How Did John F. Kennedy Act Through the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. What was at stake in the crisis, and how do you assess President Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev’s provocation? Was Kennedy prudent or rash, suitably tough or needlessly belligerent? By Jeremy Leung 299722 USA & The World 131-236 The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest that humankind had ever become to experiencing a thermonuclear war. In October 1962, the world watched perilously, as U. S. president John F. Kennedy warned his people of the amalgamation of Soviet arms in Cuba. John F.
Kennedy refused to accept “offensive” Soviet artillery in such close proximity to the U. S. , but Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev had already planned a stealthily build-up. Kennedy henceforth demanded Khrushchev to disassemble offensive artillery and employed a strict naval quarantine, an action that Khrushchev initially refused and deemed “illegal”. For several days, as two of the world’s superpower’s refused to meet an agreement, the world faced the daunting and horrifying prospect of a nuclear war. Eventually, Khrushchev had accepted a peaceful resolution, as he withdrew Soviet offensive arms in return for a promise that the U.
S. would not invade Cuba. With the Soviet exodus from Cuba, President Kennedy’s popularity had risen sharply as journalists labelled him the “architect of a great diplomatic victory. ”[1] Kennedy’s ability to remain calm under the pressure of a potential nuclear war had won praise from his colleagues and the American public, who rewarded him with re-election. In a diametrically opposed view, conservatives assert his actions were not decisive enough in securing America’s national security. This essay will seek to analyse both the praise and the criticism in evaluating John F.

Kennedy’s actions through the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For many Americans, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in particular the build-up of Soviet arms within Cuba represented a time in which their national security and safety was at stake. This build-up of Soviet missiles in Cuba was deemed by the media as “an action aimed to inflicting an almost mortal wound on us”[2]. This impending threat was dealt with such severity that a committee was formed that comprised of U. S. government officials who were to advise President John F.
Kennedy on important matters. As a senior member of the committee, which was known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillion remarked “The crisis was unique in the sense that it was the first time that there was a real, imminent, potential threat to the physical safety and well being of American citizens”. [3] This observation from Dillon portrays the fear that much of the American public felt, who taught and prepared their children through schools to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear war. 4] Yet, it appeared at the time that the build-up of arms within Cuba was not only a confrontation to the U. S. , but a direct threat to national security that was felt and feared by both the public and leading politicians. To substantiate this, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara recalled on the 27th October, “As I left the white house and walked through my garden to my car to return to the pentagon on the beautiful fall evening, I feared I might never live to see another Saturday night”. 5] In addition to this, Robert Kennedy wrote afterwards that the world was brought “to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind”. [6] Both these accounts demonstrate the extreme severity in which Congress perceived the Soviet threat. On the 26th of September, U. S. Congress voted strongly in favour to “prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States” with a 386-7 majority in the House of Representatives, and an 86-1 majority in the Senate. 7] This represents an overwhelming view in both houses of the U. S. Congress that action needed to be taken upon the build-up of nuclear arms in Cuba. The reasons why McNamara and Kennedy and other U. S. politicians were so fearful of a nuclear was because according to U. S. analysts at the time, the 24 MRBM’s (Medium range-ballistic missiles) and sixteen IRBM’s (intermediate-range ballistic missiles) that were found in Cuba had significantly increased the number of U. S. targets that the Soviet’s could lethally attack by forty percent. 8] Furthermore, having missiles within Cuba allowed the Soviets to bypass the U. S. warning radars, especially the Ballistics Missile Early Warning system, which was stationed in the North Pole. [9] By bypassing the U. S. warning radars, it certainly amplified the risk of a surprise strike upon certain American air bases and important command posts. [10] To address this risk, the U. S. army went from “Defence Condition Five” (peacetime alert) to “Defcon 3” (war alert) which further illustrated the high levels of precautions the U.
