The Cuban Missile Crisis vs. the Bay of Pigs

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From Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba on New Year’s Day of 1959 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. government resorted to economic and political destabilization, propaganda, manipulation, sabotage, and assassination plots to remove him. It was one of the most extensive, sustained, and ultimately futile covert action programs by one country against the government of another in the post-World War II era. Instead of ridding the hemisphere of Castro, the covert campaign undoubtedly contributed to maintaining and consolidating his control over Cuba. During more than forty years, he outlasted nine U.S presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton.

The Church Committee report, as it became widely known, remains among the most useful and authoritative documents available on not only the assassination attempts but also the framework within which they occurred citing “concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965.”  Among these plots was the Bay of Pigs, for which assassination was a closely held part of the plan, though unknown even to its project director and paramilitary planner (Bohning, 2005).

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In October 1962, the world came perilously close to nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy appeared on nationwide television on Monday the 22nd and announced that the Soviet Union was building “offensive missile sites” in Cuba. In response to this threat, the president ordered a quarantine of all ships carrying offensive military equipments to the island.

Kennedy also proclaimed that “it shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any Nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union.” For nearly a week the world watched and waited as the two supper powers challenged each other “eyeball to eyeball.” The cold war, many feared, was teetering dangerously close to full-scale nuclear war.

Finally, on Sunday, October 28, Nikita Khrushchev capitulated. The premier maintained that the missiles had been intended purely for defensive purposes. Because the United States had assured him that it would not invade Cuba, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the weapons. Kennedy’s most famous crisis had passed. The president’s special counsel, Theodore Sorensen, would write that Kennedy “had been engaged in a personal as well as national contest for world leadership and he had won.” (Bostdorff, 1994).

The realization that the defence of Cuba was a contributing factor to the Soviet missile decision has focused attention on the possible role that the United States’ aggressive policy toward Cuba may have had in instigating the missile crisis. In April 1961, 1,400 U.S trained anti-Castro émigrés attempting to storm a Cuban beachhead at the Bay of Pigs were quickly defeated by Cuban forces.

Scholars have frequently suggested that Khrushchev regarded President Kennedy’s unwillingness to commit U.S. forces to the foundering attack as a sign of U.S. weakness. However, it now seems likely that Khrushchev saw Bay of Pigs episode primarily as a demonstration of the Kennedy administration’s deep antagonism toward the Castro government.

U.S. policy and actions following the Bay of Pigs gave Cuban and soviet leaders ample reason to believe that a new invasion would eventually occur, this time using U.S. military forces. Beginning in November 1961, the Kennedy administration renewed its efforts to overthrow the Castro government through a covert action program code-named “Operation Mongoose.”

Cuban and soviet intelligent tracked subsequent U.S. activities directed against the Cuban government, including infiltration of the island by CIA agents; sabotage of Cuban ships and facilities; training and assistance provided to Alpha 66 and other violent anti-Castro Cuban émigré organizations; and assassination attempts against Cuban leaders.

In the light of these activities and overt actions such as the establishment of an economic embargo on Cuban goods, the successful effort of the united states to diplomatically isolate Cuba at the January 1962 meeting of the organization of American states, and the staging of several large scale military exercises in the Caribbean designed to test U.S. invasion plans, the conclusion reached in Havana and Moscow that us troops would eventually storm Cuban beaches appears entirely reasonable.

Robert McNamara has himself stated, “If I was a Cuban and read the evidence of covert American action against their government, I would be quiet ready to believe that the U.S. that the U.S. intended to mount an invasion.” Perhaps even more relevantly, the United States may indeed have had those intentions. While claims that a firm decision had been made to invade Cuba before the missile crisis began seem overstated, the Mongoose program did envision the use of U.S. forces as the ultimate answer to the Cuban problem. Recently declassified guidelines for Mongoose tacitly approved by President Kennedy in March 1962 noted that “final success” of the program would “require decisive U.S. military intervention.” (Nathan, 1992).

The secret war against Cuba did not weaken Castro’s hold on the island, and it probably stimulated Cuban requests for soviet protection. Nor did the covert operations disarm the republicans, because the Kennedy administration, of course, could not take public credit for such activities. As Cuba inched toward a closer relationship with the Soviet Union, the state Department, in March, complained about “Sino-Soviet bloc” military aid to Cuba.

The question of a soviet arms build-up in Cuba took on serious political dimensions in the summer of 1962 when republican leaders began to mount an unrelenting attack against the Kennedy administration. The growing soviet military presence in Cuba, of course, held significance in itself as a challenge to United States hegemony in Latin America. But it also provided an effective campaign issue that probed one of the administrations most vulnerable spots. And it served to divert attention from republican vulnerabilities stemming from their opposition to popular new frontier programs. Republicans thus strove to make Cuba, not Medicare, the leading topic of the congregational campaigns.

