Modern history


Kennedy and the New Frontiers

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foes, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.


JOHN KENNEDY HAD A VISION. HE THOUGHT THE UNITED STATES WAS the last, best hope of mankind. He wanted prosperity and happiness for all the world’s people and believed the United States was capable of supplying the leadership necessary to achieve those goals. He surrounded himself with the very best minds America had to offer, appointing men who had the techniques and the brains that would enable the new administration to solve any problem, indeed to go out and find new problems so that they could solve them.

Kennedy took office at the moment in time when America’s optimism was at its zenith. Kennedy believed, and often said, it would be possible for the United States to simultaneously take the offensive in the Cold War, accelerate the arms race, eliminate poverty and racism at home, lower taxes, all without unbalancing the budget and starting inflation. His goals, in short, were as boundless as his pledge to “pay any price.” Most Americans agreed with him. Nixon had advocated an almost identical program in the 1960 campaign.

Kennedy and the men around him had been impatient with Eisenhower’s leadership. Eisenhower had not been aggressive enough, he tended to compromise, he could not stir the nation to great deeds. Fundamentally, Eisenhower had rejected the idea that there could be a military solution to Cold War problems or that America could shape the world’s destiny. He had accepted limitations on America’s role. Kennedy did not. Where Eisenhower had been passive, Kennedy would be active. Where Eisenhower had been cautious, Kennedy would be bold. Kennedy and his aides were especially interested in restoring the prestige and primacy of the presidency, which they felt had fallen under Eisenhower.

Republican rhetoric had consisted of unrestrained hostility to the Soviet Union and emphasized permanent war with Communism. But Democratic actions revealed a dynamic militancy.

The new President deeply believed that the United States was not doing nearly well enough in the Cold War. He said he was “not satisfied as an American with the progress that we are making.” Kennedy wanted the people of Latin America and Africa and Asia “to start to look to America, to what the President of the United States is doing, not ... Khrushchev or the Chinese Communists.” Freedom was under the “most severe attack it has ever known.” It could be saved only by the United States. And if the United States failed, “then freedom fails.” The recurring theme, therefore, was, “I think it’s time America started moving again.”

In his first State of the Union address, on January 30, 1961, Kennedy warned, “Each day the crises multiply.... Each day we draw nearer the hour of maximum danger.” He felt he had to tell Congress the truth: “The tide of events has been running out and time has not been our friend.” Finally, the grim prophecy: “There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned.”

Kennedy wanted the United States to take the initiative. Although he emphasized that “a total solution is impossible in the nuclear age,” he did not expect to “win” in any traditional sense. The military realities precluded victory, while America’s view of the nature of the change and of Communism precluded peace. This tended to lock the nation into a policy of containment. Since stalemate was no more satisfactory to Kennedy than it had been to Dulles, however, Kennedy had to hold out a long-range hope. “Without having a nuclear war,” he said, “we want to permit what Thomas Jefferson called ‘the disease of liberty’ to be caught in areas which are now held by the Communists.” Sooner or later freedom would triumph. How? By waiting for the rotten system to implode from within and through the example of American vitality. Kennedy told the American people to expect a long, slow process of evolution “away from Communism and toward national independence and freedom.”

The Third World provided the key. “The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today,” Kennedy said, “is the whole southern half of the globe ... the lands of the rising people.” Kennedy, like the Communists, believed in the inevitable victory of his system in the long run. Again like his enemies, however, he was not averse to speeding up the process. Fittingly, his first great opportunity, and his first crisis, came in a Third World revolutionary nation. For all the President’s speeches about willingness to tolerate differences in the world, he was not ready to accept a Communist regime off the tip of Florida. In late 1960, the CIA, with Eisenhower’s approval, had begun training anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the arts of guerrilla warfare. The plan was to land the counterrevolutionaries in a remote section of Cuba, with covert American assistance, so that they could set up a base of operations to overthrow Castro.

In mid-April 1961, Kennedy ordered the invasion to begin. Cuban exiles, carried in American ships and covered by American airplanes, waded ashore at the Bay of Pigs. Castro completely crushed them. He proved to be far stronger than the Americans had thought, the Cuban people showed little inclination to revolt against him, and the exiles were unable to find support in the Cuban mountains. Kennedy had played a delicate game, trying to give enough support to make the invasion work but not enough to make the American involvement obvious. He had failed on both counts.

