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Cuban Missile Crisis Essay, Research Paper

John F. Kennedy’s greatest triumph as President of

the United States came in 1962, as the world’s two largest superpowers, the

Soviet Union and the United States, edged closer and closer to nuclear war. The

Soviet premier of Russia was caught arming Fidel Castro with nuclear weapons.

The confrontation left the world in fear for thirteen long days, with the life

of the world on the line. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet

Union, employed a daring gambit. He secretly ordered the placement of Soviet

nuclear weapons in Cuba. Earlier the Soviet premier had promised Soviet

protection to Cuba ("Cuban" 774). This was the first time any such

weapons had been placed outside of Eurasia (Hersh 345). Several explanations for

his actions have been offered by historians. One factor in Khrushchev?s

decision was a strategic one (Hersh 346). A year earlier, the United States had

placed several medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey ("Cuban 774). The

missiles were just across the Black Sea from the Soviet Union, within sight of

Khrushchev’s summer home (Hersh 346). President Kennedy had earlier ignored his

advisors and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey. Another factor was a threat by

the US to one of the Soviet Union’s satellite countries, Cuba (Hersh 346). The

United States had, in the past, attempted to kill Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba

(Brinkley 1047). In July of 1962, the United States found out that nuclear

missile shipments were being made to Cuba. United States U-2 spy planes flew

over the island, bringing back reports of construction and ballistic missiles

("Cuban" 744). The CIA found that five thousand Russian military

technicians were in Cuba, and various military weapons were being unloaded onto

the island. When U-2 activity was increased, reports showed the presence of SAMs

(surface-to-air missiles) and torpedo boats with ship-to-ship rockets (Mills

233). On September 4, Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met with Robert Kennedy

to discuss a message from Khrushchev. According to the message, the military

buildup was defensive in nature and not militarily threatening. Robert F.

Kennedy informed the ambassador that the United States would closely watch all

military activity in Cuba and warned of severe consequences should the Soviets

place offensive weapons (Mills 233). President Kennedy apparently did not

believe the message. He asked Congress for the authority to mobilize over

100,000 reservists into active duty. The Soviets response was that they could

fire rockets from Russia just as easily as from Cuba. Offensive missiles in

Cuba, they argued, were therefore unnecessary for an offensive base(Mills 234).

Furthermore, the United States had over 3,000 nuclear warheads and nearly 300

missile launchers, opposed to the Soviet Union’s 250 warheads and 24 to 44

missile launchers (Hersh 343). Still, John Kennedy thought that Cuba could

become a base for military operations at any given moment. The United States had

to be prepared to face it (Mills 234). At this point in the crisis, John McCone,

the CIA director, was regularly sending President Kennedy reports of missiles

capable of launching a nuclear warhead being sent to Cuba. According to McCone,

medium-range ballistic missiles(MRBMs) would be next (Hersh 348). U-2’s were

sent to scout the west end of Cuba. On October 14, the CIA reported that

construction had begun for MRBMs (Mills 235). Despite the increased state of

readiness in the US, many people did not realize that the Soviet Union had done

nothing on its home territory during the crisis. Its fleet of ICBM launchers

were not mobilized and neither were Soviet reserves. There were not even any

threats against Berlin (Hersh 343). Regardless of what the Soviets said, the

United States was still far ahead in the nuclear arms race. ICBM’s were

expensive to build and the Soviet Union did not have an abundance of money.

Installing the smaller missiles in Cuba was much cheaper than building more

ICBMs. Khrushchev believed that Kennedy would not oppose the building of the

missile bases in Cuba because the United States President had not opposed

Khrushchev in the past (Mills 236). Not only did he secretly place the missiles

in Cuba, but Khrushchev used Georgi Bolshakov and others to tell President

Kennedy that missiles were not being shipped to Cuba. The Soviet premier was

cautious to avoid a direct lie, even though he was clearly deceptive.

Eventually, Kennedy chose to believe Khrushchev over the CIA reports that were

being dropped on his desk. Excom, the Executive Committee of the National

Security Council, was secretly called. These were hand-picked advisors of

Kennedy. The newest U-2 reports were shown and explained. Ninety miles off the

coast of Florida, missiles were being prepared (Hersh 348). Finally, on October

16, Kennedy realized that Khrushchev had been continuously lying to him. The

President could have been humiliated by Khrushchev. He, however, turned the

tables, and chose to humiliate the Soviet premier instead (Hersh 344-5).

