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When John F. Kennedy Saved the World

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Kennedy proved his mettle in response to a Soviet breach of the Monroe Doctrine, defusing a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster.”

“Since a prince, then, is required to know how to assume a beastlike nature, he must adopt that of the fox and that of the lion; for a lion is defenseless against snares, and a fox is defenseless against wolves. Hence a prince ought to be a fox in recognizing snares and a lion in driving off wolves.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Part 1

In October of 1962, the world almost came to an end. At least, that is how many saw it at the time. Like 2020, it felt like an apocalyptic moment in history. In 1962, however, the fate of the world hinged on the decisions of a president who, unlike the irascible, impulsive, and ad hoc former President Donald Trump, proved to be even-tempered, steady, deliberative, and, though not without a penchant for vacillation leading up to the crisis, decisive. President John F. Kennedy saved the world.

The Cuban missile crisis crystallized a variety of geopolitical entanglements which threatened peace as two superpowers locked horns in a precarious nuclear age. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union stepped onto the world stage with two antithetical ideologies to propagate to the world. The icon of liberal capitalism found itself in perennial conflict with a totalitarian, communist regime. Their rivalry extended to a high-stakes competition to acquire state-of-the-art weapons technologies, especially in the wake of the atom and hydrogen bombs. 

During the early 1960s, this clash of titans pitted the leaders of two superpowers against each other. In his inaugural address, President Kennedy announced that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden” to uphold democracy and ensure the success of liberty in nations throughout the world. Meanwhile, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced Soviet support for what he deemed “wars of national liberation,” a reference to communist insurgencies in critical areas in the world that threatened to initiate the falling dominoes which provoked American paranoia. Both leaders were serious about promoting and expanding his country’s national interests, but assurances of success would run hollow without the force and will to back them up.

In this environment, war and peace hinged crucially on the interplay between reality and perception. In the context of nuclear relations, it was more crucial than ever that both Kennedy and Khrushchev ensure their perceptions were in step with reality. But the Cuban missile crisis would show that Kennedy and Khrushchev had drastically miscalculated in their evaluations of each other.

These measurements, or mismeasurements, led directly to the missile crisis.

The issues that culminated in the Cuban missile crisis, in large part, revolved around bilateral relations between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Each summit, each letter, and each speech allowed Kennedy and Khrushchev continually to assess the positions, intentions, and resolve of the other. These measurements, or mismeasurements, led directly to the missile crisis. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were bad tailors. Or, rather, they did not fit the suit the other had made for them. Khrushchev was not to be trusted, as Kennedy discovered when offensive missiles were placed in Cuba, while Kennedy demonstrated he was more than the weak and indecisive president Khrushchev judged him to be. Kennedy proved his mettle in response to a Soviet breach of the Monroe Doctrine, defusing a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster.

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The Cuban missile crisis was a culmination of the United States-Soviet rivalry in the post-World War II world. It was a culmination of a personal rivalry between the two most powerful men in the world at the time. It was also a watershed. It brought an end to the vacillation, indecision, and appearance of weakness which bedeviled the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It showed that the United States, when put to the test, would not tolerate a direct, mortal threat to its national security. The United States would not cave under pressure. Kennedy always had the military power. There was no question about that. But Khrushchev challenged his will to use it, pursuing a policy of strategic deception designed to exploit Kennedy’s trust and vacillation. When he realized he had been deceived, Kennedy stood his ground like a lion, but with the caution and care of a fox, providing a model of statesmanship and decision-making in a crisis the world had never seen.

The Crisis in Context

In late July of 1962, Raúl Castro, Cuban Defense Minister and the brother of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, returned from a mysterious visit to Moscow. Following the visit, the Soviet Union began shipping weapons and military personnel to Cuba. The Soviets made no public announcement, but United States Navy reconnaissance planes quickly recorded Soviet ships making their way to Cuba from Baltic and Black Sea ports. The ships docked at Mariel, a Cuban port on the coast of Pinar del Río province. Meanwhile, Cuban agents informed the CIA of citizens evacuating homes and of increasingly vigilant guards in the area as Russians unloaded incoming ships. 

