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The Cuban Missile Crisis was the pinnacle of the Cold War. While the Cold War continued for many years after the crisis, it was the closest the United States and Russia ever came to all-out nuclear war.i The crisis was started when a U-2 spy plane flying reconnaissance over Cuba, sighted various missile sites in different stages of completion. Upon further examination, it was found that the Soviets were constructing many Surface-to-Air Missile sites and a handful of Medium Range Ballistic Missile sites, giving the Soviets the power to launch nuclear missiles against any major city in the United States. Before this, there had been little worry of nuclear war, as Soviet missiles did not have the technology to be able to be launched from Russia and reach the United States, but with these new developments, the Cold War took a new horrifying turn.
ii President John F. Kennedy was faced with a dilemma as to what he should do about the missile sites in Cuba. If he were to leave them be and do nothing, he would be seen as weak and afraid to take action, however if he were to attack, he would be seen as a tyrant attacking a small poor country by surprise.iii Eventually, he decided on a Naval blockade of Cuba and a demand that all missile sites be dismantled and sent back to Russia. Thankfully, this solution worked and nuclear war was avoided. But the question has always remained; why did Kennedy choose the blockade solution?
Many historians disagree as to whether the blockade was the correct route to take in resolving the crisis in October of 1962. Some believe that Kennedy should have gone ahead with the air strike followed up by an invasion, simply to show the world that the United States was not a country to be fooled with.iv Others believed a more diplomatic solution was called for; one in which no aggressive action would have been taken, thus reducing the chance of retaliation.v Finally, many agree with Kennedy’s decision, stating that it was an appropriate compromise that opened the door to both the air strike and the diplomatic option, whichever seemed necessary as time went on.vi For most of the duration of the crisis, most favoured the air strike as it was quick, efficient, and displayed the true power of the United States.
vii However, as time went on, the blockade became more favourable, as it still showed that the United States would act, but in a much more reasonable way then repeating what had happened at the end of World War II in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The diplomatic solution was one of the first to be considered, but it never made it much farther than the early days, as it was seen as too slow, and not affirmative enough. Today, most historians agree that the blockade was the correct choice, as it would seem to have given the most favourable results.viii However, there are still a few historians who would have preferred the air strike, as they believe it would have ended the Cold War.ix It is not totally clear which solution was the right one to choose, but it is hard to argue against results.
The purpose of this essay is to address the issue of whether the blockade was the correct option chosen, and to examine the other two main possible alternatives that could have been used instead. To do this I will have four main sections in my essay. In my first section, I will analyse the diplomatic option in three paragraphs. The first paragraph will give a detailed summary of what the solution entails, the second paragraph analyse and evaluate the pros and cons, and finally the third paragraph will discuss why it was not chosen as an option.
My second section will address the air strike alternative in three paragraphs similar in fashion to my first section on the diplomatic option. In my third section I will deal with the blockade option in the same way I dealt with the other two alternatives. Finally, in my conclusion, I will address how this issue could be pursued further, along with posing some of the questions I could not answer in this essay for various reasons. It is my belief that, Kennedy was correct in using the blockade as a means of ending the Cuban Missile Crisis as it was peaceful and did not result in bloodshed. It was relatively quick, and did not give the impression that the United States was a country that would back down in the face of opposition, no matter who it be.
The blockade idea was relative new and innovative, and combined the best of both worlds from the air strike, and the diplomatic alternatives.x In the blockade alternative, the United States Navy did set up a ring of ships around Cuba, and stop any ships that tried to go to Cuba. This would effectively halt any new weapons or personnel shipments coming in from Russia, and would open the door to new negotiations or actions.xi It was thought that once the blockade was in place, Khrushchev would realize that he had to open the lines of communication with the US, as he would no longer have control of Cuba. Negotiations could then be pursued as to the dismantling of the offensive weapons.
xii One issue was that blockades had been usually viewed as acts of war, as it said so in the International Charter on the rules of engagement. Thus, the United States was worried that Russia might see it as such, and react appropriately, as if it were an act of war and perhaps attack the United States, thus creating global war.
xiii The blockade option combined both the air strike and the diplomatic alternatives in that it displayed action, and yet still opened the doors to further negotiations because it was not an aggressive action and still had room to be modified.xiv This is the main reason it was favoured, as it was a sort of compromise that everyone could be happy with. It was believed that once the naval ring was set up around the island of Cuba, the United States would be unchallenged and therefore no shots would ever need to be fired.xv This was because the Cuban navy was much too small to take on something as large as the United States navy, so it would not risk a battle out at sea, preferring one on it’s own turf instead.