S. government were taking in order to protect itself from an offensive attack from the Soviet. [11] It was quite clear from these precautions that the impending nuclear threat in Cuba threatened the lives of American civilians, troops, and government officials. In the event that the situation escalated out of control, the two world superpowers could have engaged in a third World War that, with nuclear technology had the potential to kill hundreds of millions of civilians and soldiers. 12] Fortunately, the Cuban Mission Crisis never escalated this far, as Kennedy maintained control of the situation and eventually caused the Soviet’s to retreat. Kennedy’s actions in peacefully resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated responsibility and purposefulness, which overall had confirmed public confidence in the President. In the first ExComm meeting, evidence was presented of medium-range missiles in Cuba that had the potential to hit Washington, Dallas, St. Louis, and all Strategic Air Command bases in between. 13] Soon after, further evidence was presented to ExComm of the development of 1,000-mile medium-range ballistic missiles and 2,200 mile intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It was also predicted by the experts presenting this evidence that forty nuclear warheads had the capacity to hit targets as far as Wyoming and Montana. [14] Robert Kennedy had predicted that these arms had the power and potential to kill as many as eighty million Americans. [15] President John F. Kennedy was faced with two important options; to implement a naval blockade, or to invade Cuba beginning with an air-strike. 16] Kennedy decided upon enforcing a naval quarantine in Cuba, which was later labelled by Khrushchev as “outright banditry” and an action that would push “mankind to the abyss of a world missile nuclear war”. [17] The quarantine was a first step that involved confiscating all offensive military equipment that was being shipped to Cuba. If, in the event Khrushchev refused to remove Soviet missiles, John F. Kennedy promised “further action” would be taken. [18] As the leaders of the two superpowers stood eyeball to eyeball, and the world braced itself for a possibility for a thermonuclear war, Khrushchev had agreed to ithdrawal weapons that Kennedy had deemed offensive, while Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba. [19] The U. S. response, in the form of a blockade was a wise choice as it applied the greatest level of force upon the Soviet Union while minimizing the risk of a thermonuclear war. Traditionalists, supported to this choice. Traditionalists refer to the individuals who advocated the traditional interpretation, and were coincidentally the individuals who wrote the most content during Cuban Missile Crisis. 20] Sorensen, a traditionalist, who was also an advisor to Kennedy, believed that Kennedy responded superbly to the crisis, as he conducted himself in a responsible and composed matter throughout his confrontation with Khrushchev. [21] Sorensen believed that this was perhaps the President’s finest hour, as he “never lost sight of what either war or surrender would do to the whole human race… [And] he was determined to take all necessary action and no unnecessary action”. [22] Sorensen also noted the fact that Kennedy had not just national interests in mind but, civilians in other countries.
Sorensen named this the “Kennedy Legacy” which he defined as “a pervasive sense of responsibility for the future of our children… for those who live in the country and those who live in other lands”. [23] It appeared that through Sorensen’s recount of the events leading up to the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis show admiration for Kennedy’s actions, as he believed Kennedy remained in control of events, despite being constantly provoked by Khrushchev. Sorensen also highlighted the Presidents poise in the confrontation, as he refused the temptation of making a reckless decision to attack Cuba and thus start a nuclear war.
Like Sorensen, Robert Kennedy described every American, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as feeling “a sense of pride in the strength, purposefulness and the courage of the President of the United States”. [24] Furthermore, McGeorge Bundy, another traditionalist member of Excomm, praised President Kennedy for “his personal management of the nuclear confrontation. ”[25] Similarly to Bobby Kennedy and Sorensen, Bundy acknowledged, and commended the President’s “strength, restraint and respect for the opinions of mankind. [26] It is quite clear through these personal recounts of Bundy, Sorensen, and Kennedy, that there was a consistent view across Excomm and the traditionalists that President John F. Kennedy demonstrated decisiveness, intelligence, and compassion while seeking to mitigate the risk of war by causing Khrushchev to compromise. These traits were also seen by the American public with public opinion approval ratings increasing to eighty percent after the crisis, as journalists compared him to past heroes such as Wilson and Roosevelt. 27] Overall, President Kennedy’s actions within the Cuban Missile Crisis not only led to great respect by his colleagues and the public, but more importantly reduced Cold War tensions between Russia and the U. S. A. This was evident in the aftermath of the Cold War that saw an installation of a phone link that allowed direct communication between Russian and American leaders, along with the signing of a nuclear test ban treaty which endorsed a harmonious coexistence between the two superpowers. [28]
Within the waves of praise towards the United States President for his dealings with the Soviets, there were also few individuals who voiced their concerns over certain decisions Kennedy made. Following questionable decisions by Kennedy that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the U. S. policy within Cuba only consisted of diplomatic and economic means, and only until later were trade restrictions forced. Thus, for a period of two years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy allowed the Soviet’s amalgamate a significant amount of arms provided they were “defensive. Using this word “defensive”, the American President was justifying and legitimizing the build-up of arms in the backyard of the U. S, as it allowed Cuba to asseverate itself as the hemisphere’s third largest military authority. [29] By Kennedy’s failure to initiate an intrusion upon Cuba’s burgeoning military at an early, yet critical point, it communicated to the Soviet’s that there was possibility for them to upset the balance of power within any country, as long as they were granted authorization by local governments.
By not invading Cuba, the Soviet’s and Cubans proceeded to integrate armed forces that had the potential to cause serious damage upon Western civilization, power and influence. In addition to failing to stop the military build-up in Cuba, there was also controversy in Kennedy’s decision to implement a naval quarantine in Cuba. Kennedy’s choice to quarantine, rather than imposing a full air-strike upon Cuba had its weakness. At this critical point within the Cuban Missile Crisis, this provided the U. S. n opportunity to impose a severe defeat upon its enemy. The moment of crisis, the threat of communism, along with the risk of perhaps disruptive world peace all suggested that Kennedy could have caused a decisive answer to the problems escalating in Cuba. Kennedy’s government, instead of quarantining Cuba from naval imports, could have forcibly demanded the departure of Russians, along with their weapons within Cuba altogether. [30] This would have not only eliminated Russian threat within close proximity to the U.
