American President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis played an important role in averting nuclear war between the Soviets and Americans. While critics (often rightly) accuse Kennedy of making mistakes, including creating the conditions for the crisis in his mismanagement of the Bay of Pigs, his overall performance during the crisis was helpful. Kennedy’s choice to avoid a military attack on Cuba was especially important, as was his decision to negotiate diplomatically with Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev.
JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was sparked by American president John F. Kennedy’s discovery that the Soviet Union had nuclear missiles in nearby communist Cuba. President Kennedy learned of the buildup of nuclear weapons, which included the installation of offensive nuclear missiles, on October 16th, 1962. At that date, the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles in Cuba were just 90 miles from U.S. territory, and the American government saw them as a clear threat.
In response, President Kennedy quickly confronted Soviet leaders and demanded that the Soviet missiles be removed immediately from Cuba. He met with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, on October 18th, who argued that the weapons were for defensive purposes only. The president met with his military aides, his advisors and his brother Robert in the upcoming days to discuss military options. Ultimately, he decided to create a naval blockade, or quarantine of Cuba, rather than a surgical air strike against the bases in Cuba (The History Place).
On October 22, 1962, at 7 p.m., Kennedy gave a televised address to the American people. He explained the Soviet buildup of offensive nuclear missiles. He noted clearly that any missile that was launched from Cuba would be considered as a direct attack from the Soviet Union, “requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” As the world waited for the Soviets to respond, nuclear war seemed a distinct possibility in the upcoming days (The History Place).
Eventually, however, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev backed down, and Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba. While the end result of Kennedy’s handling of the crisis was positive, as the world avoided nuclear warfare, many critics argued that he mishandled the crisis. In contrast, others suggest that he showed solid leadership and managed to diffuse a potentially devastating situation.
Kennedy’s management of the Cuban Missile Crisis remains controversial to this day. Supporters of Kennedy argue that the young American president effectively diffused a direct and serious threat to American cities during the crisis. However, critics argue that his actions were an overreaction to the threat, and may have been motivated by political aims (The Learning Curve).
Kennedy’s supporters suggest that his actions were important in showing that the United States was willing to defy Soviet actions. In fact, Kennedy earned widespread public support by insisting that Soviet missiles should be dismantled and moved away from Cuba (The Learning Curve). Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that Kennedy’s actions showed the “whole world . . . The ripening of American leadership unsurpassed in the responsible management of power . . . [a] combination of toughness . . . nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated that [it] dazzled the world” (cited in Schweizer).
Supporters also cite Kennedy’s restraint in ruling out an air strike or military invasion as proof that Kennedy handled the crisis well. He faced considerable pressure from military advisors to take this course of action, which may potentially have lead to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States (The Learning Curve). Writes well-known journalist Gwynne Dyer, “JFK rose to the occasion magnificently in the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962, keeping his own trigger-happy military in check while he persuaded the Russians to remove their missiles from Cuban territory, and earned the permanent gratitude of a generation that held its breath for two weeks while it waited to learn if it would die in a nuclear war.” Similarly, Morley notes “We now know that such an attack (an air attack against Cuba) was much more likely to have caused a nuclear war than U.S. officials knew at the time.”
Ultimately, Kennedy’s supporters also suggest that his actions may have led to a lessening of the Cold War in the last few months of his time as president (The Learning Curve). By standing up to the Soviets without resorting to drastic military measures, Kennedy may have preserved the delicate Cold War balance between the Soviets and the United States for years to come.
Kennedy’s supporters often argue that his diplomatic actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis helped bring the crisis to a positive end. Specifically, Kennedy chose to respond to a more conciliatory Russian communication, rather than a more antagonistic communication. In responding to the conciliatory communication, Kennedy allowed Khrushchev a way out of the crisis, and avoided forcing Khrushchev into taking a hard-line stance leading up to war (Blanton).
