How Important Were Domestic Political Pressures in Shaping

On 14 October 1962, a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft revealed the existence of Soviet SS-4 and SS-5 nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba. According to historian Sheldon M. Stern, "Never before or since has the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of dangerous deliberations," drawing attention to the precarious situation the world was in and allowing reflection on the dangerous deliberations of President Kennedy when addressing the crisis. This is opposed to the widely accepted view that President Kennedy saved the world through a stern but well-measured diplomacy.


This paper will assess the significance of President Kenney's exigency to appear as a strong and capable leader domestically on the Cuban Missile Crisis and its eventual outcome. Arthur Schlesinger Jrdescribed the President’s course of action as a “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world,” which forced the Soviet Union to back down and avoid world annihilation. This paper challenges this statement and argues that the actual threat of the missiles was exaggerated. This is based on the examination of comparative military balance between the US and Russia, and communications and diplomatic correspondence.

Kennedy’s domestic dilemma

When the news of the Cuban missiles broke, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told the President that he “had to remove the missiles or be impeached.” This statement captures the dilemma that President Kennedy was caught in: either he show his strength to the American public by removing the missiles or be made politically redundant. Americans in 1962 believed Cuba to be anestablished hostile power, and were unaware of their own government's provocative actions towards Cuba. The use of mafia by Eisenhower regime to kill Castro, and training of Cuban exiles for eventual US invasion were not public knowledge. The Kennedy administration continued the provocation, which led to the Bay of Pigs anda seasoned campaign of espionage . Operation Mongoose(a covert operation to remove Castro from power), was viewed in Cuba as groundwork for an invasion of the island and Cubalooked to the Soviet Union for protection. Cuba was not necessarily looking for nuclear weapons, but grudgingly accepted the Soviet weapons, “not in order to ensure our own defense, but primarily to strengthen socialism on the international plane.”

America’s military Imbalance with the Soviet Union

While it is now known that the Soviets were looking to demonstrate the appearance of equality by installing the missiles off the American coast in Cuba, at the time of the crisis, the military imbalance between America and the Soviet Union was intentionally kept from the US public in order to boost Kennedy’s perception as a tough leader in the face of military adversity. According to Stern, Kennedy invented a false narrative of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union during his slim victory in the 1960 election in order to consolidate support from a frightened country and to highlight the supposed weaknesses of the Eisenhower administration. In reality, the Soviets did not have a significant "missile gap" with the US. According to Desmond Ballthe first public, unequivocal administration statement on military comparison between the US and Russia was "was on 21 October 1961 when Deputy Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatric said, “the United States had a second-strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first.” This is not borne out by facts.

In 1962, the US had almost nine times as many nuclear weapons with a global arsenal of 25,540 versus the Soviet’s 3,322. The Soviets had 42 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, no SLBMs, and a long-range bomber force of only 160 Bear and Bison bombers, a clear mismatch with American arsenal and capabilities.

Despite an overwhelming advantage in terms of military capability, the US pressed the Soviets by deploying medium-range missiles in Europe:60 Thor missiles in Great Britain, and "Jupiter" missiles in Italy and Turkey were deployed by the Americans with ability to strike every major city in the Soviet Union.

Therefore,Khrushchev looked to gain equality through the placement of missiles in Cuba, inearly 1962, when Minister of Defense, Rodion Malinovski reminded him of the US missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev viewed Cuba as a way to get even for this “intolerable provocation.” Russia deployed missiles in Cuba, which putKennedy in a corner. According to Robert Kennedy, the U-2 photographs showed evidence of between 16 and 32 missiles with a range of more than 1,000 miles that could be made operational within a week and could threaten the lives of 80 million Americans.