Later, in analyzing the failure, Kennedy muttered that “all my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?” That the fault lay with the CIA and the Joint Chiefs became the standard explanation. The President, young and inexperienced, had depended on their expert judgment and had been let down. He would, thereafter, know better.

That explanation was patent nonsense. The Bay of Pigs was hardly an operation carried out against the President’s wishes or in opposition to his policy. He had advocated such activity by exile forces during the 1960 campaign, and the fact was that it fit perfectly into his general approach. The CIA had been wrong in predicting an uprising against Castro, but the prediction was exactly what Kennedy wanted to hear. The President believed there was a liberal alternative between Castro and Batista and that the exile counterrevolutionary group would supply the liberal leadership around which the Cuban people would rally. It was not the experts who got Kennedy into the Bay of Pigs; it was his own view of the world.13

Before he gave the final go-ahead, Kennedy had consulted with Senator William Fulbright. On March 29 the Senator sent a memorandum to the President. “To give this activity even covert support,” Fulbright warned, “is of a piece with the hypocrisy and cynicism for which the United States is constantly denouncing the Soviet Union.” The Bay of Pigs, the Senator said, would compromise America’s moral position in the world and make it impossible for Kennedy to protest treaty violations by the Communists. Kennedy ignored Fulbright, partly because he felt that success would provide its own justification, more because to back down on the invasion would compromise America’s position. Kennedy believed, as he later explained, that “his disapproval of the plan would be a show of weakness inconsistent with his general stance.”

One of Kennedy’s great fears was to appear weak. And, like most Cold Warriors, he thought the only way to deal with the Russians and their associates was from a position of strength. How much strength became the great question. The man Kennedy picked to answer it, Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, maintained that “enough” meant great superiority. He set out to give America that superiority. McNamara described the result in some detail in a 1967 speech. McNamara recalled that when he took office, the Soviets possessed “a very small operational arsenal of intercontinental missiles,” but they had the ability to “enlarge that arsenal very substantially.” The Americans had “no evidence that the Soviets did in fact plan to fully use that capability,” but the possibility existed that they intended to so expand. McNamara and Kennedy decided that “we had to insure against” a Soviet buildup by dramatically increasing American strength. After two years in office they had increased the defense budget from $40 billion to $56 billion. By 1967 America had forty-one Polaris submarines carrying 656 missile launchers and six hundred long-range bombers, 40 percent of which were always in a high state of alert. In ICBMs, Kennedy and McNamara had increased the American force level by a factor of five. They had inherited two hundred ICBMs from Eisenhower; by 1967 the United States had one thousand ICBMs.

The Kennedy-McNamara team had launched the greatest arms race in the history of mankind. It extended far beyond nuclear delivery weapons. The White House and the Pentagon cooperated in vastly increasing America’s conventional war capability and, as a Kennedy favorite, guerrilla warfare forces. In 1954 Eisenhower had backed away from involvement in Dien Bien Phu because, unless he wished to inaugurate a nuclear exchange, he did not have the forces required. Kennedy wanted an ability to intervene anywhere. The new strategy was called flexible response.

As a reaction to the enormous American buildup, the Russians increased their ICBM forces. As McNamara put it in 1967, the Soviets may have had no intention of engaging in an arms race and might have been satisfied to accept the status quo of 1960, under which America had superiority but not enough to launch a first strike. The Kennedy-McNamara program, however, apparently convinced the Kremlin that America did in fact aim at achieving a first-strike capability, which forced the Soviets to increase their missile forces, which forced the United States to begin another round of expansion. But, as McNamara confessed, the whole thing had been a terrible mistake. America had been unwilling to take the risk of allowing the Soviets to achieve parity in nuclear delivery systems, but by building more missiles the Americans only increased their own danger. Given the inevitable Soviet response, the more missiles America built, the less secure America was.

