This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
40 American Foreign Policy Boaz Atzili The Principle US Response in the Cuban Missile Crisis In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis then-president John F. Kennedy, in selecting a US response to Soviet actions, had to choose between two competing proposals. The first of these proposals called for a naval blockade or quarantine of Cuba and the second proposal called for a military strike of the recently established missile bases in Cuba, possibly followed up by an invasion. There were other options on the table as well, but these seemed to be, and probably were, far less attractive. In this paper I will discuss these proposals in detail and show that the naval blockade was indeed the best choice under the knowledge available to US policy makers at the time. Finally I will discuss the lessons that can be learned from this experience and compare the situation to more recent ones. Causal Analysis We will begin our discussion by evaluating the two mutually exclusive options available from the view-point of a “fly on the wall” (that is, an objective observer) at the time of the incident. Before we can begin looking in detail at these options, though, we must establish a basis of considerations that we will keep in mind. Background Information The most obvious facet of this situation was the immediate threat. It was estimated that the U.S.S.R. had half of its ICBM weaponry in Cuba or on its way. If these weapons were fired it was thought that they would be able to kill 80 million Americans in a matter of minutes. Aside from threats on the American people, the
Soviets were in a position to take West Berlin from US control, an incident which would be a huge setback and work against the goal of containment. Although the Cuban missile incident was large in terms of magnitude of impact, it occurred within a short period of time (on the order of 2 weeks). The Soviets had began talking to Fidel Castro months before the US discovered what was going on. However, by the time they did discover the missiles, there was a very short window of opportunity to act before the missiles became fully operative. One obvious goal of US policy-makers was to remove the threat which had been placed upon them by the presence of those missiles in Cuba. Another primary goal was to maintain credibility. Domestic credibility was important to JFK’s political party, NATO might have lost all credibility if the US didn’t act, and, perhaps most importantly, the US needed to maintain the threat credibility of its military power. Air Strike Analysis In this section I will enumerate and discuss the negative or undesirable features associated with a tactical air strike. This course of action all but necessitated an invasion of Cuba after the air strikes had been made. This follows from the observation that no air strike could be guaranteed to hit and disable all missiles. Such an invasion would have allowed the US to remove the nefarious Cuban government, and would have given it some amount of justification for doing so. On the other hand, there were many problems with invading Cuba. The first class of these problems has to do with the logistics: the Bay of Pigs incident proved to be a disaster and it was estimated that 200,000 American lives would have been lost in such an invasion. Another class of problems has to do with questions of strategy: how
would the US manage Cuba after the invasion had been finished? Would this provoke other countries to develop their own weapons of mass destruction? Would stripping the U.S.S.R. of one half of its missiles incite it to become more hostile? Was the intelligence that was being used to justify the invasion in fact completely reliable? What would be our response if some missiles were fired during the air strikes or invasion? Could we be guaranteed that even if Krushchev didn’t authorize a missile launch that it would not happen? Would an attack on Cuba be responded to by a Soviet attack on West Berlin or Turkey? The final class of problems is of a moral nature. If an air strike on a country that has not harmed you in any way is against international law, what about an invasion? Is pre-emptive strike okay, even if civilians are killed? Some of these questions could be answered so that they were no longer detrimental to the story of an air strike and invasion; other questions could only be addressed using assumptions. There were some distinct pluses to this course of action, however. One way or another, long term stability was ensured. Eventually the US would control Cuba and there would no longer be the threat of nuclear weapons from there; the question is at what cost. We knew of the potential (up to 80 million American lives) cost, but the uncertainty with any estimate of the actual cost was high. Secondly, the US would demonstrate that it would be willing to use its weapons and capabilities to guarantee its security. The use of a more aggressive response here might have been something the Soviets would have responded better to. Finally, the Soviets would only retain one half of its ICBM capabilities.
In the end the advantages and disadvantages of this option had to be weighed. Although I will not discuss this evaluation it is almost clear that the disadvantages of this option outweigh potential advantages. Blockade In this section I will evaluate the pros and cons of a naval blockade of Cuba. Perhaps the largest disadvantage to this proposal was that it would not remove any of the missiles that were in Cuba at the time, and thus it would have left the Soviets with more arms and more time to prepare them. Since this plan called for the US to make a move and then wait for Krushchev’s response, we lost the chance to take out some amount of the missiles in Cuba that would be helpful if that response turned out to be hostile. Because this plan called for the US to wait for a U.S.S.R. response, its second disadvantage was that it would have made the US look weak and deteriorated the credibility of its military threat. Even if the US had one hundred times more nuclear capability than the U.S.S.R., that capability would have been futile if the Soviets did not perceive it as a threat. (It is worthy to note here that, looking back, most countries saw the blockade as a courageous act.) Thirdly, since a naval blockade involved coordinating over a hundred ships doing different things, it increased the chance of an execution foulup. Finally, since we expected the Soviets to look for ways to respond aggressively to a blockade while not risking nuclear war with us, this could have put West Berlin or Turkey in great danger of a Soviet invasion. The primary advantage of a blockade over an air strike was that it would have given us another layer of isolation from direct military action, while still providing that option as necessary in the future. This scaling up feature of the blockade would have
