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John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Michael Massa
Virginia Commonwealth University
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was born May 29, 1917 in
Brookline, Massachusetts. Kennedy served in World War II. Later Kennedy served as a member
of the House of Representatives and then the United States Senate. Often referred to by his
initials, J.F.K., Kennedy was president from 1961 till his assassination in Dallas, TX in 1963.
Many scholars have identified the 13 day confrontation, known as the Cuban Missile
Crisis, in October 1962 between Russia and The United States as a time when the Cold War
came closest to nuclear war (Marfleet, 2000). Decisions made by the Kennedy Administration
would weigh heavy on the possibility of nuclear war. Fear of massive mutual assumed
destruction spread across the both hemispheres.
The crisis was an adaptive challenge for Kennedy as there was no preexisting protocol,
resources, remedies, tools, or solutions to help guide the leadership teams of both countries
involved (Drath, 2011). The challenge to President Kennedy was twofold. Kennedy would need
to make the best decision possible to avoid a massive tragedy. Kennedy would also need to exert
a sense of strong, bold leadership in front of both his experienced military counsel and a nation
that had been embarrassed as a result of his leadership in the Bay of Pigs invasion (Grattan,
2004). Kennedy would need to maneuver between all the stakeholders in this conflict through
the political frame of reference.
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Tensions Rise
Following the Korean War and failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, tension and mistrust
between the United States of America and Russia were at an all-time high (Brophy &Paterson,
1983). Continuing Dwight Eisenhower’s earlier containment strategy, by the early 1960s, the
United States had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, positioned to strike Moscow. Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev alerted to the construction of the missile sites in Turkey, contacted
Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and forged an agreement to install Russian Nuclear missiles in Cuba
pointed at the East Coast of the United States.
Challenge for a Young Leader
Preparations for the construction of the missile site in Cuba were reported to President
Kennedy by the Defense Intelligence Agency. The United States sent a military spy plane over
Cuba verifying the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba through photographs. The United
States proposed direct military action against the island nation through sea and air attacks but
ultimately decided that a military blockade would be more prudent (McKeown, 2001).
Kennedy suffered a major embarrassment earlier in his presidency by the defeat and
capture of American soldiers in the Bay of Pigs invasion (McKeown, 2001). Due to the earlier
defeat, Kennedy may have been reluctant to directly attack Cuba for a second time (McKeown,
2001). The United States announced that no weapons would be permitted into Cuba through the
blockade unless the missiles were disassembled and returned to the Soviet Union. Kennedy
received a letter from Khrushchev after the blockade stating that the United States had illegally
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
formed the blockade in international waters and air space and that such an act could lead to
nuclear war (Khrushchev, 2010).
While Kennedy and Khrushchev were in negotiations through the United Nations, several
Soviet ships tried to break through the blockade. As a result American ships were ordered to fire
upon any ships that would again try and sail through the blockade. The Soviet Union also fired
upon, and destroyed a United States military plane. At this point, Kennedy assembled his nine
member Executive Committee of the National Security Council to come up with different
strategies while the United States and the Soviet Union sat on the brink of Nuclear War. The
options given to the President ranged from no reaction, diplomatic pressure toward the Soviet
Union, to attacking Cuba and overthrowing Fidel Castro (JFK Presidential Library, 2011). The
Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that the President give the order to attack and take over Cuba.
John F. Kennedy had the most important decision of his presidency to make. A wrong decision
could lead to massive destruction and insurmountable loss of life.
Kennedy’s Reaction
While Kennedy continued to receive suggestions of full scale assault on Cuba from his
Joint Chiefs of Staff and some members of his cabinet, he was having secret communication with
representatives from Moscow. It was important that while Kennedy was negotiating with the
Soviets, he continued to show strength and willingness to project American power abroad
(Paterson, 1986). This was important as Americans had come to expect this of their President’s
foreign policy. (Paterson, 1986).
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28th, 1962. Kennedy had agreed to remove
United States missiles from sites in Turkey and Italy in exchange for the removal of the Soviet
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
missiles in Cuba. Kennedy held the meetings in secret due to the hardline position of his Joint
Chiefs and the extremely delicate nature of the standoff.
Kennedy’s decision is an example of a leader who used relational dialogue to overcome
and adaptive challenge. The principle of rational dialogue recognizes leadership as an embracing
of differences, and an openness to the continuous unfolding of possibility (Drath, 2011)
Kennedy, his cabinet, and his military advisors were committed to solving the crisis due the
participation in an unknown future (Drath, 2011). In this case Kennedy used the tool of symbol
in executing relational dialogue. Kennedy understood that the American people and his military
advisors wanted a strong show of force in the face of the Soviet threat. Kennedy, understanding
the political need to deliver such a force placed a major blockade around the island of Cuba, flew
war planes over the island nation, and used strong and precise rhetoric when discussing military
options to the media. Kennedy did this, aware that the symbol of strength was a political
necessity. While the world saw the show of strength, it would not be aware of the negotiations
until years later when tapes and transcripts were declassified.