Domestic political agendas

The actions taken by President Kennedy in response to the Cuban missiles were motivated by political agenda and not military exigency. He considered the Cuban missiles more as a talking point for Republicans in the Senate and House who were up for reelection in November. Republican Senators, Keating and Capehart, charged the White House with inaction against a Soviet build-up in Cuba in September and October. Senator Homer Capehart, in particular, was an outspoken critic and pressed Kennedy publicly for military action. On 20 September, the Senate passed a resolution, by a vote of 86 to 1, authorising the use of force in Cuba. The Republicans were effectively making Cuba a political issue that Kennedy would have to face.

Kennedy’s position was made more precarious by the discovery of new Soviet arms every week in October; however, these arms were either obsolete or on their way to being phased out, which shows that Kennedy was aware that the arms did not present much threat to the US; for instance,Soviet IL-28 bomber assembly were considered obsolete by the Soviets and considered ineffectual by Kennedy.. However, there were domestic political compulsions. CIA Director John McCone accepted that thePresident requested for this information to be withheld until after the election as otherwise his “independence of action” would be impeded if the issue were politicised. The phrase, “independence of action” clearly indicated that Kennedy was aware that political forces would dictate his course of engagement.

On 16 October, the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, informed Kennedy of hard photographic evidence of offensive Russian missiles in Cuba. Kennedys response, “He can’t do that to me,” was a clear reflection of Kennedy’s anger in terms of the domestic situation. The Soviet move came just two months before the mid-term elections and shortly after the failure of the Bay of Pigs. In the midst of the 1964 campaign political opponents were demanding military action. Moreover, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater looked likely to win the Republican nomination and Kennedy was wary of being charged by Goldwater of being "soft on communism."

Deliberations within the administration

In a discussion between Joint Chiefs of Staffand President Kennedy on 16 October, we learn that the President believed that Berlin was likely at the heart of the issue. Surrounded by a very bellicose group of advisors urging stronger action, Kennedy attempted to balance force with reason and to argue that it did not matter much that the missiles were placed in Cuba or Europe. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara made a similar statement, regarding the placement of the missiles, at the first meeting of the ExComm saying “a missile is a missile…it makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.”

The ExComm was a secret group of high-level government officials including President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, military and national security experts and Cabinet members organised to oversee the crisis and develop appropriate responses. The group was largely hawkish and pushed for direct military action.

There were four original plans discussed on the 16th based on the intensity and probable effect on the world. The first was an option to do nothing followed by a plan for a blockade and then a plan to strategically take out the missiles with limited strikes. The most aggressive preference was one of a full attack and land invasion. Kennedy steered the conversation in the direction of acting at some level, rather than do nothing, and makes it clear that political concerns are at the forefront of his mind when he states that he does not think that they “ought to abandon just knocking out these missile bases as opposed to, that's much more, uh, defensible, explicable, politically or satisfactory-in-every-way action than the general strike.”

To reaffirm the pressure politically on the administration, McNamara then makes the point that an "Act" of doing something to confront the Soviets is what will ultimately be meaningful..

Kennedy believed that the Soviets did not want a war any more than the US, but was also aware that if he took any action, there would be a counter action from the Soviets. His statement to General Curtis LaMay clarifies this: “They, no more than we, can let things go by without doing something. They can’t after all their statements, permit us to take out their missiles, kill lots of Russians, and then do nothing. If they don’t take action in Cuba, they certainly will in Berlin.”. It was clear at this point that Kennedy realised that the danger, although real, was improbable unless the US struck first. This makes the actions he finally took, dangerous.

Diplomatic correspondence and ultimate action

In a top-secret message from Kennedy to British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, on 21 October, Kennedy made clear that he believed Khrushchev's prime objective might have been to use Cuba as a bargaining chip for Berlin. The British believed that a failure to act would have the utmost political impact on Kennedy, with Sir David Ormsby, the British Ambassador to Washington stating, "(if Kennedy) did nothing, his friends and Allies would come to the conclusion that he was afraid to move and Khrushchev would be bound to assume that the Americans, for all their tough words, would be prepared to sit supine and inactive whatever he, Khrushchev, did..