McNamara himself recognized this when he admitted that “the blunt fact is that if we had had more accurate information about planned Soviet strategic forces [in 1961], we simply would not have needed to build as large a nuclear arsenal as we have today.” McNamara concluded that American superiority in ICBMs by 1967 was “both greater than we had originally planned, and is in fact more than we require.”

The political response to the Kennedy buildup was as important as the military reaction. Whereas the Republicans had been content to rest their military policy on the grounds that General Ike knew best, and make general, vague statements to the effect that there was no missile gap, the Democrats made specific statements in insistent tones about American superiority. Coupled with the Bay of Pigs, the new American military policy indicated to the Soviets that they had to deal with an aggressive, outward-looking administration. The “hards” in the Kremlin found their direst prediction fulfilled, and they charged Khrushchev with having neglected Soviet military security. It seemed to them that the United States was trying to shift the military balance in its favor before reaching a worldwide settlement, part of which would be an agreement to keep military forces at the existing levels. Kennedy was always talking about arms limitation talks and at the end of his first year in office said his greatest disappointment was the failure to secure a nuclear test-ban treaty. The Russians saw Kennedy’s expressed desire for arms limitation as a deliberate propaganda lie, coming as it did concurrently with the American military buildup, and believed it was a cover for the continuation of the status quo throughout the world, especially in Berlin, Vietnam, Korea, and Formosa. Kennedy, the Russians charged, would use superior American arms to block all change.

Kennedy said as much in the summer of 1961, when he met Khrushchev in Vienna. The President urged the Premier to preserve the existing balance of power in arms and geography. Kennedy insisted that the entry of additional nations into the Communist camp, or the loss of Formosa or Berlin, would alter the equilibrium and force the United States to react. Khrushchev rejected the concept. Even if he wanted to, he said, he could not stop change, and in any case the Soviet Union could hardly be expected to cooperate in enforcing stability on a world that was predominantly colonial and capitalist. Khrushchev complained that Kennedy “bypassed” the real problem. “We in the U.S.S.R. feel that the revolutionary process should have the right to exist.” he explained. The question of “the right to rebel, and the Soviet right to help combat reactionary governments ... is the question of questions.” It was, he said, “at the heart of our relations” with the United States. He was sorry that “Kennedy could not understand this.”

The American military buildup indicated that the United States would stop, by force if necessary, revolutionary movements in the Third World. It also indicated that the United States was willing to use force to maintain the status quo in Europe. But Khrushchev could not accept the situation in Berlin as permanent. The bone continued to catch in his throat. By the summer of 1961 he had to move quickly if he wished to do anything about it before the Kennedy-McNamara program gave the United States great superiority in strategic weapons.

Kennedy, for his part, seemed open to the reasonable accommodation. All through the summer of 1961 Khrushchev insisted that there had to be some settlement in Berlin before the end of the year. Kennedy’s response was cold and firm: Nothing could be changed. Kennedy insisted, “If we don’t meet our commitments in Berlin, it will mean the destruction of NATO and a dangerous situation for the whole world. All Europe is at stake in West Berlin.”

Kennedy reacted boldly to Khrushchev’s challenge. He put an additional $3.2 billion military budget through Congress, tripled the draft calls, extended enlistments, and mobilized 158,000 reserves and national guardsmen. Altogether, he increased the size of the armed forces by 300,000 men, sending 40,000 of them to Europe and making six “priority divisions” in the reserves ready for quick mobilization.

The two sides were now on a collision course: Khrushchev could not allow West Berlin to remain as an escape hatch; Kennedy could not accept any change in its status. Walter Ulbricht of East Germany announced that after he signed a peace treaty with the Russians he would close West Berlin’s access to the Western world. The President prepared the American people for the worst. In a television address on July 25, 1961, Kennedy showed how determined he was to stay in Berlin by invoking heroic deeds from the past. “I hear it said that West Berlin is militarily untenable,” he began. “And so was Bastogne. And so, in fact, was Stalingrad. Any dangerous spot is tenable if men—brave men—will make it so.” He again said that if Berlin went, Germany would follow, then all of Western Europe. Berlin was essential to the “entire free world.”

