The Cuban Missile Crisis: Dynamic Defense Diplomacy

1. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a climactic event for the United States, Soviet Union, and Cuba. Security, self-preservation, prestige, ideology, and power, the national objectives that forced the countries into the conflict, also provided them impetus for getting out of it. As the imbroglio deepened, the countries shifted their goals from victory to mere survival.

The United States’ three primary goals post-World War II were world peace, human rights, and national defense. The five national objectives mentioned above were paramount to achieving these goals and determined the US’s behavior during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since the Soviets’ nuclear missiles had the capability of killing 90 million Americans, security and self-preservation were the US’s primary concern throughout. The country’s executives soon realized, however, that they could not defuse the situation without compromising some of its prestige and power. John F. Kennedy floated a trial balloon about removing its missiles from Turkey in return for a removal of missiles from Cuba, but his administration and the public overwhelmingly rejected this idea because it would seem like appeasement and make the US look like a weak ally, greatly damaging its prestige among First and Third World nations. Kennedy’s promise that the U. S. would never invade Cuba compromised the policy of containment by assuring the existence of a new Communist nation within a hundred miles of the U. S. border. Finally, the US’s military power helped push the USSR from the brink of war. The US achieved two of its three primary goals during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It avoided armed conflict, advancing the cause of world peace, and convinced the USSR to remove its missiles from Cuba, a clear victory for national defense. By letting Cuba fall to the Communists, the US allowed Castro to commit human rights abuses and oppress his people for decades to come, but a government rarely achieves all of its objectives in an international dispute, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was a success.

Winston Churchill said that Soviet foreign policy was “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma,” but the key was Russian national interest. The Soviet Union had one clear objective during the Cold War: the survival of Russia. Khrushchev placed missiles on Cuba because he felt threatened by the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and the increasing technological advantages of America over Russia. Putting missiles on Cuba would insure Cuban self-preservation, and in the Russian mindset, more territories meant more buffer zones and would enhance Russian security and self-preservation. The survival of a Communist Cuba would also spread the worldwide Communist revolution, an important part of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Finally, the ability to deploy missiles from within 100 miles of the US would greatly increase Russian military power. The treaty that the two superpowers finally made was a draw for Russia; though it advanced its security, self-preservation, and ideology by winning the existence of Cuba, its prestige and power in international affairs decreased because of Soviet lies about the existence of the missiles and the removal of weapons from the island.

Cuba was even more desperate for national preservation than the Soviet Union. The Colossus of the North was the biggest threat to the nation’s security and self-preservation, so Castro and his diplomats clung to the USSR and followed its lead throughout the missile crisis. Prestige and ideology were not as great of a concern for Cuba, though it gained sympathy because of the US’s embargo and won legitimacy for its regime during the crisis. Though Cuba was, and is, a relatively powerless nation, the nation won grudging acceptance from the US and thus gained the power to do whatever it wished with its people.
The US, USSR, and Cuba had different goals but similar objectives during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The nations’ opposing ideologies and similarity in power made the incident very intense, but eventually the common goals of self-preservation led them to an acceptable compromise. The movie 13 Days closes with the sentiment that if the sun rises, it is because there are still good men in the world. The major players of October 1962 were able to put aside their differences, strike a compromise, and allow life to move on.

The President of the United States has total access to information and the privilege of receiving advisors at his leisure. The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council, which includes the elite members of the Cabinet and the National Security Advisor. For help with the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy convened the “Ex-Com,” which included the NSC and other advisors of his choosing, and for his final decisions, he consulted his brother, Robert Kennedy, and his Special Assistant, Ken O’Donnell, according to 13 Days. The support provided to the executive branch allowed Kennedy to virtually ignore Congress during the ordeal, allowing for smooth and efficient foreign policy-making.

The Ex-Com included some of the foremost talents in the United States, but not all the great minds thought alike. The younger and less experienced members of Kennedy’s staff, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and speechwriter Ted Sorenson, favored compromise and peaceful solutions to the crisis. These executives often butted heads with the older, more warlike members of the council, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Joint Chiefs members General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, Air Force-JCS, and Admiral Anderson, Navy-JCS. The third party in these debates was Adlai Stevenson, Ambassador to the UN and a member of the unpopular dove school. Kennedy listened to their advice, but he was not beholden to their opinions and made the final decisions himself, a power that proved necessary when he realized the military generals were hell-bent on starting a war with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy, disappointed with the acrimonious attitudes in the Ex-Com, turned to his brother Robert Kennedy and his close friend Ken O’Donnell for personal support. The two were not foreign policy gurus, but they provided Kennedy with the unequivocal personal support he needed. The support of Robert Kennedy and O’Donnell were vital to the preservation of John Kennedy’s confidence and sanity during the ordeal of October.