S, but could have also provided the Cuban people with a democratic republic that consisted of free elections under UN supervision. [31] Kennedy instead, elected for a naval blockade, which could have potentially left open a possibility for the Soviet’s to import arms via the air. In addition to this, the blockade failed to give the U. S. any assurance or certainty that the Soviets would retreat from Cuba. If, however, Kennedy elected for an invasion and demanded Khrushchev to leave, it would have eliminated all doubt of a Soviet retreat and ensured the protection of America’s national security.
Overall, throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world sat perilously as the two superpowers engaged in a confrontational battle that had the potential to escalate into a possible third world war with overwhelmingly destructive consequences. In two world wars, millions of people were slaughtered in battles that continued over years; however it was possible, with the advent of nuclear technology that hundreds of millions of civilians and soldiers could die within hours. 32] Khrushchev continued to use Soviet resources to accumulate a large missile base within Cuba in America’s backyard, which called for President John F. Kennedy to act and protect the national security of the U. S. In deciding on implementing a naval quarantine around Cuba, Kennedy avoided an airstrike and possible invasion, by giving his opponent time to reassess his actions. Through constant pressure from Khrushchev, Kennedy stood decisive and resolute, as he resisted the temptation of gambling with the safety of the world and continued to monitor the sea and intercept suspicious naval activity around Cuba.
Kennedy proceeded and continued to implement the blockade, which was clearly an attempt to avoid any direct military means, by providing Khrushchev with a threat of danger, yet also allowing him with the option to retreat. Although this was seen as “weak” from conservatives, it is important that Kennedy always continued to pressure his Soviet counterpart whenever he sensed hesitation or deception. [33] Kennedy never wielded from his objective, as he forced a peaceful resolution that left his colleagues in awe of his poise and determination dealing with such a crisis.
Thus, by Kennedy reacting in a suitably tough fashion, Khruschev provided the U. S. President with the ultimate accolade that if he “had been in the White House, instead of the Kremlin, [he] would have acted like Kennedy. [34] Words: 2562 Bibliography Primary Resources Blight, James & Welch, David. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Bundy, McGeorge. Danger and Survival: Choices about the bomb in the first fifty years. New York: Random House, 1988 Bundy, McGeorge. “The Presidency and the Peace”, Foreign Affairs 42 (1964).
Kennedy, Robert. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969 Lowenthal, David. “U. S. Cuban Policy: Illusion and Reality”, National Review (1963) McNamara, Robert. Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age. London: Bloomsbury 1987 Munton, Don & Welch, David. A. The Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Sorensen, Theodore. Kennedy. New York: MacMillan, 1969. Sorensen, Theodore. The Kennedy Legacy. New York: Harper and Row, 1965 Secondary Resources Divine, Robert A.
The Cuban Missile Crisis. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971. Garthoff, Raymond. “The Meaning of the Missiles”. Washington Quarterly 5 (1982), 78 Horelick, Arnold. The Cuban Missile Crisis: An analysis of Soviet calculations and behaviour. World Politics (1964) Medland, William. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: Needless or Necessary. New York: Praeger Publishers,, 1988. Scott, Len. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War. London: Continuum Books, 2007. ———————– [1]Robert Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, (Toronto: Burns and MacEachern1971), 4. 2] David Lowenthal, “US Cuban Policy: Illusion and Reality”, National Review, 29 January 1963, 63, quoted in Arnold L. Horelick, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: An Analysis of Soviet Calculations and Behaviour”, World Politics 16/3 (April 1963), 64 [3] James Blight & David Welch, “Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse: (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 163 [4] Len Scott, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear War: (London: Continuum Books, 2007), 48. [5] Robert McNamara, Blundering into Diaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (London: Bloomsbury, 1987), 11. 6] Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days, The Cuban Missile Crisis (London: Pan Books, 1969), 27. [7] McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the first fifty years (New York: Random House, 1988), 391. [8] Raymond Garthoff, “Memo on the Military Significance of the Soviet Missiles Bases in Cuba,” October 27, 1962. Department of State declassifified document, reprinted in Garthoff, “The Meaning of the Missiles,” Washington Quarterly 5, no. 4 (Autumn 1982), 78 [9] Scott, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 48. [10] Ibid, 48 [11] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 61. 12] Don Munton and David A. Welch, The Cuban Missile Crisis (Oxford University Press: New York, 2007), 1. [13] William J. Medland The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: Needless or Necessary (Praeger Publishers: New York, 1988), 4. [14] Ibid, 5. [15] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 28. [16] Ibid, 28 [17] Medland, Needless or Necessary, 38. [18] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 61 [19] Munton and Welch The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1. [20] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 35 [21] Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965; paperback ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1966, 795. [22] Ibid, 795. [23] Theodore C. Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 274. [24] Kennedy, Thirteen days, 67. [25] McGeorge, Bundy, “The Presidency and the Peace,” Foreign Affairs 42 (April 1964): 353-365 [26] Ibid. , 359 [27] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 58. [28] Medland, Needless or Necessary, 56. [29] Lowenthal, US Cuban Policy, 61. [30] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 91. [31] Ibid, 93. [32] Munton and Welch The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1. [33] Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 101. [34] Ibid, 104

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