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Overview of President Kennedy, the Cold War, and Cuba


The late 1950s were marked by a series of Cold War crises that strained superpower
relations. In 1956 the Soviets brutally repressed a democratic uprising in Hungary. The
United States did nothing for fear of starting World War III. A year later, the Soviets tested
the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching U.S. soil. In 1958,
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to start a war over control of the German city
of Berlin. War was averted, but the Soviets built the Berlin Walla wall of barbed wire and
concreteto divide democratic West Berlin from communist East Berlin. In 1960
an American U-2 spy plane was shot down while taking photographs of Soviet military
installations.
By 1961 Cold War tensions were perhaps most serious in the island nation of Cuba, south
of Florida in the Caribbean Sea. Fidel Castro and his Communist revolutionary followers had
overthrown a corrupt dictator and risen to power in Cuba on New Year's Day, 1959. Weeks
later, Castro suspended most civil rights, established military rule across the island, and
embraced the Soviet Union and Communist China as allies. Thousands of Cubans felt
betrayed by Castro and fled to the United States.
When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he made it clear that he would not
back down before the Soviet threat. In his inaugural address, Kennedy said the United
States would "bear any burden" and "pay any price" for the cause of freedom worldwide. He
vowed to take the lead in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, continuing the U.S. foreign
policy, dominant since World War II, of containing Soviet communism around the globe.
During his first week in office, Kennedy learned of a plan to overthrow Castro by
sponsoring an invasion by Cuban exiles at a site called the Bay of Pigs. This plan had been
conceived by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the last months of the term of
Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower. Kennedy's key advisers said the CIA plan would work
and should go forward. Somewhat reluctantly, Kennedy finally agreed.
The Bay of Pigs operation was a disaster. Few of the Cuban exiles participating in the
invasion had any significant military training, and their equipment consisted of World
War Il-era U.S. military castoffs. Most significantly, the CIA had told the exiles that they
Would have the support of U.S. troops. Kennedy, however, had pledged that he would not
directly involve U.S. forces. The CIA believed that Kennedy would change his mind when
American prestige was at stake, but the president did not. Less than 72 hours after the exiles
landed at the Bay of Pigs, Castro's soldiers, using Soviet-supplied tanks, guns, and
ammunition, had completely defeated them. Embarrassed by the failure of the invasion,
Kennedy quickly approved another plancalled Operation Mongooseto use the CIA to
disrupt the Cuban economy and possibly to assassinate Fidel Castro. The Soviets and the
Cubans responded by planning a secret military buildup on the island. The stakes for Cuba in
ihe Cold War rivalry were high, and in October 1962, the superpower competition erupted in
^hat many experts call the most serious and dangerous crisis of the Cold War.
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The Cold War 57