Throughout August, the United States and the Soviet Union regularly issued statements to clarify their stance on the missiles. The Soviet Union defended its actions as necessary to defend the territorial integrity of a fellow communist regime, while the United States emphasized that the missile deployments were legitimate so long as they remained defensive. A serious reappraisal would occur if offensive missiles were installed. 

The United States was confident in its assessment of the situation. On August 24th, Roger Hilsman, director of the Intelligence and Research office of the State Department, briefed reporters on what the State Department knew. “From what we have observed of this cargo,” Hilsman said, “it appears that much of it will go into the improvement of coastal and air defenses. It may include surface-to-air missiles, which the Soviets have already supplied to Iraq and Indonesia.” Five days later, on August 29th, American U-2 planes flying over Cuba took photographs of the missile construction sites which revealed that the weapons installed were indeed defensive surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.

If the situation persisted, severe concerns would be unwarranted. SAM missiles were not capable of hitting targets in the United States Their use against American planes were not cause for concern since the United States had no intention of attacking Cuba. However, several American political leaders were not content. CIA director John McCone wondered if these missiles were not a prelude to eventual shipment of offensive missiles to Cuba. Certain reports recorded Cuban refugees saying they witnessed the placement of offensive missiles in Cuba. These statements were dismissed for lack of evidence.

The situation remained tense, but the United States seemed to accept the missile installation as part of an emerging norm of the nuclear age. Leaders throughout the United States voiced their concern, but official United States policy remained neutral, on the one condition that the missiles remain defensive. This was the context from which the Cuban missile crisis emerged. It epitomized a prevailing norm of nuclear tensions. It also underscored the actual possibility that a nuclear war could occur. 

The Discovery

On the evening of October 15, 1962, Washington, D.C. was a city in stride. The government was in full operation. The indefatigable president, John F. Kennedy, had finished another demanding day of campaigning in a congressional election season. Congressmen were also busy on their campaigns. Administration officials were tending to Beltway engagements. Farthest from the minds of most people on this comfortable autumn night were some top-secret photographs taken by American U-2 planes flying over Cuba on a reconnaissance mission the preceding day.

At one Beltway engagement, Edwin M. Martin, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, was delivering a speech to a dinner at the National Press Club in Washington. The journalism society Sigma Delta Chi was in attendance, listening to Martin’s assurances that the Soviet military buildup in Cuba over the previous few months was essentially defensive in nature, and that the United States need not be heavily concerned. He acknowledged the presence of antiaircraft missile sites, rocket-launching torpedo boats, late-model MIG fighter airplanes, and approximately 5,000 Soviet technicians working on the sites. But he insisted on the defensive nature of the buildup, emphasizing the United States possessed more than the needed capacity to deliver a second-strike attack. 

During the speech, a State Department aide received a call for Martin from Hilsman, who reacted with alarm to the aide’s inquiry as to whether Martin should be interrupted: “For God’s sake, no! But it is important enough to have him call me when he’s finished—so long as it doesn’t attract attention.”

Hilsman at the time was responsible for channeling the information regarding an emerging missile crisis in Cuba to senior officials within the Kennedy administration. When Martin finished speaking and answering questions, he walked from the stage and, after receiving the message from the aide, placed a call to Hilsman, who told him the news while Martin stood in shock as he suddenly realized that his speech had been rendered immediately obsolete. Hilsman informed him that intelligence had just come in indicating that the Soviets were in the process of installing offensive ground-to-ground missiles and the personnel to make them operational in Cuba. 

Martin was reiterating what the President had been saying for the past few months. In a speech made in early September, Kennedy, like Martin, had acknowledged the presence of defensive weapons and Soviet personnel but reassured the nation that an offensive threat did not exist. He made similar points in a well-noted speech delivered a week before. He had repeatedly emphasized, however, that the United States was determined to resist installation of offensive weapons and consistently received reassurance from the Soviet Union that the buildup was defensive in nature. 

