Story by Fredrick Horne '18
The day this article is published, October 16, 2016, is the 54th anniversary of first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The day before, American intelligence analysts had realized that a U-2 flight over Cuba had captured a photo of a nascent missile base. Early on the 16th, President John F. Kennedy announced to his Cabinet that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Further examination of U-2 photographs revealed more sites, and enough long-range missiles to leave eighty million dead within minutes of launch. The missiles could be ready for operation in a week. The Cabinet quickly agreed that this threat—and insult—could not be allowed to stand, both for the missiles themselves and for the message that doing nothing would send: that the Soviets could do anything they wanted and the US would not resist.
The debate was on how to respond. A preemptive air strike to destroy the missile bases, followed by invasion of Cuba, or a naval blockade to prevent any more equipment from entering? The Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly advised the strike to eliminate the missiles and signs of US weakness. Most officials supported it. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara supported the blockade. The problems with the preemptive strike were that it could not eliminate all missile sites, would kill many civilians, and would be an unprovoked attack that would destroy the US’s moral standing. On October 20, Kennedy chose the blockade, to show US strength without direct violence. However, invasion forces were prepared as a final resort; nuclear missile crews were placed on high alert, and multiple B-52 bombers equipped with nuclear warheads flew at all times.
Over the next few days, the President would make several more controversial decisions. When the Bucharest, a Russian tanker, refused to respect the blockade, he decided that it was unlikely to be carrying more missile equipment, and he decided to let it pass rather than force Premier Khrushchev into hasty action. President Kennedy increased pressure in other, more indirect, less dangerous ways, such as harassing Soviet submarines and forcing them to surface, and low-altitude flights over Cuba of eight U-2s at a time.
Kennedy also let an East German passenger ship go through the blockade. In fact, no ship was stopped and boarded until the Lebanon-registered Marucla on the morning of the 26th. He chose this ship in this same non-confrontational strength strategy: it was not owned by the Soviets, so it was not a direct insult, but it still showed that the Americans meant business. Even when a U-2 was shot down, and his Cabinet recommended immediate action to destroy Cuban surface-to-air-missile sites, Kennedy declined to escalate the action.
President Kennedy understood the gravity of military action, that it might lead to further escalation and nuclear war. Every time there was provocation that seemed to demand a vigorous response, he chose a less aggressive response, and did not take the final step toward a war with unlimited consequences. He gave every opportunity for the Soviets to reconsider. And they did. On the 26th, Khrushchev sent two letters. He said that the Soviet Union would remove all offensive weapons (including nuclear weapons) from Cuba and promise not to invade Turkey if the US lifted the blockade, promised not to invade Cuba, and removed the Jupiter nuclear missiles stationed in Italy and Turkey.
President Kennedy sent back his counter-proposal on the night of the 27th: the Soviet Union would remove all offensive weapons, and the United States would lift the blockade and promise not to invade Cuba; he would not remove the missiles as part of the deal, but through another channel he told the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that he had wanted them out of Turkey and Italy for some time and they would be removed shortly after the Russian missiles were removed. At 10:00 AM on the 28th, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.
There are several lessons to be taken. It is important to have many different opinions advising the President: the debate on what should be done informed Kennedy’s opinion, rather than simply strengthening it as would have happened if his advisers had all been yes-men. It is important to have international allies: the US blockade was given legitimacy by the agreement of the Organization of American States, and its actions were further legitimized by NATO’s support. But most importantly, the Crisis taught that conflict can be solved by negotiation. The Russians did not want to go to war any more than the Americans did, because everyone realized that it would be the end; Kennedy needed to make them realize that he would go to war if he had to but also give them a way out. He knew the importance of understanding the other side’s perspective and that he needed to give them a way to avoid conflict without humiliation. It is essential that one does not start viewing the enemy as a mindless, inhuman monolith that longs for war and is blinded by hatred.
The US’s major nuclear enemies, Russia and China, do not want war with us, because however opposed to the US they might be, they know that no one would survive such a war. The US needs to keep that in mind in all future negotiations. Violence might escalate a situation to a level that neither side wants to reach, but both sides must escalate so as not to lose face. But the appearance of resolve is also essential. If Kennedy had not shown Khrushchev that the US meant what it said, Khrushchev would not have agreed to remove his missiles. Yet, Kennedy showed this strength in a non-confrontational manner that did not unnecessarily escalate the situation. The US must do the same today. We cannot let Russia or China do whatever they want because they will do as much as we let them; however, we must show our strength and resolve, and in ways short of outright military action, if possible.
This article and its information on the Cuban Missile Crisis were prepared using Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Robert Kennedy.