The blockade solution was one with many advantages and only a few disadvantages, which made it the most favourable of the three options. It’s main advantage was that it involved action, which showed the world that the United States would not back down, but yet it did not involve violence, and therefore reducing the chances of a nuclear war. Because of this compromise, many who had supported the air strike but were worried about the repercussions now could support a newer solution.xvi Another advantage was that it gave new opportunities for negotiations, in that with the blockade, it was believed that Khrushchev would once again be open to discussing possible solutions with Kennedy. Because of this idea, many supporters of the diplomatic solution changed their vote to the blockade idea.
xvii The main disadvantage of the blockade option was the word blockade itself. In the past, a blockade had always been seen as an aggressive act in terms of the rules of engagement, and therefore could give Russia the right to attack the United States. Because of this, Kennedy had to appeal to the United Nations for permission to start the blockade so that it could not be considered an act of war.xviii Another disadvantage that was pointed out by many supporters of the air strike was that it was quite slow, and might not produce any results fast enough. Many worried that while nothing could get in or out of Cuba, that did not solve the problem of the missiles that were already in Cuba. Kennedy promoted his opinion that Khrushchev would restart talks once he realized he could no longer control what went in and out of Cuba.xix
The blockade was chosen as the solution to try and resolve the Cuban missile crisis for two main reasons. Firstly, it had very little chance of starting a general war. This was because it did not display any aggressive action that could provoke Russia into acting harshly, unlike the air strike option.xx Second, it did not weaken the image of the United States to the world. This was because it still involved action, in this case a blockade, unlike the diplomatic solution, which was all talk.xxi Some critics felt that it was too passive, and that Khrushchev could act at anytime during the blockade.
This was countered by Kennedy however, as he believed that Russia would see that the United States did not want to go to war, they simply wanted the offensive missiles out of Cuba at any cost, and that they were willing to fight for it, but also negotiate. This balance of tactics helped Kennedy gain support for the blockade option, which was eventually used successfully as Khrushchev promised to dismantle all offensive weapons in Cuba in return for a guarantee that the United States would not invade Cuba. The United States also agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey several months later.xxii
Air Strike Option
The air strike option was a solution that, for most of the duration of the crisis, was believed to be the best solution.xxiii Even when the blockade was proposed, many still supported the strike solution. Those who supported the strike included the Air Force and the Join Chiefs of Staff, very influential people in Washington.xxiv When it was first proposed, the air strike was simply supposed to be a tactical bombing of all Medium Range Ballistic Missile sites, there were six in total. As further thought went into the plan however, it was decided that all SAM sites and MIG airfields would need to be knocked out as well, to prevent the fighters from getting shot down while making their bombing runs.
This significantly increased the scale of the attack, which worried many people.xxv As a result of this, it was decided that an invasion would need to follow the air attack, as the military of Cuba would be in chaos, and a civil war could break out if nothing was done. A full-scale invasion meant around a quarter of a million troops would need to be sent in, along with the navy and the air force. Such a large attack would no doubt have huge repercussions afterwards.xxvi The final plan called for the SAM sites and MIG airfields to be taken out first to disable to the defences, followed by the bombing of all six MRBM sites, followed finally by an all-out ground invasion. After the invasion was completed, the United States would institute a democracy into power to run Cuba, but still maintain control of the country behind the scenes.
The disadvantages to the air strike were enormous compared to the advantages. The main disadvantage was that Russia might consider this the start of a general war and launch it’s nuclear warheads. This was a risk that President Kennedy simply did not want to have to take.xxvii Another problem with the air strike was what to do with Cuba after the invasion. The United States wanted to leave Cuba as an independent country, but had to get rid of Castro, so the problem remained.xxviii The main advantage of the air strike was that it was quick, and guaranteed to solve the immediate problem, however, as stated earlier, there were many more problems that could arise as a result of it.
Many felt that the air strike option seemed a bit too much like the attack the Japanese made against the United States in World War II at Pearl Harbour. The fact that it would be a surprise attack, that was mostly unwarranted, gave it a cowardly sort of feel that President Kennedy did not like one bit.xxix Some even argued that the United States would eventually lose all of Latin America, as other countries would follow Cuba’s example, and team up with the Russians, or another power.xxx Another strong argument for the air strike was the issue of time. Each day that passed in inactivity, more missiles became operational and the danger became more and more real to the United States and it’s people.xxxi However, if an air strike were ordered, the Russians might get nervous and launch a nuclear missile early.
The main reason for not choosing the air strike was the fact that there was a large risk of an outbreak of general war if the air strike went ahead. President Kennedy could not bear the responsibility of being the first to start a nuclear war. The consequences of this would be of an unimaginable horror.xxxii Another main reason that Kennedy did not like the idea of an air strike was that it would have to be followed up by an invasion. The problem with this was that Kennedy did not want to send so many men into battle, around a quarter of a million.xxxiii Another problem with the invasion was that it would mean the United States would control Cuba, and while this may sound like a good thing, at the time, it wasn’t.