Kennedy’s Frame of Reference
President Kennedy operated within the political frame of reference. According to authors
Bolman and Deal there are five propositions that summarize the political framework (Bolman &
Deal, 2008). A leader who works within the political framework must work with organizations
and groups with varying differences and beliefs (Bolman & Deal, 2008) The leader will also
allocate resources, some of which may be scarce (Bolman & Deal, 2008). The leader may deal
with conflict within the coalition of stakeholders (Bolman & Deal, 2008). The final trait of a
leader who works with in the political frame of reference is negotiation among stakeholders who
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
have competing interests and goals (Bolman & Deal, 2008). By working within the perspective
of the political framework, Kennedy had to work within a coalition of assorted organizations and
individuals with different beliefs, values, agendas, interests and information. In this case
Kennedy had to meet with his military advisors, his white house staff, and communicate with the
Soviets. Kennedy’s military advisors were hawks, while his staff was made up mostly of more
liberal doves. The Soviets had their own agenda that was obviously separate from the United
States’. Kennedy had to communicate with all these different groups while not losing the respect
or trust from any of them. Kennedy also had the ultimate stakeholder group to bring into his
coalition; the American people. Kennedy had to be reassuring and strong at a time when the
United States could have easily been on the brink of mass hysteria (Gibson, 2011). Kennedy
also had but so many resources at his disposal. The obvious resources are the Army, Navy and
Air force. Kennedy also had nuclear weapons at his disposal. Kennedy would have to decide
which resources he would use in this situation and then be able to articulate the reason for use of
one resource over the other. Allocation of resources could have led to conflict within Kennedy’s
coalition. Military advisors wanted Kennedy to use the military to take on the Soviets.
Kennedy met the general needs of this group by using the Navy and Air Force to create a
blockade around Cuba. Kennedy’s staff wanted him to go through diplomatic channels. Kennedy
met the general needs of this group by negotiating with the Soviet Union. Part of operating
within the political frame of reference is negotiation (Bolman & Deal, 2008). Kennedy used his
negotiation skills within the political frame work to meet his end goal; an end to the Cuban
Missile Crisis without military action or mutual assured destruction. Through negotiating with
the Soviets, using his military resources, and communicating a strong cohesive goal to the
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
American people, Kennedy was able to turn a spiral of terror between stakeholders into a spiral
of trust (Blight, 1987).
Kennedy’s Success
Kennedy was ultimately successful in his resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Immediately after the crisis, observers characterized it as a textbook case of the appropriate use
of force (Marfleet, 2000). Kennedy had been victorious in steering the country away from the
massive destruction and horrors of nuclear war. Kennedy also had a symbolic victory, through
use of relational dialogue in the face of an adaptive challenge, by creating a symbolic perception
of strong and reassuring leadership in a time of crisis. Many scholars and experts in crisis
management described the resolution as one of the calmest, coolest, most measured and laudable
examples of exerting rational control over a complex and dangerous international situation
(Pious, 2001). The disparity between Kennedy’s public and private aspects of the handling of
the crisis were quite large. Kennedy negotiated in a quid pro quo manner while the perception of
the public was a military ultimatum that forced Soviet withdrawal (Marfleet, 2000).
For thirteen days in 1962, Kennedy, the youngest American President, had masterfully
adapted and overcome one of the most daunting threats to American citizens in history.
Kennedy utilized his strengths in relational dialogue to solve the adaptive challenge through
calm negotiation, while also navigating through a political framework. Operating through the
political framework Kennedy was able to coalition build, allocate resources, maneuver through
alternating perceptions within his coalition, and ultimately negotiate with the Soviets to reach his
goal. At the end of the conflict no blood was spilled, no military action occurred, and Kennedy
had strengthened public perception of American Strength.
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Blight, J. G. (1987). Toward a policy-relevant psychology of avoiding nuclear war: Lessons for
psychologists from the Cuban missile crisis. American Psychologist, 42(1), 12-29.
Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership.
(4th ed., pp. 191-229). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brophy, W. J., & Paterson, T.G. (1983). October missiles and November elections: The Cuban
Missile Crisis and American politics, 1962, Journal of American History, 73(1), 87-119
Drath, W. (2001). The deep blue sea: Rethinking the source of leadership. (1st ed., pp. 25-27).
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Gibson, D. (2011). Avoiding catastrophe: The interactional production of possibility during the
Cuban missile crisis. American Journal of Sociology, 117(2), 361-419.
Grattan, R. F. (2004). The Cuban Missile Crisis: Strategy formulation in action. Management
Decision, 42(1), 55-68
Library of Congress, (2010), Khrushchev letter to President Kennedy (Moscow 24 October
Marfleet, B.G. (2000). The operational code of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile
Crisis: A comparison of public and private rhetoric. Political Psychology, 21(3), 51-55
McKeown, T.J. (2001). Plans and routines, bureaucratic bargaining and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Journal of Politics, 63(4), 1163
John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis
National Security Council. (2011). National security action memorandum (196). Boston, MA:
JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
Paterson, T.G. (1986). The origins of the cold war. OAH Magazine of History, 2(1), 5-9, 18.
Pious, R. M. (2001). The Cuban Missile Crisis and the limits of crisis management. Political
Science Quarterly, 116(1), 81-105