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The Kennedy Years

During his campaign for the presidency in 1960, John F Kennedy was concerned about appearing soft on Communism. Like Nixon and Joe McCarthy he had criticized President Truman for losing China. A columnist had described Kennedy as Adlai Stevenson (the Democratic Party's 1952 and 1956 candidate) "with balls," and Kennedy is said to have relished the line.

When Kennedy became president he learned that he had inherited the Eisenhower administration's plan of support for an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. Having criticized the Eisenhower administration for having failed to support the anti-Castro Cubans' "fight for freedom," Kennedy could not easily turn his back on Eisenhower's project – also a CIA project. The Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, was arguing that the Soviet Union was training Cubans as pilots and was expected to deliver MiG aircraft to Cuba and that it was important to overthrow Castro soon rather than waiting and watching. Within the CIA, however, there was doubt that the invasion could succeed: a CIA report described Castro as not vulnerable to insurrection.

Kennedy chose to go with the invasion plan. A force of 1,400 exiles training for the invasion was already dependent on US help with money, equipment and transportation, and perhaps training. There was the belief that their force taking a foothold in Cuba would inspire an uprising against Castro, compensating for their small number. The US plan was for the invaders to secure an area and declare a provisional government followed by the US recognizing it as Cuba's legitimate government.

Kennedy wanted it to appear that it was the exiles overthrowing Castro. He told insiders and his military that whatever happens there would be no direct US involvement – a message not communicated to the exiles about to put their bodies on the line.

There was US involvement in the form of air power. On April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers hit three Cuban air bases, to protect the invaders from being attacked by Castro's airforce. Two days later the invasion landed at beaches along Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Immediately they came under heavy fire. The B-26 airstrikes had been ineffective. Cuban planes strafed the invaders and did other damage.

There was no uprising in support of the exiles. The invading force lost 89 as killed, and 1,197 were taken prisoner. Castro's side lost 157 killed. The invaders blamed Kennedy for not having the cojones (balls) required to send help. That the invasion plan had been unrealistic was ignored. Kennedy put some blame on himself and asked how he could have been "so stupid."

Cuban Missile Crisis

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco the Kennedy administration banned all imports of Cuban products and won support from NATO allies to isolate Cuba economically. In early 1962 his administration engineered the eviction of Cuba from the Organization of American States. Against Cuba, Kennedy supported a program of psychological warfare designed to provoke, harass and disrupt Castro's Cuba – a program supported by the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Hit and run saboteurs burned cane fields and blew up oil storage tanks in Cuba. More assassination attempts were made against Castro. At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were skeptical about the operation. They had favored sending in a US force instead.

In Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev decided to protect Cuba from an invasion by putting missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. He was thinking that the United States had not kept out of the Soviet Union's neighborhood with missiles, so why should he not be allowed to put missiles into Cuba in agreement with that nation? He saw it for defensive purposes: to discourage an invasion against the Soviet Union's ally: Cuba. Fidel Castro agreed to the idea. The Cuban Missile Crisis was born.

In the US, the November 1952 congressional elections were approaching, and it was Soviet strategy to keep the delivery of the missiles secret until after the elections when they believed Kennedy would be under less pressure to make a show of standing up to the Soviet Union. But the secret was uncovered on October 14 when a U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba took photos that revealed the missiles. Kennedy was outraged. He thought he had an understanding with Khrushchev. Former president Eisenhower had just described Kennedy as weak on foreign policy, and Kennedy believed that Khrushchev's actions would help Republicans and prevent his re-election in 1964. To his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he called Khrushchev a "f**king liar" and an "immoral gangster". (Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight, p 7)

Kennedy said that it didn't matter whether the missiles came from Cuba or the Soviet Union, that letting Khrushchev get away with his brinkmanship would be "surrender to blackmail." He decided that the missiles in Cuba would have to be taken out.

