Joint Crisis Committee Position on 1962 Caribbean Crisis

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Joint Crisis Committee

Position on 1962 Caribbean Crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis)
The crisis in which the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics found themselves in October of 1962 was an unnecessary result of American interference in Cuba. The reign of Fulgencio Batista in 1940’s and 50’s Cuba was marked with excessive corruption, street violence, political repression, and organized crime. The anti-Communist dictatorship was well-supported by both President Eisenhower’s arms contracts and U.S. corporate control over the vast majority of the island’s economy. The suspensions of free elections, massacres of nearly twenty thousand civilians in the name of counter-terror, and other elements of Fulgencia’s despotism have not been ignored by history. Not only were they the target of the 26th of July Movement and the Cuban Revolution, but they were also recognized by President Kennedy as "one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression.” Kennedy also recognized the role of his own nation in Batista’s reign, saying that “Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States.”
But Kennedy’s admissions, largely after the fact in regards to the crisis, do not redeem him from the mishandling of Cuba under his administration. After Prime Minister Castro refused Eisenhower’s offers for U.S. military and economic aid under the American sphere of influence, it became Washington policy to actively discredit and undermine Cuba’s Communist government. After Cuba formalized trading relations with the USSR, the U.S. pressured Cuban oil refineries owned by American companies not to accept Soviet oil. When Cuba responded by expropriating and nationalizing the refineries, the U.S. stopped importing Cuban sugar, which led to the nationalization of most American assets on the island. Further U.S. action became more aggressive. The 1960 explosion of Le Coubre, a French vessel bringing arms to Cuba, was linked to CIA interference, and, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, Kennedy initiated Operation Mongoose, the largest operation of international terrorism ever conducted before the end of the Cold War. Otherwise known as the Cuban Project, it attempted to assassinate Castro and led to a complete overthrow of the Communist government by October of 1962.
By then, however, Cuba had found itself in a different position altogether. Soviet worries about the American advantage in first-strike capabilities gave them two options: either build more ballistic missiles or strategically place the ones already deployed in Russia. Moving missiles to Cuba would place the continental United States within reach of nuclear attack, an effective counter to the American nuclear warheads in Turkey since April of 1962. Also, Premier Khrushchev wanted a bargaining chip for West Berlin, seen as a great threat within Soviet-controlled East Germany. Russia could use the missiles in Cuba either to pressure the West to give up their holding within Soviet territory or to make a trade favoring the USSR.

These concerns became the impetus for Operation Anadyr, the process by which ballistic missiles, medium-range bombers, and mechanized infantry were to be transported from Russian ports to Cuba. The operation, which began in June of 1962, had the explicit purpose of preparing against a potential second U.S. invasion of the island, but Soviet counterintelligence measures of maskirovka, or “denial and deception,” were implemented to keep the mission secret. The mass movement of troops and equipment was disguised as shipments of agricultural aid in machinery and specialists. The increasingly aggressive U.S. military operations in the Caribbean gave Soviet diplomats no choice but to deny the placement of offensive weapons on the island.

American military and CIA suspicions of the construction of missile bases began in August, but it wasn’t until September 8 that the first missiles arrived in Cuba. Six bases were designated for medium-range missiles, and three for intermediate-range ones that could target all 48 continental States. On October 7, Cuban President Dorticos hinted of the presence of deterrent nuclear warheads on the island. But U.S. reconnaissance over the island was stymied by international incidents involving spy planes in the Far East and China, use of alternate intelligence from the Navy and Corona satellites, and bad weather. On October 14, however, U2 flights resumed, immediately spotting Soviet missile-base construction in western Cuba.

After being notified of the missiles’ presence in Cuba, President Kennedy debated with EXCOMM whether to invade Cuba, launch air strikes on the known bases, initiate a blockade, send Castro a warning, negotiate with the USSR, or do nothing. Even though the addition of missiles to Cuba did not seriously affect the strategic balance between the two superpowers, Kennedy believed the Cuba situation could result in serious political distress. After meeting with his staff, Kennedy proceeded with a naval blockade of Cuba, officially termed as a “quarantine” of offensive weapons. On October 22, Kennedy announced to the world U.S. knowledge of Soviet military buildup in Cuba and threatened to increase the scope of the blockade should the USSR refuse to remove the missiles from the island.