A month after this speech, Martin was speaking to his dinner party when the evidence came in that Americans could no longer place their faith in Soviet assurances. The installation in Cuba of ground-to-ground Soviet missiles had begun. Soviet personnel were working day and night to put them in operation. Should the Soviets succeed, the military balance, and especially the geopolitical status, surrounding relations between the United States and Soviet Union would have drastically changed. The United States had reason to be concerned. The Cuban missile crisis was in full stride.

The Cuban missile crisis was an outgrowth of a Cold War in which the Soviet Union, whose military capabilities were inferior to the United States, was constantly in search of a geopolitical advantage over the United States The Soviet Union found in Cuba a chance to seize the initiative. United States-Soviet relations on the issue of Cuba had been a history of American complacency on which Soviet deception thrived. Although the United States was undoubtedly an adamant Cold Warrior, the Soviet leadership was not shaking in its boots during the summer of 1962 as it shipped offensive missiles to Cuba. 

Khrushchev gambled that a complacent United States would not detect installation of offensive missiles in Cuba. If he were right, he could present a new bargaining chip in relations over Berlin following the November elections, when any reluctance to make concessions during an election season would be absent, convincing a weak and conciliatory Kennedy to relent to pressure. Khrushchev’s analysis was not without reason, but he ultimately miscalculated the willingness of Kennedy to respond with force and determination when a true crisis demanded it. In the final analysis, Kennedy’s performance during the crisis proved he had the making of an accomplished statesman.

United States-Soviet Relations: 1945-62

The Cuban missile crisis was the closest the United States came to a nuclear arms confrontation with its communist counterpart during the Cold War. It was both a climax and a watershed in the nuclear arms race of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It would decide the future course of superpower relations. It threatened the very existence of American and Soviet civilizations. It vividly illustrated the consequences of an acrimonious relationship between the world’s two superpowers.

The Cold War developed over time, and one would be hard pressed to argue that any one event precipitated it. At least some part of the story can be traced to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. The bomb stunned the world, including the Soviet Union, which had been expanding throughout Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Far East. The United States demonstrated to the world with the terrifying symbolism of Hiroshima-Nagasaki that it was the preeminent military power, putting to rest any questions about its ability to deal with new challenges in the post-war world and threatening to disrupt the expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union did not take kindly to this arrangement. In this context, Soviet antagonism in response to United States nuclear power eventually merged into the Cold War. The years leading up to the Cuban missile crisis were a continuation of these Cold War hostilities. The hostilities festered conspicuously. The onset of peacetime had turned the attention of Americans to domestic problems. But their attention could not be swayed from international affairs for too long.

In March of 1947, President Harry Truman, in a speech to Congress responding to Soviet motives in Greece and Turkey, initiated the “containment” strategy of United States foreign policy in outlining what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine:

“It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”

From this point on, the United States was committed to containing expansion of the Iron Curtain. What better way to do this than by ensuring military deterrence against latent Soviet aggression? In 1947, as it established itself as the leader of the free world, the United States was in a solid economic and military position effectively to countervail Soviet expansion. Congress agreed to appropriate funds for aiding the royalist government in Greece and a relatively stable government in Turkey. This appropriation was coupled with a policy of maintaining an effective nuclear deterrence capability. 

The Soviet Union thought the same way. In the ensuing years, a dangerous contest emerged to see which country could achieve the most recent scientific and military breakthroughs. Moreover, subsequent events happening throughout the world kept the Cold War tinderbox ablaze, accelerating the race to achieve the most current state-of-the-art military breakthroughs.

Perhaps the most crucial political factor in geopolitical relations between the superpowers was not only the projection of force but the political will to use it. 

