The Cuban Missile Crisis and Decision Making

The latter half of the twentieth century was a crucial era in the development of American foreign policy. Previous to the outbreak of World War II, America had been an important player in the geopolitical arena, but still just one of many great powers, most of whom were located in Europe. Following the devastation of that continent, America emerged as a relatively unscathed superpower made all the more dominant by the fact that it was the only country in possession of atomic weapons. Once the Soviet Union joined that exclusive club, however, the political map of power changed forever. The ability for a missile to destroy entire cities in an instant forced foreign policy decisions to become increasingly became dependent upon not only ideological differences but also physical geography. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s decision to implement a naval blockade around Cuba as a method to avoid all-out nuclear war was made possible in part through the geographical location of the area of the hot spot and should be considered a part of an overall decision-making strategy that utilizes the various concepts that are inherent in government politics model of strategic policymaking.

Graham Allison is credited with the development of three different foreign policy decision-making models that were used by members of the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first model is identified as the rational decision-making mode and in it, those making policy decisions are required to understand and abide by the fundamental ideology of the US government while also expressing comprehension of the complexities of international events. The elements of comprehension are threefold: nation-states are unitary acts, rational behavior must be assumed and utilized, and there must be consistency among goals, objectives, and actions (Brower, and Abolafia). In this model, decisions are arrived at through a methodology that considers goals and all possible options. The second model is known as the organizational process model and is the perspective by which government is viewed as a combination of different organizations. This model focuses primarily on organizational goals and restrictions including budgeting and procedural constraints. The third model is recognized as the governmental politics model and is characterized by the use of various decision-makers and committee leadership.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, political tension increased between the United States and the USSR following Fidel Castro’s revolution and coup in Cuba. Castro quickly negotiated an alliance with the Soviet Union that caused President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dissolve diplomatic ties with Cuba. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been training Cuban exiles for a potential incursion into Cuba and in 1961 new President John F. Kennedy signed off on this invasion. Newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy approved this invasion on April 12, 1961. On April 14, 1961, a squadron of B-26 bombers piloted by Cuban exiles attacked air bases in their homeland with the intention of wreaking havoc on Fidel Castro’s air power before the land forces arrived. Castro’s army successfully quelled the exiles, resulting in ninety fatalities and over a thousand being captured. This invasion became known as the Bay of Pigs and its utter failure proved to be the biggest foreign policy disaster of the Kennedy administration. Worst of all, the Soviets viewed the invasion as an indication of Kennedy’s weakness and decided to capitalize on that perspective.

The course of events leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis was initiated in 1962, when aerial photographs divulge the construction of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The Soviets were unaware at this point that the United States possessed any knowledge of the existence of missiles in Cuba, and the American leaders were anxious over the possibility of the Soviets engaging in an immediate pre-emptive strike if their awareness were discovered. President Kennedy convened an assembly of cabinet members and the heads of those government agencies in charge of foreign affairs and military policy, along with his Attorney General brother, other White House aides, and former government officials such as Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett. This group would eventually become formally recognized as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. They began meeting on October 16, 1962, and thereafter convened on a daily basis to ponder potential replies to the looming menace of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A broad range of possibilities was considered, including engaging in top-secret talks negotiations with the U.S.S.R. without making the presence of the missiles in Cuba that were aimed at Americans public knowledge, making the presence of the missiles public before starting talks with the Soviets, invading or launching precision airstrikes into Cuba, implementing a blockade of Cuba, and even opening negotiations with Fidel Castro (Freedman 190).

Not surprisingly, those members of the military wing of the advisory group supported the idea of an airstrike followed by a land force invasion. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was the vocal head of the group opposing this idea, suggesting that since Cuba was in such close proximity to the US, the wisest course of action was a blockade. On October 22 President Kennedy met with the leader of Congress before giving a nationally televised speech in which he revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba and demanded that they be removed. In his speech, Kennedy made it absolutely clear he was making policy on the assumption that the “purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” (Stern 22). Kennedy also then forwarded the steps that the United States was prepared to take in order to deal with the missiles in Cuba. He announced that the U.S. would engage in quarantine on any offensive military equipment and supplies sent to Cuba. He also let it be known that the U.S. could be considered any missile that might be launched from Cuba as an attack from the Soviet Union that would result in retaliation by the United States. Finally, he appealed directly to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to “abandon this course of world domination, and… move the world back from the abyss of destruction” (Fursenko, and Naftali 246). The next day President Kennedy activated the military reserve, effectively beginning the planned blockade of Cuba.

U.S. officials analyzed many variables before deciding upon a quarantine as the best possible response. One of those variables involved the geopolitical effect involved in Cuba’s close geographical proximity to the United States. For most of American history, the U.S. had at least unofficially adopted a foreign policy based somewhat on isolationism because so many political hot spots in the world were separated by the vast oceans on the country’s borders. The United States was fortunate in that all of the major wars since her birth had taken place far away from her shores; the net effect is that U.S. security was rarely threatened. The presence of Soviet missiles so close posing an immediate threat was a new political situation for the leaders of America. Cuba’s close proximity turned the situation into such an imminent and dire threat to the United States that Pres. Kennedy had no choice but to act as quickly and decisively as possible.

The Soviet Union officially rebuffed the U.S. declaration of a quarantine. On the same day, Soviet ships sailing toward Cuba nonetheless halted or altered their course. The situation was worsening with the distinct possibility of an all-out war being unloosed as a result of high tensions on the high seas. Strategic Air Command raised the bar to Defcon 2, just one level shy of nuclear confrontation. B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons took flight while soldiers commissioned to bases nearer Cuba where they were prepared for a potential invasion of the nearby island country.