The republican indictment held that the administration was wilfully withholding from the American people damning information about the enlargement of the soviet military presence in Cuba and was underestimating the soviet threat in the Caribbean. Whereas Kennedy argued that Soviet technicians had been stationed on the island, Republicans called them troop. Whereas Kennedy had insisted that soviet missiles in Cuba were “defensive” (short-range surface-to-air), Republicans labelled them “offensive” (surface-to-air and surface-to-surface). Decrying a Soviet besmirching of the Monroe Doctrine, republicans demanded immediate action—either a blockade or an invasion of Cuba. Uneasy democrats dismissed such pleas as election year high jinks but could not shed the charge that Kennedy was timid in curbing the flow of Soviet arms and personnel to Cuba (Divine, 1988).

The actions of intelligence agencies, when uncovered, had in the past seemed like the stuff of novels. Spies gaining valuable intelligence or giving misleading information to deceive enemies seemed more mysterious, almost romantic, than the strategies of war. The 1960s, however, brought the true cost of intelligence to the fore.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Intent on overthrowing Cuba’s communist leader Fidel Castro, the CIA trained Cuban expatriates to invade Cuba with disastrous results. The U.S. sponsored invasion was a failure; the CIA trained invaders were routed, captured, or killed; and the American people were aghast. What was the CIA doing without our knowledge?

Calls for investigations of the CIA’s actions, however immediate, were overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis in 1992 (led by secret aerial surveillance) followed by American intervention in Vietnam. Once again, attempts to bring all intelligence activities under one authority were ineffective. By the 1970s, America was in a midst of a quagmire in Vietnam. With tens of thousands of troops dead, congress finally stepped in to determine the costs and activities of all intelligent efforts. This action was remarkable: for nearly 200 years, intelligence programs had been ongoing without congress involvement (Lockwood, 2007).

Kennedy knew that the Bay of Pigs had made him look incompetent as a leader. More than that, he was concerned that Khrushchev would interpret the incident as a sign of weakness. The soviet leader was determined to stop the large flow of refugees from East German into West German through Berlin. Meanwhile, Kennedy feared that the Soviets really wanted control of the entire city and eventually, all of Europe.

After a meeting between the two leaders in Vienna went poorly, Kennedy returned to the United States and began increasing the nation’s military force. He also publically suggested that the U.S. was prepared to go to war if need be to defend its interest in Berlin. In response, the Soviet Union built a war that separated communist East Berlin from democratic West Berlin. For more than the quarter of the century, the Berlin Wall stood as a chilling symbol of the Cold War.

Although the Bay of Pigs had been a failure, Castro still feared a future invasion by us forces. Knowing he needed a strong ally, Castro allowed the soviets to secretly put nuclear missiles in Cuba–just 90 miles off the coast of Florida! When US spy planes spotted these missiles in October 1962, Kennedy responded by authorizing a naval blockade of the island. For 13 days, the world watched as the Cuban missiles crisis brought the two supper powers to blink of nuclear war (Pintozzi, 2006).

From the Soviet point of view, what had gone wrong? Jumping ahead, the most serious error the soviets made was in their estimate of probable American response. It had been suggested that the soviets underestimated the U.S. response for two reasons. First, the Soviets thought that the democracies were “too libel to fight, “as the poet Robert Frost reported Khrushchev saying. On the other hand, as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has pointed out, Frost was interpreting an anecdote Khrushchev had quoted from Gorki, and Frost distorted Khrushchev’s meaning in the process.

It had been suggested, second, that Khrushchev was accustomed to people who blustered and Kennedy’s mild behaviour at Vienna meeting and his refusal to use American troops at the Bay of Pigs led Khrushchev to conclude that Kennedy was an inexperienced leader who could be threatened and bluffed into acquiescence. But both the bay of pigs of pigs and the Vienna meetings had come a year earlier, and since that time Kennedy had done a number of things that would have demonstrated his toughness to Khrushchev, including standing firm on Berlin and putting troops in Thailand when the Communist side in Laos broke the cease-fire (Hilsman, 1996).

Despite the acute embarrassment caused by the Bay of Pigs, military and intelligence services followed the failed invasion with an astonishing set of covert initiatives designed to discredit Castro and provoke military confrontation with Cuba. These initiatives, code-named operation Northwoods, included plans to assassinate Cuban exiles, attack the U.S navy, and commit acts of terrorism in major U.S. cities, in order to blame the aggression on Cuba and generate support for military action against the Castro regime.