President Kennedy simply did not know what to do with Cuba once he had control of it, he could either install a new leader and leave it, or put it under US control, neither of which he really wanted to do.xxxiv These were small decisions to make compared to Kennedy’s main dilemma, whether to risk nuclear war just because the United States got scared when Russia did the same thing as them. Not many people knew that the United States had put Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which was essentially the same thing Russia was doing in Cuba. The fact of the matter was that Kennedy wanted to be in control of the situation when and if the situation got out of his control, he would need to act fast to regain control. He was not willing to risk millions of lives to do so.xxxv
One of the first solutions to be proposed at the outbreak of the crisis was a diplomatic solution. In this solution, it was hoped that if the crisis were brought out into the open for the entire world to see, Castro and Khrushchev would hesitate to act, as they would be closely watched by the United Nations.xxxvi An appeal would be made by the United States to the United Nations asking for an inspection of Cuba to find out all the details about the weapons in question. If this were refused, the United States would be justified in taking action against Cuba.xxxvii President Kennedy realized that with this solution, there must be room made for compromise, as it was dependent on all three countries negotiating a settlement that would satisfy them all.
xxxviii One compromise proposed was a sort of exchange, where by if Cuba would dismantle all of the offensive weapons in question, the United States would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. This seemed fair, as both countries were worried about the other’s missiles being so close to their own respective countries. The problem with this was that it would indicate to Turkey that the United States did not consider their defence a high priority, and would most likely hurt relations between the two countries.xxxix Because of this, Kennedy was faced with a dilemma as to what to do, whether to sacrifice Turkey’s defences for the safety of Americans, or to keep strong international ties but risk ruining any chance at a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The diplomatic solution was an alternative with many different advantages and disadvantages. In terms of its value, it was considered the most peaceful solution possible as it involved no military action whatsoever on the part of the United States. This however, was a negative aspect of the plan in itself, as it might portray the United States as being a weak country, afraid to take action.xl Another advantage to this solution was that it would let the whole world know about the situation, therefore putting it in the public spotlight. With the whole world paying such close attention to any new developments, Khrushchev and Castro might be hesitant to take the first shot as it might lose them support if a war were to break out. On the same line, the United States might gain support as other countries might see them as trying to make peace, not war.
This would be a huge benefit in years to come, as the United States would not be seen as the aggressive war mongering country that for which it had the reputation.xli This was also a major negative effect however, as the US was worried that it might be seen as weak, indecisive, and incapable of defending itself. This is because people would get the impression that the US refused to act when confronted with a threat. President Kennedy did not like the diplomatic solution very much, mostly because he would not be in control of the situation.xlii In this alternative, it would be up to Khrushchev and Castro to make the decisions, a stipulation that Kennedy did not like one bit. Kennedy also did not like the fact that he might have to take away the Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Although they were not important to the United States’ defence, they were key to Turkey’s defence, something Kennedy did not want to sacrifice.xliii In the end, the disadvantages were simply too great, and this solution was deemed unacceptable.
The main reason that the diplomatic option was not pursued to resolve the crisis, was that it made the United States appear as if they were scared of the Russians, something Kennedy could not accept. With this solution, it would make the United States look like it couldn’t defend itself, and needed the United Nations’ support. This was the last thing Kennedy wanted, as the United States had always been a very independent nation throughout history. If it were to take a diplomatic solution and refuse to act, other nations might be persuaded to try and take action against the United States, thinking they wouldn’t do anything, which simply couldn’t happen.
xliv Another reason the diplomatic solution wasn’t chosen, was that at the time, the cold war had been going on for more than 15 years, and the American people were getting tired of nothing happening, they wanted Russian blood, as was evident after the Red scares that had happened after World War I and throughout the Cold War. This was seen as the easiest way to get it. Kennedy feared that if he chose a peaceful approach, the American people would take the Cold War into their own hands by violent means.xlv It was for these reasons that Kennedy decided not to choose a diplomatic approach to resolving the crisis.
Historical Opinion of Blockade
The blockade is widely seen today as the correct option by historians for many reasons. One of the main historians on the issue is Graham Allison, who wrote Essence of Decision, a historical analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, Allison describes how both the diplomatic option and the air strike option were both on either end of the scale, but each were not balanced enough. Allison stresses the importance of a solution that balances action, and communication, which is why he favours the blockade. The blockade involves the navy taking action, and yet it leaves room for future negotiations. The other two options however, both are missing one aspect. The air strike option, while it clearly demonstrates action, leaves little to no room for negotiation, while the diplomatic solution was all about negotiations, but did not display enough assertiveness. While most historians agree that the blockade alternative was the best solution, there are some who still maintain it wasn’t.
