As the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis approaches, we can expect the usual media plaudits for President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and the so-called members of ExComm — the executive committee of the National Security Council that advised the president throughout the 13 or so days of the crisis. Kennedy court historians and others have portrayed JFK’s performance during that crisis as a model of successful crisis management.
Already, articles and books have appeared arguing that this was Kennedy’s “finest hour,” and that he used “a carefully calibrated public response and back channel diplomacy” to resolve the crisis.
This month, Harvard’s Graham Allison praised Kennedy for recognizing the need to exercise constraints, even unilateral constraints, to avoid nuclear war.
On Sept. 29, Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal lauded Kennedy’s “creative approach to diplomacy” during the crisis and his speech eight months later in which he admitted that the crisis “convinced him of the need to rethink the entire Cold War.”
Dr. Arthur Cyr wrote in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College, that Kennedy’s performance during the crisis was “highly commendable,” “skillful,” and “decisive.”
The Daily Beast credits Kennedy for resolving the crisis by ignoring the advice of the “hawks” in his administration.
But the Cuban Missile Crisis was a geopolitical defeat for the United States.
Kennedy biographer Thomas Reeves has noted that immediately after the crisis, newspaper and magazine accounts of the crisis portrayed Kennedy “as a man of cool courage and iron strength, a sort of warrior-king who stood up to the Russians … and got his way.”
Brookings Institutions fellow Richard Reeves praised Kennedy’s “forethought, precision, subtlety, and steady nerves” during the crisis. Reeves wrote that many Washington reporters described Kennedy “as a paragon of wisdom and strength.”
Presidential historian James David Barber later wrote that during the crisis, Kennedy was “in command of the assessment of information, in the technique of consultation, and in empathy with his opponent.”
Kennedy court historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote rapturously that it was Kennedy’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that dazzled the world.”
In reality, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by a deal — in return for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, the Kennedy administration agreed to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy and pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba. The Kennedys, of course, hid the missile-removal exchange part of the deal from the public — concerned, as always, with the negative political consequences of revealing the deal. And even years later, when the missile-removal exchange became widely known, Kennedy partisans falsely claimed that Kennedy had ordered the Jupiter missiles to be removed before the missile crisis.
At the time, Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay called the missile crisis “the biggest defeat in our nation’s history.” Gen. Maxwell Taylor said, “We missed the big boat.” Navy Chief George Anderson remarked that “We’ve been had.” Later, Gen. Alexander Haig called the deal ending the crisis “a deplorable error resulting in political havoc and human suffering throughout the Americas.”
Looking back 20 years after the crisis, British historian Paul Johnson pronounced it an American defeat. The missile crisis, Johnson noted, “took place at a time when the strategic nuclear equation was still strongly in America’s favor, and in a theatre where America enjoyed overwhelming advantage in conventional power.” Kennedy, Johnson wrote, should have insisted on a “restoration of the status quo ante,” but instead he “rewarded the aggressive Soviet act with two substantial concessions.” Dean Acheson agreed. “So long as we had the thumbscrew on Khrushchev,” Acheson said, “we should have given it another turn every day.” Johnson concluded that Kennedy’s mishandling of the crisis “suggested an imperfect understanding of America’s vital interests and a failure to distinguish between image and reality.”
Cuba remained a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy for the next three decades, helping to export anti-American revolutions to Central America, the Caribbean Sea, and Africa.
Columnist George Will in 1987 noted that during the missile crisis, the American advantage vis-à-vis the Soviets was three-to-one in long-range bombers, six-to-one in long-range missiles, and 16-to-1 in nuclear warheads. “The Kremlin must have been astonished,” wrote Will, “when Kennedy, in spite of advantages that would have enabled him to insist on severance of Soviet military connections with Cuba, sought only removal of the missiles. He thereby licensed all other Soviet uses of Cuba.” And Will noted that in 1978, the Soviets deployed nuclear-delivery capable MIG-23s to Cuba, which were “far more menacing than the 1962 missiles.”
Johnson and Will had the benefit of hindsight in leveling their justified criticism at Kennedy. James Burnham, writing at the time of the missile crisis, immediately grasped the negative geopolitical implications of the crisis. In a column that appeared in National Review on Oct. 23, 1962, Burnham wrote that a new Kennedy Doctrine that accepted foreign colonization in the Western Hemisphere, including by our chief enemy on an island 90 miles from our shores, had replaced the Monroe Doctrine that stated that such foreign colonization was unacceptable. Burnham noted that the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites were busy arming and advising the Castro regime and that Cuba intended to promote communist revolutions throughout Latin America. (READ MORE: Bobby Kennedy’s Name Should Not Be on DOJ’s Headquarters)
Months before the missile crisis, Burnham wrote that the Caribbean Sea “has long been understood to be our strategic threshold,” and that Castro’s Cuba is “an enemy outpost inside our door.” Cuba, he warned, was a “beachhead from which is being mounted a general offensive against Central and South America.” And a month after the crisis, Burnham scolded Kennedy for ignoring numerous intelligence assessments (Burnham had worked for the Office of Strategic Services in the 1940s and consulted for the CIA in the early 1950s) and public statements made in August 1962 from senators and retired general officers claiming that the Soviets were installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy hesitated to act on this intelligence, waiting until mid-October to convene ExComm to deal with the crisis. The president’s now famous October 22 televised address, Burnham wrote, was used to justify his “lethargy” and an inexplicable failure to timely and accurately assess the relevant intelligence.
Burnham, of course, did not address the then-still secret missile-removal exchange, but he assessed that Kennedy’s resolution of the crisis had left the “decisive threat” in place, i.e., “the presence within the U.S. strategic frontier of a substantial base for revolutionary and political warfare.” The Cuban Missile Crisis, Burnham continued, “is one more demonstration that the basic ideas that guide our official understanding of what is going on in the world are drastically out of line with reality.” Eliminating Soviet offensive missiles from the island did not eliminate Cuba as an enemy base within our strategic frontier.
In December 1962, Burnham noted that the Soviet gamble in Cuba cost them nothing. To place offensive nuclear missiles near our shores was an “aggressive and provocative” move that threatened “the world power equilibrium.” Kennedy’s resolution removed the missiles but left Cuba as a communist political-warfare beachhead in our hemisphere.
And Burnham was one of the first observers to conclude that Kennedy’s weakness and failures at the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna Summit, and the Berlin Wall crisis convinced Soviet leaders that they could get away with placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. And they were almost right. According to George Will, Kennedy aide Ted Sorenson, at a reunion of former Kennedy administration participants in the crisis, reportedly said that Kennedy at one point was willing to tolerate at least some Soviet missiles in Cuba in order to resolve the crisis.
It wasn’t Kennedy’s toughness or brilliance that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis; it was his willingness to deal our missiles in Turkey and Italy for Soviet missiles in Cuba and his further willingness to refrain from invading Castro’s Cuba. Some observers, like the late Leslie Gelb, thought that the deal was worth it — we avoided a nuclear exchange with the Soviets and ended up winning the Cold War.
But it wasn’t, as it is usually portrayed, an American “victory.” In truth, as James Burnham wrote at the time, it was an American geopolitical defeat.