The first break in the high-level tensions that seemed to be drawing the world inexorably toward nuclear war took place when John Scali, diplomatic correspondent of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), got a phone call from Aleksandr S. Fomin, who was not only an official of the Soviet embassy and a KGB colonel but was also a close friend of Nikita Khrushchev. Fomin recommended a resolution to the crisis and wondered Scali could use his contact in the Department of State to determine if the proposal would be accepted. Fomin’s proposal was that the missile bases in Cuba would disarm and the Soviet Union would halt all future shipment of offensive weapons if the U.S. pledged they would not invade Cuba. Scali forwarded this proposal to State Department officials who accepted it as legitimate negotiation. A letter from Khrushchev confirmed Fomin’s offer, while also reminding Kennedy that the Soviet Union’s actions were simply a response to his provocative measures toward Castro’s government (Hilsman 121).

This promising situation quickly worsened, however, when Khrushchev appeared to radically change the terms by demanding the United States dispose of its missile bases in Turkey. Despite the fact that the missiles in Turkey were not considered strategically important, Pres. Kennedy asserted that the credibility of the U.S. could be hampered if they agreed to these demands. The president and his advisers instead chose to ignore these new demands and proceed with policy based upon the original term.

On October 28, Khrushchev gave an address on Soviet radio and announced: “In order to eliminate as rapidly as possible the conflict which endangers the cause of peace… the Soviet Government, in addition to previously issued instructions to cease further work on weapons construction sites, has issued a new order to dismantle the weapons which you describe as offensive and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union” (Kenney 188) The Cuban missile crisis was, in effect, over. The United States removed the missiles from Turkey in 1963, both nations installed a nuclear hotline between Washington, D.C., and Moscow to prevent future misunderstandings over nuclear war, and both nations began to explore talks to curtail the nuclear arms race.

The geopolitical variables of Cuba greatly affected President Kennedy’s decision in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The close proximity of Cuba to the United States was the main variable that affected how the U.S. foreign policy was formed. The missiles in Cuba placed there by the Soviet Union posed a viable threat to the national security of the United States. The geopolitics of the situation served greatly to engage President Kennedy’s foreign policy decision to implement the naval blockade that ultimately defused a situation that had been rapidly spiraling out of the control and toward a devastating end that clearly neither side desired.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was solved as a result of American foreign policy decision-making that took the approach of Allison’s governmental politics model, which utilizes the personalities of individuals, their backgrounds, and the interdependent influences of the group dynamic. Pres. Kennedy was dependent greatly upon a small set of advisors who were closest to him, especially his own brother who was also the country’s Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. In addition, Theodore Sorenson was also looked to for advice above those members of the military most in favor of strategic responses in the form of bombing or invading Cuba. Robert Kennedy and Sorenson were both at the forefront of the movement that was advising the President to take the route of quarantine and, of course, that is exactly the path that Kennedy chose.

The governmental politics model is especially useful for consideration during this period because the crisis was taking place during the height of the American election season. The Democrats were fielding all their candidates for the House of Representatives along with a number of Senators and so Pres. Kennedy was cognizant of the political importance of not appearing to be weak in the arena of international politics while also not appearing to behave too quickly a button on the nuclear war trigger. The Republicans hoped to capitalize on the perception that the Democrats were always vulnerable on issues of national security by suggesting that President Kennedy had failed to respond with strength to the Soviet presence in Cuba. In the August before the outbreak of the crisis Sen. Homer Capehart, a Republican from Indiana had insisted that Kennedy order an invasion of Cuba. Eventually, other Republican legislators joined Capehart and even Kennedy’s rival in the 1960 election, Richard Nixon jumped into the arena. While Nixon, campaigning to become governorship of California, he insisted upon a quarantine of Cuba from Kennedy. The Republicans had sensed blood in the upcoming elections, but Kennedy’s handling of the crisis was made in part as a response to political pressures upon him as well as the far more serious consequences. As a result of Kennedy’s decision-making process not only did the Soviets back down from the threat of a potential annihilation, but the Republicans did not fare nearly as well in the mid-term elections as they had hoped. In fact, the Democrats gain six seats in the Senate while losing only a few seats in the House. As might be expected, the same Republican Party that had criticized Kennedy for not acting decisively enough during the crisis soon was charging him with manipulating the situation so as to better benefit the slew of Democratic candidates.

The Cuban missile crisis was instrumental in changing the political climate of the Cold War as both sides came as close to realizing the nightmare of all-out nuclear war as they could have wanted. It was this crisis that led to the infamous red hotline phone in the White House that had a direct connection to the Soviet leadership. In addition, less than a year later a treaty was signed by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union that agreed to ban aboveground nuclear testing. Despite these positive movements, however, the Cuban Missile Crisis fell short of halting the nuclear arms race that was to continue unabated between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. until the collapse of the communist rule in eastern Europe.

Works Cited

Brower, Ralph S., and Mitchel Y. Abolafia. “Bureaucratic Politics: The View from Below.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 7.2 (1997): 305+.

Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Hilsman, Roger. The Cuban Missile Crisis The Struggle over Policy. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996.

Kenney, Charles. The Presidential Portfolio : History as Told through the Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum The Presidential Portfolio: History as Told through the Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.