Overview of the Cuban Missile Crisis
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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a period of extreme tension and conflict between the USA and Cuba and the USSR in October 1962; it was characterized by decisions made by both John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It was a 13 day event which started as a result of the USSR placing nuclear weapons in Cuba in an attempt to stop future harassment of Cuba following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis was by far the closest that the USA and USSR came to using nuclear weapons in warfare, and it was only by tactile decision making in a crisis that disaster was averted. A crisis is characterised by threats to major values, time urgency, ambiguity or uncertainty and surprise or uniqueness, by these characteristics, the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the biggest crisis of the 20th century.
The crisis started when following a meeting between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev agreed to hold nuclear missiles in Cuba. This was in response to several threats on Cuba from the USA. The Bay of Pigs invasion, though a failure displayed the USAs negative intentions to the Cuban regime and therefore Castro argued that a nuclear deterrent was the only option for the long term safety of Cuba. This was also a part of the USSRs response to the presence of American Jupiter missiles in both Turkey and Italy, which were firmly in range of Moscow. Following Khrushchev granting Cuba missiles, construction of the missile launch facilities started in the summer of 1962.The deployment of the missiles only came to light following photos taken by a US Air Force U-2 Spy plane. The plane had taken photos which clearly showed both medium and intermediate range nuclear missile facilities. The photos were shown to President Kennedy on October 16th and he quickly organised a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss what options of response the US had (JFK library,1962). This is an example of decision making, where the decision made will have a large and irreversible impact. There were numerous decisions and options discussed from using diplomatic channels to pressure the Cubans to remove the weapons, launch a full scale invasion of Cuba, Air strikes or a blockage (Allison & Zeilkow, 1999). While the US had the military capabilities to invade and overthrow Cuba, they feared the Soviet response. It is also important to consider the fact that it was an election year in the US, and JFK had already come under fire by Republicans for a seemingly weak line against Cuba and they did not want to appear weak or afraid of the combined threat of Cuba and the Soviets. This had led to President Kennedy stating before gaining the knowledge of weapons in Cuba that “if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out offensive actions against the United States… the United States would act’ (Peters & Wooley, 1962). This had in effect already forced his arm; he did not want to appear to back down from his promises. In the end the US decided to conduct a naval blockade against Cuba, one of the main reasons for this decision was it made the US appear strong, whilst not forcing the Soviets hand or seemingly overly aggressive. Another key aspect in this is the legal ramifications of a blockade. Under international law, a blockade of another nation is considered to be an act of war, however lawyers at the Justice and State Department found a loophole that avoided the US from issuing a potentially contentious declaration of war. Using the Rio treaty a resolution from the Organization of American states allowed the US from having to declare war upon Cuba, which the Soviets would have objected to (Allison and Zelikow, 1999). The ‘blockade’ was instead termed as a quarantine of offensive weapons. (May, 2012).
President Kennedy formally announced the blockade on 22 October in which he stated ‘It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union’ (United Press,2010).
The international response was overwhelming with the world realising that they had never been closer to the use of nuclear weapons, and if they were deployedby both the US and the Soviets, there would be worldwide destruction never seen before on such a scale. During this period it is reported not only was there a Cuban invasion force stationed and ready in Florida but also 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to take off, and the fleet of b-52 bombers were on continuous airborne alert, the US it is clear was preparing for a full scale war on a scale not seen since the end of WW2 (Kamps, 2007).
On October 24 Soviet ships that were headed for Cuba caused panic when they neared the line of US ships which were actively enforcing the Cuban blockade. However the Soviet ships stopped just short of the blockade, requiring no action from the US. If they had attempted to breach the blockade, it could have easily led to a military confrontation. A further escalation in the crisis was on October 27, when an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba.
Despite this overwhelming pressure which seemed to give no sign of slowing down or de-escalating a way was found out of the crisis which avoided a military conflict between the US and Soviets. Throughout the crisis Kennedy and Khrushchev had been communicating and when the crisis was near breaking point, the US told the Brazilian government to pass on a message to Cuba that it would be unlikely that the US would invade Cuba if they removed the missiles (National Security Archive, 2011). What followed was a personal letter from Khrushchev written on 26th October which offered a way out of the stalemate, if the US declared they will not invade Cuba then the Soviets would leave and remove the missiles. However the next day Khrushchev sent another letter which stated they would remove the missile bases in Cuba only if the US removed missiles from both Turkey and Italy’s As the two offers differed President Kennedy said he would accept the first one, this would also be a lot more favourable his popularity in the US. What followed were intense negotiations between both US and Soviet dignitaries in Washington.
Eventually a deal was reached and the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba and to take them back to Russia whilst Kennedy secretly agreed to dismantle weapons bases in both Italy and Turkey. The crisis was over.