Student Handout

IKBl

TOP SECRET BRIEFING A


To:
P r e s i d e n t John F. Kennedy and a d v i s o r s
From: The U.S. I n t e l l i g e n c e Community
Re:
N u c l e a r M i s s i l e s i n Cuba, mid October 1962
Mr. P r e s i d e n t , on October 14, 1962, American U-2 spy p l a n e s photographed
a m i s s i l e l a u n c h pad under c o n s t r u c t i o n on t h e i s l a n d o f Cuba. T h i s
l a u n c h pad, when completed, would a l l o w t h e f i r i n g o f S o v i e t - s u p p l i e d
n u c l e a r weapons w i t h a range o f 1,000 m i l e s e n o u g h t o p u t t h e l i v e s o f
80 m i l l i o n Americans a t r i s k s h o u l d t h e m i s s i l e s be f i r e d a t
the United S t a t e s .
A f t e r t h e Bay o f P i g s i n v a s i o n f a i l e d t o o v e r t h r o w F i d e l C a s t r o i n Cuba,
S o v i e t p r e m i e r N i k i t a Khrushchev p l e d g e d he would n o t p u t o f f e n s i v e
n u c l e a r m i s s i l e s i n Cuba. I t i s now c l e a r t h a t Khrushchev was l y i n g and
cannot be t r u s t e d . The s t a t e o f r e a d i n e s s o f t h e l a u n c h pads i n d i c a t e s
t h a t t h e S o v i e t s have been s e c r e t l y s h i p p i n g n u c l e a r m i s s i l e s f o r months.
I t appears they may be ready t o f i r e v e r y soon.
The m i s s i l e s i n Cuba a r e p a r t o f what appears t o be a huge arms b u i l d u p
t o s h o r e up Communist c o n t r o l o f Cuba. We b e l i e v e t h e r e a r e as many as
20,000 S o v i e t " t e c h n i c i a n s " i n Cuba a t t h i s t i m e . The S o v i e t s may be
armed w i t h t a c t i c a l - - s m a l l b a t t l e f i e l d n u c l e a r weapons u n d e t e c t a b l e from
the a i r . I n a d d i t i o n , t h e S o v i e t s have i n s t a l l e d a r i n g o f SAMs ( s u r f a c e t o - a i r m i s s i l e s ) t h a t a r e c a p a b l e o f s h o o t i n g down any American a i r c r a f t
the U n i t e d S t a t e s uses t o m a i n t a i n s u r v e i l l a n c e o f t h e s i t u a t i o n ,
As you and y o u r a d v i s o r s a r e aware, Mr. P r e s i d e n t , t h e U n i t e d S t a t e s
m a i n t a i n s c l e a r s u p e r i o r i t y t o t h e S o v i e t s i n t h e n u c l e a r arms r a c e .
The number o f ICBMs i n U.S. a r s e n a l s i s n e a r l y d o u b l e t h a t o f t h e
S o v i e t s . A l s o , U.S. n u c l e a r m i s s i l e s i n Turkey p r o v i d e a d i s t i n c t
advantage. Remember, t o o , t h a t a U.S. Navy submarine armed w i t h n u c l e a r
m i s s i l e s i s about t o be p l a c e d i n t h e M e d i t e r r a n e a n Sea t o p r o v i d e
quick-strike capabilities.
Why t h e S o v i e t p r e m i e r has chosen t h i s a c t i o n a t t h i s t i m e i s n o t
e n t i r e l y c l e a r a f t e r a l l , t h e r e a r e a l r e a d y enough n u c l e a r m i s s i l e s i n
t h e S o v i e t Union i t s e l f t o a n n i h i l a t e t h e U n i t e d S t a t e s . I t appears t h a t
t h e S o v i e t p r e m i e r may be a t t e m p t i n g t o g a i n an upper hand i n t h e C o l d
War w i t h one b o l d move.

Critical-Thinking Question A: You are a presidential advisor to Kennedy. You must decide
whether the president should be concerned about Soviet missiles and launch pads in Cuba.
What do you advise the president to do? Kennedy has asked you to brainstorm possible U.S.
responses to the Soviet missile threat in Cuba. What will you include on your list?

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The Cold War

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Student Handout

TOP SECRET BRIEFING B


To:
P r e s i d e n t John F. Kennedy and a d v i s o r s
From: The U.S. I n t e l l i g e n c e Community
Re:
U.S. Response t o m i s s i l e b u i l d u p i n Cuba
S i n c e o u r l a s t b r i e f i n g , Mr. P r e s i d e n t , t h e S o v i e t b u i l d u p o f m i s s i l e s i n
Cuba has c o n t i n u e d a t a f r a n t i c pace.
The m i s s i l e l a u n c h s i t e a t San C r i s t o b a l , near t h e c a p i t a l c i t y o f
Havana, w i l l be o p e r a t i o n a l i n 10 days. When complete, t h e warning time
f o r a m i s s i l e a t t a c k a g a i n s t t h e U n i t e d S t a t e s w i l l be c u t from 15
minutes t o between 2 and 3 m i n u t e s . U.S. c i t i e s from Washington, DC,
t o Kansas C i t y a r e a t r i s k . F u r t h e r m o r e , some o f our i n t e l l i g e n c e
suggests t h a t the S o v i e t s are i n s t a l l i n g longer-range nuclear m i s s i l e s
t h a t c o u l d be ready by mid November. These m i s s i l e s would l e a v e o n l y one
major U.S. c i t y o u t s i d e t h e i r range: S e a t t l e .
Mr. P r e s i d e n t , y o u asked us t o compile a s e r i e s o f o p t i o n s f o r you and
y o u r a d v i s o r s t o c o n s i d e r , k e e p i n g i n mind y o u r g e n e r a l g o a l s : g e t t i n g
the m i s s i l e s o u t o f Cuba, a v o i d i n g a n u c l e a r exchange, p r e p a r i n g
f o r S o v i e t moves e l s e w h e r e i n t h e w o r l d (such as B e r l i n ) , and n o t
losing face.
As we see i t , t h e U n i t e d S t a t e s can respond i n a t l e a s t f i v e ways t o t h e
S o v i e t c o n s t r u c t i o n o f m i s s i l e s i t e s i n Cuba:
1.
2.

Ignore t h e m i s s i l e s .
I n i t i a t e a n a v a l b l o c k a d e o f Cuba t o p r e v e n t S o v i e t s h i p s from
b r i n g i n g f u r t h e r supplies t o the i s l a n d .
3. Invade Cuba.
4. Launch a c o n v e n t i o n a l a i r s t r i k e a g a i n s t t h e m i s s i l e s i t e s .
5. Send an e m i s s a r y t o d i s c u s s t h e m a t t e r w i t h Khrushchev.

