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Cuban Missile crisis

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I have got a question over a certain period of the Cold War - Cuban Missile crisis.

Once when still being in International School of Toulouse, I had to write a test that conatined a question on ''seriousness'' of the Cuban Missile crisis. I argued that despite during this crisis the war seemed more likely than ever, the crisis was not as serious as it seemed at the time. In the favour of this argument, I wrote the following:

First of all, Kennedy himself was not very likely to risk the war. This can be proved by the fact that when American U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying over Cuba, Kennedy was advised to take immediate action, but he decided to try peace talks with Krushchev. In additon, when the accident was almost repeated - another U-2 flew over Soviet region, Kennedy apologised publicly.

Secondly, Krushchev also would not risk the war with USA. Some sources say (unfortunately I cannot recall where exactly I read it) that the orginal aim of Krushchev was to remove the missiles from Turkey, which means that he would not let the crisis to come down to war, but will try to bargain as he actually did with the telegrams. As he agreed to remove missiles even though the conditions outlined in his 2d telegramme were accepted by Kennedy only in private, it proves that he at this point he would not risk the war.

That's what I thought at the moment of writing the test. However, after it, my history teacher, Mr Jones-Nerzic, told me that he would argue the opposite. With time my opinion also changed a bit to the point, where I am not very sure which position to take. That is why I would really love to hear other opinions as that will help me to shape my own. So my question would be, how serious do you think was the Cuban Missile Crisis? What do avalaible resources say?

Thank you very much!

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I agree with your teacher, I believe the Cuban Missile Crisis was very serious and came very close to causing a nuclear war.

On 15th October, 1962, photographs were taken that revealed that the Soviet Union was placing long range missiles in Cuba.

President Kennedy's first reaction to the information about the missiles in Cuba was to call a meeting to discuss what should be done. Robert S McNamara, Secretary of State for Defence, suggested the formation of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Fourteen men attended the meeting and included military leaders, experts on Latin America, representatives of the CIA, cabinet ministers and personal friends whose advice Kennedy valued. Over the next few days they were to meet several times. During their discussions they considered several different strategies for dealing with the crisis. They included the following:

(1) Do nothing. The United States should ignore the missiles in Cuba. The United States had military bases in 127 different countries including Cuba. The United States also had nuclear missiles in several countries close to the Soviet Union. It was therefore only right that the Soviet Union should be allowed to place missiles in Cuba.

(2) Negotiate. The United States should offer the Soviet Union a deal. In return for the Soviet Union dismantling her missiles in Cuba, the United States would withdraw her nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy.

(3) Invasion. Send United States troops to Cuba to overthrow Castro's government. The missiles could then be put out of action and the Soviet Union could no longer use Cuba as a military base.

(4) Blockade of Cuba. Use the United States Navy to stop military equipment reaching Cuba from the Soviet Union.

(5) Bomb Missile Bases. Carry out conventional air-strikes against missiles and other military targets in Cuba.

(6) Nuclear Weapons. Use nuclear weapons against Cuba and/or the Soviet Union.

When discussing these strategies. President Kennedy and his advisers had to take into consideration how the Soviet Union and Cuba would react to decisions made by the United States.

At the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the CIA and other military advisers explained the situation. After hearing what they had to say, the general feeling of the meeting was for an air-attack on the missile sites. If Kennedy had accepted this advice it would probably have led to an all-out nuclear war.

Remembering the poor advice the CIA had provided before the Bay of Pigs invasion, JFK decided to wait and instead called for another meeting to take place that evening. By this time several of the men were having doubts about the wisdom of a bombing raid, fearing that it would lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The committee was now so divided that a firm decision could not be made.

The Executive Committee of the National Security Council argued amongst themselves for the next two days. The CIA and the military were still in favour of a bombing raid and/or an invasion. However, the majority of the committee gradually began to favour a naval blockade of Cuba.

Kennedy accepted their decision and instructed Theodore Sorensen, a member of the committee, to write a speech in which Kennedy would explain to the world why it was necessary to impose a naval blockade of Cuba.

As well as imposing a naval blockade, Kennedy also told the air-force to prepare for attacks on Cuba and the Soviet Union. The army positioned 125,000 men in Florida and was told to wait for orders to invade Cuba. If the Soviet ships carrying weapons for Cuba did not turn back or refused to be searched, a war was likely to begin. Kennedy also promised his military advisers that if one of the U-2 spy planes were fired upon he would give orders for an attack on the Cuban SAM missile sites.

A public opinion poll in the United States revealed that three out of five people expected fighting to break out between the two sides.

