After several years of tensions between the USSR and the U.S. in the Cold War, an alarming discovery was made by an American U-2 spy plane. In October 1962, the spy plane retrieved photographs of Soviet Union missile sites in Cuba. Being only 90 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, President John F Kennedy recognized the gravity of the situation and what an immense threat this was to the safety and security of the nation. Kennedy found himself weighing his options through several long, grueling meetings. Throughout the meetings, Kennedy was influenced by several key leaders, as well as the specifics of the issue. The factors that played the most significant role throughout the crisis were the potential responses of the Soviet Union; overall foreign relations; and the effect on U.S. citizens. These factors ultimately lead to his final decision for the course of action.
After receiving information about the missiles in Cuba, Kennedy assembled EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council.) This group consisted of 14 to 15 of his closest advisors (Gopalan 2010). The most highly influential figures from this group were Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Charles E. Bohlen. Robert McNamara was Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense and Dean Rusk was the Secretary of State. Robert McNamara had former experience as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and was the Ambassador of France during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These individuals were highly present throughout the thirteen days of Kennedy’s planning, helping him thoroughly examine all his options. The first major set of decisions arose after Kennedy met with the Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister. Kennedy’s choice to simply meet with Gromyko demonstrated a neoliberal approach to foreign policy, in which he hoped that a peaceful confrontation and warning would help resolve tensions. Gromyko asserted that the presence in Cuba was defensive and that the United States was under no threat. Gromyko mentioned nothing about the missiles, and Kennedy chose to keep his knowledge of the missiles a secret. Following the meeting, Kennedy’s council determined two main options for the United States. The first option was an air strike and invasion. The second was a naval quarantine along with a threat of further military action.
The council was very divided between these two options. More questions arose and the council was faced with the selection of a military action and a supplemental political action. Concerning military action, the options were a limited air strike, and fuller air strike, a blockade, or an invasion. The supplemental political action would be whether or not a letter of warning would be sent to Nikita Khrushchev. Two approaches were generated from the opposing opinions of Dean Rusk and Charles Bohlen. The Rusk approach involved a “limited air strike without prior political action or warning” (JFK Library). The Bohlen approach involved a “prompt letter to Khrushchev” then a decision based upon the Soviet Union response (JFK Library). These opposing views left Kennedy with much to consider.
Secretary McNamara and Secretary Rusk aided Kennedy in predicting the Soviet Union’s responses to each suggested approach. Clearly the response would have a major impact on the United States, therefore, this would be a major factor in Kennedy’s decision making process. Secretary Rusk spoke with General Taylor to predict the Soviet response to an air attack. They realized there would be a great risk of nuclear weapons being used against the U.S. if nuclear weapons were used against Cuba; especially if the air strike failed to destroy all the Cuban missiles. Another possible response of an air attack would be a Soviet blockade of Berlin. However, they ultimately concluded that a resolution of the issue that would permit the Soviet Union to maintain the missiles in Cuba produced a far greater threat.
Meanwhile, Secretary McNamara developed an alternative choice of action. He presented Kennedy with the concept of a blockade route. This route was “aimed at preventing any addition to the strategic missiles already developed in Cuba and eventually to eliminate these missiles” (JFK Library). McNamara predicted that the Soviet Union would not “use force to push their ships through the blockade” (JFK Library). This same prediction was held by Charles Bohlen. McNamara furthered his approach by explaining that negotiations with the Soviet Union would be used to eliminate the missiles in Cuba. He suggested that Kennedy may have to withdraw “United States strategic missiles from Turkey and Italy” and may have to limit the use of Guantanamo. He advised Kennedy against presenting the Soviet Union with an ultimatum of an attack if the missiles were to remain in Cuba. He explained that this would be too risky for the nation. Similarly to the potential response to an air strike, the Soviet Union may also respond to the blockade with a blockade of Berlin.
In addition to considering the potential response of the Soviet Union, Kennedy’s decision was strongly driven by the possible opinions of foreign nations as a whole, especially U.S. allies. Kennedy wanted to ensure that the response to the missile presence would be viewed as a strong response in the eyes of the free world. He questioned the ability of a blockade to be viewed as such a response. This was especially significant concerning the viewpoint of Latin American nations. They did not want Latinos to develop the impression that the Soviet Union was becoming a greater power than the United States. Dean Rusk provided Kennedy with some insight on another issue. He mentioned that an air strike may escalate into war, and that a sudden air strike would contradict general law and morality. It was highly likely that this action would be strongly rejected by other nations. In choosing a more peaceful route to solving the issue, Kennedy displayed a neoliberal attitude in which he looked toward making absolute gains rather than a temporary solution. The United States would maintain a more positive image in the eyes of foreign nations due to the capability of peaceful conflict resolution.
Equally important to foreign response, Kennedy also had to consider the response of U.S. citizens to his final decision. His original choice to assemble EXCOMM secretly allowed him to prevent knowledge of the issue by the general public until his final decision was made. Kennedy wanted to give himself time to make the most reasonable decision without influence from fearful citizens. Furthermore, Kennedy also realized that an air strike would likely be unfavorable to the majority of citizens. In addition to deciding against the air strike, Kennedy told Dean Rusk that they should keep the consideration of an air strike a secret because it could inhibit them in the future. He also believed it would be their best option not to disclose the information due to the fear that it would become “a propaganda matter, that this was a matter seriously considered by the government” (Goplalan 2010).
In the concluding days of the crisis, a series of letters were exchanged between Kennedy and Khrushchev, as the United States’ blockade was established on Cuba. Additionally, after Kennedy sent the first letter to Khrushchev, he spoke on television, disclosing to the public that there were missiles found in Cuba and that a naval quarantine was in place. Tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union as Khrushchev felt that Kennedy presented him with an ultimatum, and that his letter presented a serious threat of attack. The situation intensified after a U.S. plane was shot down by the Soviets. At this point, Kennedy felt as if the solution will, in fact, involve United States withdraw of missiles in Turkey and Italy. However, on the thirteenth day of the crisis, Kennedy found himself at a relief upon receiving notification that the Soviet Union would remove the missiles in exchange for a “non-invasion pledge from the U.S.”
Ultimately, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most significant figures were Rusk, McNamara and Bohlen. The most influential factors were, the potential responses of the Soviet Union; overall foreign relations; and the effect on U.S. citizens. Each of these shaped Kennedy’s decision and are reflected in his final course of action. Thankfully, Kennedy’s thoughtful process proved to be a success for the United States. The Soviet Union withdrew the missiles from Cuba, and the high tensions of the previous thirteen days were lifted.