This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis- a period when the United States and the Soviet Union came perilously close to nuclear confrontation. Around this time, the liberal press re-runs the “facts” of the crisis and condenses the analysis to two themes: how Kennedy stared down his Soviet counterparts OR how a lack of negotiation and appeasement have poisoned American foreign policy for generations. As for the first part of their analysis, that is in keeping with the post-mortem lionization of Kennedy. Even though he was President for a relatively short period of time, he regularly shows up on lists of one of the greatest presidents ever. And while there were some accomplishments (like one of the largest tax cuts in history), there are considerably more miscues. A sober analysis and clear-headed look at his administration reveals more negatives than positives.
Instead of viewing the poisoning of foreign policy for generations, it actually poisoned foreign policy for one generation- that of the Kennedy/Johnson years. It explains why they intervened and escalated American involvement in Vietnam. The more rational explanation is how political motivations in pursuing a “legacy” can lead to potentially dangerous results (see: Obama and the Iran deal).
The problem begins on the campaign trail in 1960 when, we now know, the Eisenhower administration was briefing the Kennedy campaign. Kennedy’s campaign knew that the United States enjoyed a huge nuclear advantage over the USSR on a magnitude of 9 to 1. Yet, Kennedy hammered Nixon on the trail over the alleged “missile gap.” Then after winning the election, the Kennedy administration embarked on two missions that led to the crisis in 1962.
Although the Bay of Pigs invasion was planned in the previous administration, Kennedy knew about it and went through with it despite knowing its shortfalls. To add insult to injury, his administration basically abandoned the exiles when things started to sour. Secondly, the administration decided to place Jupiter class nuclear missiles in Turkey on the Soviet Union’s doorstep. These were not mobile missiles, but launched from stationary platforms and took two days to prepare for launch. They held little strategic advantage. Taken together, it created some justifiable paranoia in Moscow and Havana and the belief in Moscow that this was a provocation.
The response was to kill two birds with one stone- place offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. Khruschchev was basically saying two things to two audiences. To Cuba, he was saying “We have your back” much like the US told Europe they had their back by placing them under a nuclear umbrella. To Washington, he was saying: “How do you like having nuclear weapons on your doorstep?”
We know that Kennedy and his foreign policy team was aware of the presence of missiles in Cuba on October 16th, but did not reveal it until a television address on October 22nd. He placed a quarantine on the country and claimed the right to board and inspect any ship bound for Cuba. The traditional historical account is that the Soviet Union backed down after a tense staring contest; they were the first to blink.
What we now know from historical documents here in the US and from the former Soviet Union is that was hardly the reality. We also know that some of those most vilified in the historical accounts were actually not the real villains. For example, Curtis LeMay is often portrayed as the most hawkish military actor who advocated an attack on either Cuba or Russia. In fact, it was Robert Kennedy who was vociferously pushing for an invasion of Cuba and using the presence of Soviet missiles to justify taking care of “the Castro problem once and for all.” We know this because Kennedy secretly taped his meetings.
We also now know that the Kennedy administration was fully aware that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba did not upset the strategic nuclear calculus. After all, Soviet submarines equipped with nuclear missiles were off the Eastern and Western coasts of the US and within striking distance of major cities- actually closer than the 90 mile divide between Cuba and Florida.
Instead, it was not strategic nuclear brinkmanship or Kennedy standing tall against the Soviet Union that motivated a resolution; it was politics. In secret communication- much of it relayed by Robert Kennedy- a quid pro quo was reached: the US would remove its missiles from Turkey and the Soviet Union would remove their’s from Cuba. As an aside, the US promised no invasion of Cuba. In effect, Khrushchev achieved his goals. Soon thereafter, the two sides established a hot line between leaders and they negotiated an above-ground nuclear test ban treaty before the end of 1963.
Furthermore, in a letter Robert Kennedy delivered to the Soviet Union’s officials in Washington, he stressed that the end game would have politically disastrous results. In those recorded meetings, John Kennedy worried about the political implications of a non-response to missiles in Cuba more than anything else. In the 1960 campaign he portrayed himself as the better Cold warrior than the actual Cold warrior, Richard Nixon.
The side deal that actually resolved the crisis was kept a secret for decades. Some historians wonder why Khrushchev would allow Kennedy to save face at the height of the Cold War. Subsequent interviews with the children of some of the Soviet actors in the drama- Khrushchev, Gromyko, Dobrynin- have speculated that their fathers looked at the situation seriously and did not want to go down in history as precipitating a nuclear war they knew they could not win because of the US nuclear advantage.
Ironically, the Cuban missile crisis inadvertently cost both Kennedy and Khrushchev their political lives. It was a lone crazy gunman sympathetic to Cuba that ended the life of John Kennedy. There is evidence that by Khrushchev “backing off” in 1962 it cost him the political support of key members of the Soviet Politburo and he was ousted as leader in 1964. Those members viewed Khrushchev not revealing the side deal and taking some of the thunder away from Kennedy as “the winner” as being a sign of weakness.
Clearly, there were miscalculations on both sides. Three months after the Soviet Union removed their missiles from Cuba, the US secretly removed the Jupiter class missiles from Turkey and Italy. Considering that they were replaced by Polaris submarine-based missiles- which was planned all along- leads to the conclusion that the placement of missiles in Turkey made no strategic sense other than for political reasons. Despite the infamous speech in Berlin, Kennedy was man-handled by the Soviets in Vienna. To save face in an effort to forge a legacy as a tough Cold warrior, he gambled and placed missiles in Turkey.
The nuclear brinkmanship was not so much the presence of missiles in Cuba, but some surrounding events. For example, a U2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba and its pilot killed without direct orders from Moscow. Another U2 airplane sent to collect atmospheric data from a Soviet nuclear test lost contact with the US and flew deeply into Soviet territory before finding its way home. Even after the missiles were removed from Cuba, a US-based radar test accidentally alerted NORAD that the Soviets had launched an ICBM leading to some tension before its true cause was identified.
John Kennedy was not the great leader as he is historically portrayed in the media. The whole Cuban missile crisis was precipitated by strategic miscalculation motivated not by rational national security interests, but for political purposes. The true lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is that politics should not be a consideration in forging foreign policy. Instead, a basic underlying principle should guide that policy. In the present tense, if the consensus underlying principle is that a terrorist state like Iran should never have a nuclear weapon, then delaying that eventuality for ten or 15 years may forge and solidify your foreign policy legacy, but it is a dangerous political game that only sows the seeds of a more serious and dangerous problem for a future leader.