One of these historians is Dino Brugioni, who wrote Eyeball to Eyeball, a book written in 1990 about the Cuban missile crisis and the decisions made during it. Brugioni argues that that best option was the air strike option, rather than the blockade. He states that although it was a very aggressive option, it would have demonstrated to the world the true power of the Americans, and would have stopped the cold war for good. While this may seem like a very arrogant attitude, it does have some credibility, as the scenario is plausible. Brugioni is one of the few however, who do not see the blockade as having been the best option. Another main historian of the crisis is Keith Eubank, who wrote The Missile Crisis in Cuba, another analysis of the crisis.
Eubank talks most about peace, when addressing the issue of what to do to resolve the crisis. He felt both the air strike and the diplomatic solution were both very risky and could both tempt the Russians to start an all-out nuclear war. It may seem odd that a diplomatic solution would start a war, but Eubank reasons that with the crisis out in the public eye, Russia may have panicked and become worried that the world would gang up on them, and thus they would attack first, before further alliances could be made against them. In terms of the air strike, it was clear to Eubank that with the United States launching the first strike, Russia might feel as if they were justified in retaliating with nuclear missiles. The blockade is seen as the best option to Eubank, as he feels it was a gateway to further proceedings. He thought that after the blockade was in place, the Americans would have opportunities to either go ahead with the air strike, or further pursue negotiations. Most historians over the years agree that the blockade was the right thing to do, for one reason or another.
In conclusion, from my research and analysis, I can confidently say that the blockade option was the best possible choice President Kennedy could make to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The best evidence of this is the result that came from choosing this solution, Khrushchev backed down, and agreed to dismantle all offensive missiles in Cuba, and not one shot was ever fired. These results speak for themselves in that; the solution desired was obtained without violence needing to be brought in. While some critics say that Kennedy should have shown more aggressiveness and gone with the air strike option, it is my opinion that such force was unnecessary and would most likely have resulted in general war. This essay simply dealt with the three most popular solutions, but there were many more that I simply couldn’t fit in to the essay.
There are also many other issues surrounding the crisis, such as whether President Kennedy deserves all the credit for resolving the crisis, or if his brother Robert was the real mastermind who resolved it. The restraints put on this essay simply did not allow me the time or space to indulge in these other topics, although they would prove quite interesting. The 13 days in October of 1962 were the most agonizing and terrifying days of the Cold War. At any given moment, people around the world were living in fear and anxiety, wondering if Russia or the United States would launch the first missile. Thankfully, neither did, and the crisis was resolved peacefully, a big step towards the ending of the Cold War.
i Keith Eubank, The Missile Crisis in Cuba (Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2000), 5
ii Aleksandr Fursenko, One Hell of a Gamble (United States: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 12
iii Roger Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: Struggle Over Policy (United States: Praeger, 1996), 32
iv Dino A. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball (New York: Random House, 1990), 23
v Robert Smith Thompson, The Missiles of October (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 29
vi Herbert S. Dinerstein, The Making of a Missile Crisis October 1962 (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 19
vii Brugioni, 37
viii Graham Allison, Essence of Decision (New York: Longman Publishing, 1999), 127
ix Carlos Lechuga, In the Eye of the Storm (Australia: Ocean Press, 1995), 83
x Dinerstein, 26
xi Dinerstein, 30
xii Dinerstein, 35
xiii Brugioni, 52
xiv Dinerstein, 57
xv James A. Nathan, Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001), 28
xvi Mark J. White, The Cuban Missile Crisis (United States: MacMillan Press, 1996), 41
xvii White, 45
xviii Brugioni, 52
xix Dinerstein, 55
xx ibid, 51
xxi White, 49
xxii Laurence Chang, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (New York: The New Press, 1992), 73
xxiii Brugioni, 33
xxiv ibid, 34
xxv Norman H. Finklestein, Thirteen Days / Ninety Miles: The Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 62
xxvi ibid, 68
xxvii Dinerstein, 72
xxviii ibid, 78
xxix Eubank, 28
xxx Ernest R. May, The Kennedy Tapes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 44
xxxi Brugioni, 61
xxxii Hilsman, 38
xxxiii Chang, 79
xxxiv Allison, 134
xxxv May, 67
xxxvi Thompson, 31
xxxvii ibid, 35
xxxviii May, 71
xxxix Allison, 84
xl Brugioni, 69
xli Thompson, 40
xlii May, 61
xliii ibid, 64
xliv Brugioni, 68
xlv May, 83