One Minute to Midnight: Decision-Making During the Cuban Missile Crisis

Target Students:
11th and 12th grade

Historical thinking skills: This lesson develops students’ sourcing and contextualization skills.

Essential question: On what bases did the US and USSR make decisions leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Context within Curriculum: To participate in this lesson students must be familiar with the broad contours of post-WWII global politics. In particular, students should be able to describe key differences between the US and USSR, be aware of the existence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and have basic knowledge of nuclear weapons.

Primary documents:

  1. CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate, “Major Consequences of Certain U.S. Courses of Action on Cuba,” October 20, 1962.
  2. Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s letter to Premier Khrushchev, October 26, 1962.
  3. USSR, Cable, TOP SECRET, Dobrynin Report of Meeting with Robert Kennedy on Worsening Threat, October 27, 1962.

All sources via The Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center at

Key Documents

Scaffolding questions:

  • Who (or what) wrote/produced these documents?
    • How does the identity of the author change the way we interpret the documents?
    • What were the author’s goals or purposes?
  • These documents are very different from one another. How does their form affect the way we interact with them as historians?
  • Who would have read these documents and what kind of information would they have wanted from them? How might that information have been used?
  • What can we infer about the relationship between Cuba and the USSR from Castro’s letter? Further, what do we know about US-Cuba relations at this time?

Goals: Students will synthesize what they know about Cold War history (context), international relations, and that which they can infer using these documents to develop an explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

  • The US, USSR, and Cuba all sought security
    • The documents support this (compromise re: NATO missiles in Turkey; Cuba’s fear of invasion by the US; US worries that its actions could provoke retaliation by the USSR)
  • Governments make decisions, predictions, with limited information
    • Implication: Decisions cannot be perfectly rational; based on predictions about others’ behavior

Students produce:

Students will be divided into four smaller groups, two groups assuming the role of the US and two becoming the Soviet Union. The individuals within each of these small groups will work collaboratively to analyzing all three documents included in the lesson. These groups are then asked to develop a cohesive “policy proposal” to the entire class. These proposals can take a wide range of forms, although it is essential that students identify 1) a “policy priority” that is rooted in a group’s reading of the primary material (e.g. removal of US missiles in Turkey) and 2) a rationale that details the group’s reasoning for making the specific recommendation that they have chosen (e.g. “we recommend invading Cuba because the CIA report indicates…”).


With this activity I set out to use an exciting, high-profile incident to guide students to a broader understanding of the machinations of international politics. The process of developing the lesson and, the helpful feedback I have received from peers in particular, has helped me to identify major shortcomings that have both improved this lesson and will help me produce stronger lessons in the future. To fully realize the potential of learning through primary documents, I have found that it is essential that lessons be appropriately sequenced and scaffolded. Striking the balance between frustrating students by presenting them with materials they are ill-equipped to understand and over-scaffolding to the point of boredom will be a focus of mine as I grow as a teacher.

Title Image: EXCOMM meeting at the White House Cabinet Room during the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 29, 1962


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