This paper makes an analysis of the United States of America’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. More specifically, it takes an in depth look into the initial meetings held by President John F. Kennedy and the members of his Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the initial discovery of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capable missile silos in Cuba. There were a number of different options that were available, but the United States ultimately decided to institute a Naval blockade in the Caribbean to prevent more weapons from entering Cuba, while also demanding the weapons already there were promptly removed. Based on the evidence available, this paper explains the logic behind each possible reaction that could be taken, and argues that deciding to form a blockade was justified. Regardless, it was quite clear that there was no perfect solution.
One of the most tense periods in human history, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a diplomatic incident in 1962 between the two superpowers of the world at the time, The United States of America and The Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis began with Nikita Khruschev and the rest of the Soviet Union’s attempts at establishing nuclear capable missile silos on Cuban land, within striking distance of the continental United States. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II left the United States as the sole dominant power, but the unipolar system was left with a vacuum that needed to be filled. The Soviet Union subsequently began consolidating power, and began working on the development of nuclear weapons on par with the arsenal held by the United States. An arms race ensued, but despite the fact the the Soviet Union was able to develop nuclear weaponry, their strategic capabilities were unable to catch up to that of the United States. The Soviet Union needed some way of securing the upper hand in the event of a nuclear catastrophe, and the biggest hindrance to their striking capability was the distinct lack of range of Soviet Arms; The United States had 3 times as many Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) as the Soviet Union leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, putting the Soviet’s at a distinct disadvantage in the event of a global nuclear war (Norris & Kristensen, 2009).
The USSR had to figure out some manner of leveling the playing field, the decisions made in trying to achieve this ultimately culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are a number of factors that influenced the decision making of both states; the most notable were the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by America in 1961, and the United States deployment of nuclear capable ballistic missiles and launch sites in Turkey and Italy. The decision making of President Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs invasion had left Khrushchev the impression that little repercussions would be faced if the Soviets were to establish nuclear weapon facilities in the western hemisphere, and an agreement was subsequently made with Fidel Castro to establish these bases in Cuba. The Soviet’s lack of ICBM’s would no longer be an issue, as the infrastructure in Cuba would allow the Soviet’s medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles to be within striking distance of the entire United States, including the District of Columbia.
The Soviet Union attempted to covertly establish the missile silos with the hope that when the United States inevitably discovered them, it would be too late. However, United States air reconnaissance had noticed the Soviet efforts, and the Kennedy administration knew to act immediately, with the goal to prevent the missile silos from becoming operational. After careful deliberation by President John F. Kennedy and The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM), an American naval blockade was established in the Caribbean to prevent the Soviet Union from shipping more resources to Cuba, thus beginning the Crisis on October 16th, 1962. Tensions around the world were at an all time high as the shadow of a seemingly inevitable nuclear war loomed over the population, as it appeared neither side would back down.
After a stressful 12 day period in which negotiations seemed to be going nowhere, an agreement was made between the two nations, which involved the removal of Soviet weaponry from Cuba and the disarmament of American missiles in Turkey and Italy. The Americans also had to agree to never invade Cuba without direct provocation. To this day, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been the closest that humanity has ever come to a full scale nuclear war, and the topic has been studied extensively as a way to inform us on decision-making during a time of crisis. The actions undertaken by Kennedy and EXCOMM during the initial response and throughout the negotiation period were apparently the right ones given the fact that the crisis resolved, but why did Kennedy and his subordinates think these key decisions were the right ones? This paper serves as an analysis of the logic behind Kennedy and EXCOMM’s decision to institute a naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and posits that the United States were justified in taking their particular course of action.
Conclusive evidence of the Soviet’s installations in Cuba came to light after a United States U2 spy plane captured images of the missile sites on October 14th; the missiles caught in these images were subsequently interpreted as offensive by the CIA a day later, and President Kennedy was briefed on the situation during the morning of October 16th. Kennedy formed the EXCOMM committee utilizing his most trusted military advisors, and deliberation began on how the United States should handle the situation. According to the transcripts of Kennedy’s secret recordings, there were a number of options that could be considered. Do nothing? A full scale invasion of Cuba? Each possible decision came with enormous political ramifications, and each one could possibly start a chain of events leading to a global nuclear war.
The United States could simply just ignore the Soviet efforts and allow the missile silos to be set up in Cuba, as American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was nothing new, and the United States simply didn’t need to act. However, the pressing concern with this standpoint was the strategic balance of power. EXCOMM almost unanimously agreed that the construction of the Soviet missile silos in Cuba would lose the United States the upper hand during a nuclear exchange; Robert McNamara disagreed, believing that the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal still couldn’t match the United States. In an interview in 1989 on War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, McNamara stated that "it [Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba] would not change the military balance" (McNamara, 1986).