On 21 October, President Kennedy decided to move forward with a blockade of Cuba instead of an attack, a less aggressive option and more flexible action, allowing the two countries a way out without committing to military conflict. This decision was necessitated by the domestic political compulsions more than the actual threat from the Soviets. Importantly, this decision was made with the knowledge that an air attack would possibly not destroy all of the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The President addressed the nation on 22 October to garner support for his decision. As he went on air, America was assembling the largest invasion force since June 1944, as a contingency to the blockade, including aircraft and munitions for 500 airstrikes on the missile locations, airfields and various Cuban ports, 180 ships, andthe entire B-52 bomber force fully loaded with nuclear weapons. It is important to recognise the significance of this mobilisation given Kennedy’s view that the Russian threat was negligible.

Kennedy explained his decision for a blockade in a confident and well-orchestrated delivery. The quarantine was merely the first step and if unsuccessful, would be followed by military action. Importantly, Kennedy knowing that the Cuban missiles were not potentially a threat, told the nation that “The purpose of these bases…can mean none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” This paved the way for him to show himself to be a strong leader taking on a nuclear threat. On the other hand,ExComm tapes indicate clearly that Kennedy believed the missiles represented more of a political challenge and much less of an offensive military threat. Still he issued an ultimatum to a nuclear superpower that evening, creating a situation that could have had irreversible consequences.

Two days later, Kennedy wrote to the Soviet premier reiterating that neither country wanted war stating, “I am concerned that we both show prudence and do nothing to allow events to make the situation more difficult to control than it is.” Thus, on the side, Kennedy was creating face saving options for the Soviets. On 23 October, he further allowed the actual quarantine line of 800 miles off the Cuban coast be changed to 500 miles so that the Soviet ships had more time to react.

On the morning of the 24th, initial reports told of a steady stream of 25 Soviet ships, 14 of which were believed to be carrying missiles, approaching the quarantine zone. In seeing the advancing transports, the President commented to his brother Robert that although this seems mean it was unavoidable or he would have been impeached.

Two days later, on the morning of the 26th, the US stopped and boarded the first vessel, the Marucla, a Panamanian owned ship registered in Lebanon that did not represent a “direct affront to the Soviets,” giving them more time but also demonstrating the US resolve. One day later on 27th, the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, killing pilot Major Rudolf Anderson and prompting the Pentagon to push for a retaliatory strike with the US Navy anti-submarine warfare forces depth charging the Soviet submarine B-59 and forcing it to the surface. .

Research tells us just how precarious the situation of the 27th was in the quarantine zone. Keith Grint described a chaotic and potentially devastating situation that the politicians had no control over. This is clear from the decision taken by the commander of the Soviet submarine B-59 to fire a nuclear-armed torpedo at the US Navy ships,whose yield “approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945.” This event could not have been anticipated by President Kennedy and yet it was a possibility, which was fortunately averted because the Soviet submarine’s second in command, Vasily Arkhipov, refused to fire on the US ships, a decision that later caused many to celebrate him as "the man who saved the world." Had he not taken the decision, countless American lives would have been lost. This appears to be a result of some dangerous and unnecessary action by President Kennedy for political reasons because even on the26th, Kennedy was aware that the Soviets were not looking for conflict. At 4:43 pm Moscow time, Khrushchev delivered a letter to the US Embassy, making it clear that war must be avoided at all costs. He went on to discuss the uselessness in a nuclear conflict with America saying, “Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this.” This shows that Soviets had already made a first step towards toning down of the rhetoric. Moreover,

Khrushchev acknowledged that Soviet missiles were already in Cuba explaining that they" were necessary for the defence of Cuba.” He finished by reiterating his desire for peace stating, "Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot.”