On October 18th, Kennedy spoke with THE Soviet foreign minister, Andre Gromyko, who complained about US threats against Cuba. Kennedy told him "there was no intention to invade Cuba." Gromyko told Kennedy that the Soviet government would never become involved in rendering assistance to an offensive capability. After the meeting Kennedy referred to Gromyko as "that lying bastard." (Dobbs, p 145)

Kennedy and his advisors decided on a naval blockade against Soviet ships heading for Cuba. His Air Force chief of staff, Curtis LeMay, complained that a mere naval blockade would send a message of weakness and added, "It will lead right to war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich."

The blockade began on October 21. It was to be a "quarantine," allowing Soviet ships to pass that were carrying goods deemed not of immediate military value. The next day, Kennedy addressed the nation. He said,

...a series of offensive [emphasis added] missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.

As Kennedy spoke, the US Airforce was preparing for war. Around 200 bombers with nuclear weapons on board were being dispersed to airstrips across the nation.

Security for people in the United States was dependent on its military completely wiping out the Soviet Union's capability to hit the US with its nuclear weapons – a dubious capability. Security for the Americans as well as people of the Soviet Union was dependent upon the caution, sense of measure and emotional stability possessed by Khrushchev and Kennedy.

An hour before Kennedy's speech on Monday, a copy of his speech had been given to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, and fifteen minutes later Khrushchev had a copy in his hands. Khrushchev ordered a heightened alert for the Soviet military, and to avoid a confrontation with the US Navy he ordered the two ships carrying missiles, the Kimovsk and the Yuri Gagarin, to return home.

Fidel Castro expected a US invasion, and he looked forward to cutting down the invasion force in the water — a showdown he thought he could win with the help from the Soviet Union. People in the US were virtually united against what they saw as the Soviet Union's threat to their nation. Castro was mystified by what he saw on US media as an underestimation of the strength of the Russian force in Cuba, and he thought it was some kind of intentional deception.

From the US Congress came demands for toughness: more urging of an invasion. On the morning of the 26th, Khrushchev sent another letter, delivered to the US embassy in Moscow. Eleven hours later it arrived by teletype at the US State Department in Washington. In his letter, Khrushchev spoke of a knot drawing tighter and that it was one that he and Kennedy might not have the strength to untie. He spoke of the catastrophe of a thermonuclear war, and he ended his message by saying "...let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope. Let us take measures to untie the knot."

General LeMay described Khrushchev's letter as "a lot of bullsh*t" and said that Khrushchev must believe "we are a bunch of dumb sh*ts, if we swallow that syrup." (Dobbs, p. 165)

Saturday, the 27th, was the most tense day of the crisis. US jets had been whizzing low over Cuba, taking photographs. Castro saw the flights as preparation for an invasion and a violation of Cuba's territorial integrity. A Soviet missile in Cuba shot down a U-2 plane. (Khrushchev would tell one his generals in Cuba that allowing the shoot-down was unwanted haste.) Khrushchev wondered whether Kennedy would be able to endure the humiliation of the loss of a spy plane. It had been his view that Kennedy was a tool of the Pentagon, Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

US military leaders were dismayed by Kennedy's reluctance to retaliate. General LeMay was furious. LeMay said that he saw no solution "except direct military action right now." The Joint Chiefs of Staff were unanimous in their opposition to conciliation. A Marine general spoke of Communist trickery. He said that "Khrushchev, like doctrinaire Communists before him is a slavish follower of Sun Tzu," who believed in pretended accommodation while secretly preparing to attack. LeMay and his colleagues called for air strikes against thousands of military targets in Cuba and a ground invasion in seven days. (Dobbs p. 266)

Kennedy's reluctance saved the day. Khrushchev was impressed by what he thought was Kennedy having shown himself to be "sober-minded" and not reckless. He sent a personal letter to Kennedy and he announced over Radio Moscow that he had agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. He and Khrushchev ended the crisis with an agreement: Khrushchev removing Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy removing US missiles from Turkey.


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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.