Khrushchev regarded the speech as belligerent and called Kennedy’s arms policy military hysteria. Kennedy had made no new offers; indeed, he had made no offers at all to adjust the Berlin situation. East Germans continued to escape via Berlin; soon it threatened to become a country without people. Western propaganda continued to embarrass the Communists by loudly proclaiming that the flow of refugees proved the superiority of capitalism. By early August both world leaders had so completely committed themselves that no solution seemed possible. The crisis appeared destined to end in war.

The escapees were the sticking point. Khrushchev and the East Germans could not afford to continue to lose their best human resources to the West nor to give the West such an ideal propaganda advantage. For his part, Kennedy could hardly be expected to shut the doors to West Berlin or to refrain from using the refugee issue for propaganda.

On August 13, 1961, Khrushchev suddenly and dramatically solved his Berlin problem, and created a new one in the process. He built the Wall, presenting America and the West with a fait accompli and apparently permanently dividing Berlin. The flow of refugees was shut off and—after an initial reaction of outrage—the tension visibly eased. The Soviet building of the Wall, and the eventual Western acceptance of it, signified the end to all serious attempts in that decade to reunify Germany. Khrushchev was willing to live with West Berlin as long as it was isolated and did not drain East Germany. Kennedy was willing to live with the Wall as long as West Berlin stayed in the Western orbit. Khrushchev’s Wall was a brilliant stroke.

It was also brutal and unprecedented. Never before in human history had a wall been built around a city to keep people in. Immeasurable human tragedy resulted.

The compromise solution in Berlin did not lead to a permanent end to tension. The American military buildup continued, after being expanded during the crisis. Kennedy had looked weak to many Cold Warriors in the United States because he had not torn down the Wall. Khrushchev looked weak to the Cold Warriors in the Communist world for building it. Khrushchev was in deeper trouble, however, because the Kennedy administration insisted on boasting about American military superiority. Kennedy officials and American strategic intellectuals were publicly sketching scenarios in which the United States would strike first. They justified the exercise by expressing their skepticism of Soviet missile credibility.

Khrushchev had to react. He could allow the United States its strategic nuclear superiority, and there was little he could do about it in any case, since the United States could and would outbuild him. But he could not allow the United States to be both superior and boastful about its superiority. He needed a dramatic strategic victory, one that would focus world attention on Soviet military capability and satisfy his own armed services. He found the answer with increased megatonnage. On August 30, 1961, he announced that he was breaking the three-year Russian-American moratorium on nuclear testing with a series of tests that climaxed with the explosion of a fifty-eight-megaton weapon, three thousand times more powerful than the bomb used against Hiroshima and many times more powerful than anything the United States had developed. The big bomb was good for propaganda, but it had little if any military use, as both sides already had bombs larger than they needed.

Khrushchev’s series of tests did have the effect, however, of leading to strident demands that Kennedy begin his own series of tests. The President had given top priority to achieving a nuclear test-ban treaty and was despondent when he could not get it. He was furious with Khrushchev for breaking the moratorium, but he refused to be stampeded into a new series of tests. Kennedy was greatly worried about the radioactive fallout problem, and he realized that no matter how big Russian bombs grew the United States would remain strategically superior because of American delivery capability. He tried to compromise with a series of underground tests that began in September 1961. It was not enough, however, to satisfy his domestic critics or the atomic scientists or the Pentagon, and in April 1962 Kennedy ordered a series of American tests (thirty in all) in the atmosphere.

Khrushchev, frustrated in the nuclear field, unable to push the West out of Berlin, incapable of matching the United States in ICBMs, and increasingly irritated by the Chinese harping about Soviet weakness, began to look elsewhere for an opportunity to alter the strategic balance. He found it in Cuba. Since the Bay of Pigs, Russia had increased her aid to Castro and had begun to include military supplies. Kennedy had warned the Soviets not to give offensive weapons to the Cubans; Khrushchev assured the President that he had no intention of doing so. But in August 1962 the Soviet Union began to build medium-range ballistic missile sites in Cuba.