President Kennedy, as chief executive of the United States, had access to the best information and the best advisors the country had to offer. The advice of his Cabinet helped him to formulate a realistic policy, but the support of his friends was just as important. The United States furnished Kennedy with solid support in his time of need.

3. The factionalism within the Ex-Com in 1962 was a microcosm for the diverging attitudes of the American people during the Cold War. When he considered the views of the Hawks, the Doves, and the Moderates, President Kennedy also saw the views of the American people, who he presumed would be voting on his administration during the 1964 election. The arguments between statesmen during the Cuban Missile Crisis often exhausted Kennedy, but they also helped him to craft a reasonable policy that ultimately proved successful.

Of all the groups in the Ex-Com, the Hawks were the biggest thorn in Kennedy’s side. These men were staunch supporters of national security, but they thought it could only be achieved through war with the hated Russians. Kennedy’s staff had to keep close tabs on the military, even encouraging soldiers to lie to their superiors, in order to keep the situation from flying out of control. Even so, the Defense Department still made mistakes that heightened the tension of the missile crisis, including testing two different nuclear weapons within a week and firing on a Russian ship that tried to run the blockade. The military did fulfill its duty in giving Kennedy accurate estimates about the costs of a war and the potential of success, but controlling it tired Kennedy almost as much as negotiating with the Russians did.

Adlai Stevenson, the chief proponent of the Dove School, received pity rather than respect for most of the debates, but he provided much-needed balance to the aggression of the Hawks. He was the first to suggest giving up the US’s military presence in Turkey in exchange for Russian retreat from Cuba, and though Kennedy flatly rejected this overture at the time, he contemplated it often. Stevenson’s most important contribution, however, was his speech to the United Nations proving the existence of missiles in Cuba. This last, and perhaps most important, political act of Stevenson’s career turned the tide for the United States. Stevenson was a boon for the Kennedy Administration.

Kennedy considered the points of the Hawks and Doves and chose a middle route through the crisis. His friends, the moderates Robert Kennedy, O’Donnell, McNamara, and Rusk, helped to support him and carry out his policies. Robert Kennedy and O’Donnell provided personal support to the President, and the two reached a compromise over the missiles in Turkey (secretly remove them in six months) that was acceptable to all parties. McNamara was instrumental in keeping the Defense Department under control, and Dean Rusk helped to keep the State Department cooperative with the President. The moderates, Kennedy’s political appointees, helped him achieve his goals.

The coming election in 1964 loomed large in the Kennedy Administration’s mind and pushed him to take a harder stance with the Soviets than he would have liked. Appeasement was a swear word in the 1960s, and each administration was judged by how tough it was on Communism. Kennedy knew that his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis had to be successful to insure the survival of his nation and his own political future. He lost his trust in the military after of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and this gave him the strength to stand up to it in October of 1962. Kennedy’s ability to accept the best advice from all his advisors was pivotal in these two weeks.

4. The centralization of the Soviet government freed Nikita Khrushchev from the need to win a re-election campaign. Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism assured that the party would follow the Chairman in whatever major decision he made. Khrushchev’s failure to pay attention to the forces within his party, though, would facilitate his downfall. Hardliners who felt he’d let the US off easy dumped him soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The rank and file of the party already disliked Khrushchev for his “Secret Speech” against Stalin and his 1962 division of the party into industrial and agricultural sectors. As long as he was Chairman, diplomats like Zorin, Gromyko, and Dobrynin were obligated to follow him and lie for him until the bitter end. The Chairman, who believed after the Bay of Pigs Invasion that he was personally superior to Kennedy and could do whatever he wanted, received free reign to establish missiles in Cuba. His rambling first letter to Kennedy, in which he offered to remove missiles from Cuba for a promise that the US would never invade the country, incensed the Politburo so much that they wrote a second letter making more demands of the Americans. The final agreement with the US kept the countries out of war, but the hard-liners perceived that Khrushchev had been too easy on Kennedy.

