The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): Diplomacy Played as Poker


This thirteen-day crisis is remembered as the closest the world has ever come to a nuclear Armageddon. In the fifty-two years since the fall of 1962, the indispensable role diplomacy and restraint played in safely deescalating this confrontation is commonly forgotten. This diplomatic episode is unique in the sense that the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union – John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev – were at the center of the decision making process. President Kennedy, during a White House meeting, stated “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization”(1). Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were using diplomacy to play a game of high stakes poker with the fate of humanity in the balance with neither willing to back down until the last minute. This map focuses on the United States’ relations with Cuba before 1962, the thirteen-day nuclear crisis, and its resolution.

The list of major events on this map highlight two of the most historically important policies the United States pursued in international affairs — the policy of containment (1947) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). In the years after the conclusion of World War II, the United States, led by President Harry S. Truman, adopted the policy of containment in an effort to curb Soviet expansion and the spread of communism. When the Cuban revolutionary, Fidel Castro, took power and declared the country communist in 1959, the United States adhered to their policy of containment and was committed to deposing Castro. The CIA and President Kennedy failed to accomplish this task by means of the covert invasion at the Bay of Pigs (2). With regards to the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has long upheld keeping foreign influence from the Western hemisphere and would not stand for Soviet influence in Cuba.

This map depicts the military and political operations that took place before, during, and after the Cuban Missile crisis. Each of these events is denoted by a flag of the respective country associated with the military or political operation. More specifically, this map aims to accentuate the diplomatic correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the crisis. A black building with a flag next to it represents these points on the map. Lastly, the map portrays the role that international institutions played in resolving the crisis by generating global support. An orange flag characterizes these posts. These events are critical to understanding the causes, motivations, and the diplomatic solutions associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This map is presented in chronological order of when each event occurred. Throughout the post-World War II era, the United States and Soviet Union were fighting to gain permanence on the world stage. This struggle most clearly manifested itself through a nuclear arms race. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the tipping point, in which the two super powers came closest to war (3). The causes and motivations that led to the delivery of Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba were multifaceted. Khrushchev believed he could sneak the missiles into Cuba because he perceived Kennedy as young and ineffective after his failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. When speaking about deployment of missiles, Khrushchev explicitly asked why we don’t throw “a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants” (4). The Soviet leader was encouraged to do so due to a lagging missile gap with the United States, the need to defend his Cuban ally from invasion, and pressures to force concessions with the occupation of Western Germany. Khrushchev also made pushes to respond forcefully to American nuclear weapons in Turkey, to show strength, and to concede to domestic pressures at home (5). Khrushchev’s gamble would soon be exposed by American intelligence agencies and would spark the infamous thirteen-day nuclear crisis.

On October 13, 1962 a U-2 spy plane captured the first images of a Soviet nuclear build up in San Cristobal, Cuba. The photos were analyzed on October 14, sent to Washington D.C. on the 15th, and were given to President Kennedy the morning of Tuesday the 16th – officially marking the first day of the crisis. The President responded by calling together the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a team of expert advisors called ExComm. From the intelligence gathered, they concluded that if the Soviets could make these weapons operational, they could strike any where in the Western hemisphere with nuclear force. The meetings in the White House produced two possible courses of action – an air strike followed by an invasion or a naval quarantine with the threat of force (6). On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy informed the world on television of the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba and of his decision to enforce a naval quarantine on Soviet ships bound for the island.

This decision was a stroke of diplomatic genius, allowing Kennedy to buy time and petition support from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN) (7). On October 24, Khrushchev responded to the naval quarantine by sending a letter that called the blockade an act of war and explaining his decision to order Soviet ships to continue their course towards Cuba. By this time, the United States had already gained a unanimous vote from the OAS supporting the quarantine and authorizing action to make sure the missiles would not threaten the Western hemisphere. The United States was also preparing to present its case to the UN on October 25 by sending representative, Adlai Stevenson, with photos of the missile sites (8). This international support and multilateralism allowed the United States to exert more diplomatic pressure on Khrushchev.

On October 26, 1962, Khrushchev sent a letter to President Kennedy presenting terms of a peace settlement. Before receiving a response, Khrushchev sent another letter on October 27 with a much harsher tone that demanded the removal of American nuclear weapons in Turkey. On the very same day, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, effectively reigniting the crisis (9). Kennedy’s Joint Chiefs of Staff now pushed for war, but the President practiced restraint, agreeing to a peaceful settlement the next day, October 28. This peace agreement called for the removal of all nuclear weapons in Cuba and the dismantlement of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

The agreement immediately went into effect and the Soviets began deconstructing their missile sites in Cuba. On December 1, 1962, the last Soviet Missiles and warheads left the island. Shortly after, the Jupiter missiles were scrapped and their nuclear warheads were returned home in April of 1963 (10). This was not viewed as a strategic loss because the Jupiter missiles were due to come off line, because they were obsolete. In terms of leverage and diplomacy, the United States viewed the agreement as a victory, effectively negotiating the removal of nuclear weapons from Cuba without having to sacrifice anything of importance.

The Cuban Missile crisis was an event in which the world’s two most powerful nations at the time held the fate of the world in their hands. Without the use of shrewd diplomacy and restraint, this conflict could have very easily escalated into a full-out nuclear war. One mistake could have caused mutually assured destruction for the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies. The Cuban Missile Crisis had a lasting impact on the international system and allowed for the first steps towards dètente to be taken (11).

 

 

(1) It Is Insane That Two Men Sitting on opposite.” Presidential Libraries. Tumbler, 5 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

(2) Munton, Don. Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. pg. 14-20.

(3) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. pg. 719.

(4) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. pg. 720.

(5)  Munton, Don. Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. pg. 22-24.

(6) Cuban Missile Crisis – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.”Cuban Missile Crisis – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

(7) Weaver, Michael E. “The Relationship between Diplomacy and Military Force: An Example from the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Diplomatic History38.1 (2014): 137-81. Print. (8) Munton, Don. Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. pg. 68-73.

(9) Cuban Missile Crisis – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.”Cuban Missile Crisis – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

(10) Munton, Don. Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. pg. 92-93.

(11) Munton, Don. Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2011. Print. pg. 94-95.


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