In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb. In the same year, Mao’s Communists expelled the Nationalists from China and set about imposing a Communist regime within China. A year later, the Korean War began. The United States could not rest easy. It set about capturing the tide with its containment policy. In 1951, it renewed Project MX-774, initiated following the war to develop intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities but cancelled in 1947 after disappointing results. With the renewal, the United States would again attempt to build an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Then in 1952, the United States set off the first hydrogen bomb. The arms race was in full stride.

The Cold War struggle involved more than military and ideological factors. There were also important political considerations. Perhaps the most crucial political factor in geopolitical relations between the superpowers was not only the projection of force but the political will to use it. 

The 1950s, then, were a continuation of the United States-Soviet struggle for military, political, and diplomatic hegemony in the world. One issue which came to symbolize and encapsulate this struggle was the continued occupation of East and West Berlin in Germany. Since the end of World War II, the Soviets had occupied East Berlin, while the United States, along with France and Great Britain, occupied West Berlin. East and West Berlin offered a striking contrast between an economically depressed communist occupation in the East and a prosperous democracy in the West. The constant flow of refugees from the East to the West put this contrast on striking display.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Khrushchev had been looking for a way to end the occupation. He threatened to sign a separate treaty with the East Germans, allowing them to take control of Soviet forces in East Berlin. Should he complete such an agreement, the West would be faced with the challenge of approaching relations with an independent East Germany in which Berlin was enclosed. The Western occupation would be surrounded by Warsaw forces contained within an independent East German government, upsetting the political and military balance, possibly forcing a confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union. The United States hoped to avoid this scenario.

The issue of Berlin continued into the 1960s, becoming a major bone of contention which symbolized tensions in the Cold War. It factored in the close contest for the American presidency in 1960, accounting in part for the bellicose rhetoric of Kennedy in his campaign for President of the United States. Throughout the campaign, Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower administration for falling behind in the Cold War, allowing the Russians to close the missile gap, even though United States capability was vastly superior and U-2 flights uncovered little evidence of a massive Soviet missile program.

Kennedy’s bellicosity continued into his administration. One of his top priorities as president was military expansion. Nevertheless, in his first year-and-a-half in office, Kennedy allowed an image of indecision and weakness to grow attached to his presidency. Kennedy, who often warned of the danger of miscalculation, ironically made the perilous miscalculation of allowing his presidency to develop an image of fecklessness, starkly illustrated by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Kennedy inherited many policy initiatives from the Eisenhower administration. Among them was a secret CIA-directed plan to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala to invade their homeland and overthrow the recently installed Castro regime. Kennedy vacillated, but eventually let the CIA go ahead with the initiative. But he attached certain conditions, among the most important being that the United States would avoid direct military involvement. The Cuban exiles invaded Cuba under the guise of their own initiative without air power from the United States They were crushed by the Cuban regime.

The Bay of Pigs failure damaged Kennedy. Like most world leaders, Khrushchev was not fooled. He knew the United States had backed the invasion. He found it difficult to interpret Kennedy’s hesitancy to use force. He came to interpret this hesitancy as a mark of weakness and, thus, as an opportunity to improve the geopolitical standing of the Soviet Union. As Donald Kagan writes in On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace: “To the Soviet leader the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs may have suggested that his American counterpart lacked resolve; that he was, as some American critics asserted in a play on the title of a book published by the President, all profile and no courage.”

Two months later, Kennedy and Khrushchev met at Vienna for a summit to discuss the situation in Laos, a nuclear disarmament treaty, and other issues like Berlin and Cuba. It was a summit in which, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. put it, “[Kennedy] and Khrushchev could understand each other’s purposes and interests.” That was the official word. In actuality, however, the Vienna summit meeting, in the mind of Khrushchev, effectively sealed an image of Kennedy as a man who could be bullied. 

Kennedy was aware that he needed to present a tougher image. He privately conceded that he called the summit to “show Khrushchev we can be just as tough as he is.” But Khrushchev’s decision to accept was motivated by a desire to show how really tough he was. According to Khrushchev’s assistant, Fyodor Burlatsky: “Khrushchev went to Vienna with quite different feelings from those with which he went to Camp David (with Eisenhower). Not only had he gained confidence, he had even become somewhat self-opinionated. If before his meeting with Eisenhower he had been concerned not to lose face, before meeting Kennedy he was preoccupied with how to put the young president ‘in his place’ and secure the concessions he wanted from him.”