One thing that the members of EXCOMM could all agree with, was that allowing the Soviet Missile installations in Cuba would seriously upset the political balance of power between the Soviets and the Americans, while simultaneously undercutting the Kennedy Administration’s domestic political support. The public position of the United States government was to act on any potential threat originating in Cuba; remaining apathetic to the situation could be interpreted as weakness not only by the American public, but by the Soviets as well. One of the factors that influenced Khrushchev to build missile silos in Cuba was the perceived weakness of the Kennedy Administration following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and Kennedy’s subsequent assumption of responsibility. Failing to address the Soviet missile silos would lead to Khrushchev getting even bolder in his efforts to undercut the power of the United States; a line would need to be drawn in Cuba to prevent further challenges in the Soviet Union. Doing nothing about the situation was simply not viable, the United States had no choice but to stage a military intervention.
Many of Kennedy’s advisors advocated for an airstrike against specific targets in Cuba, most notable the Soviet missile silos, as well as all aircraft and airfields associated with the construction of these facilities. Robert McNamara in particular stressed the importance of hitting the Soviet missile silos as quickly as possible before they were to become operational. Hitting the sites with an airstrike would hold many strategic benefits for the United States. To begin, the United States air force was extremely organized. According to McNamara during the EXCOMM meeting, if the order were to be given for a large scale airstrike against Cuba, the United States Air Force could begin conducting the operation in a matter of hours. (The MIT Press, 1985). This could prove to be a strategic asset as most of the installations would not be prepared for the attack, yielding the highest possible destruction of the missiles and their infrastructure. This was extremely time-sensitive however, as McNamara pointed out that if even one of those missiles went off and struck the eastern seaboard, the United States would be in a nuclear war. The strategic gain to attacking these missile silos would be nullified if the American population was devastated by a nuclear strike, and it was most certainly in the United States best interest to operate on the assumption that that was a possibility. However, as the air strike would also be targeting aircraft and airfields, he simultaneously stressed that this course of action would lead to the casualties of hundreds, if not thousands of Cubans. It is abundantly clear that this would undoubtedly be seen as an act of war; difficult to resolve among the international community, and would most certainly lead to Soviet retaliation. Robert Kennedy said it himself:
"You’re dropping bombs all over Cuba, You’re gonna kill an awful lot of people, and we’re gonna take an awful lot of heat from it" (Stern, 2005).
This course of action could potentially lead to all out war, but at least in this scenario, the strategic balance of power heavily favoured the United States. Nevertheless, it would lead to countless casualties of both American and Soviet citizens.
Kennedy seemed to take notice of the political ramifications of an airstrike. Even if it didn’t lead to an all out war between the two superpowers, the sensitive situation between East and West Germany at the time in particular could possibly take a turn for the worse:
"They, no more than we, can let these things go by without doing something. They can't, after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don't take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin." (Kennedy, 1977). The situation in Berlin was extremely sensitive. When the Soviet Union occupied East Germany and set a border down the middle, Berlin was the best place for migrants to cross as it was under the administration of multiple occupying powers. The Berlin crisis of 1961 led to an intense stand-off between American and Soviet troops. An airstrike against the missile installations in Cuba could prompt a retaliation from the Soviets in which Khrushchev orders an invasion on West Berlin.
Kennedy had further reservations about an airstrike, as depicted in Allison and Zelikow’s (1999) "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis". One of the largest issues with an airstrike was whether or not they would destroy the Soviet arms in their entirety. If they didn’t, and the Soviet’s attacked with what was left, the results could be devastating. Furthermore, an airstrike of that magnitude could destroy so much infrastructure that an uprising could begin, forcing the United States to spend countless resources in an invasion. Most of EXCOMM agreed that an invasion should be avoided, except for Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy advocated that any course of action, including an Air Strike would undoubtedly lead to invasion. He thought it was ultimately best to simply invade in the first place, saying, "We should just get into it, get it over with, and take our losses" (Stern, 2005, p. 50).
It was apparent that an airstrike would certainly invite some form of reprisal from the Soviet Union, whether an attack on West Berlin, a bombing of the United States, an invasion of Cuba, or all of the above. Was there some manner of taking action without inviting military action from the Soviets?
