An Analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Its Impacts on the Foreign Policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson

It was a nightmare that not even John F. Kennedy could imagine. In a game-changing move of the Cold War era, the Soviets had decided to extend their communistic arms to equip a small island a mere 90 miles from the coast of the United States of America with the world’s deadliest weapons. The standoff that existed between the two world superpowers for almost two weeks could have ended in nuclear war. Fortunately, all was resolved in due time. Although the missiles were eventually removed, the lingering effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis lasted beyond October 28, 1962.

The next year, Kennedy would be assassinated and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, would take office and move America into a new age riddled with new challenges. The Cuban Missile Crisis directly influenced the last year of President John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson, thus shaping and influencing US foreign policy in the following decade. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis, America was immersed in the perils of the Cold War – a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

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Beginning in the 1960s, President Eisenhower decided to begin operations to train soldiers with the intent of invading and overthrowing Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba.’ Once Kennedy took office, he decided that America would invade Cuba by way of the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961.

Despite having the world’s best military and equipment, the attack was successfully repelled by Castro, embarrassing the Kennedy administration and causing them to quickly realize they underestimated the Cubans.

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Part of Kennedy’s desire to invade the Bay of Pigs came from his fear of appearing as a weak president. As a result, Kennedy’s foreign policy before the Crisis was very belligerent and hostile. Another example of Kennedy’s warmongering foreign policy would be during Soviet leader Khrushchev’s building of the Berlin Wall, a barrier to separate East and West Germany.

In response, Kennedy decided to boost military budgets, raise the number of troops by increasing the draft call, and mobilizing more men into position for war. Still, Kennedy “had looked weak to many Cold Warriors in the United States because he had not torn down the wall.” Kennedy’s failed invasion enraged both him and Castro, and further strained tensions between the two countries. Before and during the Crisis, Kennedy had many U-2 spy planes take aerial photos of various “waypoints” in Cuba, which were actually launchpads for the missiles.

In October of 1962, a U-2 spotted a launchpad that had the capability of launching missiles with a range of one thousand miles – wide enough to reach most of the continental US. The launchpad became a major national security concern, so it was now Kennedy’s move. The president, however, was conflicted; “a high official in the Pentagon suggested that Kennedy do nothing and ignore the missiles” because there was not yet a threat to the US.’ However, Kennedy feared for his presidency and knew he needed to take action or else he could face impeachment for endangering national security. He therefore decided that his “general goals” would be to remove the missiles and avoid a nuclear confrontation that could lead to devastating end results.

This signaled the beginning of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s actions during the Crisis provide a chilling example of the dangers that come with weapons of mass destruction. This threat cannot be understated as Kennedy could have brought the world to nuclear war had he made an error in diplomacy between the US and the USSR. Additionally, President Kennedy had a group of advisors called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (“ExComm”).”

All of their meetings were secretly recorded, which gives us an inside view of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The transcripts reveal the thoughts and high-level discussions going on during that time.  At one point, Soviet leader Khrushchev sent two letters to the White House requesting a deal. The first was simple, whereas the second one was more complex, a situation which Kennedy found ironic. After receiving Khrushchev’s letters, Kennedy wanted to remove the missiles from Turkey in order to amicably reach a resolution with the Soviets, but doing so would cause America and Kennedy to lose face. Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother and Attorney General at the time, suggested that the ExComm ignore Khrushchev’s second letter and simply respond to the first one.

Kennedy agreed and thus America promised not to attack or invade Cuba in exchange for removal of the missiles. Despite the crisis ending without incident, the United States continued to have tense relations with Cuba, leading to Cuban-American foreign policy becoming more isolative. Fueling these tense relations and the shift in Cuban-American foreign policy, Fidel Castro undertook “a bold foreign policy which clashed with US efforts to contain communism”. The containment of communism was a top priority of the United States’ foreign policy agenda before, during, and immediately after the Crisis. Continuing embargos against Cuba rendered devastating economic damages, and further isolating Cuba only added more fuel to the fire. In the immediate aftermath of the Crisis, President Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Khrushchev, established the famous red telephone – a direct hotline between the two superpowers to avoid any future misunderstandings and/or disasters. Both nations realized that they needed to be “on a new path to prevent nuclear confrontation in the future”.

After JFK’s assassination in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson continued America’s fight against communism as foreign policy shifted towards focusing on the Vietnam War because the “fear of military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had diminished substantially. In the years immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Johnson’s foreign policy making was relatively smooth, and as Johnson later described, “it was almost as if the world had provided a breathing space within which [he] could concentrate on domestic affairs.” Johnson traveled the world claiming to have “touched down in more than thirty countries in the last three years” and that “we [the United States) are a much beloved people throughout the world” in a February, 1964 speech.

