Did Kennedy Cause the Crisis?

Conventional wisdom has tended to rank the Cuban missile crisis as the Kennedy presidency's highest drama and grandest success. Drama, yes. But this provocative recounting of the administration's policy toward Castro's Cuba suggests that Kennedy brought the crisis on himself.
Fidel Castro addresses his fellow Cubans on October 23, after President Kennedy imposed the blockade to persuade the Soviets to remove their missiles. (Associated Press)

If the kennedys learned nothing from their first crisis with Cuba, how did they respond so wisely in the second Cuban crisis, when Russian missiles had to be removed? The orthodoxy is that such wisdom could only have been derived from lessons of the earlier mistake. But the orthodoxy assumes that the missile crisis ended in a triumph for America, and that assumption needs some looking at.

To the American public, [Fidel] Castro’s acceptance of Russian missiles looked unprovoked, mysteriously aggressive, and threatening. There was no way for Americans to know—and, at that point, no Kennedy could bring himself to inform them—that Cuban protestations of a purely defensive purpose for the missiles were genuine. We did not know what Castro knew—that thousands of [CIA] agents were plotting his death, the destruction of his government’s economy, the sabotaging of his mines and mills, the crippling of his sugar and copper industries. We had invaded Cuba once; officials high in Congress and the executive department thought we should have followed up with overwhelming support for that invasion; by our timetable of a year to bring Castro down, the pressure to supply that kind of support in a new “rebellion” was growing. All these realities were cloaked from the American people, though evident to the Russians and the Cubans.

In this game of power played apart from popular support, the Kennedys looked like brave resisters of aggression, though they had actually been the causes of it. In The Making of a Missile Crisis: October 1962, Herbert Dinerstein has established, from study of Russian materials, that the Soviet Union did not consider Latin America ripe for Communist influence until the Bay of Pigs failure. That gave them an opportunity, as continued American activity against Castro gave them an excuse, for large-scale intervention in this hemisphere.

The Russians were aiming at influence by supporting the Cuban David against a Goliath too cowardly to strike in the daylight. Americans, unaware of all this, did not bother to ask themselves hard questions about the real purpose of the missiles in Cuba. The president said the missiles being placed could strike at any city in the United States (which was not true), and implied that this was their purpose. But why would Castro launch missiles against even one of our cities, knowing it would be a suicidal act? Just one of our nuclear bombs on Havana would have destroyed his nation.

Well, then, if Castro did not have the missiles to conquer us, was he making himself a willing hostage to Russia’s designs? Would he launch his missiles in conjunction with a larger Russian attack, knowing that we could incinerate his island as a side blow to our response to Russia? Even if Castro had wanted to immolate his nation that way, his missiles would not have helped the Russians—might, rather, have been a hindrance, because of the “ragged attack” problem. If missiles were launched simultaneously from Russia and Cuba, the Cuban ones, arriving first, would confirm the warnings of Russian attack. Or, if Cuba’s missiles were launched later, radar warning of the Russian ones’ firing would let us destroy the Cuban rockets in their silos.

Then why were the missiles there? For defensive purposes, just as the Cubans said. We refused to accept this explanation, because President Kennedy had arbitrarily defined ground-to-ground missiles as “offensive,” after saying that offensive weapons would not be tolerated. Yet we called our ground-to-ground missiles on the Soviets’ Turkish border defensive. Deterrence—the threat of overwhelming response if attacked—is a category of defense when we apply it to our own weapons; but we denied the same definition to our opponents. Which meant that we blinded ourselves to the only reason Castro accepted (with some reluctance) the Russian missiles. He wanted to force the Kennedys to stop plotting his overthrow by threatening that if worse came to worst and we were ready to crush him, he would take some of our cities down with him.

Americans watched this drama, as it were, through a glass pane, unable to hear the dialogue …

President Kennedy had two dangerous situations to deal with simultaneously—the missile emplacements and American panic over them. Robert Kennedy … told the president he had to remove the missiles or be impeached. In other words, the president was a captive of his own people’s panicky emotions. Options were denied him by the American people—he could not even think of leaving the missiles in place.

Yet Kennedy had himself stirred up the feelings that limited his freedom. He had called the missiles offensive and exaggerated their range. It is understandable that he would not reveal all the American provocation that explained the presence of the missiles. But why did he have to emphasize the notion that their placement was unprovoked? He told the nation that the Russians had lied to him in promising not to send offensive weapons to Cuba. He said in his address on the crisis: “The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.” If he was chained to a necessity for acting, he forged the chains himself.

Why were the missiles there? For defensive purposes, just as the Cubans said.

In this he was renewing a cycle that has bound all our postwar presidents. In order to have freedom of maneuver, they instill a sense of crisis, but once that sense is instilled, it commits the leader to actions he did not have in mind when he instilled it. The most famous instance of this is Harry Truman’s use of Senator [Arthur] Vandenberg’s advice—if he wanted to rally support for anti-Communist aid to Greece and Turkey, he would have to “scare hell out of the country.” But once Truman had raised the specter of communism as an immediate threat to America, he had to calm the people by imposing a security program, and establishing the attorney general’s list of possible enemies of the state, which set up the machinery in 1947 that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy would use in the 1950s.

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