Cuba – US Missile Crisis During President Kennedy

The American embargo on Cuba has been in practice for almost four decades leading to the isolation of the island nation, and to a long lasting hostility between the US and Cuban administrations. Many believe that this embargo has lasted for so long because Fidel Castro, the anti-American leader of Cuba has been in power since 1959 when he was able to overthrow the American backed regime and to establish a Communist government only 90 miles far away from the coasts of Florida. This is partly true, but the real reason that the embargo has lasted so long is that Cuba still insists on a revolutionary regime which harms the interests of the US in the area. Therefore, as long as there is a communist government in Cuba, whether with Castro at its top or not, the US embargo will persist, even if it goes on for another decade.

Historically, Cuba has always been an important island to the Americans, at least because it was a rich island 90 miles from Florida (Arms, p.144). Practically, until 1959, the US was in full control of the Cuban economy. The US government did not care much to who ruled Cuba as long as its interests were protected (Roskin & Berry, p. 176).

This situation, however, did not last for long. In December 1958, a Leftist (but not a communist then) Fidel Castro, was able to overthrow the Bastista regime which was supported by the US. Although a leftist, Castro was not identified as a communist in the US, and he even visited the US where he was received with great public warmth. This visit in April of 1959 was to witness the last of the influence which the US enjoyed in Cuba, because in the next month, Fidel Castro began his policy of harming US interests. His first move was to nationalize the sugar cane industry which was owned and run by an American corporation (Arms, p. 144).

The American administration objected to this nationalization and accusations began between the US and Castro. They accused him of being a communist, while he accused the Americans of trying to overthrow his regime and to assassinate him (Arms, p145). Castro, found himself more attracted to the Soviet Union which he believed would be happy to gain an enemy of the US so close to the American territories. Indeed, Castro began signing trade Agreements with communist countries starting with the USSR, Eastern European countries and China. This also meant that all American interests on the island were threatened with nationalization, which indeed happened in less than a year (Arms, p. 145).

President Eisenhower was concerned about Castro’s intentions. He immediately ordered to stop military aid to Cuba in February 1960. Later in July that year, another law suspended buying half the Cuban sugar crop at premium prices. In the same year, President Eisenhower severed the relations with Cuba, but this was not all. It was evident for Carlos that in this way, the US was trying to make his revolution fail by cutting off his most important economic resources. President Eisenhower had also ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since March that year to start training Cubans in exile just in case they may return to Cuba sometime in the near future (Arms, p. 145).

President Eisenhower’s plans depended on the fact that with trained Cubans from exile attacking from outside, and with revolutionary anti-leftists attacking from the inside, Castro’s regime would collapse quickly. The operation would take place in the Bay of Pigs where the revolutionaries would establish a government as soon as they were able to control the area (Arms, p. 145).

Invading the Bay of Pigs was a dramatic failure for the revolutionary Cubans, especially that cooperation with the Americans was very poor. Consequently, Castro was able to defeat the attackers and to gather the Cuban people behind him against the US and its ‘Imperialism (Arms, p. 145).

It took Castro three days to overcome his attackers, thanks to the high Soviet training of his men, and to the American underestimation of his power. The operations which started April 17, 1961 ended with feelings of distrust and hostility from the two sides. Castro was happy with his limited victory, but was now aware that the US would not leave him alone, and the Americans angry that they had not estimated the real power of their small enemy who was in fact backed by the USSR (Arms, p. Frankel, p. 146).

The Americans were not sure how long Castro, who had become a dictator, would remain in power. After the Bay of Pigs, Castro gained the military and economic support of the USSR which was very interested in an ally who was so close to the US. By establishing nuclear basis in Cuba, the US officials feared that the USSR would have a nuclear advantage, since its goals would be less a hundred miles away, which meant that missiles could hit their targets exactly and in no time (Frankel, p. 146).

Did the Americans fear a real nuclear threat from the Soviets in Cuba? Many analysts think not. The real reason that the US administrations were so sensitive about Cuba was the American prestige which was badly hurt by Castro’s success to establish a communist government in the backyard of the US. But after all, if the Soviets were going to use Cuba as a base, this would be a threat to the security of the US. These two facts were the two most unpleasant realities about the relations between the US and Cuba in 1962 (Frankel, p. 146).