What the Cuban Missile Crisis is, is an example is of leadership and decision making in a crisis. It was a period of extreme tension, the wrong decision could lead to nuclear war, yet a clear headed and rational decision still had to be made. The decisions that President Kennedy made were made only after looking at the effects both on the world stage and also back in the US. It was a senate election year and President Kennedy couldn’t let any decision he made weakenhis position in the mind of the electorate. Yet he also had to way up the potential devastating impact if the crisis escalated because he wanted to appear strong against the Cuban and Soviet threat. Kennedy had already come under pressure from Republicans, for having a supposedly weak stance on Cuba, so reaching any form of compromise was unthinkable to the Cuban hawks in the Republicans. What this clearly shows is the sheer complexity of the arena that Kennedy had to make his decision in. He had to de-escalate the conflict, which required compromise on his part, whilst appearing strong and not to give in to the Soviet threat. That he managed to do that, and was considered by many at the time to have ‘won’ the crisis is remarkable.
We can analyse several of the decisions made by Kennedy, how to respond to the threat and how to deal with the de-escalation of the crisis.
When deciding how to respond to the crisis Kennedy and his advisors had to weigh up several key and important factors. As previously mentioned there were several ideas and options to choose from when responding to the initial discovery of missiles in this early stage in the crisis of mounting tension. If the US did nothing, as it was high unlikely that Cuba would use them unprovoked considering the Soviets knew they did not have the same firepower or amount of nuclear warheads as the US, then the crisis would potentially fade away without requiring a military response. However several Republicans had already been criticising Kennedy for being too lenient to Cuba, if it came public that Kennedy did nothing when a nuclear weapon was found 90 miles of the coast of Florida he would appear weak and his leadership credibility would be in tatters.
The other extreme would be an escalation of the crisis, either an air-strike or full scale military invasion. While this would certainly win him support back home, it is highly unlikely that the Soviets would not also respond with force, thus starting war between the US and the Soviets. Also President Kennedys allies in the UK, France and in the wider international community would feel that the US went into war too quickly when there was a diplomatic route out of the crisis, thus it would cost him support from his allies. Therefore we can see that the blockade was a good strategic decision for Kennedy to take. It made the US appear strong, meeting the crisis head on, without looking brash and escalating the conflict. Further as previously mentioned there was a legal precedent for it. Thus it is clear this was a good decision to take under the circumstances and time pressure. Kennedy had analysed the impact his decision would have in the US, to the Soviets and Cuba as well as the wider international community. The blockade made the US look strong but not overly aggressive and more importantly it placed the impetus on Khrushchev to make the next decision to escalate or de-escalate the crisis.
Another example of good decision making in the Cuban missile crisis was Kennedy’s decision to accept the removal of missiles in Cuba public, whilst keeping the US withdrawal of missiles in Turkey and Italy secret. He accurately judged how far Khrushchev would stretch diplomatically and calculated that he could create an end to the crisis whilst appearing to have stood firm in the face of Soviet aggression and have forced Khrushchev back down from the US. This was a decision he took after weighing up the options and potential benefits and drawbacks. Kennedy therefore was able to make a clear decision despite threats to major values, large scale uncertainty and a lack of time to concretely analyse every potential outcome of a decision. What inevitably stopped this crisis from escalating into war while other similar crises have ended in warfare is the ability and will of both the Soviets and the US to compromise.
In conclusion, we can see that due to decision making a crisis that could have easily ended up in nuclear warfare, ended up with a diplomatic solution. The only reason war was avoided was the rational decision making abilities of a few key players. President Kennedy had to de-escalate a crisis whilst still maintaning control of the situation. That he was able to do this and appear successful both on the world stage and back home is commendable and down to his ability to make clear and calculated desicions under pressure. The US enjoyed the press coverage of a victorious nation and in the senate election that followed the Democrats won three seats, so we can see this as a vote of confidence in the Democrats and Kennedy following the missile crisis. What becomes clear from studying the Cuban Missile Crisis is how important pursuing the correct strategy when attempting to de-escalate a crisis and the need for crisis managers to take rational decisions in face of extreme pressure. Here the pressure or consequences could not have been greater, yet disaster was avoided by the actions and decision making abilities of crisis managers.
Allison, Graham; Zelikow, Philip. (1999). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (1962). Off the Record Meeting on Cuba: The White House. Washington D.C.
Kamps, Charles. (2007). The Cuban Missile Crisis. Air & Space Power, (3), 88.
May, Ernest. (2012, February 7). John F Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/kennedy_cuban_missile_01.shtml#three
National Security Archive. (2011). October 26, 1962 to November 15, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis.Author.
Peters, Gerhard; Woolley, John.(1962). John F Kennedy. 378-The Presidents News Conference. Santa Barbara, CA: The American Presidency Project. University of Californa.
United Press International. (2010, April 22). Cuban Missile Crisis – 1962 Year In Review. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Archives/Audio/Events-of-1962/Cuban-Missile-Crisis
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