JFK's Questionable Tactics in the Cuban Missile Crisis

Jack Barber
March 15, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Bay of Pigs (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For thirteen days in October 1962, the world was on the cusp of nuclear war. On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his administration discovered that the Soviet Union had nuclear-ballistic missiles stationed in the island of Cuba. By positioning these weapons on America's doorstep, Moscow raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the two global superpowers. Traditional American history proposes that due to John F. Kennedy's toughness and restraint the Soviet leadership gave in and the Cuban Missile Crisis was avoided. To the American public, this rendition of the crisis has come to be an icon of presidential leadership. Although American history has long portrayed President John F. Kennedy as the heroic who courageously steered the United States out of a nuclear catastrophe, documents now paint a more controversial story: John F. Kennedy and his administration acted irrationally by placing domestic politics and America's image as an immutable power above global security. [1]

Emergence of Castro

Although the United States and Cuba had a cooperative relationship following the Spanish-American War of 1898, everything changed when Fidel Castro came onto the scene. In 1959, after years of hit-and-run warfare, Fidel Castro and his "Fidelistas" overthrew the Batista dictatorship and became leader of Cuba. With Castro in power, the United States became concerned with the forming Cuban-Soviet allegiance. Unimpressed with President Eisenhower's sluggish foreign policy tactics, John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign of 1960 emphasized a vigorously waged Cold War. [2]

The Bay of Pigs Disaster

President Kennedy's decision to invade Cuba in April 1961 proved to be a major mishap that ultimately led to Soviet missiles in Cuba. Due to faulty intelligence and poor leadership, within three days of landing on the Cuban shore, as shown in Fig. 1, the U.S.-sponsored covert Bay of Pigs operation had failed with 114 soldiers dead and 1,189 soldiers captured. [3] America's failure at the Bay of Pigs, coupled with President Kennedy's lack of intelligence, gave Premier Khrushchev the excuse and confidence to send missiles into Cuba.

Nuclear Missiles in Cuba

On July 4th, 1962, Soviet Premier Khrushchev reached an agreement with Fidel Castro wherein the USSR would deliver Soviet medium-range missiles to Cuba as part of Operation Anadyr. After the Bay of Pigs attack, and no reassurance from Washington that a wider scale attack would not be repeated, the USSR felt it was necessary to send the missiles in order to protect the Cuban people. While the U.S. labeled the USSR missiles in Cuba as "offensive," the U.S. labeled our own missiles in turkey as "defensive." The U.S. had fifteen medium range ballistic Jupiter missiles, with a 1.1 megaton nuclear tip, capable of hitting Russia. [1] The Kennedy administration gravely overplayed its hand in putting missiles in Turkey as they assumed Soviet foreign policy was too cautious to aggressively respond with missiles in Cuba.

Conclusion: Questioning Kennedy

Despite Kennedy and Khrushchev's eventual deal, it is important to acknowledge how two superpowers almost reached nuclear conflict. If the only goal of the conflict was to remove the missiles in Cuba, a private diplomatic agreement between both sides could have been reached. Because this path would have left President Kennedy politically vulnerable, he instead issued a stern ultimatum in the form of the blockade to the Soviets - a nuclear-armed country - demanding they withdraw the missiles from Cuba. Beginning with the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy proceeded on a belligerent course action, which prioritized national image, personal prestige, and domestic political influence over global security. In handling the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy issued a blockade of Cuba, recklessly putting the U.S. and USSR on the verge of war.

© Jack Barber. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. A. Nathan, Anatomy of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Greenwood Press, 2000).

[2] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

[3] A. A. Gromyko, Through Russian Eyes: President Kennedy's 1036 Days (International Law Library Book Pub. Co., 1973), pp. 169-170.