So far, the Americans did not have enough reasons in order to attack Cuba openly. Being associated with the Soviets was not enough, particularly with the popular support which Castro enjoyed at home. In July 1962, CIA agents working in Moscow reported the visit of the Cuban ministers of defense and finance to the USSR. The aim of the visit was to announce Cuba as an ally of the USSR, but this was refused by Soviet leadership. Nevertheless, in return for special trade relations with the USSR, in addition to political and military support, it was evident that the Soviets were going to use Cuba for a bigger military game in the area (Frankel, p. 146).

American eyes were widely open onto Cuba after the suspicious visit of the Cuban officials. Indeed, by the end of the same month (July), navy intelligence agents noticed a continuous flow of ships between communist ports in the USSR and Eastern Europe moving to Cuba, carrying advanced military equipment, such as twenty-four surface-to-air (SAM) missiles batteries, forty-two Mig-21 interceptors, patrol boats and light bombers (Frankel, p. 146).

To the CIA and the American Administration, these weapons and military equipment meant a powerful enemy at their South-Eastern borders, but not strong enough to be offensive because all these new equipment were only defensive. The Kennedy Administration feared that the Soviets would use Cuba as a base for nuclear weapons pointed to the USA. These concerns, however, were not confirmed by the July spying missions of the CIA (Frankel, p. 146).

The Kennedy Administration was facing the most critical situation ever, and the level of stress in the country increased quickly. President Kennedy was already preparing for his campaign for the presidential elections, which meant a highly stressful situation for his administrative team (Guttierie, Wallace & Suefeld, p. 595).

Any decision which the Kennedy administration could have made under such circumstances where no solid evidence existed, and where stress was at the peak, would have led to war with the Soviets. The crisis, which constituted a major challenge to any US administration since the World War II, was a real test for the ability of the American leadership to cope with stress and threats of the USSR (Guttierie, Wallace & Suefeld, p. 595).

President Kennedy’s reaction to the first phase of the crisis was to make a clear declaration that if Cuba were to be used as base for Soviet Missiles, this would raise issues of the gravest kind (Frankel, p. 146). In this way, Kennedy was able to send a straight forward message to the Soviets as a clear threat, but at the same time, it still did not mean that the crisis has reached the level where it cannot be resolved. Khrushchev answered back that the Soviet weapons sent to Cuba are merely for defense and that the US government need not worry since the Soviets had no interest in establishing bases in Cuba (Frankel, p. 147).

The month that followed was more stressful as the Americans tried to find evidence of Soviet missile involvement in Cuba. On the other hand, the tension between the American Administration and the Cuban government also continued. Consequently, on August 29, President Kennedy ordered an increased number of U2 flights covering Cuba, as well as calling 150,000 reserve troops for active duty (Arms, p. 147). Once again, the Soviet leader assured the American Administration that the USSR was not interested in Cuba as a missile base, and that the weapons sent over to Cuba were of defensive nature (Arms, p. 147).

The U2 flights continued through October 7 without showing any evidence of missile bases. This gave more hope that the crisis was taking a less stressful trend (Frankel, p. 147). However, on October 14, and after receiving an eye-witness report from the western coasts of Cuba which assured the presence of offensive missiles, U2 flights flew over the area and were able to take photographs of trapezoidal-patterned SAM sites, which is the usual defensive pattern the Soviets made around their missile bases. The base was reported to be around the area of San Cristobal and to contain missile erectors, launchers and transporters (Frankel, p. 147).

President Kennedy was reported immediately, and there he was facing a highly critical situation. In his hands he had the proof that the Soviets did have missile bases in Cuba. At the same time, any miscalculated movement could lead to a third world war, but this time with a wide use of nuclear weapons. The situation being so grave, the President ordered the formation of the Executive Commission (Ex Comm) including the most trusted advisors from the army, the ministries of defense and foreign affairs (Frankel, p. 147).

It is important at this point to raise another critical factor which appeared in the US reaction to the Cuban missile crisis. It is the absence of any NATO or European ally members in the Ex Comm, despite the fact that the missile crisis was a direct threat to the western hemisphere which required the collaboration of defense plans among these allies (Costilgliola, pp. 107-108). This problem would later on have its negative effects on the ability of the US to carry out the embargo on the Cuba, since the European allies would always remember that this embargo was forced upon them without even consulting them (Costigliola, pp. 111-112).

The Kennedy Administration was trying to resolve the conflict through it monopoly of the military and political decision of the NATO and its allies, but at the same time, it was also trying to protect itself against a situation which needed the highest levels of collaboration with its allies (Costigliola, p. 115). Lacking this collaboration meant that Kennedy and his advisors had to face the whole situation and its consequences on their own (Costigliola, p. 117).