Operation Northwoods was formally endorsed by the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff, but was rejected by the Kennedy administration in 1962. Determined to reverse their humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, however the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued to plot scenarios that would justify U.S. action against Cuba. These included plans to provoke the shooting down of U.S. spy planes over Cuban air space, the possibility of stimulating a Cuban attack on U.S. forces stationed on the island at the Guantanamo bay naval base, and forcing other Latin American countries into armed confrontation with Castro.

The Bay of Pigs has been linked with two of the most momentous U.S. conspiracy theories of the twentieth century: the conspiracy (or multitude conspiracies) to assassinate President John f Kennedy and the Watergate conspiracy, which would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Among the CIA operatives who helped plan the Bay of Pigs was E. Howard Hunt who would later be sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for his part in break in at the offices of the Democratic National committee in the Watergate building (Knight, 2003).

When the immediate crisis was over there was over there was a fulsome exchange between London and Washington. Yet the consequences of the missile crisis for Britain’s international standing became the subject of animated   debate. Labour made great play with Kennedy’s failure to consult the government.  Macmillan himself was anxious to emphasis that, ‘it is not true that we in this country have played an inactive role in this great trial of strength’.

From Moscow  sir frank Roberts (whose reading of  soviet actions during the crisis was highly prescient),  cabled home that ‘your own strong warnings to soviet Charge d,Afffaires in  London no doubt  played a part in  bringing Khrushchev to call a halt to his Cuba blackmail. Nevertheless, the view that Britain’s role was nugatory clearly exercised officials and commentators. Robin Edmonds, erstwhile head of the FO’s American department, has suggested that, as Britain’s influence in the crisis was marginal, ‘by the end of 1962, the age of the superpowers had begun’; with the resignation of Macmillan and the death of Kennedy that he terms ‘the long parenthesis in the Anglo- American relationship was drawing towards its close’. David Owen has also argued that: the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated clearly –even to the reluctant dreamers of the Western Alliance—the harsh realities of the new super-power structure which had become increasingly apparent ever since the end of the Second World War.’(Scott, 1999).

Whether fan or critic of the administration’s crisis management, scholars, journalists, and others who write about the Cuban Missile Crisis overwhelming stress the roles prayed by president Kennedy, Attorney General, Kennedy, and members of Excomm, the Executive committee of the National Security Council that the president established to debate the opinions and decide upon a response. That a succession of U-2 mission that overflew Cuba throughout the crisis and NSA eavesdropping operations (SIGINT) provided the members of Excomm with a steady stream of intelligence on the number and likely operational state of the missile cites, on Soviet and Warsaw Pact military preparations, and on the progress made by Soviet ships headed towards the quarantine line have received scant if any attention.

Although slow to detect the Soviet emplacement of missiles in Cuba and plagued by the lack of clandestine agents within Cuba and the Soviet Union (HUMINT), the CIA performed well during October 1962. U-2 photography revealed six MRBM and three IRBM (Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles; McCone had limited his warnings to MRBMs) sites that collectively enveloped some three enveloped some three dozen launch pads.

Based on this imagery the Agency correctly inferred that nuclear warheads as well as missiles had arrived. This imagery also provided U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson with the necessary ammunition to demolish his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin’s protestations of innocence during their public debate in the UN Security Council. What is more, the NSA’s SIGINT allowed for careful monitoring of Soviet and Warsaw Pack military communications, and additional information provided by Penkovsky prior to his arrest on October 20 was extremely valuable for Kennedy and his advisors as Excomm debated U.S. options and Soviet ships approached the quarantine line (Theoharis & Immerman, 2006).

The Cuban missile crisis provides a positive exemplar. Kennedy’s cabinet members took responsibility for gathering information about particular aspect of the situation for the group, including specific briefs for the state, defense, and justice departments, the intelligence agencies, and the branches of the military. Moreover, cabinet members met almost continuously, and were always available for meeting and information exchanges with the White House. Ultimately, these different perspectives were used to fashion the successful response to the Soviet missile threats within Cuba. In contrast, the Bay of Pigs invasion was characterized by much less clarity about information roles and much less dedication to frequent meetings. Unsurprisingly, the group process was ineffective.

While the comparison of the Bay of Pigs invasion with the Cuban missile crisis provide a particularly sharp comparison of process among groups with very similar composition, this same importance of real-time information, partitioned responsibility for the information, and frequent meetings appears in other kinds of groups as well (Locke, 2000)

President Kennedy, likely recalling the furor over doctored pictures shown at the UN during the Bay of Pigs debacle, asked about releasing the U-2 photographs: “would it not be possible to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of an untrained observer?” Lundahl downplayed the idea but agreed with Bundy and McNamara that some photos of “missiles lying on trailers… could, I think, very clearly impact on people.”

