John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

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John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Michael Massa

Virginia Commonwealth University

John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was born May 29, 1917 in Brookline, MA. Kennedy served in World War II. Later Kennedy served as a member of the House of Representatives and then the United States Senate. Often referred to by his initials, J.F.K., Kennedy was president from 1961 till his assassination in Dallas, TX in 1963.

The 13 day confrontation in October, 1962 with Russia and Cuba on one side and the United States of America on the other side, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, has been identified by many as a time when the Cold War came closest to nuclear war (Marfleet, 2000). Decisions made by the Kennedy Administration would weigh heavy on the possibility of nuclear war. Fear of massive mutual assumed destruction spread across the both hemispheres.

The crisis was an adaptive challenge for Kennedy as there was no preexisting protocol, resources, remedies, tools, or solutions to help guide the leadership teams of both countries involved (Drath, 2011). The challenge to President Kennedy was twofold. Kennedy would need to make the best decision possible to avoid a massive tragedy. Kennedy would also need to exert a sense of strong, bold leadership in front of both his experienced military counsel and a nation that had been embarrassed as a result of his leadership in the Bay of Pigs invasion (Grattan, 2004).

Tensions Rise

Following the Korean War and failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, tension and mistrust between the United States of America and Russia were at an all-time high (Brophy &Paterson, 1983). Continuing Dwight Eisenhower’s earlier containment strategy, by the early 1960s, the United States had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, positioned to strike Moscow. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev alerted to the construction of the missile sites in Turkey, contacted Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and forged an agreement to install Russian Nuclear missiles in Cuba pointed at the East Coast of the United States.

Challenge for a Young Leader

Preparations for the construction of the missile site in Cuba were reported to President Kennedy by the Defense Intelligence Agency. The United States sent a military spy plane over Cuba verifying the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba through photographs. The United States proposed direct military action against the island nation through sea and air attacks but ultimately decided that a military blockade would be more prudent (McKeown, 2001).

Kennedy suffered a major embarrassment earlier in his presidency by the defeat and capture of American soldiers in the Bay of Pigs invasion (McKeown, 2001). Due to the earlier defeat, Kennedy may have been reluctant to directly attack Cuba for a second time (McKeown, 2001). The United States announced that no weapons would be permitted into Cuba through the blockade unless the missiles were disassembled and returned to the Soviet Union. Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev after the blockade stating that the United States had illegally formed the blockade in international waters and air space and that such an act could lead to nuclear war (Khrushchev, 2010).

While Kennedy and Khrushchev were in negotiations through the United Nations, several Soviet ships tried to break through the blockade. As a result American ships were ordered to fire upon any ships that would again try and sail through the blockade. The Soviet Union also fired upon, and destroyed a United States military plane. At this point, Kennedy assembled his 9 member Executive Committee of the National Security Council to come up with different strategies while the United States and the Soviet Union sat on the brink of Nuclear War. The options given to the President ranged from no reaction, diplomatic pressure toward the Soviet Union, to attacking Cuba and overthrowing Fidel Castro (JFK Presidential Library, 2011). The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that the President give the order to attack and take over Cuba. John F. Kennedy had the most important decision of his presidency to make. A wrong decision could lead to massive destruction and insurmountable loss of life.

Kennedy’s Reaction

While Kennedy continued to receive suggestions of full scale assault on Cuba from his Joint Chiefs of Staff and some members of his cabinet, he was having secret communication with representatives from Moscow. It was important that while Kennedy was negotiating with the Soviets, he continued to show strength and willingness to project American power abroad (Paterson, 1986). This was important as Americans had come to expect this of their President’s foreign policy after Truman. (Paterson, 1986).

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28th, 1962. Kennedy had agreed to remove United States missiles from sites in Turkey and Italy in exchange for the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy held the meetings in secret due to the hardline position of his Joint Chiefs and the extremely delicate nature of the standoff.

Kennedy’s decision is an example of a leader who used relational dialogue to overcome and adaptive challenge. The principle of rational dialogue recognizes leadership as an embracing of differences, and an openness to the continuous unfolding of possibility (Drath, 2011) Kennedy, his cabinet, and his military advisors were committed to solving the crisis due the participation in an unknown future (Drath, 2011). In this case Kennedy used the tool of symbol in executing relational dialogue. Kennedy understood that the American people and his military advisors wanted a strong show of force in the face of the Soviet threat. Kennedy, understanding the political need to deliver such a force placed a major blockade around the island of Cuba, flew war planes over the island nation, and used strong and precise rhetoric when discussing military options to the media. Kennedy did this, aware that the symbol of strength was a political necessity. While the world saw the show of strength, it would not be aware of the negotiations until years later when tapes and transcripts were declassified.

Kennedy’s Success

Kennedy was ultimately successful in his resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Immediately after the crisis, observers characterized it as a textbook case of the appropriate use of force (Marfleet, 2000). Kennedy had been victorious in steering the country away from the massive destruction and horrors of nuclear war. Kennedy also had a symbolic victory, through use of relational dialogue in the face of an adaptive challenge, by creating a symbolic perception of strong and reassuring leadership in a time of crisis. Many scholars and experts in crisis management described the resolution as one of the calmest, coolest, most measured and laudable examples of exerting rational control over a complex and dangerous international situation (Pious, 2001). The disparity between Kennedy’s public and private aspects of the handling of the crisis were quite large. Kennedy negotiated in a quid pro quo manner while the perception of the public was a military ultimatum that forced Soviet withdrawal (Marfleet, 2000).

For thirteen days in 1962, Kennedy, the youngest American President, had masterfully adapted and overcome one of the most daunting threats to American citizens in history. Kennedy utilized his strengths in relational dialogue to solve the adaptive challenge through calm negotiation, while also navigating through a political framework. At the end of the conflict no blood was spilled, no military action occurred, and Kennedy had strengthened public perception of American Strength.


Drath, W. (2001). The deep blue sea: Rethinking the source of leadership. (1st ed., pp. 25-27). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brophy, W. J., & Paterson, T.G. (1983). October missiles and November elections: The Cuban Missile Crisis and American politics, 1962, Journal of American History, 73(1), 87-119

Grattan, R. F. (2004). The Cuban Missile Crisis: Strategy formulation in action. Management Decision, 42(1), 55-68

Library of Congress, (2010), Khrushchev letter to President Kennedy (Moscow 24 October 1962)

Marfleet, B.G. (2000). The operational code of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis: A comparison of public and private rhetoric. Political Psychology, 21(3), 51-55

McKeown, T.J. (2001). Plans and routines, bureaucratic bargaining and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Journal of Politics, 63(4), 1163

National Security Council. (2011). National security action memorandum (196). Boston, MA: JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Paterson, T.G. (1986). The origins of the cold war. OAH Magazine of History, 2(1), 5-9, 18.

Pious, R. M. (2001). The Cuban Missile Crisis and the limits of crisis management. Political Science Quarterly, 116(1), 81-105

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