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The Cuban Missile Crisis: Was it the Fault of the Soviets?
The required brevity of this essay precludes the possibility of giving any kind of narrative of the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis; however we will begin with a brief analysis of the origins of the crisis before proceeding to analyse who was to blame and eventually concluding that there were faults on both sides, although more on Kennedy’s than Khrushchev’s.
President Kennedy had come to office in 1960 under the generally held, but entirely inaccurate belief that America had far fewer missiles than the Soviets. Almost immediately upon election he committed the US to a massive increase in the US’ nuclear missile arsenal. Even when it was admitted that the US in fact had far more missiles than the Soviet Union, the building program did not slow down (Kahan & Long, 1972, 565).
Giglio has argued that the crisis arose out of a personal vendetta of the Kennedy’s against Castro himself (Giglio, 1991, 190). It is long established that the CIA were engaged in attempts to assassinate Castro. Robert Kennedy even held responsible for these operations for a time (Chang & Kornbluh, 1992, 20-23).
The American trade embargo on Cuba and the growing belief that an invasion was imminent led the Soviet Union to threaten war if any such event should occur (Giglio, 1991, 190). We can say, with hindsight, that direct invasion was unlikely given the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident, however this was certainly not clear to the Soviets at the time.
Bohlen and Thompson have noted that the Russians had never before placed nuclear weapons outside of their territory and that placing them in Cuba could have been seen by the Americans as a direct threat to their national security. The Russians now had a first strike capability on America’s very doorstep with the ability to strike anywhere at will. This was a threat that Kennedy simply could not ignore (Beschloss, 1991 424). From the Soviets perspective, they may have seen the positioning of missiles in Cuba as a way of balancing the strategic superiority the US had over them in such weapons.
Who was to blame?
John and Robert Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Adlai Stevenson, Kenneth Keating and Dean Acheson all played significant roles in creating or exacerbating the crisis. It is beyond doubt that Khrushchev had made the critical decision to place missiles in Cuba; but Kennedy’s campaign to overthrow Castro had helped convince the Russian Premier that they were needed to act as a deterrent to American invasion. Keating and other Republicans had forced Kennedy to promise the American electorate that he would resist any attempts to put missiles on Cube, compelling Kennedy to action in October 62. Even Stevenson, whose ideas and policies throughout the crisis were generally sound, had contributed by laying the foundation in 61 for the Cubans to be ejected from the OAS (White, 1996, 232).
External and Internal factors were no doubt in operation during the build up to the crisis. External factors were certainly of vital importance. Khrushchev almost certainly believed that placing missiles in Cuba would close the strategic gap that he knew to exist; it would also help appease the Chinese and provide a bargaining chip in negotiations with the west (White, 1996, 233).
Kennedy’s policy in Cuba was not new. It was underpinned by the standard assumptions of American Cold War policy: monolithism, the domino effect and the lessons of the 1930’s Garthoff, 1989 43ff). Kennedy felt that Castro was Khrushchev’s puppet, and far to close for comfort. He also believed that this extension of Soviet influence was unacceptable and could lead, in a domino like fashion, to a whole series of communist revolutions in Latin America. The evident failure of appeasement towards Hitler in the 1930’s demonstrated that a touch stance was required.
The internal factors that contributed to the crisis have generally been considered of lesser importance by historians; in particular, on the American side, Kennedy’s relationship with the liberals in his government. If JFK had been more receptive, he would probably have rejected the Bay of Pigs proposals. He also likely would not have organised such a concerted campaign against Castro in 1961 and 62. A more liberal Cuban policy would not have increased Khrushchev’s fears over the likelihood of invasion, making deployment of missiles far less likely. Accepting Stevenson’s proposal to offer the Soviets a negotiated settlement at the same time as the blockade was announced could have brought about a quicker and safer resolution to the crisis (White, 1996, 234).
Kennedy’s relationship with Republicans was also significant. In order to prevent accusations of weakness, he had told the American public that the Soviet build up in Cuba did not represent a significant threat because they had not included missiles. In 1962 when that situation changed, Kennedy had little choice but to respond swiftly. It also ensured that Kennedy’s response could not be one of toleration (White, 1996, 235).
During Kennedy’s campaign for the Presidency in 1960 he had criticised Eisenhower for his failure to prevent the rise of Castro and had pledged to remove him from power if elected (Dinerstein, 1976, 21ff). Khrushchev’s belief that, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy would again try to fulfil his election promise and attempt to remove Castro, this time directly using American military power, was one of the key factors behind Khrushchev’s decision to install warheads on Cuba. It can be argued, therefore, that there was a clear causal link between the 1960 re-election campaign and the missile crisis, with the former helping to bring about the Bay of Pigs, which in turn helped convince Khrushchev of the need to protect Cuba and thus install missiles (White, 1996, 235).