Critical-Thinking Question B: You are a member of the Executive Committee, known


as ExCom, a group of Kennedy's closest advisors gathered to help him work through this
crisis. The president has asked you to assess these five possible responses. How would you
prioritize these possible responses? What are the positive and negative aspects of each?

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Student Handout

1.4B

TOP SECRET BRIEFING 0


To:
ExCom members
From: P r e s i d e n t John F. Kennedy
Re:
Our response and S o v i e t r e a c t i o n s
S i n c e o u r l a s t b r i e f i n g by t h e U.S. i n t e l l i g e n c e community, you a r e w e l l
aware o f t h e c o u r s e o f a c t i o n t h a t I have o r d e r e d : a n a v a l b l o c k a d e o f
t h e i s l a n d o f Cuba. I d e c i d e d t o b l o c k a d e Cuba because I b e l i e v e t h a t a
U.S. a i r s t r i k e a g a i n s t Cuban m i s s i l e s i t e s might r e s u l t i n t h e death o f
S o v i e t s o l d i e r s i n Cuba, and t h a t l o s s would l i k e l y t r i g g e r World War
I I I . As you know, however, t h e c r i s i s w i t h t h e S o v i e t Union over n u c l e a r
m i s s i l e s i n Cuba i s f a r from over.
On Monday, October 22, I informed o u r c i t i z e n s on t e l e v i s i o n o f my i n t e n t
t o begin a s t r i c t quarantine, o r blockade, of a l l o f f e n s i v e m i l i t a r y
equipment b e i n g s h i p p e d t o Cuba. I a l s o s t a t e d t h a t any m i s s i l e launched
from Cuba would be r e g a r d e d as an a t t a c k by t h e S o v i e t Union on t h e
U n i t e d S t a t e s , and would r e q u i r e o u r f u l l r e t a l i a t o r y response.
On Tuesday, Khrushchev sent me a l e t t e r s t a t i n g t h a t t h e S o v i e t Union
would n o t observe t h e b l o c k a d e , which he c a l l e d i l l e g a l . L a t e r t h a t day,
U.S. s h i p s stopped and boarded a Panamanian v e s s e l f u l l o f S o v i e t goods
t h a t was headed t o Cuba. As i t c o n t a i n e d no m i l i t a r y m a t e r i a l , i t was
a l l o w e d t o p r o c e e d . On Wednesday, I l e a r n e d t h a t 25 S o v i e t merchant s h i p s
were s t e a m i n g toward Cuba, accompanied by 6 S o v i e t submarines. A l t h o u g h
t h e s e s h i p s d i d e v e n t u a l l y a l t e r t h e i r c o u r s e and remained o u t s i d e t h e
q u a r a n t i n e l i n e , on S a t u r d a y morning one o f t h e s h i p s detached i t s e l f and
began s p e e d i n g toward Cuba i n d e f i a n c e o f t h e b l o c k a d e . More ominously,
one o f o u r U-2 spy p l a n e s was shot down over Cuba by a S o v i e t SAM m i s s i l e
e a r l y S a t u r d a y morning, and t h e American p i l o t was k i l l e d .
The m i l i t a r y g e n e r a l s who form my J o i n t C h i e f s o f S t a f f have recommended
an immediate a i r s t r i k e on t h e m i s s i l e s i t e s , an a c t i o n t h a t would, I
b e l i e v e , v e r y l i k e l y push us over t h e b r i n k and i n t o n u c l e a r war w i t h t h e
S o v i e t U n i o n , However, i f I m a i n t a i n t h e b l o c k a d e d e s p i t e t h e c r i t i c i s m
of t h e m i l i t a r y , I want t o know what you t h i n k I s h o u l d do i n s e v e r a l
s i t u a t i o n s t h a t c o u l d a r i s e . What do you recommend I do i f
1.
2.
3.
4.

The S o v i e t s f i r e on American n a v a l v e s s e l s e n f o r c i n g t h e b l o c k a d e ?
The S o v i e t s attempt t o break t h e b l o c k a d e ?
The S o v i e t s w a i t i t o u t f o r weeks o r months u n t i l t h e c r i s i s subsides?
Cuban commanders l a u n c h one o f t h e m i s s i l e s a l r e a d y i n Cuba toward
the United States?

Critical-Thinking Question C: You are a member of ExCom. Respond to the four situations
the president might face, keeping in mind his goals for the crisis as outlined in Top Secret
Briefing C. Then offer your recommendation for what the president should do now.

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The Cold War

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