Cuban Missile Crisis: Why did Kennedy respond as he did?

Why did Kennedy react as he did to the Soviet deployment of missiles on Cuba?

On October 15th, 1962, an American spy plane flying over Cuba took a series of photographs. Analysis of the photographs confirmed what CIA agents had feared for several weeks. The Soviet Union had missile sites on Cuba.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Photographic evidence of a missile site on Cuba.

Why is America worried about missiles being placed on Cuba?

Cuba was now an ally of the Soviet Union. In 1961 the US had backed a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government. Missiles on the island would be able to reach far inside mainland America. Analysis of the photographic evidence suggested that these missiles were not just Surface To Air (SAM) missiles that are purely defensive in nature but medium range nuclear missiles: which were considered to be offensive weapons. This poses a few questions: What motives have the Soviet Union and Cuba got for placing offensive weapons on the Island? and What should be done about the development?

Timeline of the Cuban Missile Crisis

American Response / Action Reason for this action being taken
October 15th – Photographs taken by a U2 spy plane are analysed by military experts. They show that missile sires are in place in Cuba. President Kennedy is informed. He calls a meeting of top officials (held the next day) to discuss the situation. Kennedy needed to know what the exact situation was and what the options were.
October 16th – Kennedy asks whether the missiles are operational and what his advisors think the options, and their consequences would be. Kennedy asks his advisors to continue surveillance flights and to begin preparations for an air strike on Cuba and an invasion. Knowing whether or not the missiles are operational informs Kennedy what timescale he has to work within. Asking for a range of options gives him a choice. Continued surveillance ensures that information is up to date and accurate.

Kennedy’s options at this point were:

  • Air Strikes to take out the missile sites
  • Invade Cuba
  • Negotiate a deal with the Soviet UnioDo nothing as the US had more than enough missiles to counter this new threat.
  • Place Cuba under Quarantine to stop missiles arriving
  • Use Nuclear Weapons against Cuba or the Soviet Union
October 17th – Ongoing U2 flights over Cuba. Advisors consider the options and make intial plans for each of them. Kennedy is covering all options here and giving himself and his team thinking time.
October 18th – CIA analysts report that there is evidence of medium range weapons on Cuba, not just short range missiles. This hardens the line of those advocating an immediate military response. Under Secretary of State, George Ball, comments that such action would be: “without giving Khrushchev some way out.” President Kennedy meets with Gromyko, who assures him that there are only defensive weapons on Cuba. Gromyko was the Soviet Foreign Secretary. Having this discussion allows Kennedy to open up diplomatic channels which has the potential to reach a settlement without provoling conflict. It also alerts the Soviet Union to the fact that America are aware of the missiles and considering their options.
October 19th – President Kennedy meets with the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They discuss military options. Again, Kennedy is thinking through the various options available to him and making sure that things are in place to enact whichever option he decides is the correct course of action.
October 20th – President Kennedy cancels appointments and visits, citing ill health. He orders preparations for a defensive quarantine of Cuba to begin. A television appearance about the crisis is booked.. America was undergoing mid term elections at this time so President Kennedy and other leading politicians would be expected to be on the campaign trail. He needed to be able to focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis without alarming the public, so citing a minor health issue is used to prevent the public being concerned.

The television appearance is booked because reporters were aware of the crisis. Some of them had been approached by Soviet spies. Kennedy needed to make the story public himself so that the situation wasn’t inflamed by the press.

October 21st – General Maxwell Taylor advises that an air strike might not take out all of the missiles. Kennedy orders the quarantine to go ahead. The media are warned that any leaks of the crisis may lead to Soviet action. Choosing to place Cuba under Quarantine is risky – the Soviets might ignore the blockade and provoke armed response – but not as likely to result in all out war as alternative actions would take. It also provides time for the Soviet Union to come to the negotiating table.
October 22nd – Leaders of Congress are shown photographic evidence of the missile sites. Marines are sent to reenforce the base at Guantanamo Bay. Kennedy goes on live television and announces the presence of the missiles to the nation. The US military is put on DEFCON 3. Kennedy needs to ensure that leading politicians are aware of the situation. This is especially important given the elections that are about to take place.

Guantanamo Bay is a US base on Cuba. If there is military action, the base will become a very important strategic site – and be under immediate threat.

DEFCON 3 is a security alert level. It places the armed forces at readiness for war.

October 23rd – The quarantine line is in place. Robert Kennedy is sent to talk to Ambassador Dobrynin. Khruschev sends Kennedy a letter that says that the quarantine leads to a “serious threat to peace and security of peoples”. Kennedy changes the quarantine line from 800 to 500 miles from Cuba. Changing the Quarantine line from 800 to 500 miles provides the Soviet Uunion and America with crucial extra time to avoid bringing the crisis to a head.
October 24th – All but one Soviet vessels on route to Cuba slow down or change course. US forces are placed on DEFCON 2. Placing US forces on DEFCON 2 puts them at the highest state of readiness that they have been since the end of the Second World War. It means that if the one ship still on course at full speed does not comply with the Quarantine restrictions, that force could be deployed immediately.
October 25th – Kennedy writes to Khruschev laying the blame for the crisis in the hands of the Soviet Union. The Executive Committee of the National Security Council proposes offering a deal – no missiles in Cuba in return for US missiles being withdrawn from Turkey. Writing to Khruschev keeps diplomatic channels open. It makes it clear that there are things that are and are not acceptable to the United States and provides scope for a response. Discussing deals at EXCOMM shows that this is part of a diplomatic effort to secure a peaceful solution to the crisis.
October 26th – Former KGB spy Aleksandr Fomin proposes a halt to the building of the missile sites in return for a public guarantee that the US will never invade Cuba. Kennedy receives a letter from Khruschev that proposes exactly the same thing. Talking to Fomin shows that the US were willing to consider many options. It sends a message that they are willing to reach an agreement.
October 27th – A new letter from Khrushchev arrives, proposing a public trade of Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. missile in Turkey. A U2 spy plane is shot down over Cuba. Dobrynin and Robert Kennedy meet again to discuss a solution. President Kennedy tells Khruschev that he will make a public statement saying that the US will never invade Cuba. Kennedy’s reaction to the shooting down of the U2 spy plane was calm and considered. Many advisors would advocate an immediate retaliatory response. That would almost certainly have resulted in follow up actions being taken by the Cubans / Soviets. Ongoinf diplomatic talks at the height of the crisis show that there is a determination to reach a peaceful conclusion to the crisis.
October 28th – Khruschev announces on Radio Moscow that the missiles are being withdrawn. Secretly, Kennedy agrees to withdraw US missiles from Turkey. Opting to make the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey secret is a political move by Kennedy. He doesn’t appear to have made concessions to the Soviet Union which is vital to his parties chances in the mid-term elections. The fact that the Soviets allow this to be kept secret suggests that they were happier to work with Kennedy than with his political opponents.
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