One of the other considered options was a naval blockade in the Caribbean, designed to halt any Soviet ships containing more supplies for the missile silos. A naval blockade came with its own challenges, despite being on the side of caution. To begin, the naval blockade could be manifested in multiple forms. It could be a blockade on its own, placing an embargo on Soviet offensive weapons being brought to Cuba, or it could come with an ultimatum: remove the weapons already in Cuba or the United States would declare war. Each of these had their own benefits and challenges. Simply placing an embargo on any offensive weapons would do nothing to halt the construction of the missiles already in Cuban territory, directly. It would be possible to negotiate their removal in a meeting with Khrushchev after the blockade, but that left the United States vulnerable in case the Soviet’s decided to accelerate the construction of the missile silos to solidify their position. If that were the case, Khrushchev could either use them as a bargaining chip, promising their removal for concessions in Berlin, or he could attack the United States with the completed installations. If the United States were to demand an ultimatum, to remove the missile silos or else face war, then Khrushchev could employ a myriad of stalling tactics until the installations were completed. War would subsequently be declared, and Khrushchev would have undercut the United States first strike advantage in a nuclear exchange thanks to the close proximity of the Soviet’s new silos.
Whether or not the blockade came with an ultimatum or not, the act itself came with a number of challenges. The blockade would legally be considered an act of war. There was a way around this, as the United States could simply obtain a resolution under the Rio treaty. Even so, it could be seen as a hostile act by Khrushchev, and hostilities could escalate to a full scale conflict. McNamara originally stated a blockade might have been necessary after an air strike, to which Robert Kennedy replied, "Then we’re going to have to sink Russian ships, we’re going to have to sink Russian submarines" (Stern, 2005, p. 49). If the blockade were to fail and the Soviet’s tried to ram through it, war would commence, and the United States would be in a much worse position than if they were in a similar conflict precipitated by a surprise air strike or invasion. Robert Kennedy advocated fiercely for an invasion, even suggesting that the United States covertly instigated an international incident in Guantanamo Bay that necessitated an invasion in the eyes of the international community. Robert Kennedy did not support the blockade, calling it "a very slow death" (Stern, 2005, p. 57). The president remained unconvinced that the Soviet’s would ram the blockade, believing that it would be foolish to attempt to do so when carrying offensive weapons.
The blockade course of action had a number of noticeable benefits to the United States. To begin, warning Khrushchev instead of attacking by surprise would carry a great deal of positive diplomatic weight. As McNamara believed, the strategic balance of power was not under threat despite the United States potential loss of first strike advantage. As the United States had no choice but to take some form of action against the Soviet’s the blockade acted as the perfect happy medium. The United States could demonstrate to the Soviet Union that there was a line that could not be crossed while simultaneously avoiding an open conflict, assuming the issue could subsequently be solved diplomatically. If push came to shove, President Kennedy was willing to concede the United States missiles in Turkey for the removal of the Soviet installations in Cuba, stating at an EXCOMM meeting on October 18th: "If we said to Khrushchev, ???if you’re willing to pull them out, we’ll pull ours out of Turkey’" (Stern, 2005, p. 57). The warning to Khrushchev would also be seen positively by the international community, and increasing the United States soft power in the long run.
The blockade was also beneficial to the United States as it shifted the decision of war from them to the Soviets. If the Soviet Union were to ram a blockade legalized under the Rio Treaty, they would undoubtedly receive consequences from the United Nations. It would force the initial conflict into the Caribbean, where the United States held a distinct strategic advantage. As the blockade was not an extremely aggressive action, it would force the gradual escalation of military action before the point of nuclear arms entering the conflict, and each level of conflict provided another chance for the Soviet Union to back off.
Ultimately, the United States opted for a blockade with an ultimatum. The United States Navy would fortify its position in the Caribbean and impose an embargo on Soviet offensive weapons, before making their demands known. The United States ordered all Soviet offensive weapons be disarmed and removed from Cuba. and demanded that no further attempts be made to further their efforts.
Ultimately, this proved to be the wisest course of action. After the naval blockade was formed, tensions greatly rose between the Soviet Union and the United States, but no formal declaration of war was ever initiated, and no nuclear weapons were detonated. Over the course of a very stressful period in which neither side showed any indication of conceding, the hostilities began to cease when Nikita Khrushchev secretly began negotiations with the Kennedy administration. An agreement was made between the two states in which the Soviet Union would remove all offensive weapons from Cuba while the United States did the same in Turkey (albeit not publicly). Furthermore, the United States had to agree to never invade Cuba without direct provocation. The decision of the United States to implement a naval blockade on the Soviet Union was clearly justified, and since then, the two countries have never used a nuclear weapon against one another.
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