President Kennedy directed Excom to devise several possible courses of action,

and Kennedy would decide which to follow (Mills 236). The next meeting of Excom

raised more questions. The members of Excom wanted to know why was the Soviet

Union building missile bases in Cuba. Several ideas were brought forward. They

hypothesized that he could be trying to get the US to remove the missiles that

were placed in Turkey. Another theory is that Castro was alarmed at Republican

insistence to invade Cuba and had asked for military assistance. "One

member of Excom quoted an old Russian adage: ‘If you strike steel, pull back. If

you strike mush, keep going.’" He implied that if President Kennedy didn’t

respond, Khrushchev would think he could get away with other things (Mills 237).

By October 17, U-2 reports showed that anywhere between sixteen and thirty-two

medium-range ballistic missile sites and would be ready within seven days.

Construction for intermediate-range missile sites was already under way and

would be operational by December. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a member

of Excom, suggested that the United States place a naval "quarantine"n

Soviet Ships on the way to Cuba. This was to serve as a warning to Khrushchev

(Mills 238). The members of Excom that wanted an air strike were against the

proposal. Those in favor of immediate, pre-emptive airstrikes argued that the

missiles that were already on the island would not be affected by the blockade.

They could not promise the success of an air strike, however. It would be

extremely difficult to bomb all the sites, and if even one site was missed, it

might mean nuclear war. The Pentagon suggested a massive bombing to destroy all

kinds of military equipment, and perhaps even Castro himself (Mills 238).

Arguments were raised, and debate continued. Some felt an invasion was called

for, while others opposed air strikes. On October 18, photographs revealed that

construction on the missile bases was occurring at a faster rate than originally

thought. The first medium-range missile site would be completed within the next

day and a half. The missiles were targeted at several U.S. cities. It was

estimated that almost eighty million Americans would be killed, just minutes

after the firing of the missiles (Mills 238). Kennedy had decided not to bring

up the issue of the missiles in a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister

Andrei Gromyko, and listened to his comments. Gromyko said that the few Soviet

defenses that existed were set up to defend from possible American attack. Later

the President was reported saying, "I was dying to confront him with our

evidence. It was incredible to sit there and watch the lies coming out of his

mouth" (Mills 239). According to recently declassified files in Moscow,

Khrushchev had sent over 100 nuclear warheads into the Caribbean island, in case

of American attack. Approximately 42,000 Soviet soldiers were ready to launch

the nukes within a few hours notice. The Soviet commander in Cuba, General Issa

Pliyev, was prepared to use every one of those warheads, should the United

States invade Cuba. Neither of the Kennedy brothers had any idea that Cuba was

ready to launch nuclear warheads at the first sign of an invasion (Hersh 355).

During the meeting with Gromyko, the members of Excomm were attempting to agree

on a plan. Most leaned towards the strategy of a naval blockade. In case the

blockade failed to get Khrushchev to remove the missiles, military action could

act as a backup plan. A few fears were voiced, however, such as the possibility

of Castro executing the Bay of Pigs prisoners, or Soviet air strikes, if the

blockade failed (Mills 340). The day after the meeting with Gromyko, President

Kennedy went to campaign, and left the Excom members to sort out their feelings

and come up with a plan. They began to have second thoughts about the blockade,

and some even pushed for a military strike. Robert Kennedy opposed the military

strike, explaining that this was not a fight for survival, it was a fight to

uphold America’s ideals and heritage. Saturday, October 20, Robert called his

brother and told him the result. It was the president’s choice; Excom could not

reach a decision (Mills 241). JFK soon returned to the White House, and again

heard all the plans. United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai

Stevenson, proposed giving up a naval base at Guantanamo, or pull the Jupiter

missiles from Turkey. Both suggestions were rejected. There were too many

problems with the air strike proposal. The Commander-in-Chief of the United

States ordered the blockade to begin (Mills 242). By Sunday, America’s allies

knew of the situation, special briefings were given to members of the

Organization of American States (OAS), and Congressional leaders were requested

to return to Washington. On Monday, President Kennedy addressed the nation. Two

letters were delivered to Khrushchev in Moscow, just thirty minutes before

Kennedy’s address. One was a copy of the speech, the other was a letter from JFK

himself. He wrote that he assumed that Khrushchev knew better than to drive the

world to nuclear chaos in which it was clear no country would win. At 7 PM,

October 22, the President spoke to the nation (Mills 242). "Good evening,

my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest

surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba….It shall be

the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba

against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on

the United States, requiring full retaliatory response upon the Soviet

Union" (Mills 242-3). As the President began his speech, the Pentagon moved

the military alert to DEFCON 3, the highest military alert short of all-out war

(Hersh 355). The largest US force since D-Day was assembled in Georgia and

Florida. Over one hundred thousand troops stood ready, bombers of the Strategic

Air Command flew the skies, and 180 ships were in the Caribbean (Mills 243).

