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.

By Garry Wills
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.

Henry Kissinger assured his old academic friends during the Vietnam War that such a war must be prosecuted to the end, lest a new McCarthyism arise to ask “Who lost Vietnam?” as it had asked “Who lost China?” War became a homeopathic cure for American bellicosity—a little war taps the aggressiveness that, bottled up, might break out in a larger war. By a kind of devilish symmetry, the contemptuous manipulation of public opinion leads to a slavishness toward public opinion. Kennedy thought he could wage a war out of sight of the American people, for the people’s good; but when the Cubans responded in open ways, he could not explain their effrontery, and had to ride the wave of public fear. All the talent and willpower of the best and the brightest could not manipulate away the emotions they had aroused.

In dealing with the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy displayed what has come to be seen as a legendary restraint …

Undoubtedly there was restraint exercised in the White House, most laudably when a U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba during the tensest moments of the quarantine, before Russia had agreed to pull back …

There was also restraint, of a sort, in the quick rejection of a plan for outright conquest of the island—though no one was very serious in proposing that. The option that did get serious consideration, and toward which the president at first inclined, was a preemptive air strike to destroy the missile launching pads. If the military had not suggested technical difficulties in this procedure, it would have been given even more serious attention—though Robert Kennedy’s first reaction to the idea was to slip his brother a note saying, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor” …

Nonetheless, the course pursued was reckless. President Kennedy did not give the Russians the obvious opportunity to “save face.” In the matter of the Turkish missiles, he humiliated them gratuitously, though the missiles had no military importance for us … Kennedy had already ordered the Turkish missiles removed, and mere procedural delay had kept them in place. Not only were they of no value, they were a source of possible trouble. [State Department official Roger] Hilsman notes that they were “obsolete, unreliable, inaccurate, and very vulnerable—they could be knocked out by a sniper with a rifle and telescopic sights.”

Though the Turkish missiles meant nothing to us, they were a symbolic grievance to the Soviet Union—in fact, exactly the kind of affront we were complaining of. We felt “crowded” by missiles 90 miles from our shore. The Russians had to live with the ignominy of hostile missiles right on their border. If Kennedy’s first and only concern was the removal of the missiles from Cuba—as he and his defenders proclaimed—then a trade was the safest, surest way to achieve it. But Kennedy wanted to remove the missiles provided he did not appear forced to bargain with the Soviets to accomplish this. He must deliver the ultimatum, make demands to which Russia would act submissively. He would not, as he put it, let [Premier Nikita] Khrushchev rub his nose in the dirt. Which meant that he had to rub Khrushchev’s nose in the dirt, and that Khrushchev had to put up with it. Kennedy would even risk nuclear war rather than admit that a trade of useless missiles near each other’s countries was eminently fair. The restraint, then, was shown not by Kennedy but by Khrushchev. He was the one who had to back down, admit his maneuver had failed, and take the heat from internal critics for his policy. Macho appearance, not true security, was the motive for Kennedy’s act—surely the most reckless American act since the end of World War II.

So the reaction to missiles in Cuba was not a model of restraint, of rational decision making, of power used in peaceful ways. And was the glorious victory so glorious? It helped push [French President Charles] de Gaulle further down his independent path. Khrushchev’s loss contributed, or appeared to contribute, to his later downfall—depriving us of a leader who was easier to deal with than his successors. Besides, what was the lesson of the missile crisis for the Russians? That one should not back off in further confrontations over that island? When Jimmy Carter declared, in 1979, that the presence of Russian combat troops in Cuba was “intolerable,” there was no sign of accommodation from Russian leaders. They have only two or three enthusiastic allies outside their satellite system, and Cuba is the most important one—one they cannot afford to fail again; one no Russian leader, with the example of Khrushchev before him, will abandon. We purchased submission at the price of later intransigence.

Those who praise Kennedy for his conduct in the missile crisis often reach the conclusion that he learned pacific ways in this “restrained” success. On the contrary, he must have learned that his own and his party’s popularity soared when he could make an opponent visibly “eat crow,” even if the only way to serve up that dish was to risk national safety …

The Eisenhower years represented a tacit acceptance of limits, at odds with this aspiration toward universal control. That is what Senator Kennedy complained of when he said the country must get moving again (Walt Rostow’s phrase). A new generation must take up again the torch that had guttered out. The massive-retaliation policy had become an excuse for inaction. Little challenges around our periphery of influence were being neglected, cumulative losses not redressed …

John Kennedy had different teachers on the nature of power. They thought that any recognition of limits signaled a failure of nerve. For them the question was not can you do everything, but will you do everything? American resources were limitless—brains, science, talent, tricks, technology, money, virtuosity. The only matter to decide was whether one had the courage to use all that might—and John Kennedy, in his inaugural address, assured us that he had. In his first major speech on defense, he said: “Any potential aggressor contemplating an attack on any part of the free world with any kind of weapons, conventional or nuclear, must know that our response will be suitable, selective, swift, and effective.” Anywhere along the outmost sweep of our vast reach, we would strike if provoked.

It might not have been possible for the Romans to protect an expanding perimeter of power, one thinned by its extension to enclose the known world. But America could protect the whole world, because we had things the Romans lacked—jet planes, helicopters, napalm, defoliants, one-man water-walking rockets, computers, and theoreticians of the strategic hamlet. We could do everything, it was believed, so long as we never did, in any one spot, more than was absolutely necessary. That is where [Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara’s computers came into play—for dispatching exactly the right-sized teams to troubled spots. Admittedly, the computers could not measure such things as the strength of anti-colonial feeling. But that was considered an advantage by Kennedy’s “pragmatic” nonideologists. For them, the hard facts of cash and firepower spoke louder than sentiment …

For men holding such views, Vietnam was an ideal place to try out new tools of power—a place to prove that development could be encouraged without colonial exploitation; a place where mobility and concentration of firepower could do more than enormous armies and huge weapons; a place where the infiltrating North Vietnamese could be interdicted. Jungle and swamp would train our new guerrillas for all kinds of conditions. Despite later talk of a “quagmire” that sucked us in, Americans actually charged into Vietnam—thinking, as we did of Cuba, that a few men brilliantly directed could swiftly wrap up the whole thing.

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