On October 24, President JFK was informed that Soviet ships had stopped just before they reached the United States ships blockading Cuba. That evening Nikita Khrushchev sent an angry note to Kennedy accusing him of creating a crisis to help the Democratic Party win the forthcoming election.

On October 26, Khrushchev sent Kennedy another letter. In this he proposed that the Soviet Union would be willing to remove the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a promise by the United States that they would not invade Cuba. The next day a second letter from Khrushchev arrived demanding that the United States remove their nuclear bases in Turkey.

While the president and his advisers were analyzing Khrushchev's two letters, news came through that a U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. The leaders of the military, reminding Kennedy of the promise he had made, argued that he should now give orders for the bombing of Cuba. Kennedy refused and instead sent a letter to Khrushchev accepting the terms of his first letter (in fact he had secretly agreed to the terms of the second letter).

Khrushchev agreed and gave orders for the missiles to be dismantled. Eight days later the elections for Congress took place. The Democrats increased their majority and it was estimated that Kennedy would now have an extra twelve supporters in Congress for his policies.

Three months after the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States secretly removed all its nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy.

As you can see, the Cuban Missile Crisis came close to causing a nuclear war. One has to wonder what would have happened if the USA and the Soviet Union were not being led at the time by two men who were willing to negotiate an agreement.

Some historians believe, included myself, that he Cuban Missile Crisis was in fact a great victory for the Soviet Union. That the Soviets brought about this crisis in order to get US nuclear missile removed from Turkey.

For example, this is what Earl Smith, the former US Ambassador to Cuba, said two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis (27th August, 1960) to a Senate Committee looking into US Foreign Policy.

F. W. Sourwine: Is there any doubt in your mind that the Cuban Government, under Castro, is a Communist government?

Earl E. Smith: Now?

F. W. Sourwine: Yes.

Earl E. Smith: I would go further. I believe it is becoming a satellite. The logical thing for the Russians to do would be to move into Cuba which they had already done, and to take over, which they would do by a mutual security pact. Then, when the United States objects, all they have to say is: "We will get out of Cuba when you get out of Turkey."

Thomas Dodd: You are not suggesting…

Earl E. Smith: That is a speech I made in February.

Thomas Dodd: Yes, but you are not suggesting that the Communists will cease and desist from their activities in Cuba and Central and South America, or anywhere else, if we get out of these other places?

Earl E. Smith: Out of Turkey?

Thomas Dodd: Yes.

Earl E. Smith: It would mean a great deal to them if we got out of Turkey. I am no expert on Turkey.

Thomas Dodd: You do not have to be an expert on Turkey, but you ought to be a little bit of an expert on the Communists to know this would not follow at all.


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John, thank you very much for this answer. <_< It was very interesting to read.

My only doubt over this question is still the fact that Khrushchev seemed to ''plan'' to remove those missiles from Turkey (As you wrote, Earl E. Smith suggested that logically this would be Krushchev's next step). So, if that was Krushchev's objective when he was putting the missiles in Cuba, could this mean that he would not let the crisis to go down to war? Perhaps, even if he would not reach his plans over missiles in Turkey, he would still negotiate as the war was not his original objective? Please, correct me if I am wrong; perhaps, I just do not understand this part of the crisis well. :)

I also have got another question. In my school in Tolouse we were doing an activity of ''advising'' the President which decision he could take and offering all kinds of solutions (like the ones you posted), as if we were part of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. When we discussed all the solutions to the crisis I thought that I would advise negotiation with the USSR, as I thought that option had the least risk of war. So, I wondered if there was a lot of members in the Committee who suggested this option. Was it refused because it would look like not taking the concrete action against possible attack?

Thank you!

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My only doubt over this question is still the fact that Khrushchev seemed to ''plan'' to remove those missiles from Turkey (As you wrote, Earl E. Smith suggested that logically this would be Krushchev's next step). So, if that was Krushchev's objective when he was putting the missiles in Cuba, could this mean that he would not let the crisis to go down to war? Perhaps, even if he would not reach his plans over missiles in Turkey, he would still negotiate as the war was not his original objective? Please, correct me if I am wrong; perhaps, I just do not understand this part of the crisis well. <_<

I also have got another question. In my school in Tolouse we were doing an activity of ''advising'' the President which decision he could take and offering all kinds of solutions (like the ones you posted), as if we were part of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. When we discussed all the solutions to the crisis I thought that I would advise negotiation with the USSR, as I thought that option had the least risk of war. So, I wondered if there was a lot of members in the Committee who suggested this option. Was it refused because it would look like not taking the concrete action against possible attack?

