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Adam Smith

17.40 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

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.


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 foul-

up. 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.


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.