Prestige was very important during the Cold War, and the USSR lost too much of it for the CPSU’s liking during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, the party finally gave up on the moderate Khrushchev and replaced him with the more conservative Leonid Brezhnev. He, and Dubcek, Kosygin, the “three-horse chariot,” ran the country for the next 18 years and exerted all their energy to keeping the status quo. The three kept the USSR out of serious trouble, but they also caused the stagnation of the country, which ultimately proved more fatal than Khrushchev’s risk-taking and appeasement. Khrushchev could have accomplished much more in Russian government had he worked in tandem with the forces around him.

5. President Kennedy, as the chief diplomat of the United States, was one of the most pivotal figures of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Deriving his powers from Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and his status as political leader, Kennedy steered the US out of this dilemma with a draw, choosing to return to a near status quo ante bellum rather than sacrifice thousands or even millions of lives by walking directly into a tripwire. Kennedy did not work miracles, but he did give the US peace. The legacy of the Cold War, including the establishment of the red phone to the Kremlin and the removal of Khrushchev, has validated the President’s decisions far more than pundits of the past ever could. Kennedy managed his official and unofficial powers well in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Among the President’s constitutional privileges are the powers to appoint and receive ambassadors, make treaties, and receive foreign diplomats. Though none of these powers had a direct hand in the crisis due to the immediate nature of the threat, Kennedy’s diplomats and his reception of diplomats were important in keeping the sides from reaching an impasse. His manipulation of the mass media was also important; by calling organizations and keeping his press secretary in the dark, Kennedy allowed the situation to take its due course without inflammation from the public. The president’s powers of recognition and non-recognition were central to the Crisis; guaranteeing the existence of a Communist Cuba was a thorn in the side of the US but a necessary loss for the cause of freedom. Castro has not proven as disruptive as proponents of Containment feared he was. The decision to “quarantine” Cuba was not constitutional, as a blockade is an act of war and the power to declare war rests with Congress, but it proved to be a good middle path of diplomacy. Kennedy used his powers much better in the missile crisis than he did in the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy’s use of executive agents and executive agreements was his most important move. He appointed Robert Kennedy, a man he could trust, to make 11th-hour negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. Robert and Dobrynin agreed that the USSR would remove its missiles from Cuba if the US promised never to invade the country with a secret caveat that the US would remove its missiles from Turkey within six months. Congress did not approve the agreement, but it did not need to. Kennedy used the powers of the executive branch to bring peace to America.

President Kennedy used his Constitutional and assumed powers well in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I would have taken the same path as him. His treaty was neutral, but that was all he needed. I would not have told the public I was considering removing my missiles from Turkey, as this lost prestige for the nation, but I approve of the president’s strategy otherwise.

6. Chairman Nikita Khrushchev instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis and made the final decision to end it. This event highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of his administration: he was a basically good man and an effective politician, but he tended to act rashly and did not hold the party line that Stalin had strengthened so much during his 30 years in office. If I were Khrushchev, I would never have put missiles on the island of Cuba, and I would not have shown as much weakness to the Americans in my first letter as Khrushchev did in his. I would have held a stronger line with the United States and tried to win more in the deal. Nevertheless, the CPSU’s general secretary made a wise choice in averting war, and he deserved more support from the hard-liners of the party.

Chairman Khrushchev established missiles in Cuba, with the consent of the country’s government, in 1962. He feared another US invasion of the country following the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and also wanted to counter the United States’ growing weapons advantage. He did not anticipate the capabilities of the US’s intelligence, and after the Americans discovered the weaponry, Soviet policy seemed confused and disorganized for the remainder of the campaign. In public, the USSR denied the existence of missiles in Cuba and blamed the United States for the furor. The Soviets had the support of the world community and the UN Secretary General, U Thant, until Adlai Stevenson provided damning photographical evidence on October 25. The Soviets pushed the US to the brink on the military front, then stepped back; they turned their ships around in the Caribbean Ocean, respecting the US’s “quarantine,” and gave up its weapons program in the country in exchange for a promise that the US would never invade Cuba. Khrushchev used many front-channel and back channel communiqués in his increasingly desperate efforts to keep the USSR out of war. He succeeded in achieving peace but lost the respect of his party and in doing so gave up the power of the party to the conservatives.

Khrushchev was occasionally rash in his actions, but his first letter and the installation of the red phone showed a willingness to communicate that might have greatly leavened the tensions of the Cold War. Khrushchev’s humanity was a blessing and a curse to him; I would have been more logical in my actions, but I generally approve of his intentions and behavior and believe that Brezhnev never should have replaced him as leader of the CPSU.

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One Comment on “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Dynamic Defense Diplomacy”


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