Lauded as one of the greatest US presidents ever, Kennedy probably had pretty much the worst presidency anyone could ever ask for. And it only lasted two and a bit years. As soon as he walked in the Oval Office he got dumped with the Bay of Pigs, an Eisenhower plan, then he helped bring the world to the brink of destruction . . . then he got shot . . . But let’s analyse the Cuban Missile Crisis further. With views from prominent historians backing us up, let’s find out exactly why JFK almost destroyed planet Earth . . .
The USSR and the US came to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962, when the Cold War was at its coldest, in a thirteen day period that saw President Kennedy making heavily pressured decisions that would change the trajectory of the Cold War itself from that moment on. A U2 spy plane photographed the secret construction of missile launch sites in Cuba, and it was discovered that a number of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles had been smuggled into the country. This was followed by several days of stalemate while an emergency committee named ExComm assessed the US options. A message of negotiation was then received from Khrushchev proposing a compromise on both sides, the US accepted, and the situation diffused. Straight away on assuming office, Kennedy became utterly embroiled in a dangerous climate of political relations that balanced on a tender hook. As historian John Lewis Gaddis explains, the Kennedy administration was completely caught off its guard by the situation, as one of its primary aims had been to “rationalise the conduct of nuclear war”, and it had already been “shocked to discover that the only war plan Eisenhower had left behind would have required the simultaneous use of well over 3000 nuclear weapons against all communist countries.” The crisis was primarily induced by several key factors. Aggressive US foreign policy, the legacy of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, provocative actions by the USSR, and the tensions over Berlin and Germany, all played a crucial role in igniting the situation. As John Lewis Gaddis argues, Kennedy’s foreign policy, such as the Bay of Pigs, “set in motion the series of events that would, within a year and a half, bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.” Indeed, without the Monroe Doctrine, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the blockade of Cuba, and the missiles installed in Turkey and Western Europe, the Cuban Missile Crisis would never have occurred.
Due to the suffocating time constraints facing Kennedy and the pressure that was being exerted on him by his own people, he undoubtedly employed excessively aggressive foreign policy. The Bay of Pigs invasion had been orchestrated to spark an uprising against Castro and so eliminate the communist threat in the region, and 1400 Cuban exiles carried out the attack in April 1961. Its catastrophic failure was due to several accumulating reasons such as the preemptive imprisonment of thousands of suspects by Castro preceding the event, and Kennedy’s cancellation of the US bombing raids and the landing of the US Marines. The invasion was crushed and Kennedy was left looking not just like a weak leader, but a poor strategist and tactician, lowering him even further in Khrushchev’s eyes. As John Hughes-Wilson explains, Khrushchev “openly mocked the disastrous US-backed Bay of Pigs.” He was well aware of how he was perceived by the Soviet leader, and this only exacerbated the situation because now he felt as though he needed to prove something. He was already under pressure to be tough on the Soviets due to the legacy passed down to him by his father, Joseph P Kennedy Senior, an advocate of the policy of appeasement during the Second World War. Furthermore, the continual growth and development of US nuclear stockpiles served as a direct provocation to the USSR, particularly when intermediate-range missiles were placed in Britain, Italy, and Turkey and pointed straight at the Soviet Union in the late 1950s by the Eisenhower administration. This drastically altered the nature of US-Soviet relations from that moment on as the US had a powerful leverage over the USSR that turned negotiations into threats. The major reason for such stringent relations with Cuba was due to the fear of communist expansion from Castro’s government into Latin America, a region within the US sphere of influence under the Monroe Doctrine. And so they justified their exhaustive economic sanctions against Cuba and the blockade of its trading routes, by emphasising this threat and how it would damage the free world. The aggressive stance with regards to the use of nuclear weapons originated from the barbaric policies of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who argued that the missiles should be targeted at the densest areas of civilian population “with a view to causing the maximum number of casualties possible” as John Lewis Gaddis states, to guarantee Winston Churchill’s hope of “equality of annihilation” to act as the ultimate deterrent. This became known as the strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction.” For these reasons, the aggressive foreign policy implemented by the US was the most important cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban revolution in 1959 that saw the ousting of General Batista’s corrupt regime and the establishment of Fidel Castro’s communist government, was the event that created the crisis in the first place. Without it, communist interest in the area would have been non-existent. The USSR was astounded by the independent seed of Marxist thinking that had grown surreptitiously on the very doorstep of their enemy. They immediately saw it as a perfect opportunity to induce revolution in Latin America and overthrow the US government with pure force and power. As John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Khrushchev and his advisors had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe,” proving just how oblivious Khrushchev had been to the events there, as there had been virtually no Soviet influence in the region. Fulgencio Batista had been elected into power as President of Cuba in 1942, but became dictator in 1952 following a military coup, promptly stripping citizens of all of their liberties. If Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had not organised the revolt, communism would never have flourished there, and the USSR would have had no reason to target it. Historian Robert Holmes explains how Khrushchev gradually asserted his influence over Cuba, as “Castro’s determination to build an egalitarian utopia” drove him “to rely increasingly upon the help and goodwill of the Soviet Union.” This only served to strengthen the bond between the USSR and Cuba, drastically increasing the tensions with US relations, as the US did not want to lose their lucrative trade and business interests in Cuba. Therefore, the missile crisis owes its origins to this period. However, it cannot be attributed as the most significant cause as it is tied into the foundations of every reason, especially that of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and their excitement over Cuba.