Following the formation of the ExComm, 100,000 troops were immediately transferred to Florida (Arms, p. 147). Before setting a plan of action, the ExComm discussed the various possibilities which it had at hand. Six possible reactions were discussed, starting A which was making no reaction and waiting for things to get clear, and ending with F, which was an immediate invasion of Cuba (Arms, p. 29). The goal of all these tracks, however, was the same: to have all the Soviet missile bases removed immediately from Cuba (Arms, p. 147).

In order to achieve the goal of removing or eliminating the missile bases from Cuba, the ExComm ordered several steps. Among these were the following: a strict quarantine on all offensive equipment under shipment to Cuba; increased surveillance of Cuba; calling the Security Council for an emergency meeting, and the Organization of American States (OAS) to take action, and a personal contact with Khrushchev to put an end to the whole crisis before it led to a nuclear war (Arms, p. 147).

One reason President Kennedy did not choose the air-strike option was that it was highly possible that most of the military bases and installments in Cuba would remain untouched. Hence, the offensive would provoke defensive reactions without achieving their goals (Frankel, p. 147). Another reason was that the Soviet Union might come to the defense of Cuba which would in this case lead to a wide range use of nuclear weapons, a situation which could easily run out of control (Frankel, p. 147). Besides, if the American plan started with air strikes without accomplishing much, this would necessarily require an immediate invasion of the island, a choice which would also run out of control (Frankel, p. 147).

The American diplomacy was able to win the support of the OAS and to have Cuba fired from the organization. However, the Security Council was not able to reach a resolution concerning the withdrawal of Soviets from Cuba because the Cubans and the Soviets handed in a request to the Security Council ordering US termination of its illegal blockade immediately (Frankel, p. 147).

Once again, the ball was in the American playground, and it was President Kennedy who was to make the next move. Kennedy found out that to resolve this crisis, he would certainly have to avoid any use of power. Nevertheless, he decided to trap the Soviets in a critical situation where they were forced to make difficult choices. He decided to make the blockade even tighter (Arms, p. 148).

This time, the Soviets were in the difficult position. Krushchev realized this as he revised his options. If he decided to move against Berlin as reaction, he would be answered with nuclear power. If he insisted on the bases in Cuba, he would also have to face nuclear reactions. If he left everything frozen in Cuba, the Americans will invade shortly after and Cuba would be lost from the Soviets. And finally, if he tried to break the American blockade, he would have to face a military confrontation with the Americans, which might in turn lead to a nuclear reaction (Arms, p. 148).

The Soviets realized that with these options at hand, they would not be able to win anything. Consequently, they decided that the best policy would be not to lose anything. Negotiations seemed to be the only way to put an end to the whole crisis (Frankel, p. 149). The Soviets, who wanted to put a fast end to the crisis which had become very embarrassing to them, did not find any cards in their hands to exert pressure on the US Administration. Consequently, they offered the US a withdrawal from Cuba given that the Americans would not invade Cuba (Frankel, p. 149). This was a big mistake made by the Soviets, because in this way, they would not have making any gains from the crisis. Consequently, the next morning, another offer was made that the Soviets would withdraw on the conditions that the Americans would in turn withdraw their Jupiter missiles from Turkey (Frankel, p. 149). The Americans quickly realized the trap which the Soviets had pushed themselves into and decided to ignore the second offer before it was made public. Immediately, the American Administration announced that it agreed to the Soviet withdrawal on the condition that it would not invade Cuba (Frankel, p. 149). This was another embarrassment to the Soviet Union which had to accept the announcement anyway, but to save face, it was able to reach an agreement with Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother, that the Jupiter missiles would be removed from Turkey. However, this was to remain personally guaranteed by Robert Kennedy, and in case it was publicly announced, it would be denied by the American Administration (Frankel, p. 149).

The morning of October 28 1962 was the final day of the crisis. The American Administration showed great political flexibility and capability of dealing with the situation, whereas the Soviets were not able to take all the opportunities that were at hand. The US offer not to invade Cuba in return for Soviet withdrawal was perhaps the most clever move in the whole crisis, simply because it made it clear that Cuba did not need any Soviet defensive bases (Frankel, p. 149).

The end of the crisis was not the end of the whole story. The American embargo on Cuba continued, but even took a more strict trend. The US and the USSR became more collaborative as they discovered throughout the events of the crisis that lacking misunderstanding between them could cost the world a nuclear war (Arms, p. 148).

