cold War. Given the fact that the October 1962 crisis could easily have sparked confrontations over Berlin, Turkey, and other places on the periphery of the Soviet empire, this perception is probably true, though the on-again, off-again Berlin standoff was at times just as dangerous. For Cuba as well as Berlin, the fundamental reality of the first twenty years of the Cold War remained the same. Unless Kremlin leaders wanted to commit national suicide, they would not provoke war with the United States.
By fall 1962, the balance of strategic nuclear forces favored the U.S. more than when Kennedy had taken office. The Soviets had approximately 44 ICBMs (low estimate less than 25), 97 sea-launched ballistic missiles, 155 heavy bombers, and many hundreds of medium bombers that must be launched from forward bases on the Arctic Circle to reach the continental U.S. on one-way missions. The ICBMs were first generation SS-6 rockets with non-storable liquid fuel, highly unreliable and inaccurate; the missile submarines diesel- powered boats that had to surface to fire short-range missiles. By contrast, the U.S. possessed 156 Atlas and Titan ICBMS, 144 Polaris SLBMS, and 1,300 strategic bombers armed with megaton bombs and Hound Dog air-to-surface missiles (ASMs). Many hundreds more medium bombers with in-flight refueling capacity could strike at targets in the Soviet Union from overseas bases. Second generation Titan II and Minuteman missiles were about to be deployed, moreover, in an expansion that would create by 1967 a Triad force of over 1,000 ICBMs, 41 Polaris submarines (657 SLBMs), and several hundred B-52 bombers.2
The overwhelming superiority of the American strategic arsenal was known