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The Changing Study of The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Changing Study of The Cuban Missile Crisis

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Katherine Wilson. Originally submitted for HIST 351 at McGill University, with lecturer Prof. Brandon Mills in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Katherine Wilson. Originally submitted for HIST 351 at McGill University, with lecturer Prof. Brandon Mills in the category of Historical Studies & Archaeology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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The Changing Study of The Cuban Missile CrisisFor thirteen days in October of 1962 American citizens held their breath as theysaw their country inch closer and closer to a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.The Cuban Missile Crisis began when American U-2 reconnaissance planes photographed nuclear missile sites in Cuba. Despite The Soviet Union’s assurances thatno military aid was being given to Cuba, it was clear that Khrushchev had been lying. AsPresident of the United States, John Kennedy was shocked but knew he had to be carefulafter the Bay of Pigs disaster. Luckily for Kennedy time was on his side as he had justover a week to deal with the situation privately before addressing the American people.Kennedy established a group of trusted advisors and experts, who came to be known asthe ExComm, to help him deal with the issue. On October 22, Kennedy addressed thenation announcing the discovery of missiles in Cuba. By this time he had already had aweek to decide that he was going to quarantine the island. Kennedy continued to exhibitan outward display of confidence in rejecting Soviet proposals to reach a compromise, but back channel discussions between Washington and Moscow enabled Kennedy toresolve the crisis while saving face. In the end Khrushchev agreed to remove the missilesfrom Cuba while Kennedy publicly announced The United States would not invade Cubaand privately withdrew missiles from Turkey.In the immediate aftermath of the crisis it was clear that Kennedy came outlooking like the victor and Khrushchev the loser. More recent scholarship however has begun to question Kennedy’s leadership during the crisis. It is interesting to look at theway the study of the Cuban Missile Crisis has evolved and has been affected by differentCold War events. As already mentioned in the immediate aftermath most sourcesWilson 1
including Robert F. Kennedy’s “memoirs” reflect on the crisis as an American victory.Towards the end of the 1980’s after significant study of the Crisis had taken place andwithin the context of the dissolution of The Soviet Union, reflections on the Crisis beginto factor The Soviet Union and Khrushchev into the decision making process. Recentstudy, products of a post-Cold War era and having access to newly declassifieddocuments has begun take an approach more critical of the Kennedy administration. Themost striking features about the evolution of the study however is the way in which thediscussion went from “how to
with a crisis” to “how to
a crisis,” and who wasto take the blame.In 1969 Robert F. Kennedy’s “memoirs” entitled
Thirteen Days
was published.There is dispute as to the authenticity of this publication as it was released during RobertKennedy’s campaign for president. Either way Kennedy’s “memoirs” do provide a goodindication of what the atmosphere in the White House would have been at the time.Robert Kennedy, as President Kennedy’s brother and most trusted advisor, details themeetings of the ExComm during the thirteen days in October from the discovery of themissiles to their removal. The story begins with shock; no one had expected or anticipated that the Russians would deploy missiles to Cuba.
Robert Kennedy describeshis brother as being outraged and betrayed upon looking at the reconnaissance photosshowing missile sites in Cuba. According to Kennedy, “The President knew he wouldhave to act … The United States could not accept what the Russians had done.”
Kennedy jumps immediately to the assembling of the ExComm to discuss the optionsavailable. There were cases made for air strikes, invasions, and the blockade. According
Robert F. Kennedy,
Thirteen Days: A Memoir of The Cuban Missile Crisis,
(New York:W.W. Norton, 1969), 24.
Ibid., 33.Wilson 2
to Kennedy, Robert McNamara pushed for the blockade as it applied limited pressure,which could be increased as the circumstances warranted.
In the end however, it wasRobert Kennedy himself who was the most vehemently opposed to air strikes. He writes,“ I could not accept the idea that the United States would rain bombs on Cuba killingthousands and thousands of civilians in a surprise attack.”
By placing himself as a strong proponent for the blockade and opposed to air strikes, Kennedy in effect credits himself with convincing the President a blockade was the best way to go. It must be rememberedthat this book was published as Kennedy was launching his campaign for President; heneeded to portray himself in a flattering light. When talking about the embargo, Kennedyalso frames it in a way that made it seem like the United States was doing a favour toCuba and the Soviet Union. The quarantine of the island was taking the moral highground and The United States had every right to invade the island if they so wished.Henry M. Patcher published his book,
Collision Course
, in 1963 just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike Kennedy’s memoirs, Patcher spends some timediscussing Khrushchev’s motives for putting weapons in Cuba. Despite his attempts tounderstand Khrushchev’s motives, he constantly reverts back to the idea that Khrushchevwas unstable, irrational and wanted a showdown with the United States.
“The missiles were supposed to make the Americans uncomfortable, to dampen their enthusiasm for collective security… Khrushchev was moving toward a showdown at theend of the year and Castro was merely a pawn.”
Patcher makes little effort to understand Khrushchev’s motives for putting missiles inCuba in the context of The Bay of Pigs invasion and CIA covert operations. Patcher’s book dedicates more time to praising President Kennedy’s crisis management skills than
Ibid., 34.
Ibid, 37.
Henry Maximillian Patcher,
Collision Course,
(New York: Praeger, 1963), 26.Wilson 3

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