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The Cuban Missile Crisis can be viewed as a turning point in global nuclear armament. It has been said that the event brought the world closer nuclear war than anything before or after (Kross, 32). The attitudes of American government officials towards the escalation of Cold War brinkmanship leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis are highlighted by John Foster Dulles’ statement, “neutrality is an immoral and shortsighted concept…brinkmanship is the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war.”(Purcell, 38). The U.S. public’s attitude was at a general consensus of fearing the inevitability of nuclear war. This is clearly evident in repeated 1950’s Gallup polling “consistently finding that 65% of adults were worried ‘a lot’ and 25% ‘a little’” about the impending nuclear apocalypse. The public opinion of Cuba was very similar. They did not want to be involved in a nuclear altercation and feared attack from the U.S., working with the Russians to strike fear in the American people as a preventative measure. Castro himself said in an official statement, “I am here to tell you that Russians didn’t and do not today want war.” However, both sides were acting under the assumption that the other country was taking further steps toward war. While Soviet movement of nuclear arms officially began the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S., Cuban and Soviet action jointly contributed, and all these parties in some way viewed the crisis as a turning point, either for escalation or de-escalation of the arms race.
The U.S. was not blameless in the actions which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the major contributors was the humiliating Bay of Pigs invasion. Originally planned as a CIA covert operation the project transformed into a full invasion utilizing Cuban exiles (Kross, 33). However, without direct U.S. military support, the invasion was doomed unless the exiles could inspire a spontaneous revolt. As history had it the invasion was a complete failure and a point of personal embarrassment for the U.S. and President Kennedy. This among other factors contributed to drastic U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. Operation Mongoose was one of factors leading up to the Crisis, being a primary pressure on the Castro government to seek aid from the Soviet Union. A number of high ranking members of the U.S. government directly oversaw this operation including Robert Kennedy, McNamara, Brig. General Edward Lansdale and General Maxwell Taylor (Kross, 34). The intensity of this operation is well illustrated by three planed, but never executed sub operations: Operation Bingo, Operation Cover Up, and Operation Free-Ride. In summary, these include such things as inciting war with Cuba via staged Cuban aggression, using American “Psy ops,” and dropping over Cuba Pan American Air-Way’s tickets to various Latin American destinations. It is easy to see the pressure such a high profile operation would put on the Cuban government.
Aside from this, there was the lingering threat that the U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey posed to the USSR. In fact, during the Cuban Missile Crisis the U.S. and NATO allies loaded aircrafts with nuclear weapons in Turkey. Ready to act at a moment’s notice, these pilots were on high alert, prepared to drop their bombs on Moscow. The perceived threat on the part of the USSR is well illustrated in an article by Allison and Graham (2012), where they indicate the awkward position in which Kennedy and the United States found themselves: war with Cuba may be necessary in the short term in order to avoid a long term conflict with the USSR. Aggression against the small Island nation could be viewed as just another step in the incremental hard line measures (such as the Jupiter missiles in Turkey) to reduce the threat of a third World War. While Brinkmanship at its core, the aggressive operations and verbal threats toward Cuba leading up to the crisis were of sufficient intensity to merit, in their view, the involvement of the USSR.
The Crisis itself shows the lengths to which the U.S. would go in order to prevent the danger represented by a nuclear capable Cuba. “The following days brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. When the Ex-Comm tapes became available in the 1990s at the close of the Cold War, they confirmed that there were several moments when one more command or one slight move on either country’s part could have unleashed a nuclear holocaust.” (Hanes)
Cuban action leading up to the Crisis is more widely accepted by the U.S. public. From their view it was clear that Cubans were preparing these missiles as an act of aggression and not for defense. Also, Cuba had to consider the fact that the risk of nuclear war had never been so close to home. However, even if they view these missiles as defensive they also presented an added risk nuclear war near home and in the U.S. Kennedy stated in his speech, “The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere.”(The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War, 763) The perceived threat of a socialist government in the western hemisphere by the American people and government is even more clearly illustrated by Castro’s own statements regarding his desperate situation, saying, “What did Kennedy say?…he had said that the new situation in Cuba was intolerable for the United States, that the American government had decided it would not tolerate it any longer; he had said that peaceful coexistence was seriously compromised by the fact that “Soviet influences” in Cuba altered the balance of strength, was destroying the equilibrium agreed upon.” (Castro) The very presence of a Cuban socialist government was threat enough to merit Cold War escalations on the part of the United States.