Rusk, his voice obscured at first by the clatter of Lundahl clearing away his materials, explained that the new intelligence “changes my thinking on the matter.” The Soviet build-up is not “just an incidental base” but “a formidable military problem,” and failure to respond “would undermine our alliances all over the world, very promptly.” The secretary of state read from the president’s September 4 warning to the Soviets and all but challenged JFK to live up to his words. If we do nothing, he warned, the Soviets would “feel that they’ve got it made as far as intimidating the United States is concerned,” which would undermine “the support that we need for the kind of foreign policy that will eventually secure our survival.”

On the other hand, Rusk counselled that military action against Cuba might provoke Soviet reprisals in Berlin, in Korea, or “against the United States itself.” If the U.S. challenged the Soviet decision to embark “upon this fantastically dangerous course,” he declared, “no one can surely foresee the outcome,” (Stern, 2005).

Nothing in Soviet military or Party writing suggested that the USSR would send nuclear weapons to Cuba in 1962—an event which resulted in the Cuban missile crisis. The USSR had shipped conventional arms to the Third World well before discussing the policy of arms transfers in print. It would appear the Soviet Union was more active militarily in the Third World than Soviet statements would indicate.

During the 1956 Suez crisis, Soviet nuclear crisis were not made to Britain and France until the crisis was practically over. The most serious crisis of the Khrushchev era in the Third World was the Cuban missile crisis. This situation, though, was primarily the result of the Soviets misjudging America reactions to their foreign policy rather than anything else. Cuba had been accepted by Soviets as a communist state; after the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, it was apparent that the U.S would not make much effort to topple the Castro regime. Once the US adopted this position, Khrushchev undoubtedly saw it as natural to have Soviet nuclear weapons on the territory of its European allies.

The crisis did not arise until the Kennedy Administration noticed the weapons and called it a crisis, after which the Soviets very quickly backed down to avoid a world war. As a communist country, Cuba was no longer an ordinary part of the Third World to the USSR, though the incident did indicate the degree to which the USSR was willing to become militarily involved with any Third World country that  turned into a communist state (at least, before the Cuban missile crisis) (Katz, 1982).

The shock of the Cuban Missile crisis clearly made Soviet and American leaders more aware that and accidental nuclear war was a serious possibility and required, at the minimum, improved channels of communication between the two sides. Therefore, in 1963 they set up a ‘hot line’, a direct communications link between the Soviet and American capitals. Several months later, the Soviet Union, United States and Britain agreed to a Limited Test Barn Treaty that ended atmospheric test; future nuclear tests would be conducted underground. These limited steps were coupled, however, with a series of seemingly contradictory moves and public statements.

In June 1963 in a speech at the American University in Washington, for example, Kennedy called in his countrymen to ‘re-examine our attitude towards the cold war, remembering that we are not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points. We are not here distributing blame or pointing the fingers of judgement.’ Indeed, Kennedy added, ‘We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last eighteen years been different.’ Yet, while visiting Berlin the same month, Kennedy loudly condemned Soviet policy and the wall, maintaining that ‘lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice’. He then asked his listeners to ‘lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany to the advance of freedom everywhere’ (Best, 2008).

By contrast, when good thinking occurs in groups, there is a commitment of the group to a friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) interchange of arguments pro and con, not to a decision already tentatively made. Loyalty to the group is defined in terms of loyalty to the process of making best decisions, not loyalty to a decision already made (Boron, 2008).

Visitors to President Kennedy’s inner circle during the Cuban missile crisis were often surprised at the freedom that members had to bring up seemingly irrelevant ideas and suggestions. (Kennedy apparently had learnt something about group decision making from the Bay of Pigs.) Information was sought out from a variety of sources, especially people expected to disagree with the group, and these people were questioned thoroughly.  (Janis suggests that assigning one member of the group to be devil’s advocate can help to prevent groupthink.)


Janis does not deny that there were other causes of poor decision making in his examples. For instance, he noted an excessive concern not to appear “soft on communism,” for domestic political reasons. Had presidents Kennedy and Johnson considered the possible outcomes of their poor decisions motivated in this way, Janis argues, they would have realised that they were ultimately undercutting this goal.

One of the advantages of Janis’s analysis is that it can explain poor decisions making while allowing that very good decision making could occur in similar circumstances. Decision makers are not simply the victims of their political biases, and the purported existence of these biases does not provide a full explanation of poor decisions. In good decision making, questioning is always possible.


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