Nuclear weapons were placed on bombers in Spain, Morocco, and England. Their

target: the Soviet Union (Hersh 356). The next day, pilots flew over Cuba and

snapped photographs of two operational medium-range ballistic missile sites.

Back in Washington, evacuations were commencing. Jackie Kennedy refused to

evacuate without her husband. Robert Kennedy would not budge, either (Mills

243). Surveillance planes sighted twenty-five Soviet ships, along with six

submarines, headed for Cuba. In a message to Kennedy that night, on October 23,

Khrushchev warned that the blockade would be ignored, and the Soviet ships would

deliver the missiles. He said that America’s actions would lead to a nuclear war

(Mills 243). The Excom group found out that several Soviet ships were en route

to the blockade. If they did not stop, planes and ships from the carrier Essex

would be forced to fire. The Russian response might have included ICBM’s from

the Soviet Union, or missiles from Cuba. The president was nervous, and so were

the Excom members. Then the news came: some of the Russian ships were stopping

(Mills 244). Stevenson asked the Soviet ambassador, Zorin, in a UN Security

Council meeting whether he denied the existence of medium and intermediate range

missiles in Cuba. Zorin replied that he was not in an American courtroom, to

which Stevenson replied, "I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell

freezes over…and I am also prepared to present the evidence in this

room–now!" (Mills 245) The surveillance photographs taken by the spy

planes were brought in("13" 4C). Stevenson explained that he was

trying to preserve peace, not debate (Mills 245). The blockade stopped its first

Soviet ship on Friday. Armed parties from two American destroyers boarded the

ship and searched. It was determined that it was carrying only trucks, and was

allowed to continue (Mills 245). According to photographs taken that Friday, the

MRBMs would be ready soon, and the intermediate-range missiles would be

operational by the end of November. The possibility of an air strike was raised

again by some Excom members. Unknown to Excom and the world at large, Kennedy

and Khrushchev were keeping in touch. Khrushchev insisted that he wanted the US

and Russia to have a peaceful rivalry and not begin a war. As long as America

promised not to invade Cuba, the missiles would be taken out (Mills 245). An

Excom meeting was called to order, to draft a reply to Khrushchev’s words.

However, the Soviet premier sent out a more aggressive message during the

meeting: the US was to remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey. The FBI reported that

Russian diplomats were destroying papers in New York (Mills 246). Fidel Castro

was amazingly ignored throughout this whole crisis. He was certain that the

Americans were invading and was frustrated that Pliyev refused to fire at the

U-2’s. Castro finally obtained authority to shoot the planes down (Hersh 362).

The U-2 was shot down and the pilot killed. The Pentagon insisted on an air

strike, followed by an invasion of Cuba (Mills 246). Robert Kennedy suggested

that Excom should treat the second message as if it never existed, and reply to

the first. Within an hour, the president’s reply was sent back to the Soviet

premier. The Jupiter missiles were left out of the proposal, but it accepted the

removal of the missiles under UN supervision. President Kennedy promised not to

invade Cuba and stopped the blockade. On Sunday, October 28, Khrushchev agreed.

The crisis was at an end (Mills 246). The missiles were removed and the sites

demolished. Khrushchev soon announced that he would concentrate on Russia’s

economic problems instead of international military matters. He asked for

solutions from the West in solving the Berlin dilemma. He thought that "in

the next war, the survivors will envy the dead" (Mills 246). On Christmas

Eve, 1962, over $50 million of baby food and medical supplies were sent, and the

Bay of Pigs prisoners were released. In April 1963, Kennedy had the Jupiter

missiles removed from Turkey, and four months later, Russia signed the nuclear

test ban treaty. A "hot line" teletype link now enabled instant

communication between Moscow and Washington, and the US sold extra wheat and

flour to the Soviet Union. The tide of the Cold War turned–for a little while

(Mills 247). The crisis was the closest the world had ever come to global

nuclear war and could possibly be the reason for Khrushchev’s fall in 1964

("Cuban" 774). Those thirteen days left the world in awe of the

determination and responsibility of the United States and its young president (Hersh

342). John Kennedy summarized his dealings with Khrushchev in just five words:

"I cut his balls off" (Hersh 341).


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