The provocative actions of the USSR leading up to the fateful thirteen days in 1962 were instrumental in amplifying tensions between the two powers. As Nikita Khrushchev himself explains, Soviet interests in Cuba were purely as a result of its communist revolution, “We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.” In this way, their hand was forced to finally place their own form of leverage over the US in a place that would make it most effective, as they had already been putting up with the Jupiter missiles in Turkey for several years. Khrushchev’s aim was to “put a hedgehog down Kennedy’s pants”, according to John Hughes-Wilson. Khrushchev was adamant about how important it was to support Cuba, as it was an ideal example of Karl Marx’s model of how a communist state could work, free of corruption and manipulation. John Lewis Gaddis identifies the Soviet leader’s enthusiasm as “ideological romanticism” and how Khrushchev “risked his own revolution, his country, and possibly the world as a whole . . . He was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun.” Khrushchev himself was also facing pressure on the home front, in similar ways that Kennedy was. He had to demonstrate a strong stance against the US to appease those who questioned his resolve and allegiances in the Kremlin, to uphold his image as a ruthless and powerful Soviet leader. He had to stand up to “the hard liners in the Politburo” and assert his authority, as historian John Hughes-Wilson argues. He wanted to alter the strategic balance of the world political climate, in particular the nuclear imbalance and the “Missile Gap”, and assert the USSR’s superiority once more. John Hughes-Wilson also describes his need “to demonstrate his firmness to his fellow Communists against the principal adversary.” And he was ready “to flex his nuclear muscles”. Indeed, though the provocative actions by Khrushchev and the Soviet Union helped cause the missile crisis, the majority of them were merely retaliation to the actions committed under the aggressive US foreign policy. The primary source of Cold War tensions, however, remained around Berlin and Germany.
The continuing contention over Berlin and Germany only served to heighten the animosity between the US and the USSR. As John Hughes-Wilson states, for three years Khrushchev “had been sabre-rattling unsuccessfully over Berlin to try and achieve some solution to what the Kremlin saw as the problem of an ever more powerful West Germany.” And there was an incessant belief that the West simply did not comprehend their fears. Therefore, it was essential for them to have more power and leverage over the US, not only as a retaliation to the Jupiter missiles, and a catalyst for Latin American revolution, but as a deterrent to further US interference in Germany. John Lewis Gaddis concurs with this, stating, Khrushchev “hoped to resolve the increasingly inconvenient problem of having a capitalist enclave in the middle of communist East Germany.” In terms of US motivations surrounding this area, they believed that Cuba was merely a sideshow and decoy to remove the US attention away from Berlin, suspecting Khrushchev of hatching some other scheme to seize the rest of Berlin and Germany. Tensions between the two powers could not have been greater, not only in the military arena were they pitted against each other. As John Lewis Gaddis explains, following the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, “the Soviet Union’s success that month in putting the first man into orbit around the Earth” and a “badly handled summit conference at Vienna in June at which Khrushchev renewed his Berlin ultimatem” exacerbated the situation in Germany and heightened the Soviet leader’s low opinion of Kennedy. Both knew that Berlin would be the setting for any combat that could potentially break out and so it was a point of unrelenting animosity and political conflict. The contention over Berlin and Germany as a whole was instrumental in determining just how close the world came to nuclear war in October 1962, but it was not the prime cause of the crisis, as again it was determined by US foreign policy.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the closest the world has ever come to global annihilation. It was caused by an accumulation of several key events including aggressive US foreign policy, the legacy of the 1959 Cuban revolution, provocative Soviet actions, and the contention over Berlin and Germany. Though the conflict within Cuba and the overthrowal of Batista’s government was essential in creating the climate for which the crisis would take place in. As Robert Holmes states, “Fidel Castro was pleased with the Soviet Union” and fully in favour of the “agreement for the deployment of abundant quantities of weapons and equipment in Cuba, together with the tens of thousands of Soviet troops and advisers to manage them.” He enjoyed full support from Khrushchev, and the further actions of the USSR only served to heighten tensions. The situation in Berlin and Germany was also very important, but would not have been as drastic without the policies of the Soviet Union and the US. The Kennedy administration, demonstrated through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Jupiter missiles, continually clashed with the interests of the USSR and eventually provoked Khrushchev into coming to Cuba’s defence, creating the crisis.
And as John Lewis Gaddis concludes, “the Cold War could have produced a hot war that might have ended human life on the planet. But because the fear of such a war turned out to be greater than all of the differences that separated the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, there was now reason for hope that it would never take place.” Therefore, the Cuban Missile Crisis was primarily induced by aggressive US foreign policy.