According to historian Michael Dobbs, thewell-worn myth of Secretary of State, Dean Rusk’s statement, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked," was propaganda designed for domestic purposes. In his research, Dobbs uncovers that the Soviet transport ship Kiovsk was not near the US warships when the famous statement was made. Instead, Dobbs discovered that the ship had turned around the day before. This statement gave the impression of a well-honed strategy while misrepresenting the danger of what was an enormously unpredictable outcome.

Resolution and summary of findings

Kennedy pursued a dual course of stopping the delivery of further missiles through a blockade and inducing the removal of the weapons through diplomacy. Kennedy claimed to take this approach from Basil Liddell Hart, a British military analyst whose negotiating approach was:“Keep Strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes -so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the Devil-nothing is so self binding.” In this regard, negotiations could have been private, but instead, Kennedy offered what amounted to a public ultimatum designed to show strength at home.

On 26 October, President Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchevstating that "The missiles would be removed if the US promised not to invade Cuba." However, the Soviet overture was misrepresented in domestic press, which said that "Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey." This precipitated the near disastrous events of the 27th.

After the declassification of documents and archives in the 1980s, we learned that there was an unequivocal but private deal to trade the missiles. Kennedy demanded that the deal be kept secret from the American public or it would be rescinded. In a telegram to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Dobrynin highlighted the administration’s desire for secrecy quoting a conversation he had with Robert Kennedy, in which the latter discussed severe political repercussions to himself if the letters were made public.

Very few in the administration were aware of the secret trade. At the same time, the administration went on a public relations blitz to boast of its toughness and the Soviet capitulation. There was, however, some restraint, for example when the U2 was shot down, Kennedy asked the ExComm to put themselves in the Soviets shoes, commenting “I think we ought to think why the Russians did this.”. Although Kennedy did not think Khrushchev would start a war that he was bound to lose, he did not make it easy for him to back down, which, given the potential consequences, was reckless.

In his letter of 22 October, Kennedy wrote, "No country could win, and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world,” believing his opponent to be of the same mindset. His views may well have been correct; however, the crisis involved a multitude of uncontrollable scenarios and players with their agendas that could have ultimately changed the course of history.

Raymond Garthoff, describes the pure admiration in the US for Kennedy's handling of the crisis. Much of this praise was the result of Schlesinger's glowing review of Kennedy's "toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom." He “consistently rose above his own Cold war rhetoric...and even audaciously steered the ship of state away from nuclear confrontation,” while continuing to demonstrate unwavering strength to the public. Something that has been lost in many historian’s reviews of the crisis is Kennedy’s lasting “contempt” with military leaders’ solutions to political challenges. This view appears now to be generous considering that Kennedy took an unnecessarily strong stance when he was aware of the Soviet compulsions and need to create some military equality considering the US missiles in Britain and Turkey. Instead, Kennedy put political conditions first. He continued this political posturing by reaching out toPresident Eisenhower for consultation where he did not inform the latter of theTurkish side of the trade.


Today we know that the Cuban missile crisis was considerably more perilous than Kennedy or is advisors understood at the time US estimates of 10,000 Soviet troops in Cuba were woefully less than the actual number of 43,000. Most importantly, in addition to the SS-4 and SS-5 ballistic missiles, there were also tactical nuclear weapons and the local commanders had the authorisation to use them in case of an invasion.

After World war II, the US developed an ideology that it alone had the sole right to determine how and where nuclear weapons were deployed. This belief included installing missiles located on the Soviet's doorstep in Europe and was accompanied by the view that Cuba had no rights whatsoever, to position missiles as a defence against a probable US invasion. To defend these philosophies, Kennedy believed it entirely proper to gamble with the unthinkable and to rebuff rational ways to end the conflict. These actions were done for political objectives, given the lack of an imminent and credible threat to the US.

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At home, Kennedy emerged from the crisis as the victor. His political capital was heightened with his approval rating increasing to 74% in the first Gallup Poll taken. Across the party, Democrats registered success in the aftermath of the crisis, and many of Kennedy's most ardent critics like Senator Capehart were defeated along with Richard Nixon in his campaign to be California governor.


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