Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis

The single most important event encouraging and accelerating Soviet involvement in Cuba was the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. The U.S. failure to act decisively against Castro gave the Soviets illusions about U.S. determination and interest in the island. The Kremlin leaders believed that further economic and even military involvement in Cuba would not entail any danger to the Soviet Union itself and would not seriously jeopardize U.S.-Soviet relations. This view was further reinforced by President Kennedy’s apologetic attitude concerning the Bay of Pigs invasion and his generally weak performance during his summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June of 1961.

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By Jaime Suchlicki l November 1, 2017

On the 3rd day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 18, 1962, President John F. Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office.

In 1962, the Soviet Union surreptitiously introduced nuclear missiles into Cuba. A surprised, embarrassed and angry President John F. Kennedy blockaded the island and after eleven tense days the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles.

The crisis, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust helped, among other things, to shape the perceptions of American foreign policy leaders toward the Soviet threat and the world. Some of the lessons of that crisis are still with us today.

The first lesson was that there is no substitute for alert and quality intelligence. The United States was surprised by the Soviet gamble, and not until the missiles were on the island and U.S. spy planes had photographed them did the While House discover the magnitude of the challenge and the peril that they represented to U.S. security. While Cubans on the island reported suspicious movement of missiles, U.S. intelligence failed to warn the Kennedy administration in advance of Soviet plans or objectives.

The second lesson was a heightened awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Following the crisis, the United States, the Soviet Union and most countries of the world signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A direct telephone line was installed for communication between the U.S. President and the Soviet leader, and U.S. withdrawal of some missiles from Turkey and elsewhere followed.

The third lesson was in management of crises. President Kennedy’s careful moves during those tense 11 days averted a nuclear confrontation. While some in this country advocated an invasion of Cuba and the end of the Castro regime, the President preferred a blockade, and diplomacy and negotiation with the Kremlin. As we have learned since, Fidel Castro called on Khrushchev to launch the missiles from Cuba against the United States, an action that would have surely forced a counter-launch not only against Cuba but also the Soviet Union, causing a major world catastrophe.

The fourth lesson is that weakness on the part of the American leadership, or perception of weakness by enemies of this country, usually encourages those enemies to take daring and reckless actions.

The single most important event encouraging and accelerating Soviet involvement in Cuba was the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. The U.S. failure to act decisively against Castro gave the Soviets illusions about U.S. determination and interest in the island. The Kremlin leaders believed that further economic and even military involvement in Cuba would not entail any danger to the Soviet Union itself and would not seriously jeopardize U.S.-Soviet relations. This view was further reinforced by President Kennedy’s apologetic attitude concerning the Bay of Pigs invasion and his generally weak performance during his summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June of 1961.

The final and perhaps most important lesson is that there are anti-American leaders in the world willing to die and risk the destruction of their countries in order to fulfill their political ambitions. Castro and Khrushchev belonged to this group–the former because of his Anti-American hatred and his ambition to play a power role beyond the capabilities of his small island, and the latter because of his desire to overcome the U.S. strategic advantage and change the balance of power in the world. Both were willing to take actions that endangered their people as well as the world.
Dangerous and daring leaders, and terrorists, enemies of the United States, remain today in and out of power in many countries. The actions of Castro and Khrushchev in 1962 should give us pause, but little comfort. Not only are nuclear weapons still around, but more ominous chemical and biological weapons have been developed since the missile crisis. The lessons of that crisis and the danger of a difficult world are still with us.


Jaime Suchlicki is Director of the Cuban Studies Institute, CSI, a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, Florida. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and of the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba. Suchlicki is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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