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4SSW1001 The Causes of War

Word Count: 3,034

February 27, 2017

Was really the Cuban Missile Crisis critical moment in the cold war, or historians and International Relation Theorists have exaggerated its importance?

I. Introduction

The Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department describes the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as “a direct and dangerous confrontation” between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Many historians and international relations theorists remember it as an important moment in the cold war, believing it was when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came closest to nuclear conflict. However, revisionist scholars on the issue, with the newly declassified records and evidence, have argued that the crisis was exaggerated and was not as critical as it is conventionally thought; Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of The American Conservative, put it as

“The rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory.”

I sympathize with this view with two major reasons. First, the nuclear war was not as imminent as some historians and IR scholars think, which is supported by evidence such as the careful avoidance of military confrontation on both sides, the U.S. nuclear advantage, and Kennedy’s backup plan, the Cordier play. Second, the crisis itself was triggered and exaggerated into a much bigger problem, which can be attributed to Kennedy himself, domestic pressure from within the U.S., and also poor communication between the two leaders.

II. A Brief Background of the Crisis

The “thirteen days” of Cuban Missile Crisis started on October 16, 1962 when President Kennedy received aerial photos of missile bases that were under construction in Cuba, which was just about 90 miles from the U.S. soil.  Kennedy summoned twelve advisers to form the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) to devise a plan to resolve the situation. On October 22, Kennedy addressed the public on the situation.  Different options were considered including an air strike and an invasion, and Kennedy went forth with instituting a naval blockade to stop the Soviet ships from delivering missiles to Cuba. Letters were exchanged between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Robert F. Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin had a secret meeting to negotiate a deal to pull out U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange of the U.S.S.R. not touching Cuba, and the crisis finally ceased on the 28th with Khrushchev publicly stating that the missiles in Cuba will be dismantled and removed.  Kennedy announced the end of blockade on November 20,  and the U.S. removed the Jupiter missiles from Turkey in April 1963.

III. Was the Nuclear War Actually Imminent?

The Cuban Missile Crisis has been emphasized in the history of the cold war because it is thought to be a moment in the cold war when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to an outbreak of a nuclear war. And indeed, if a full-scale nuclear war had broken out, the result would have been catastrophic. However, was a nuclear conflict really so near? A handful of events that took place during the conflict show it was not; the actions taken (or not taken) by the leaders of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were geared toward avoiding an actual war and show the nuclear war was the last thing that both sides wanted.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were so careful during the crisis not to spur a military confrontation. They well knew that if a war took place, the result would be a mutually assured destruction. Kennedy’s ExComm advisers had several different opinions on the table, including limited air strike and fuller air strike,  and people like General Curtis LeMay advocated for attacking Cuba and “solving” the problem.  However, Kennedy chose to go with the less provocative option to install a naval blockade on the 24th (that he preferred to call the “quarantine”) to prevent Soviet ships from delivering missiles to Cuba.

On Khrushchev’s part, he also wanted to avoid provoking a U.S. military action. In arguing that “the crisis was shorter and arguably less dangerous than often portrayed,”  Paul Wingrove of the University of Greenwich provides that when Kennedy announced the naval quarantine, “Soviet ships were instructed not to breach it.”  Khrushchev did not challenge the blockade. It is unclear to exactly what extent, but Khrushchev had little intention of putting the Soviet missiles in use. General David A. Burchinal, who was the deputy chief of staff for plans and programs at the time, when asked why he thought it’s wrong for people to think that the U.S. was so close to a nuclear war, answered that,

“The Russians were so thoroughly stood down, and we knew it. They didn't make any move. They did not increase their alert; they did not increase any flights, or their air defense posture. They didn’t do a thing, they froze in place. We were never further from nuclear war than at the time of Cuba, never further.”  (Emphasis added)

In fact, at the moment when Dean Rusk the Secretary of State made a perhaps most famous remark on the crisis that “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” the lead Soviet ship Kimovsk was actually returning to the U.S.S.R. and already 750 miles away from the quarantine line.  Michael Dobbs also challenges the moment’s imminence in his book that on the 22nd the comrades at the presidential meeting with Khrushchev had already agreed that “the ships that are taking a course to the Mediterranean Sea should be returned to the Black Sea.”  He believes people choose to ignore such facts since “after all, the eyeball to eyeball imagery [is] simply too good for political memoirs.”

It should not be overlooked that the United States had clear nuclear advantage. Kennedy was well aware that the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, even “taken at its worst,”  did not alter the strategic balance between the US and the U.S.S.R.. During an evening meeting with the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, he said, “It doesn't make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union, or one from 90 miles away. Geography doesn't mean that much.”  Members of the ExComm shared the sentiment. When asked by the National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy how much strategic impact the U.S. will receive by the placement of missiles in Cuba, General Robert McNamara answered it “not at all” changes the strategic balance.  The numbers back up the argument. At the time of the crisis, “the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs),”  when the U.S. had “203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs.”  It was clear that the U.S. had more weapons and capability to deploy them, which adds to an argument that the Soviets were putting the missiles to deter the U.S. rather than to provoke it.

On October 27, an American U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile and the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed while gathering information on the development of Soviet missile sites. Even though it was clearly an act of aggression against the United States, the Kennedy government did not strike back. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalls the incident as follows: “Before we sent the U-2 out, we agreed that if it was shot down we wouldn't meet, we'd simply attack. ... Fortunately, we changed our mind, we thought, ‘Well, it might have been an accident, we won't attack.’ Later we learned that Khrushchev had reasoned just as we did: … therefore, he issued orders to Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, to instruct all of his batteries not to shoot down the U-2.”  Even though it had been previously agreed that if an American aircraft were shot down the U.S. would attack, Kennedy did not follow the plan. Khrushchev also ordered not to shoot down American airplanes, which makes it more plausible that it was probably Castro and not the Soviets who were involved in the attack. Were there ever intentions to enter into a military conflict? We cannot answer that question, but we can assume from this example that both governments did not favor a military strike, and most certainly they did not want to start shooting nuclear missiles at each other.