What did Khrushchev hope to accomplish? He could not have expected to attain a first-strike capability. The American delivery system was far too vast for the Russians to be able to destroy it. Nor could Khrushchev have wanted to expand the arms race, for the Russians would not be able to match the American productive capacity. Putting missiles in Cuba would not make Castro any more a Communist, but it was possible that Khrushchev thought the missiles were necessary to protect Cuba from invasion. The American Congress, military, and popular press were all talking openly of invading Cuba again, and the Russians insisted after the event that the missiles had been in response to the invasion talk. If this was his motive, however, Khrushchev badly miscalculated, for the missiles practically invited America to invade.

The issue in Cuba was prestige. Kennedy had taken from Khrushchev the fiction of the missile gap. The fifty-eight-megaton bomb had not been sufficiently impressive. The hard-liners in the Soviet Union and the Chinese continued to pressure Khrushchev to stand up to the United States. The Kennedy administration continued to boast about American military superiority. As Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s chief speech writer, later put it, “To be sure, these Cuban missiles alone, in view of all the other megatonnage the Soviets were capable of unleashing upon us, did not substantially alter the strategic balance in fact ... but that balance would have been substantially altered in appearance; and in matters of national will and world leadership ... such appearances contribute to reality.” The most serious crisis in the history of mankind, in short, turned on a question of appearances. The world came close to total destruction over a matter of prestige.

On October 14, 1962, American U-2s photographed in Cuba a launchpad under construction that, when completed, could fire missiles with a range of one thousand miles. Kennedy was already under pressure from the Republicans for failing to stop the Soviet military buildup in Cuba. Congressional elections were less than three weeks away. The pressure to respond was overwhelming. When a high official in the Pentagon suggested that Kennedy do nothing and ignore the missiles since they constituted no additional threat to the United States, the President replied that he had to act. If he did not, he feared he would be impeached.

The President set the general goals: Get the missiles out of Cuba; avoid a nuclear exchange; prepare for Russian moves elsewhere, as in Berlin; do not lose face. He appointed a special committee of a dozen or so members, which called itself the Executive Committee (Ex Comm), to give him advice. The leading figure of the Ex Comm was the President’s younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The Committee debated a wide range of alternatives, which soon narrowed down to launching a nuclear strike against the missile sites, launching a conventional air strike, followed by an invasion, or initiating a naval blockade that would prevent the Soviets from sending any further material into Cuba. Fear of Russian reprisal soon eliminated the talk of a nuclear strike; support for a conventional attack and an invasion grew. The missiles were a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of Castro. Invasion forces gathered in Florida and Kennedy had the State Department proceed with a crash program for civil government in Cuba to be established after the occupation of that country.

Robert Kennedy, however, continued to insist on a less belligerent initial response. He refused to countenance a surprise attack, saying, “My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the 1960s.” He wanted to begin the response with a partial naval bloackade, one that would keep out Soviet military goods but not force Khrushchev to react immediately. The great advantage of the blockade, as he saw it, was that the pressure could be stepped up if it did not work. Dean Acheson, who was called in for advice, vigorously opposed the blockade and voted for the air strike, as did the Joint Chiefs, but in the end Kennedy chose the blockade as the initial American response.

Having decided on what to do, JFK sent Acheson to Europe to inform the NATO allies. Although somewhat surprised at the extreme American reactions—the Europeans had lived under the shadow of Soviet medium-range missiles for years—de Gaulle, Adenauer, and the others supported the President. So did the Organization of American States. At 7:00 P.M., October 22, 1962, Kennedy went on television to break the news to the American people. He explained the situation, then announced that the United States was imposing “a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment” being shipped to Cuba. He had placed American military forces on full alert and warned Khrushchev that the United States would regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. He appealed to Khrushchev to remove the offensive weapons under United Nations supervision.

Kennedy had seized the initiative. It was now up to Khrushchev to respond. His first reaction was belligerent. In a letter received in Washington on October 23, Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would not observe the illegal blockade. “The actions of U.S.A. with regard to Cuba are outright banditry or, if you like, the folly of degenerate imperialism.” He accused Kennedy of pushing mankind “to the abyss of a world missile-nuclear war” and asserted that Soviet captains bound for Cuba would not obey the orders of American naval forces. The United States Navy meanwhile deployed five hundred miles off Cuba’s coast. Two destroyers stopped and boarded a Panamanian vessel headed for Cuba carrying Russian goods. It contained no military material and was allowed to proceed. Soviet ships continued to steam for Cuba, although those carrying missiles turned back. Work on the missile sites in Cuba continued without interruption, however, and they would soon be operational.