The USSR, of course, was not inculpable for the escalations that contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev had a lot of leverage over the U.S. because he could blame the United States for having multiple missile stations near the Soviet Union. This also enabled him to have reason to plant missiles in Cuba. It was well said that, “Cuba’s locale was a logistic dream for Khrushchev and a nightmare for the United States. Khrushchev fumed over the fact that U.S. missiles with nuclear warheads were openly located in Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom, within easy striking distance of the Soviet Union.” (Hanes). It then follows that because Khrushchev had the capability of hitting both Western European and North American targets (via long range missiles from the Soviet Union or nuclear capable submarines), the placement of warheads in Cuba could only have been to incite anxiety in the American people. Further illustrating American perception of Soviet action, President Kennedy directly asked Nikita Khrushchev, “to abandon this course of world domination, and to join in an historic effort to end the perilous arms race and to transform the history of man.” (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War) These sentiments were reciprocated by Khrushchev in a public letter, accusing Kennedy of, “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear missile war.”(Purcell, 38) Regardless of United States actions towards Cuba it was still the Soviet Union that sent the missiles to Cuba. The Soviets claimed to have installed the missiles to intimidate the United States; however, if that were the case, it would not have been arranged to be done in secrecy. Therefore, it is easily seen that the way in which they performed the shipment of the missiles was set up to be perceived by the United States as an act of aggression, not of intimidation.
The Crisis itself revealed the true colors of all sides of the conflict. All sides had to make compromises to avoid the inevitable confrontation, which may have easily escalated into a conflict of World War proportions. The United the States had the clear objective of requiring the Soviets to remove their nuclear-capable missiles which they had placed in Cuba (Brown). Likewise, the USSR had the intention of requiring the United States to remove their Jupiter Missiles from Turkey. Neither side desired such drastic actions on their part to resolve this situation. The United States initially conceived policy to quarantine Soviet military equipment to Cuba (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War), but this was quickly overruled by the Soviets, who officially rejected the quarantine (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War). The US additionally made clear that any missiles launched from Cuba would be considered as if from the USSR itself (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War). The Soviet Union’s Intentions were made clear by their official compromise. The agreement was that “If the United States promised not to invade Cuba … the missile bases would be torn down and the Soviet Union would promise not to ship anymore offensive missiles.” (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War) However it soon became obvious that this was not the sole purpose of the agreement when Khrushchev demanded that the U.S. remove their missiles from Turkey. The conflict revealed that all the countries were forced to figure agreements out, or to agree to disagree, so that they did not go to nuclear war.
The resolution of the conflict did more than simply deescalate a single dangerous event, but had lasting repercussions on both public perception of the danger of nuclear war as well as changes in government sentiment and policy on both side. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, public opinion changed greatly. When the same Gallup Poll was redone in May 1963, they found that only “12 percent were worried ‘a lot’ and 31 percent ‘a little’.” (Purcell, 38) This shows that as the U.S. got through the crisis the public realized that there was not as much risk as they thought, that the countries would be forced to figure out their differences. The paranoia died down and ideas and rumors were no longer spreading at the pace they were before. While there were still fears of nuclear war they had lessened a lot with the lessening of the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis all three countries changed their sentiment leading toward peace between them. Publicly all three world powers identified their goals to move towards peace. Castro, in his official statement on Soviet missiles in Cuba, said, “I ask nothing: neither dollars, nor assistance, nor diplomats, nor bankers, nor military men – nothing but peace, and to be accepted as we are!”(Castro) Khrushchev made a statement saying that the removal of the missiles from Cuba was not because of the threat of U.S. intervention but for the cause of world peace. “In order to eliminate as rapidly as possible the conflict which dangers the cause of peace the Soviet Union Government has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you have described as offensive, and to crate and return them to the Soviet Union.” (The Cuban Missile Crisis Fuels Fears of War).
The actions that fueled the Cuban Missile Crisis and led up to it were done by all three countries, the United States, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was responsible for the Bay of Pigs invasion, a humiliating experience for the Soviet Union and Cuba. Also Operation Mongoose was one of the factors, putting pressure on the Castro government. Tensions were already high between the USSR and the U.S. and the placement of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey increased them even more. Cuban action, housing Soviet Bombs and having a socialist government, increased the stressors on the U.S. government. The Cubans made it seem that the missiles were for aggression and this heightened tension. During the conflict it became clear that all three countries would have to agree to disagree to avoid destroying each other. Together, these factors pushed the world closer to nuclear war than it had until that point, and as has been argued, ever since.
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