John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was elected as the first Roman Catholic president of the United States in 1960 by a much narrower margin than is often remembered. Nevertheless, his term as president began with high hopes and a wave of optimism. While domestic policies were tough to enact in his first few months in charge, it was on the international stage, and particularly with regard to Cuba, that his major tests would come.
Tensions had grown between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR) prior to JFK’s election as president. The first major flare up which Kennedy himself had to deal with occurred over the Bay of Pigs invasion, an event which in many ways was a precursor and direct cause of the Missile Crisis itself. As Kennedy took office, he discovered that there were plans in place for a CIA operation, “designed to prepare 1500 anti-Castro Cubans for an invasion of their homeland.” (Tindall and Shi, page 870) The operation was an amateurish and embarrassing failure, with three days all it took the hardened revolutionary fighters of Cuba to defeat the invasion and capture 1200 prisoner. In the words of a New York Times columnist at the time, it made the USA look “like fools to our friends, rascals to our enemies and incompetents to the rest.” (Tindall and Shi, p. 870) This event set the tone for the next major test of JFK’s foreign policy, which took place in Vienna in June 1961.
Just a few short weeks after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, the young Kennedy, viewed as potentially naive and therefore weak bu his Soviet counterparts, travelled to Austria for a meeting with Nikita Kruschev, the premier of the USSR. Kruschev undoubtedly felt that he could bully JFK. He threatened to limit access to West Berlin, the part of the German capital located deep in East Germany but under West German control. The meeting did not go well for JFK, but he returned home determined to show the world that he would not bend and that he did have courage. Army Reserve and National Guard units were called up. Congress was asked to provide an additional $3.2 billion in defense spending. The Soviet response was to build the Berlin Wall; a symbolic and literal representation of the divide between the East and West at this time, which was not dismantled until 1989. Just a year after the construction of the Wall, Kruschev responded to a request from Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, to install Russian nucelar missles on the Caribbean island in order to dissuade the Americans from future invasions.
While the missiles would not affect the overall world balance of power, they were in a place which discomfited the defense arrangements which were then in place on the mainland USA. If the missiles had been fired, they would have come from a direction which was not covered by radar and other defense systems. They would also arrive too quickly for adequate warning to be provided to US citizens. “Kruschev’s purpose was apparently to demonstrate his toughness to both Chinese and Russian critics of his earlier advocacy of peaceful coexistence. But he misjudged the American response.” (Tindall & Shi, p.871)
By October 14 1962, intelligence flights over Cuba from the USA had revealed the existence of Russian missile sites being constructed on the island. The Americans decided that something needed to be done, and opted for a blockade. This was termed a ‘quarantine’ though, as an official blockade would have been an act of war. This left options for further action open, and also meant that if it came to war, then the Soviets would have shoot first. Kruschev’s response was that America was pushing the world to the brink of a mutually destructive world nuclear missile war. He also stated that Soviet ships would ignore the ‘quarantine’. When it came to the crunch though, on October 24, five Soviet supply ships did stop short of the demarcation point of the blockade. A TV journalist was approached with a proposal by the Soviets that they would withdraw the missiles, as long as the Americans made a public pledge not to invade Cuba. Although many in the USA felt that the Russians had ‘blinked first’ in the stand-off, the world breathed a sigh of relief. By October 28, Kruschev had agreed to remove the missiles, and issued an invitation to, “continue the exchange of views on the prohibition of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, general disarmament, and other problems relating to the relaxation of international tension.” (Tindall & Shi, p.872). The USA responded with some symbolic steps of its own. Surplus wheat was sold to the Soviets, while a direct telephone hotline was established between Washington and Moscow to aid future diplomacy. Obsolete American missiles were removed from Great Britain, Turkey and Italy. A treaty was also signed with the USSR and the UK in 1963 to prevent atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
The key players in the crisis as it developed were obviously JFK himself, Fidel Castro, the leader of new socialist Cuban state, and Nikita Kruschev, the president of the USSR. Kruschev was born close to the Russian border with Ukraine in 1894. By the time of the Cuban Missle Crisis he was an experienced and seasoned operator, a veteran of the politics of the Stalin era who had worked his way to succeeding the Man of Steel. After his ‘Secret Speech’ of 1956, the USSR had been moving towards a less repressive system of government. Relations with the USA were stil tricky though. Many contemporaries viewed Kruschev as a man who “radiated energy but not intellect.” (Tompson, 1995, p. 146) Kruschev cut the conventional forces which defended the Soviet Union, and hoped to rely on missiles to defend his country. President Kennedy, the man facing Kruschev, was often viewed as a man with youth and intellect on his side, but who was woefully short of experience. It is worth remembering that he was not the heroic American figure at the time that he became after his assasination, and had only been voted in by the slimmest of margins. It is likely that he therefore felt that he had something to prove, especially after the Vienna conference.
Castro was in a very different position to the two superpower leaders. The head of a small country close to the shores of the United States, he had come to power as a result of the Cuban Revolution, which had also helped to clear the island of many American business interests and organised crime networks. Deeply anti-capitalist, he was placed in an invidious position, from which he emerged with great credit. He lived in constant fear of a US invasion, and had built up Cuban military forces to double their previous size by 1960. His army was well-equipped with a mixture of Soviet, French and Belgian weaponry. “What the imperialists cannot forgive us, is that we have made a Socialist revolution under their noses,” he said. (Bourne, 1986, pp. 221-222)
Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba at the time, was faced with arguably trickier decisions than either of the leaders of the two superpowers at the time. There was little alternative available for Castro at the time. While antagonising the United States may have seemed foolish, he was left with few choices after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba, as a small island, had to ally with a larger power to protect itself. The Americans had already shown their intentions by the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Castro needed an alliance to protect himself and his people. The only other power which could hope to match the power of the United States at that time was the USSR. While many might view the decision to allow missile bases as foolish, Castro’s decision in actual fact showed the world that the Cuban revolution was a serious political player on the world stage. He also secured his country’s future from the colonial adventuring in Latin America of the USA, something which marred American foreign policy for decades. As Castro himself said: “We had a sovereign right to accept the missiles. We were not violating international law. Why do it secretly — as if we had no right to do it? I warned Nikita that secrecy would give the imperialists the advantage.” (Tompson, 1995, p. 248) Castro’s first priority was his land and people, and he successfully protected them.
In conclusion, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a Cold War watershed moment. Although the world came to the brink of war, it was pulled back. In one sense, thanks to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK and Castro were left to pick up the pieces put in place by the previous US administration of Richard Nixon. Although the incident was fraught with danger, in many ways it contributed to a greater understanding between the world’s super powers, and helped to lessen the later risk of a nuclear war. It is also worth pointing out that it did little to damage the Cuban regime, and indeed may have helped to give Castro’s regime greater legitimacy in the world away from the USA. Sadly, anti-Communist philosophy would see America become bogged down in South East Asia in the later part of the 1960s, eventually losing a costly war in Vietnam. Fidel Castro, although he stood down as president of Cuba recently, and his regime are still in place.
Bourne, Peter G. (1986) ‘A Biography of Fidel Castro’, Dodd, Mead & co
Tindall, George B. and Shi, David E., (1989) ‘America’ (brief second edition), Norton
Tompson, William J. (1995), Khrushchev: A Political Life’, St. Martin’s Press