The Soviet Union viewed the quarantine as “pirate action” against Cuba and “an act of aggression,” and refused to comply with American demands. Castro reaffirmed his stance that the weapons were of solely defensive nature. The blockade did stop and search some ships bound for Cuba and cleared them after finding only non-military goods, and the quarantine did lead the USSR to call back some 14 ships carrying military goods. But missile-based construction was not halted, and Kennedy prepared to invade Cuba and respond with nuclear force to any Soviet military response.

The situation was further complicated when, through the assistance of KGB spy Fomin, Khrushchev offered to remove the missiles and prevent any further Soviet arming of Cuba in exchange for an end to the blockade and assurance, seconded by Brazil, that Cuba was to be safe from U.S. invasion. Castro, however, urged pre-emptive use of Cuba’s half-developed nuclear capacity, and Khrushchev sent another message demanding the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and Italy as part of the exchange, not aware that they were practically obsolete. In the meantime, a Soviet officer in Cuba ignored the Kremlin’s orders not to fire at American planes, and downed a U2 recon aircraft. Kennedy assumed the action was a mistake, and did not follow through with retaliatory measures.

On October 27, Kennedy publically agreed to the terms laid out by Khrushchev’s first message, amid a number of concurrent events that each could have brought the world to nuclear war: Fomin was accused of treachery, U.S. aircraft accidentally entered Soviet airspace, depth charges were dropped on a Soviet nuclear submarine, EXCOMM reviewed plans for an invasion of Cuba, and Castro sent his ‘Armaggedon Letter’ urging the Politburo to retaliate with full force against the imminent invasion. Secretly, Kennedy agreed to the provisions of Khrushchev’s second message, and arranged for the Turkish and Italian missiles to be quietly removed after the crisis. The Kremlin agreed to this combination-deal, and even removed nuclear tactical rockets from Cuba as a measure of good will. By the end of November the American blockade was lifted, and the Turkish and Italian missiles were removed by April of 1963.

I believe the Politburo made some crucial mistakes which mitigated the initial advantages of the situation. The USSR had shipped 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, unbeknownst to the U.S. until after the crisis, and American recon did not identify all of the missile bases. These hidden assets were undermined by a lack of internal cooperation within the Politburo, which led to the drafting of two conflicting messages to President Kennedy. The contradictions allowed EXCOMM to agree with one demand and only claim to agree to the first, humiliating Khrushchev and Soviet governance. Also, the Politburo did not sufficiently involve Castro and Cuban leaders in the military preparations or the negotiations. Both Castro and his agenda, which involved the U.S. giving up its base in Guantanamo Bay, were sidelined, damaging future Cuban-Soviet relations.

EXCOMM, however, was not free from error. It failed to obtain sufficient reconnaissance intelligence when it would have been most useful, underestimated the scale of weaponry deployed in Cuba, and incorrectly assumed that a blockade would stop the development of bases already prepared in Cuba. The U.S. was able to get the better of the Soviets, by giving up near-worthless missiles in Turkey and Italy and making the USSR the aggressor in world opinion. But the U.S. also did not act on its strategic advantage against the USSR, which it could have used to wrest Cuba from Communist control and win the resulting nuclear showdown.

In order to better realize the objectives of the Politburo during the Caribbean Crisis, I recommend:

  • More effective labeling of the U.S. as aggressor in Cuba

  • Better concealment of missile base development under the guise of agricultural aid

  • Stronger cooperation with Cuban leaders over diplomatic tactics and military strategy

  • Avoidance of miscommunication that resulted in the two conflicting messages to EXCOMM

  • Limitation of U.S. demands to military developments discovered by U.S. reconnaissance

  • Leveraging undiscovered or ignored weaponry in Cuba for Cuban, East German objectives

Connor Wahrmanfile:coat of arms ussr1.svg

Politicheskoye Byuro (Politburo)

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