The threat of mutual annihilation remained high. Kennedy stood firm. Finally, at 6:00 P.M. on October 26, Khrushchev sent another message. Fittingly, considering the stakes, it was long and emotional. The Premier wanted the President to realize that “if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it.” He said once again that the missiles in Cuba were for defensive purposes only: “We are of sound mind and understand perfectly well that if we attack you, you will respond the same way. But you too will receive the same that you hurl against us.... Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this.” He said he did not want an arms race. “Armaments bring only disasters. When one accumulates them, this damages the economy, and if one puts them to use, then they destroy people on both sides. Consequently, only a madman can believe that armaments are the principal means in the life of society.”

Then came the specific proposal. Khrushchev said he would send no more weapons to Cuba and would withdraw or destroy those already there if Kennedy would withdraw the blockade and promise not to invade Cuba. He urged Kennedy to untie the knot rather than pull it tighter.

The following morning, October 27, the Ex Comm met to consider Khrushchev’s proposal. Before the members could decide whether or not to accept, a second letter from the Premier arrived. More formal than the first, it raised the price. Khrushchev, perhaps bowing to pressure from his own military, said he would take out the Cuban missiles when Kennedy removed the American missiles from Turkey. “You are worried over Cuba,” Khrushchev stated. “You say that it worries you because it lies at a distance of ninety miles across the sea from the shore of the United States. However, Turkey lies next to us.... You have stationed devastating rocket weapons ... in Turkey literally right next to us.”

The Ex Comm was thunderstruck, even though, as Robert Kennedy later put it, “the fact was that the proposal the Russians made was not unreasonable and did not amount to a loss to the United States or to our NATO allies.” The President had actually already ordered the missiles out of Turkey, but due to a bureaucratic foul-up and Turkish resistance they were still there. To remove them now, however, under Soviet pressure, he regarded as intolerable. The blow to American prestige would be too great. The possibility of a nuclear exchange continued to hang in the balance.

The Joint Chiefs recommended an air strike the next morning against Cuba. The generals and admirals said they had always been against the blockade as being too weak and now they wanted immediate action. Their position was strengthened when a Soviet SAM knocked down an American U-2 flying over Cuba. At this point a majority on the Ex Comm agreed on the necessity of an air strike the next morning. The President demurred. He wanted to wait at least one more day. The State Department drafted a letter from Kennedy to Khrushchev informing the Premier that the United States could not remove the missiles from Turkey and that no trade could be made.

Robert Kennedy then stepped forward. He suggested that the Ex Comm ignore Khrushchev’s second letter and answer the first, the one that offered to trade the missiles in Cuba for an American promise not to invade the island. Bitter arguments followed, but the President finally accepted his brother’s suggestion. He sent an appropriate letter to Khrushchev.

Far more important, however, was an oral promise Robert Kennedy gave to the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. Although the President would not back down in public on the Turkish missile sites, he evidently had begun to see the absurdity of the situation—the United States was on the verge of bombing a small nation with which it was not at war, and risking in the process a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, over the issue of obsolete missiles in Turkey that he had already ordered removed. Kennedy discussed the issues with his brother and asked him to talk to Dobrynin. On Saturday night, October 27, Dobrynin came to Robert Kennedy’s office. The Attorney General first presented the Russian ambassador with an ultimatum: If the United States did not have a commitment by the next day that the missiles would be removed, “we would remove them.” Dobrynin then asked what kind of a deal the United States was prepared to make. Kennedy summarized the letter that had just gone to Khrushchev, offering to trade the missiles for an American promise not to invade Cuba. Dobrynin turned to the sticking point—what about the American missiles in Turkey?

Robert Kennedy’s answer, as given in his own account of the crisis, was: “I said that there could be no quid pro quo or any arrangement made under this kind of threat or pressure, and that in the last analysis this was a decision that would have to be made by NATO. However, I said, President Kennedy had been anxious to remove those missiles from Turkey and Italy for a long period of time. He had ordered their removal some time ago, and it was our judgment that, within a short time after this crisis was over, those missiles would be gone.”