The leadership of both United States and the Soviet Union knew that they could not go to war with each other. Any full-scale war would have destroyed the world. Therefore, the trick was to pretend you was willing to go to war in order to gain your political objectives. Kennedy and Khrushchev both believed the other would be unlikely to launch the first nuclear attack. This was known as the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) policy. However, both could not be completely sure of this (both sides had senior figures who contemplated the idea of a nuclear attack).

Kennedy had been elected on a policy of being tougher on the Soviets than Nixon and the Republicans. His reputation as a Cold War warrior was badly damaged by the Bay of Pigs operation. He therefore could not be seen to negotiate with the Soviets over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Publicly he talked tough but in secret it was doing a deal with Khrushchev over missile bases in Turkey and Italy. It was a policy that worked very well. So well he had to be removed from power in November, 1963.

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  • 2 months later...

While John does a masterful job of answering your questions, I would like to add that one of the reasons that war seemed so inevitable is that there were leaders (particularly military leaders) on both sides that felt that war was inevitable. In fact some believe that the second letter that Krushchev shows a power struggle within the Kremlin. The danger that this represents is that if the Chairman's position was unstable it could produce an even more militaristic Soviet Union that is willing to go to war to defeat the West.

As for Kennedy, it is fairly simple. He did not want to go to war but the politics of the time forces him to have to balance his political needs against what he believed was right. While he was getting pressure to use military force against the Soviets in Cuba (hence the Bay of Pigs), he was attempting to use diplomacy to defuse the situation. Some here call it shotgun diplomacy...either you do as I say or we will shoot you.

Talking to people in the United State who were alive at the time they recall how terrified they were that a war was going to break out. People talk about going to bed not knowing if they would wake up tomorrow. Tornado sirens were not tested because of the fear that people would mistake it for an air raid alert and panic.

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If you get the chance, watch the film "The Fog of War" in which Robert McNamara talks for around two hours about his experiences during and before his time as Secretary of Defense. It's very interesting regarding this point.

One of the problems with the "we're all reasonable men and wouldn't destroy humanity" theory is that:

(1) People didn't always behave rationally during the Cold War

(2) ExComm based some of its decisions on inadequate intelligence.

The second point is significant. McNamara says they didn't know that the Soviet Union had many operative missiles in Cuba at the time of the crisis, including, crucially, tactical (theatre) weapons. There is other evidence which indicates that the Soviet commander had approval to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a US invasion without needing to consult further with Moscow.

So you can see that ExComm came close to ordering a land invasion of Cuba bassed on inaccurate evidence. They thought they could do so with an immediate repsonse from the USSR. They would be able to rely on the MAD doctrine which would stop any Soviet "first use" -- they would use massive force to invade Cuba quickly and crush Castro and then sit back and hope Khruschev didn't respond. But that's not what would have happened. A US invasion would have been repulsed through the use of tactical nuclear weapons... unleashing...


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  • 2 weeks later...

The Cuban Missile Crisis was as dangerous as dangerous gets. JFK's turning back the momentum toward war that had been building since the nuclear age began represents, IMO, his single greatest contribution.

Since the late 1950s, when the Russian leader had boasted of “building missiles like sausages,” the American public had feared a Soviet superiority in strategic weapons, otherwise known as “the missile gap.” This misconception grew out of a mutual deception by Khrushchev and Eisenhower, who both knew that the U.S. was overflying the Soviet Union with the top secret U-2 reconnaissance plane, and who also both knew that Khrushchev’s boasts were false. But Eisenhower was served well by the deceit: it forestalled an actual Soviet buildup, it created a pretext for a massive American increase in strategic weapons, and it fostered the continuation of rabid anti-communism in domestic American politics. For Khrushchev, the boasts were an integral part of his blustery campaign to bolster Soviet prestige throughout the Third World and in China. The impression that the Soviet Union was equal or superior to the U.S. in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was essential to both his domestic and international standing. This deception by the two leaders was the most tightly held secret within both superpower governments.

One of Kennedy’s most effective arguments during his election campaign had been the notion of a missile gap, which held that the Soviets had a greater industrial capability for missile manufacturing than the U.S. He had declared from the floor of the Senate in 1958: “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival.” Sending Allen Dulles to brief Kennedy during the election, Eisenhower told his CIA director to emphasize the fact of the U.S.’ commanding military superiority. But Dulles decided on his own to tell the candidate that he could not be sure of the true status of the missile gap until the U.S. had full satellite coverage of the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon would later assert that the CIA, and Dulles in particular, had deliberately held back the truth in order to provide Kennedy with a powerful campaign issue. Nixon may well have been correct given the fact that the CIA was better informed on the issue than even the Air Force as a result of its own U-2 reconnaissance overflights. The Bay of Pigs, however, would quickly dispel the CIA of the notion that Kennedy would be a more favorable friend to have in the White House.