made it apparent that we were not set on attacking Cuba or pursuing further aggression, but also would maintain the threat against that island and the Soviets needed to convince them to remove the missiles. Discussion In this section I will discuss the blockade option and end by comparing it to the air strike and invasion option. The key to the blockade was to apply the correct amount of threat. If there was too little threat (appeasement) then the Soviets would have been convinced that they could bully the US and do anything it wanted without fear of retaliation. This can be seen by the actions of the Soviets in the months before the missiles were found; the US did not show any imminent aggression and the Soviets felt that they could move the surface-to-surface missiles into Cuba. If there was too much threat (and possibly action on that threat, e.g. air strike against Cuba) then the US would have been backing the Soviets into a corner from which they would need to escape in order to save face, preserve their national security, and ensure their threat of action against future aggressors. The only way for them to do this was to attack the US in return, by launching any surviving missiles in Cuba, attacking from submarines, taking over West Berlin, and/or using any of the other handful of options on the table. Since this and the Soviet response to appeasement were undesirable we hoped that there was some region in the middle in which we could demonstrate willingness to go to war while avoiding it by giving them some breathing room to maintain their objectives without using an aggressive response. The proposal was a naval blockade; the question was whether or not a blockade would achieve this. Based on the information available at the time, it seems like it would have. A blockade would demonstrate that the US had military
power, and that it will use it, at least to limit the movement of an adversary’s military. Furthermore, a blockade could be designed so that it would provide the Soviets with time to evaluate our response and calculate their own under the new knowledge that the US means business. The Soviet response could then be to either fire any operative missiles in Cuba, try to push through the blockade, or to respect the blockade. Firing the missiles would be an overkill response and isn’t very likely. If a vessel attempts to push through our blockade we would have had to make a firm response, in order to reaffirm the assertion that we were willing to use our military power. If they respected the blockade then that means we would have adequately expressed our resolve. However, what would then happen next? The ideal outcome would be that the Soviets would agree to remove their missiles from Cuba, however they might make some demands in response to our somewhat aggressive response. These could be to surrender West Berlin, to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey, and/or to give Cuba a security guarantee. Any of these responses is more favorable than the military exchange with the Soviets that would likely result from a surgical air strike and invasion of Cuba. Lessons Learned There are some theories which explain the Soviet and Cuban decision to move missiles into Cuba, and by looking at these we can corroborate their models. The Soviets probably felt threatened by the nuclear missiles in Turkey and wanted to gain equal strategic power (offense-defense theory). Fidel also must have felt threatened, and according to the spiral model this could have been the deciding factor for him in allowing missiles into Cuba. Thus the Soviet and Cuban governments had their own respective reasons for supporting the move, and since they shared an ideology their alliance was only natural. It is odd that US security reports did not anticipate this move.
The Cuban missile crisis also makes a point about ideology versus rationality. Contrary to the popular US view of the U.S.S.R. as irrational and trigger-happy actors, this situation highlighted the strength of deterrence and the rationality of both sides. Even though it was a tough situation, communication channels were open and hostilities were decreased. There are some parallels that can be drawn between the Cuban missile crisis and the recent and ongoing efforts in Iraq. As the US began to put more pressure on Iraq and to make threats, Iraq allowed UN inspectors back into the country. This is a good example in which a threat was made and the desirable response was achieved. From a coarse perspective Saddam complied completely with US and UN mandates. Whether or not there was a large amount of under the table trickery on the part of Saddam is something that will not come to surface until a few years from now. However based on current information it seems like Saddam did not have a significant number of WMDs. If he did have WMDs, would he have used them against US forces before an invasion? If not, would he have used them during an invasion? The answers to these questions are largely a function of the amount of threat felt by the Iraqi regime and its ability to reason rationally. We know that the largest reason Fidel agreed to moving the missiles into Cuba was that he felt threatened by the US. Saddam must have felt threatened by the US’ rhetoric, US efforts in the UN, what was being said in the US media, and the US’ recent overthrow of Afghanistan. If we compare Saddam to Fidel, we can infer that Saddam would have done whatever he could have to stay in power. Fortunately Fidel did not have the power to launch the missiles, just as Saddam didn’t have any significant number of WMDs.
There are now two more countries left on Bush’s “axis of evil” list: North Korea and Iran. The United States is threatening these governments, and they will certainly act to protect themselves, probably by developing weapons. This is one of the best explanations for North Korea’s recent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Now that we understand why these countries are taking active steps to arm themselves, the question becomes how we can handle this problem. There is one difference between the current situation and that of the Cuban missile crisis. In the latter, the Cubans were being armed by the Soviets, so it was their decision to remove the missiles, not the Cubans. Nevertheless there are still some parallels here. From the Soviet perspective, the Cuban missile crisis had the following sequence of events: they felt threatened by Jupiter missiles in Turkey, they ship missiles to Cuba, the US responds by making a modest threat, and they remove the missiles in exchange for the removal of the Jupiter missiles. The US’ moderate threat worked in the same sense that the US’ threats against Iraq convinced Saddam to allow UN inspectors back into his country. In the case of North Korea, the US has had many troops on the edge of their border for many decades. There is a key difference, though; N Korea does not have a nuclear deterrent. If they developed nuclear weapons then they would not feel as threatened by the US despite what the US says, since they have the security guarantee that comes with such military power. There are no guarantees, however, and basic nuclear capabilities without complex delivery technology would only give them first-strike (although not second-strike) counter-value capabilities against South Korea. This is a good thing in that it would still allow for an invasion without heavy loss of lives if the US struck first. It is a bad thing, however, in that it will not completely alleviate the threat felt by North
Korea, and a threatened nuclear state is never a good thing for stability. Instead of putting pressure on North Korea the US should cease its threatening international posture. It might be too late in this case, though, since North Korea has already begun to develop its weapons and to seek a security guarantee (both of which are less desirable than the status quo from before the September 11th attacks). The situation with Iran seems to be on hold for now. The United States certainly has its hands full with handling the rebuilding and stabilization of Iraq. However, five years from now if the US is on the prowl again for another country to overthrow, Iran will feel a large amount of threat since it was labeled as evil and its neighbor who got the same designation will have been overthrown. If Iran is anticipating that threat right now they could be brought to begin a larger WMD program. Hopefully this will not happen, though. At least they might not anticipate that threat since Bush’s political party might be out of power a year from now.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.