Both Kennedy and Khrushchev went to Vienna expecting a boxing match of sorts. Both were intent on being the bully. In the end, Khrushchev prevailed. Kennedy made a number of miscalculations during the summit which left Khrushchev the indisputable victor of the summit. For one, Kennedy seemed to have a bad case of the “Munich syndrome.” During the summit, he admitted his mistake in the Bay of Pigs incident. He also emphasized his desire not to let United States-Soviet relations spin out of control. Finally, in a stunning statement, he proclaimed, “We regard…Sino-Soviet forces and the forces of the United States and Western Europe as being more or less in balance.” This admission of military parity strengthened Kennedy’s image as the next Chamberlain. According to Michael Beschloss, “[t]he President’s declaration sent Khrushchev into near ecstasy. For the rest of his life he boasted that at this summit the leader of the United States had finally acknowledged that there was rough parity between the two great powers.”

Strategic deception was a spectacular success for the Soviets, as a brief look at the actual capabilities of both countries demonstrates. While the United States continued to enhance its capabilities with its Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missiles, as well as a powerful Polaris submarine force, the Soviet Union was falling dramatically behind. According to David Detzer in The Brink, “They could build single prototype rockets, but Russia’s ability to produce high-precision equipment remained far behind America’s.” United States intelligence estimates left little doubt about American superiority.

As long as the United States allowed the Soviets to play a game of strategic deception, the political balance, precarious as it was, remained unrippled. Then, around the same time Kennedy and Khrushchev met at Vienna, more evidence of United States military superiority emerged. United States intelligence breakthroughs pinpointed the location of the Soviet Union’s “soft” ICBM missile sites. This breakthrough effectively eliminated any second-strike capability to which the Soviets could previously make claim.

The first clear ripple came in November of 1961 in a speech by Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Secretary of Defense, in which he confirmed that the missile gap was in the United States favor. According to Roger Hilsman: “For the Soviets, the implications of the message were horrendous. It was not so much the fact that the Americans had military superiority—that was not new to the Soviets. What was bound to frighten them most was that the Americans knew that they had military superiority.”

Subsequent events posed additional challenges. China was becoming increasingly assertive and aggressive. The Berlin issue continued to fester. The Soviet Union found it increasingly difficult to juggle worldwide commitments and domestic obligations. Then the United States conducted a spying mission which pinpointed where its ICBMs were located. According to Hilsman, “[t]he whole Soviet ICBM system (its ability to deliver a second-strike attack severely diminished) was suddenly obsolescent.” Meanwhile, Hilsman explains, “Castro clamored more and more insistently for military protection from the United States.” Therein lies the origin of the Cuban missile crisis: “…among the Soviet leadership all these problems, fears, and demands somehow converged on the thesis that at least a temporary and expedient solution to their several problems would be to install some of their older, more plentiful medium- and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba.”

The Soviet Union needed a face-saving plan that would prevent a seemingly inevitable plunge into military and political inferiority to the United States “If the move in Cuba were successful and the overall Soviet position strengthened,” Hilsman explains, “their leverage on Berlin would indeed be improved.” Further:

“NATO would surely be shaken and the chances of the United States successfully creating a multilateral nuclear force reduced. In Latin America, other potential ‘Castros’ would be encouraged. American power would be less impressive and American protection less desirable, and some of the Latin American states would move in the Soviet direction even if their governments were not overthrown. Then, too, successful move in Cuba would cut the ground from under the Chinese Communists and go far toward convincing Communists everywhere that Soviet leadership was strong and Soviet methods in dealing with the ‘imperialists’ effective.”.

Jonathan David Church is an economist and writer. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, and he has contributed to a variety of publications, including Quillette and Areo Magazine.

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