How Did John F. Kennedy Act Through the Cuban Missile Crisis

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The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. What was at stake in the crisis, and how do you assess President Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev’s provocation? Was Kennedy prudent or rash, suitably tough or needlessly belligerent?

By Jeremy Leung 299722
USA & The World 131-236

The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest that humankind had ever become to experiencing a thermonuclear war. In October 1962, the world watched perilously, as U.S. president John F. Kennedy warned his people of the amalgamation of Soviet arms in Cuba. John F. Kennedy refused to accept “offensive” Soviet artillery in such close proximity to the U.S., but Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev had already planned a stealthily build-up. Kennedy henceforth demanded Khrushchev to disassemble offensive artillery and employed a strict naval quarantine, an action that Khrushchev initially refused and deemed “illegal”. For several days, as two of the world’s superpower’s refused to meet an agreement, the world faced the daunting and horrifying prospect of a nuclear war. Eventually, Khrushchev had accepted a peaceful resolution, as he withdrew Soviet offensive arms in return for a promise that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. With the Soviet exodus from Cuba, President Kennedy’s popularity had risen sharply as journalists labelled him the “architect of a great diplomatic victory.”[1] Kennedy’s ability to remain calm under the pressure of a potential nuclear war had won praise from his colleagues and the American public, who rewarded him with re-election. In a diametrically opposed view, conservatives assert his actions were not decisive enough in securing America’s national security. This essay will seek to analyse both the praise and the criticism in evaluating John F. Kennedy’s actions through the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For many Americans, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in particular the build-up of Soviet arms within Cuba represented a time in which their national security and safety was at stake. This build-up of Soviet missiles in Cuba was deemed by the media as “an action aimed to inflicting an almost mortal wound on us”[2]. This impending threat was dealt with such severity that a committee was formed that comprised of U.S. government officials who were to advise President John F. Kennedy on important matters. As a senior member of the committee, which was known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillion remarked “The crisis was unique in the sense that it was the first time that there was a real, imminent, potential threat to the physical safety and well being of American citizens”.[3] This observation from Dillon portrays the fear that much of the American public felt, who taught and prepared their children through schools to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear war.[4] Yet, it appeared at the time that the build-up of arms within Cuba was not only a confrontation to the U.S., but a direct threat to national security that was felt and feared by both the public and leading politicians. To substantiate this, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara recalled on the 27th October, “As I left the white house and walked through my garden to my car to return to the pentagon on the beautiful fall evening, I feared I might never live to see another Saturday night”.[5] In addition to this, Robert Kennedy wrote afterwards that the world was brought “to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind”.[6] Both these accounts demonstrate the extreme severity in which Congress perceived the Soviet threat. On the 26th of September, U.S. Congress voted strongly in favour to “prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States” with a 386-7 majority in the House of Representatives, and an 86-1 majority in the Senate.[7] This represents an...
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