Kennedy also believed in the connection between public opinion and policy, this also helped define the approach towards Castro’s Cuba. One of the lessons to be learned from Britain’s appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930’s was that the public can, at times, exert an unhealthy influence over the pursuit of the national interest. In the case of 1930’s Britain, various pressure groups acted to prevent an increase in military spending. Kennedy, with these lessons in mind, was drawn towards secret operations that would not trigger a public debate.
Domestic concerns were also of paramount importance to Khrushchev and certainly contributed to his decision to deploy missiles on Cuba. The Soviet Premiere evidently felt that Russian nuclear weapons in the Caribbean would allow his to justifiably make the argument to the rest of the Soviet ruling class that they significantly improved the Soviet strategic position and that it would therefore be safe to resume the program of cutting troop numbers in order that funds could be diverted away from military spending and towards the civilian economy, which even then was not in a good condition. Installing missiles in Cuba would allow Khrushchev to adopt a strategy of brinkmanship with Kennedy. Kennedy’s public assertion of nuclear superiority (however true) had seriously undermined Khrushchev’s position in the autumn of 1961. Brinkmanship was essentially a way of achieving foreign policy goals without the application of any actual resources: Khrushchev could, therefore, essentially concentrate on domestic rather than defence needs with his limited resources.
Kennedy and Khrushchev were jointly responsible for the crisis. Khrushchev’s decision to install missiles on Cuba was an un-necessary risk. He could have secured the Cuban dictators position, and appeased the Chinese at the same time, be moving troops and conventional arms to the island; although this would have detracted from his domestic agenda. Faced with the prospect of a military clash with the Soviet Union it is highly likely that Kennedy would have abandoned any plans to again attach Cuba (White, 1996, 236).
Kennedy was equally culpable for the crisis. Before Khrushchev ever ordered missiles to Cuba, Kennedy had ordered the CIA sponsored invasion, ordered various assassination attempts on Castro, installed a tight embargo on trade to and from the island, approved working towards Cuba’s removal from the OAS and approved large scale military operations in the region (Nash, 1997, 117ff). That Kennedy appeared not to realise that these actions would annoy the Soviets seems, to say the least, naive. He also failed to realise, or perhaps did not care, that his massive increases in defence spending coupled with public proclamations of superiority would trouble the Russians.
Although Kennedy and Khrushchev shared, to varying degrees, the responsibility for causing the crisis, they also much share the credit for defusing it. They managed to avoid clashes on the high seas, and in a letter sent to Kennedy on October 26th, Khrushchev showed that he was willing to be the first to make concessions in order to secure a peaceful resolution. Kennedy on the other hand was able to astutely and effectively respond to the two conflicting letters send by Khrushchev on the 26th and 27th of October (White, 1996, 238).
All too often Kennedy’s Cuban policies have been prone to oversimplification, much like assessments of his Presidency in general. His record on Cuba was neither excellent in a way that his supporters claim, nor poor as per his detractors Kennedy’s pre crisis approach to Castro was misguided; he also tinkered with but never fully engaged with as examination of America’s cold war position (White, 1996, 238).
Khrushchev’s decision in 1962 to install nuclear weapons on Cuba was almost certainly not required to fulfil his various foreign, domestic and defence policy objectives. His belief that American military intelligence would fail to detect the missiles on Cuba before they were fully operational was foolish and mistaken. Most importantly of all, Khrushchev should have realised that the new American administration would never tolerate Soviet missiles on Cuba, able to deliver a first strike capability to the Soviet Union. The decision made confrontation inevitable.
Kennedy on the other hand was far more culpable. His approach to Castro before the crisis was misguided to say the least. The assassination attempts code named project Mongoose, his aborted invasion, trade embargo etc. as noted above all smack of bullying and of a deep seated hatred. He repeatedly implemented policies towards Cuba that were unnecessarily hostile. His belief that a communist Cuba would lead to the spread of communism throughout the Latin American world smacks of paranoia. He failed to take advantage of opportunities before the crisis arose to improve relations with Havana and Moscow and he failed to listen to his liberal advisors like Stevenson.
As with most international problems throughout history, the fault does not lay with just one side. The leaders of both nations have to take some of the blame but it seems evident that Khrushchev was largely acting in response to American aggression and was the first to offer a negotiated peace that would allow the situation to be defused. Kennedy should also be praised in the final analysis for allowing the Soviets to save face by negotiating away the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey (Nash, 1997, 150-176). The crisis need never have arisen in the first place, but it appears largely to be America acting and the Soviets reacting.
M. P. Beschloss, Kennedy V. Khrushchev: The Crisis Years (Boston 1991)
L. Chang & P. Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis: A National Security Archive Documents Reader (New York 1992)
H. S. Dinerstein, The Making of a Missile Crisis: October 1962 (London 1976)
R. L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington D. C. 1989)
J. N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Kansas 1991).
R. Helsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: Struggle Over Policy (London 1996)
J. H. Kahan & A. K. Long, The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Study of its Strategic Context, Political Science Quarterly, 87 (1972)
P. Nash, The Other Missiles of October (London 1997)
S. M. Stern, Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford, California, 2003)
M. J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis (London 1996)
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