The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Close Call Avoided by Successful Strategizing — Rebecca White


On October 16, 1962, the United States received intelligence which confirmed that, despite the assurances of Moscow, the Soviet Union had placed medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba. In response, after close consultation with a small group of advisors, President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and issued an ultimatum demanding that the Soviets remove the missiles. The ensuing days brought the world the closest it has ever come to a nuclear war but on October 28, after days of brinksmanship and diplomacy, the Soviet Union announced that it would remove the missiles.

The Kennedy administration considered many possible responses to the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba. The principle decision making process occurred within what came to be called the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). ExComm was a small group of key advisers from a multitude of departments and agencies, as well as subject matter experts, whom Kennedy trusted and whose opinions he valued. This group’s structure and Kennedy’s confidence in the committee allowed crisis deliberations to be unhindered by rank or agency loyalty, prevented miscommunications, and streamlined decision making thereby enabling prompt responses. ExComm eventually decided on a military naval blockade, with contingency plans to fall back on.

Kennedy’s concurrent ultimatum required quick implementation of the naval blockade as well as precisely planned and coordinated diplomatic and military action. By keeping the decision making process secret and limited to a small group of trustworthy advisors, the Kennedy administration was able to control when and how details of the crisis and the U.S. response were revealed to the international community, the American people, and the Soviets.

The blockade allowed the United States to take a strong stance without engaging in offensive military action, which would have had a greater risk of escalating into a nuclear war. President Kennedy’s direct executive oversight of diplomatic and military actions ensured the achievement of his political goals, although there was some friction between the White House and the subordinate departments involved in the blockade. The use of a novel interagency tool in the form of a group of key crisis advisers and experts—ExComm—was the most significant factor that contributed to the success of the Kennedy approach.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely considered one of the most significant confrontations of the Cold War, next to the Berlin Blockade. In handling the crisis, the United States maintained its security buffer in the Western Hemisphere without making unpalatable sacrifices or escalating military aggression with the Soviet Union. The Kennedy administration’s success also demonstrated that it could deal effectively with an international threat, reversing damage to U.S. prestige that had resulted from the failed Bay of Pigs operation. This enhanced the international standing of the United States and increased the credibility of U.S. deterrence.

The Kennedy administration successfully managed the Cuban Missile Crisis. The establishment of ExComm, with its open atmosphere of decision making, created an effective forum in which experts could decide on a course of action. Direct involvement by the president and the high level of ExComm secrecy controlled information and limited the number of miscommunications and mistakes. The naval blockade allowed the United States to take a strong position on the international stage in opposition to the Soviet Union’s increased nuclear threat, while minimizing the possibility of nuclear war.