Was the Cuban missile crisis a victory for the US Administration in general and President Kennedy in particular? This question is rather difficult to answer for two reasons. On one hand, the American diplomacy was able to put an end to the crisis and to force the Soviets to withdraw their missile bases from Cuba (Arms, p. 148). On the other hand, the Americans had to cope with the fact that in the western hemisphere where they presided, there existed a communist regime which they were unable to remove (Arms, p. 148). It is important to note out, however, that Krushchev himself was humiliated as a result of the Cuban missile crisis, and consequently failed to be re-elected by the Communist Party two years later (Roskin & Berry, p. 101).

What were the consequences of the Cuban Missile Crisis? To start with, there is the fact that this crisis took during the peak of the Cold War (Arms, p. 148). Its consequences are therefore seen through this perspective. As a result of the crisis, the Soviets and the Americans came to the shared understanding that the world cannot bear another serious misunderstanding between them. Consequently, in the years to come, the relations between the two great powers improved after the crisis, and was crowned with the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was signed afterwards (Frankel, p. 149).

At the same time, the US had to deal with a new situation where a communist regime lied at its waist. The American Administration enforced a strict embargo on Cuba, such that any country which traded or exchanged any interests with Cuba would have to face a direct retaliation from the US (Costigliola, p. 119). The embargo has continued since then and it still continues, although this embargo itself has raised several severe issues between the US and its European allies (Costigliola, p. 120). The reason for this was that the embargo was enforced without involving any of the European or western allies or considering their interests in Cuba (Costigliola, p. 121).

But more gravely, there is the fact during the missile crisis, none of the European allies was consulted on what the US Administration was going to do (Costigliola, p. 122). There are two main causes of this. The first was that the US Administration was afraid that its allies in Europe and NATO would leak information on its reactions and tactics with respect to the crisis, which would put the US in a weaker position (Costigliola, p. 122).

The second reason was that President Kennedy was determined to monopolize the leadership of the NATO and the west in the hands of the American Administration, once and for all (Costigliola, p. 122). This was clearly seen in two events that took place during the crisis. The first was that not one single representative of the NATO or the western allies was present during the ExComm meetings, except for the British ambassador who was a personal friend of President Kennedy, and who was expected not to pass any information to his government (Costigliola, p. 123). The other incident was President De Gaul’s reaction when he ironically asked the American representative whether he was coming for informing or consulting him on the crisis (Costigliola, p. 123).

The Cuban missile crisis led to feelings of distrust and incompatibility between the US and the rest of its Western allies. The nuclear bases in Cuba did not threaten the US alone, but also its western allies. Why then would the US make all the decisions and plan all the strategy of facing the crisis (Costigliola, p. 123). This distance in relations that would exist between the US and Europe during the Cuban crisis would even lead to a faster European reaction of forming a united Europe against the American monopoly of power and decision making inside the NATO (Costigliola, p. 124).

At the same time, the US concerns about the Cuban communist government continued, and so did the embargo which hoped that Castro would finally come to face a popular rebellion and collapse. This, however, has never come true, at least not until today, that is, thirty-seven years after seizing power in Cuba and thirty four years after the Cuban missile crisis (Robinson,  p. 124). Cuba remains besieged by the embargo forced on it by the US, and despite the eight attempts that the CIA admitted in 1975 to have made on Castro’s life, he still remains in power (Arms, p. 145). Castro even continued to challenge the US political aggression against him when any friendly relations with Castro were considered by the US to be anti-American (Arms, p. 145). Castro directly supported the anti-American revolutionary movements that took place in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in Bolivia, Venezuela and Guatemala (Arms, p. 145).

Today, more than ever, the Americans have hope that Castro will collapse, thus eliminating the last evidence of the Cuban missile crisis. This hope has even increased after the collapse of the USSR, leaving Cuba totally isolated, politically and economically. Russia has even stopped buying Cuban goods at high exchange prices ($2 billion) in order to support Castro. This leaves Castro alone in the face of the US which still wants to settle accounts with him.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was not an accident. It was a natural confrontation of the two major powers as a result of the increasing tension between them. Cuba was only involved because it was a perfect geographical site for the confrontation, and because of the Marxist inclinations of its leadership. The tension between the two great powers has long come to an end, and in fact, one of the powers (USSR) has even vanished from existence. Yet, Cuba continues to pay the price of its political mistakes, and will continue to pay them as long as Fidel Castro remains in power. The consecutive American Administrations have not made things any easier for the Cubans, and the embargo which the US imposed on Cuba before the crisis continues to suffocate the Cuban economy, pushing many Cubans to flee to the US.