Although it was Khrushchev who “blinked,” it was later revealed by Rusk that Kennedy was developing a backup plan ready in the case that the Soviets did not agree to pull out missiles from Cuba. After two decades from the crisis, Rusk revealed that President Kennedy “‘instructed [him] to telephone the late Andrew Cordier,’ a former United Nations official ‘… and dictate to him a statement which would be made by U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations, proposing the removal of both the Jupiters and the missiles in Cuba.’”  This “Cordier play” of Kennedy’s did not have to put into action since the Soviets decided to remove the missiles from Cuba the following morning, thanks to the meeting between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador, which will be discussed further in the next section. Even though it is also argued that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey did not have much significance and was going to be removed anyway, pulling out the US missiles in Turkey, a NATO ally, could plausibly have been seen as the U.S. and NATO conceding to the Communists and “selling out” Turkey to serve an American interest and resolve an American issue.  Kennedy however was willing to risk such a perception because he wanted to avoid a nuclear war more. Even if Khrushchev did not concede first, the war was not the only option that would have left.

IV. Is the Crisis a Showcase of Kennedy’s Leadership?

Historians and international relations scholars also emphasize the crisis as the prime example of President Kennedy showing great leadership and tenacity. However, was Kennedy that great in handling the crisis, and was it really his determined leadership that resolved the problem?

Revisionist historians argue that Kennedy actually had a role in causing and escalating the crisis. How did the U.S. get to the point of the crisis in the first place? When the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 took place, it made it clear that Kennedy wanted to get rid of the Castro regime and Castro himself. When it failed, it spurred the Kennedys’ “desire to avenge the family honor.”  Robert Kennedy even told the director of CIA John A. McCone that “overthrowing Castro was ‘the top priority in the United States Government’”   in January 1962, pushing the agency to design Operation Mongoose to assassinate Castro. In response, it was obvious to Castro that he needed to get something done. In the Soviets’ case, the U.S. dismantling the Castro regime was unfavorable since it would have the significance of capitalist victory against the communists. The Jupiter missiles in the proximity to the Soviet soil were also a factor. Therefore, building the bases and putting Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba was their deterrence method against Kennedy’s aggression. Americans, in Khrushchev’s words, “would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at [them]; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.”

It was rather the Kennedy administration and not the country of the United States itself that faced “mortal danger.”  Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected to the office, whose record is still not broken. As a 43-year-old president who used to be in the Navy, had a relatively short political career, and already experienced an embarrassing failure with the Bay of Pigs mess, he had to prove his ability as President to the American public. What happened to Khrushchev shows how important the domestic perception is to a president. Before the outbreak of crisis, he was already being challenged for being soft and weak inside the Soviet Union and by neighboring China, and a strong foreign policy action such as what he did in the crisis would help boost his toughness as a communist leader. Although Khrushchev was successful in receiving a promise that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, the Soviets largely saw it as a humiliating defeat, and it certainly contributed to Khrushchev’s retirement from the prime minister position only two years later in October 1964.

One other factor to note is that the November 6 elections was approaching soon at the time of the mid-October crisis, which added pressure for Kennedy to act. He would have really favored to resolve the crisis before the Democrats entered the election.  Although we cannot attribute Kennedy’s actions during the crisis solely to his desperation to save his career, the conversation he had with Robert Kennedy adds strength that he was certainly worried about it.

RFK: “I just don't think there was any choice, and not only that, if you hadn't acted, you would have been impeached.”

JFK: “That's what I think- I would have been impeached.”

Thus, the crisis was a more critical moment for the Kennedy administration at that time than it was for the history of the cold war.

The fact that there was no direct communication line between the two leaders did not help, and it actually gave the crisis unnecessary headaches. On the evening of the 26th, a telegram letter came from Khrushchev, proposing to “normalize relations”: the Soviet Union will not transport any armaments to Cuba, and the United States will not invade Cuba.  While the ExComm discussed how to respond to the offer, another letter was delivered the next day. The second letter was quite different from the first, demanding the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey.  Confused by double communication, the ExComm eventually decided to ignore the second letter and only reply to the first one. Had a hotline existed, communication would have been easier and problems like this avoided. The two countries established the hotline after the crisis, which still exists today.

Finally, it was rather a secret meeting on the 27th between Robert Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin than JFK’s public leadership that effectively closed the crisis. While Robert Kennedy promised that the U.S. would remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey, this part of the deal was kept secret not just from the American public but also the members of the ExComm. Furthermore, while the Kennedy administration succeeded in resolving the Cuban crisis, Kennedy’s supposed “victory” made possible by brinkmanship and limited decision making parties carried a dangerous legacy during the following Vietnam War with increased involvement in the region; we all know how that conflict ended.

V. Conclusion

Of course, we can never fully assess the progress and result of a nuclear conflict that never happened, nor be completely unbiased when analyzing sources or presidential decisions. Perhaps we are undermining the seriousness of the crisis because the war never took place; certainly if the nuclear war had happened I may not even be alive to argue this position. But a closer look at the causes and conduct of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows that it was never too critical, and various factors including Kennedy and Khrushchev’s own mistakes and motives made it bigger than it was. 

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