In contrast, Kennedy’s critics argued that his reaction to the Soviet buildup of nuclear weapons was fundamentally flawed. They argue that he over-dramatized events, thereby unnecessarily escalating the conflict to the brink of nuclear warfare (The Learning Curve). This over-escalation, they argue, brought the world unnecessarily close to nuclear war. Notes Thomas Blanton, “were even closer to nuclear war than the policymakers knew at the time, and that’s saying something, because on Saturday, October 27, Robert McNamara (then Secretary of Defense under Kennedy) thought he might not live to see the sunrise.” A Soviet submarine, carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo came dangerously close to firing on the U.S. navy during the crisis, an action which may have triggered all-out war with the Soviets, and nuclear strikes (Blanton).
Critics also suggest that Kennedy’s actions were motivated by political gain. Mid-term elections were due in November of the year of the crisis (the crisis took place in October), and critics note that Kennedy might have been trying to gain domestic support with his hard line stance on the nuclear missiles. In short, these critics argue that Kennedy may have risked the lives of Americans simply to show that he was a strong and decisive leader (The Learning Curve).
Other detractors of Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis suggest that he was responsible for the crisis in the first place. He unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion, thereby alienating Cuba, and embarrassing the United States (The Learning Curve). The failure at the Bay of Pigs is often attributed to Kennedy’s decision to remove American air or naval support for Cuban exiles attempting to liberate the country (Schweizer). This action created an impression of the U.S.A. As inexperienced and weak, and encouraged the Soviet Union to take advantage by placing nuclear weapons in a willing Cuba (The Learning Curve). Soviet President Khrushchev felt that “he could have things his way with the young president,” as a result of this action, while Fidel Castro felt that the Soviet missile would help deter another invasion like the Bay of Pigs (Schweizer). In addition, Blanton suggests that JFK’s “covert operations that were meant to deter Castro from subverting the hemisphere actually compelled him to accept Soviet missiles.”
Kennedy’s critics also note that his supporters often gloss over the fact that Kennedy gave up some crucial strategic points in order to have the missiles removed. Writes Schweizer, Kennedy, “contrary to the steely determination portrayed in the movies, was all too willing to deal.” In return for the Khrushchev withdrawing the missiles from Cuba, Kennedy agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey, and make a pledge never to invade Cuba again (Schweizer).
While supporters and detractors of Kennedy have some valid arguments about Kennedy’s handling of the crisis, avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis may simply have been pure luck, notes Blanton. He notes that Dino Brugioni, the CIA analyst who helped identify the Soviet missiles in Cuba, argues that it is simply “divine providence” (cited in Blanton) that nuclear war did not erupt. An accidental launch of a nuclear-equipped torpedo may have resulted in nuclear war during the crisis (Blanton). As such, this line of reasoning suggests that Kennedy’s performance during the crisis was only one of a number of important factors in avoiding nuclear disaster.
In conclusion, President John F. Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis largely helped avert full-scale nuclear war with the Soviets. Kennedy’s decision to avoid a direct attack on Cuba, and his diplomatic handling of the affair (including proposing removing American missiles from Turkey and promising not to attack Cuba in the future) played a key role in diffusing the crisis. At the same time, it is important to consider that Kennedy’s actions were not without flaws. As critics point out, his actions may have been motivated by political gain, and his actions in the Bay of Pigs may have played a role in creating the Cuban Missile Crisis in the first place. Despite these flaws, Kennedy’s overall performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis helped to avoid nuclear war.
Blanton, Thomas S. The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Late. Washingtonpost.com with Thomas S. Blanton, Executive Director, National Security Archive. Washingtonpost.com,
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2002; 11 a.m. ET. Accessed October 26, 2005.
Dyer, Gwynne. The Enigma of John F. Kennedy, 10 November 2003. Accessed October 26,
Morley, Jefferson. Lessons Learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis With Jefferson Morley.
Washingtonpost.com, Monday, Oct. 14, 2002; 11 a.m. ET. Accessed October 26, 2005.
The History Place. President John F. Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Accessed October
26, 2005. http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/jfk-cuban.htm
Schweizer, Peter. Cuban Missile Crisis: Kennedy’s Mistakes. History News Network, 11-04-02.
Accessed October 26, 2005. http://hnn.us/articles/1090.html
The Learning Curve. John Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. Accessed October 26, 2005.
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