Evidently, in Johnson’s mind, his foreign policy was having much more success than Kennedy’s foreign policy ever did, but in fact, Johnson was oblivious to the fact that it would soon fail. Ironically, Johnson even regarded himself as a strong foreign policy maker, claiming to have learned from Kennedy’s mistakes. Johnson said that if given the chance to spend time with someone, he could certainly befriend them, which sounds quite arrogant given that he specifically cites “anybody, even [Soviet Leader] Nikita Khrushchev”.

Obviously, Johnson did learn from Kennedy’s mistakes in dealing with the Soviet Union and Khrushchev and thus knew Khrushchev’s true intentions, saying “he [Khrushchev], too wanted what was good” but that Khrushchev’s desire for world domination would cause him to make irrational decisions such as “putting those missiles in Cuba.” Johnson was able to cope with it as so long as [Johnson and Khrushchev] were in the same room.” However, Johnson often did not trust his own advisors and Joint Chiefs on determining American foreign policy towards Vietnam in the mid to late 1960s. He proclaimed that his advisors “placed the monkey on [his] back” and that he was left solo to figure out the best plans.

This was in part because his advisors no longer agreed with him on his idea of increasing troops. Johnson’s Vietnam War foreign policy increasingly fell out of favor. Learning from his predecessors’ mistakes on foreign policy making, specifically with the Soviet Union, Johnson took a new approach to engage the Soviets which showed improved results. In Panama during January of 1964, there was diplomatic turmoil between the US and Panama due to a riot over the raising of an American flag by American exchange students. Johnson handled it by requesting a meeting with the President of Panama to resolve the problem, an action described by Doris Kearns as “prompt and man-to-man”, signaling what seemed to be a positive change in American foreign policy towards all countries, not just the Soviet Union.

This positivity, however, did not last long. Johnson was highly criticized for his foreign policy in the Vietnam War. In response, Lyndon B. Johnson was quoted to have said in 1968, “If the American people don’t love me, their descendants will.” Johnson knew that his handling of what Robert Dallek, renowned Lyndon B. Johnson biographer, called the “worst foreign policy disaster in the country’s history” was controversial, but it had to be done to stop communism and maintain America for the future.

Bruce J. Schulman, author of Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, wrote that “Ambassador Averell Harriman reflected in 1972 that ‘If not for Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson would have been the greatest president ever.””, showing how abominable Johnson’s Vietnam War foreign policy really was. Johnson said he wanted “war like [he] wanted polio”; he was not a fan of war, but told his advisors that “what you want and what your image is are two different things.” Although Johnson wanted to avoid the war, it was inevitable and so he had to embrace it as part of his presidency. Johnson had wished “the rest of the world would go away” so he could focus on domestic policy, which was the intent at the beginning of his presidency, but as the war and foreign policy spun out of control, his priorities shifted.

Johnson had better success in dealing with the Soviet Union than his predecessor, but when it came to Vietnam, he did not find much success if any, and thus the latter half of his presidency was filled with anti-war protestors that would follow him and chant. After much pressure, Johnson began to pause his bombings of North Vietnam and offered to negotiate with the enemy, but even these efforts did not satisfy the protesters. It began to be clear that Johnson had lost the support and faith of the American people with his Vietnam War foreign policy given that Johnson’s poll approval ratings dropped from a high of 80% in early 1964 to just 36% in March of 1968. Johnson eventually agreed to “forgo sending additional US forces” to Vietnam after hearing advice from the “Wise Men” – a group of Johnson’s “pro-war supporters and advisors”.

All parties were clear that this war would not be tolerated by the American people anymore. Johnson’s presidency became plagued with and remembered for the problem of foreign policy in Vietnam despite optimistic beginnings. Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency oversaw numerous foreign policy fiascos from Panama to the Soviet Union to Vietnam, yet Johnson navigated these episodes well, learning from Kennedy’s mistakes in the Cuban Missile Crisis. When faced with the mess in Panama, Johnson took immediate action to resolve it and prevent a diplomatic crisis in Panamanian-American relations.

When faced with the Vietnam War, Johnson had to make tough decisions in order to preserve America’s future. These decisions may not have been popular at the time, but they were necessary. In the end, the Cuban Missile Crisis changed American foreign policy by influencing President Johnson’s administration seeing as he took office only one year after the fact. History does repeat itself, but Johnson aimed to make sure that would not happen to him as seen in his nuances of foreign policy, which helped to shape the new post-Crisis America.


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An Analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Its Impacts on the Foreign Policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved from

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