|Posted on December 27, 2014 at 9:20 AM|
Written by Edward Leane
The Cuban Missile Crisis is possibly the one event in history that has been microscopically and meticulously scrutinised the most by historians. They have all eagerly attempted to shed new light on what caused this almost deadly crisis. Was it Soviet belligerence and their secret and provocative behaviour? Was it American intransigence and arrogance, or their unimaginative or even ineffective foreign policy of the preceding years which brought the world so perilously close to what Kennedy himself described as ‘the abyss of destruction’? Or was it just a simple twist of fate? In this article, I attempt to unravel the mystery of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 14th 1962, the U.S. first procured photographic evidence of missile sites on the island of Cuba when a U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over western Cuba taking 928 photos. After detailed analysis it was concluded that these photographs showed an SS-4 construction site at San Cristóbal, Pinar del Río Province. McGeorge Bundy - National Security Advisor - was informed of what he described as “a hell of a secret’ in the evening of October 15th, however, he waited until the morning as he felt a rested president, rather than an exhausted one, would be better prepared to deal with the news. The following morning President Kennedy, whilst having his morning cup of coffee and browsing the daily newspapers, was notified by Bundy who explained that, after a day of careful and comprehensive deliberation, Soviet nuclear missiles had indeed been photographed on Cuba. The immediate response to this damning news was crucial in determining the future of not only the United States of America but, potentially, also the fate of the world. This was the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
President Kennedy quickly amassed a small group of the governments most adept minds as his advisors during the crisis. This group became known as ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) and they were all at the heart of the crisis. The fate of the world was in their hands.
After intense and exhausting consideration ExComm reached six possible courses of action and after 6 more days of further deliberation the course of action chosen by Kennedy was a naval blockade of Cuba. Despite many arguing for air strikes or even an invasion - Douglas Dillon argued “… the survival of our nation demands the prompt elimination of the offensive weapons now in Cuba” - Kennedy chose a naval quarantine to strike the right balance between asserting American strength whilst avoiding outright conflict which could have led to full-scale nuclear war. This blockade, although preventing any other harmful supplies reaching Cuba, did nothing to prevent the missiles already on Cuba from being prepared and used. The fate of America was still on tenterhooks, with any wrong move possibly ending in the obliteration of the United States and even much of the rest of the world.
On the 23rd of October, Kennedy interrupted the nation’s Monday night television programmes with his address to the American people. He explained the situation that America found itself in and that these missiles so close to America would pose a direct and precarious threat to the United States. Moreover, he was adamant that these missiles were to be removed by Castro and Khrushchev (the leaders of Cuba and the Soviet Union respectively). This infamous broadcast was watched by more than 100 million Americans and it was this that made the whole world stop and watch the following events as they unfolded like a hollywood blockbuster movie.
Saturday 27th October was judgement day.
Kennedy and Khrushchev finally resolved the crisis at the last moment. Against the guidance of nearly all his advisors, Kennedy agreed to the terms of the Soviet proposal not to invade Cuba and to lift the blockade if Khrushchev removed the Cuban missiles. Further to this agreement, Kennedy surreptitiously agreed to remove American missile sites in Turkey.
Even though Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to come to an agreement it could be argued that this was obtained within touching distance of nuclear destruction. In a letter to Khrushchev, Castro seems to explicitly endorse a nuclear attack on the U.S. This sort of encouragement from Castro could have been fatal and thankfully Khrushchev didn't adhere to it. Furthermore, in Khrushchev’s letter to President Kennedy after his address to the nation, he said that the U.S. governments measures ‘constitute a serious threat to peace and security of nations…[and the U.S.] has openly taken…the path of aggressive actions both against Cuba and the Soviet Union’. This letter was almost accusing the U.S. of being the pugnacious aggressor and suggests that Kennedy had worsened the problems between the two nations. Subsequently, in a letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy wrote ‘[We] were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable’ and Castro mused in an autobiography years later that ‘we ourselves thought conflict was inevitable’. I think this really shows just how close we came.
Personally, and in agreement with most historians, I would argue that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest that the world has ever come, in particular during the tempestuous Cold War period, to nuclear conflict. Only thanks to the judicious decisions made by Kennedy and ExComm, and thanks to the invaluable amount of time they had to consider their options, did they avoid the unimaginable. After its climactic conclusion, Kennedy’s handling of the October Crisis has been hailed by many as an exemplary exercise in emergency management that should be emulated by all leaders who find themselves in similar positions. Thankfully, as of yet, nothing quite to the same scale has occurred since. Nonetheless, every president since Kennedy has tried to learn from what happened and understand how the two nations of America and the Soviet Union managed to avoid nuclear armageddon. And despite this event being a distant memory for most of us, or more likely, not a memory at all, it is as pertinent to foreign affairs as it has ever been. The problems concerning the Islamic State, Iran and others can be aided by the lessons learnt from this crisis and policy makers throughout the world should take note. One must learn that even potent persuasion must be supported by a willingness to use resolute force. When accosting the threats of today like the IS, the leaders of nations such as the U.S. and the UK must avoid acquiescing the demands of these aggressive militants as it will only exacerbate that situation. By standing steadfast, much like Kennedy during the missile crisis, further foreign policy difficulties can, and will, be avoided.
George Santayana’s quote is very relevant when looking at this adversity. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is an inherently vital concept to remember. More than fifty years later, the crisis remains an influential and indispensable model for successful crisis management. If world leaders disregard it as something unimportant, or even if it slowly slips from their memory, then who’s to say something similar couldn't happen again. And maybe next time there won't be anyone to pull us back from ‘the abyss of destruction’.
The image used is a work of a Central Intelligence Agency employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a Work of the United States Government, this image or media is in the public domain.