The statement was sufficient. The Russians had their promise. The next day Dobrynin informed Robert Kennedy that the Soviet missiles in Cuba would be withdrawn. The deal was done.

The world settled back to assess the lessons. Everyone learned something different. The Chinese, for example, told the Third World that the Cuban crisis proved one could not trust the Russians. The Russians learned that they could not have military parity with the United States, or even the appearance of it. Kennedy, having been to the brink and having looked into the yawning chasm of world holocaust, learned to be a little softer in his pronouncements, a little less strident in his assertions. His administration took on a more moderate tone, at least with regard to the Soviet Union, and the need for peace and arms reductions replaced boasts about American military power.

At American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy made a dramatic appeal for peace, which he characterized as “the necessary rational end of rational men.” The Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed a few weeks later, prohibiting nuclear tests in the atmosphere. As Herbert S. Dinerstein notes, “The test ban treaty symbolically recognized that the accommodation between the Soviet Union and the United States would be made on the basis of American superiority.”

The Chinese were furious. They called Khrushchev foolish for putting the missiles into Cuba and cowardly for removing them. Within the Kremlin, opposition to Khrushchev mounted. For all his dramatics he had been unable to deliver enough meaningful victories in the Cold War, while his brinksmanship had frightened nearly everyone. Within a year he was driven from power.

The easing of tensions that followed the Cuban missile crisis allowed de Gaulle and other Europeans to begin to think in serious terms about revising their relationship with the United States. De Gaulle wanted to restore European primacy; to do so, he realized, he had to break with NATO. After Cuba, he knew that the United States would not consult with its NATO partners before acting; he was convinced that the United States would not risk its own existence for the sake of protecting Europe; he doubted that the Red Army would ever march across the Elbe. He believed that the time had come for Europe to drop out of the Cold War and assert herself. He therefore prepared a Franco-German friendship treaty, moved to establish better relations with the Warsaw Pact nations, quickened the pace of French nuclear development, and decided to keep Britain out of the Common Market.

On January 14, 1963, de Gaulle announced his program. He vetoed British participation in the Common Market because it would transform the character of the European Economic Community and “finally it would appear as a colossal Atlantic community under American domination and direction.” Kennedy had been pushing for a multilateral nuclear force within NATO, which supposedly would give the Europeans some say in the use of nuclear weapons while blocking any West German move to develop their own bombs. The trouble with the proposal was that under no circumstances would the United States give up its ultimate veto on the bombs. De Gaulle, therefore, denounced the plan. “France intends to have her own national defense,” he declared. “For us ... integration is something which is not imaginable.” He concluded about the French nuclear force, “It is entirely understandable that this French enterprise should not seem very satisfactory to certain American quarters. In politics and strategy, as in economics, monopoly naturally appears to him who enjoys it as the best possible system.”

De Gaulle then proceeded to withdraw French naval forces from NATO and soon asked NATO headquarters to leave France. His bold bid for European independence was not an immediate success, as West Germany decided to maintain her close ties with the United States, but certainly his general goals had enormous appeal. From Yalta in 1945 to Vienna in 1961, the Soviet Union and the United States had presumed to settle the affairs of Europe without any European leaders at the conference table. Those days were rapidly coming to an end. Europe was unwilling to be burned to a cinder because Russia and America disagreed about an island in the Gulf of Mexico.

The greatest lesson from Cuba was the peril of brinksmanship. Henceforth, Russia and America would strive to keep some control over their disputes, to avoid actions that could lead to escalations, to limit their commitments so that they could limit the other side’s response. Struggle would continue, most obviously in the Third World, but preferably at a lower level. American goals remained the same, and Kennedy would continue to pursue them energetically, but he would try to do so with less military force and within the confines of the realization that the Third World had its own hopes and programs.

He had learned. An ability to grow was his most impressive asset and he was surely the honor graduate of the Cuban missile crisis class. “In the final analysis,” Kennedy said in his American University speech, “our most basic common link is the fact that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!