Institution: University of Aberdeen
Author: Christopher J. Grundy
Tutor: Tamara Szucs
“The main reason so much attention has been given to the crisis is that it has rightly been regarded as the most intensive, dangerous, and climactic crisis of the cold war.”
On the 16th of October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis commenced with the discovery of constructions on Cuba, designed to facilitate medium- range Soviet missiles, and ended on the 28th of October 1962, prominently lasting thirteen days. Due to the tremendous significance of the Cuban Missile Crisis there is abundance in literature available on the subject, with innumerable historian giving varied and contesting interpretations of the events leading up to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This essay will arrive at an inference through extensive analysis of these interpretations by primary, secondary and electroic sources and will effectively convey the key role played by President John F. Kennedy. The importance of Kennedys’ role in the de-escalation and resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis is emphasized in Henry Kissinger’s book Diplomacy, in which the author eloquently and authoritatively accredits the resolution of the crisis almost exclusively to Kennedy’s statesmanship. Munton and Welch, authors of The Cuban Missile Crisis: a concise history contend this argument by claiming that the actions of Fidel Castro, political figurehead of Cuba, were most significant in the peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Garthoff on the other hand propounds the interpretation that compliance between the two super-powers would have been impossible, if both sides had been disinclined to make concessions in the weeks of negotiations, and it is the negotiations between the USA and the Soviet Union which was the key factor. Joseph Nye articulates an alternative interpretation in his book Understanding International Conflicts in which he puts forward the supposition that it was the Soviet Union’s military inferiority which inevitably led to a peaceful outcome, with nuclear weaponry acting as a deterrent for the outbreak of war. It can be deduced from the above that there are a myriad of different legitimate interpretations into this particular episode of history and a continuing theme throughout this essay will be the debunking or verification of these opinions through the use of reliable sources and the benefit of hindsight.
In order to put the Cuban Missile Crisis in context it must be acknowledged as the most perilous stage in the Cold War and was thus preceded by bitter and antagonist relations between the Soviet Union and the USA. “What makes the Cold War exceptional is that it was a period of protracted tension that did not end in a war between two rival superpowers.”A very prominent argument for the avoidance of nuclear war in the cold war period are the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, and his attempts to relax the tensions between the two countries, an interpretation supported by Munton and Welch in their book The Cuban Missile Crisis. This interpretation of the circumstances is founded on the content of the letters composed by Khrushchev and addressed to Kennedy between the 26th and 28th of October.
A letter, received by Kennedy on the 26th of October, was emotive and sympathetic towards the USA and an evident attempt at stabilizing the relationship between the two nations. An extract from this letter expresses this unmistakably: “If assurances were given by the President and the Government of the United States that the USA itself would not participate in an attack on Cuba… this would immediately change everything.”On the 27th of October Khrushchev was informed by Anatoly Dobynin, Soviet Ambassador to the United States of America, that Kennedy was besieged by augmenting domestic pressure, demanding military action against the Soviet Union. Khrushchev “seized the moment,” and instantaneously dictated a letter addressed to Kennedy. The Letter was written in an understanding, yet expressive tone, proposing many compromises which would stabilize relations between the two superpowers.
The most significant and central of these propositions was Khrushchev’s willingness to remove the offensive weapons from Cuba in exchange for the removal of American medium range missiles from Turkey.” We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive. We are willing to carry this out and to make this pledge in the United Nations.”This excerpt from Khrushchev’s letter is inexorable evidence that on the 27th of October the Soviet Union was disposed to reaching a peaceful outcome to the crisis, and would thus support the supposition that it was mainly Khrushchev’s readiness to compromise which was the key factor in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The basis of this interpretation crumbles however, when the letters are examined in context, as it becomes evident that they were merely the impulsive reactions of a politician who was increasingly overwhelmed by the situation. Conformation of this hypothesis can be found by analyzing Khrushchev’s letter to Kennedy, sent on the 25th of October, which accentuated the “irreconcilable” nature of American actions just a day after Kennedy received a message from Khrushchev that was: “Undiplomatic and emotional… contained suggestions which seemed to offer a path to peaceful settlement”. Khrushchev’s completely contradictory messages convey that his letters to Kennedy were impulsive and ill thought out, confusing and unsettling the American government to the extent that “Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev simply ignored the… second letter.”
An Interpretation expounded by Reymond Garthoff focuses on Fidel Castro’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis and attributes its peaceful conclusion to his communications with Nikita Khrushchev. By late October communications with the Soviet Union were virtually non-existent, a development which caused considerable apprehension in Castro and eventually stimulated a letter he addressed to Khrushchev, expressing his deep concern for the safety of Cuba.
The letter, composed on the morning of the 27th of October, was in Castro’s own words, “aimed at encouraging him.”If this was in actuality his intent, he failed miserably. “Khrushchev interpreted it as a call for a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. It had the precisely opposite effect of the on Castro intended, for Khrushchev was already beginning to fear that events were getting out of hand and was preparing to throw in the towel.”From this statement it is possible to deduce that Castro did indeed have an impact on the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in a completely un-intended manner, by precipitating Khrushchev’s decision to opt for a peaceful settlement.
John F. Kennedy is considered by many historians, such as Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye, to have been the most important factor in the resolution of the Cuban Missile crisis. “President Kennedy reminded us of the 1914 conversation between two german chancellors on the origins of that war. One asked, “How did it happen?” and his successor replied,”Ah, if we only knew.” It was Kennedy’s way of stressing the constant danger of miscalculation.”
This firsthand account by McNamara, the Secretary of State, displays the care and attentiveness with which Kennedy handled the events taking place during the Cuban Missile crisis, invigorating the view that Kennedy made accurate and calculated decisions in relation to the Soviet Union although: “both Kennedy and Khrushchev feared that rational strategies and careful calculations might spin out of control.”Kennedy treated the crisis with calm and fortitude, even when pressure was building on him domestically he remained collected, adamant not to make a mistake. “The risks of losing control weighed heavily on President Kennedy, who took a very cautious position-indeed, more prudent than some of his advisers would have liked.”It is incontestable that Kennedy’s calm and affirmative actions were highly significant in the aversion of nuclear war and the peaceful resolution.
In conclusion, it is rational to suggest, after deliberating on the interpretations expounded in this essay, that Kennedy was the most important factor in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was he who, on the 27th of October 1962, sent an authoritative, yet factual message to Khrushchev which effectively put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This passage from Kennedy’s letter expresses the willingness to negotiate and compromise in order to avert war: “I have given my representatives in New York instructions that will permit them to work out this week…an arrangement for a permanent solution to the Cuban problem along the lines suggested in your letter.”
Gaddis, J.L. Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An interpretive history, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1978.
Garthoff, R.L. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1987.
Nye, J.S. Understanding International Conflicts: An introduction to theory and history. New York: Longman, 2009.
Kissinger, H, Diplomacy. London: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Judge, E.H. and Langdon, J.W. The Cold War: A history through Documents. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Munton, D. and Welch, D.A. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A concise history. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.