Why did the Soviets back down in Cuba? Was the crisis a turning point in history? Did the crisis have anything to suggest about the role of war in a nuclear age?
The risks to both sides in the Cuban missile crisis were real, direct, and very high. As Dean Rusk said, a misstep might have meant the "incineration" of the entire Northern Hemisphere, including the North American continent. Even so, it is not possible to say that it was the nuclear threat, as such, that caused the Soviets to back down. The Soviet leaders seem to have had considerable confidence in the judgment, restraint, and sense of responsibility of the American leaders, and they undoubtedly assumed the American response would begin with conventional means and would continue to be restricted to conventional means unless the Soviets themselves did something that raised the ante.
On the other hand, it is also not possible to say that the Soviets backed down solely in the face of a threat to invade Cuba with conventional, nonnuclear forces, even though they knew that the troops they had in Cuba could not stand up to such an invasion -- or, to be completely accurate, even though they knew that the troops they had in Cuba could not stand up to such an invasion without using nuclear weapons. The Soviet leadership often repeated, and only partly for selfserving motives, that limited war would always carry a risk of escalation to nuclear war. And certainly in the Cuban missile crisis there were a number of ways that events could have gotten out of hand.
If the crisis had not been resolved when it was, for example, events could easily have escalated until the United States launched an invasion. The Soviet troops were armed with battlefield nuclear weapons, and the commander had advance permission to use them against an invading force. The preliminary American