Only three weeks after the Inauguration, Secretary of Defense McNamara told a group of reporters in a casual briefing that there actually was no missile gap. He was so naïve at that point that he had misunderstood the difference between “off the record” and “on background.” As soon as he had entered the Pentagon he had made it his first order of business to “determine the size of the gap and the remedial action required to close it.” He had quickly concluded that “the CIA was right and the Air Force was wrong. There was a gap—but it was in our favor!” When he told this to the reporters, they “nearly broke down the door in their rush to get to the phones.” When he went to Kennedy to apologize and offer his resignation, the President said, “Oh come on, Bob, forget it. We’re in a helluva mess, but we all put our foot in our mouth once in a while. Just forget it. It’ll blow over.”

The construction of the missile gap fears was not so easily dismissed for the public or the military bureaucracy. When the Kennedy administration had come to power it quickly become apparent that Kennedy could not match his predecessor’s military credentials. By the autumn of 1961, the Soviets were threatening to seize West Berlin. After refusing to commit American forces at the Bay of Pigs, and then being beaten in debate with Khrushchev in Vienna, Kennedy feared that the Soviets might seek to exploit his perceived weakness. However, information from the new Corona satellite had revealed the location and provided for the targeting of all Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kennedy knew that the few (perhaps only three ) Soviet ICBMs that actually existed were suddenly obsolete. He expected that if the United States revealed the Soviet inferiority, Khrushchev would be dissuaded from pursuing his risky policy on West Berlin. Thus, Kennedy arranged for the Soviets to learn the true situation.

In hindsight, it can be surmised that Khrushchev did not anticipate that pressing his agenda on West Berlin would result in Kennedy being forced to reveal the degree of the Soviet ICBM inferiority; and Kennedy did not anticipate that his public revelation would require Khrushchev to produce a remedy that would more quickly redress the exposed strategic imbalance than a crash ICBM buildup would offer. The strain such a buildup would have placed on an already beleaguered economy, the impatience of the hard-line Soviet generals, and the potential loss of face with the Chinese and the Third World, were all elements that demanded an immediate solution. The constructions of political spectacles and impressions management had come to result in the deployment of medium and intermediate range missiles to Cuba, thereby precipitating the most dangerous confrontation in the history of the world.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, far less than being the strategic danger of historical representation, was the political payment due bill for the myth of the missile gap, which began with the impression management performances of Khrushchev and Eisenhower in the 1950s. The Russian’s promises “to obliterate Western Europe” and to “bury” capitalism , accompanied by the quiet complicity of Eisenhower, resulted in a deeply rooted misperception. The public necessity generated by this misperception severely limited the range of options available to Kennedy, who remarked to his brother that if he had responded less forcefully, he “would have been impeached.”

With the demise of the Soviet Union, a wealth of new information has emerged, exposing more clearly than ever before the methods and motives of Soviet command and control structures. Recent oral history conferences involving both American and Soviet participants have generated startling revelations about the nature and degree of the threat represented by the Crisis. Ironically, a quarter of a century earlier, in a movie called "Dr. Strangelove," there was a popular culture depiction of what Robert McNamara has now described as “the most dangerous element of the entire episode.” Analysts would learn that the absurdity of an unknown, unannounced deterrent had actually been in place in Cuba in 1962, revealing to some degree the illegitimacy of the deterrence doctrine itself. A former Soviet general has revealed that his country intalled more than medium and intermediate range missiles in Cuba during those dangerous days. Soviet field commanders also had six mobile launchers and nine Luna tactical missiles with nuclear warheads. The officers were pre-authorized to use the missiles at their discretion to repel a U.S. invasion, which the Soviets believed to be imminent. Although Kennedy was in Washington lobbying and stalling ExComm from its demands to invade, it is entirely possible that failing in these efforts, he would have had no choice but to give his generals the go-ahead. Had the invasion taken place, it is likely that at least one of the tactical nukes would have been used against U.S. forces.

McNamara has said that the resulting pressure for the United States to launch a nuclear counterstrike at Cuba or the Soviet Union would have been irresistible. He has called this “the most dangerous element of the entire episode.” In hindsight it can be seen that the apocalypse would have been initiated “not by a head of state in consultation with his best informed and thoughtful aides, but by some panicked colonel in fatigues on a beleaguered island far from home who was just trying to do the best he could to save his men and himself.”

The question raised by the gauntlet thrown down by Khrushchev seemed to be whether Kennedy would choose holocaust or humiliation. But the President, never one to play by the rules, sought to find his own path without regard for the advice of the so-called experts. . . .


Edited by Tim Carroll
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