Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis–the central crisis of Kennedy’s presidency–and perhaps of the entire cold war. In an attempt to establish a Soviet nuclear presence just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, Khrushchev sent Russian ships carrying nuclear warheads to Cuba. Emboldened by Kennedy’s failure at the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev told other Soviet officials that Kennedy would do anything to prevent nuclear war. He assured Cuba’s Che Guevara that “You don’t have to worry. There will be no big reaction from the US side.”
The Soviets and Cubans underestimated Kennedy. Following an October 14th reconnaissance trip over Cuba, for the first time in history, the Strategic Air Command advanced its alert posture to DEFCON 2, one step short of nuclear war.
Kennedy resisted calls for direct engagement and ordered, instead, a naval blockade of Cuba. The move prevented the Soviet ships from gaining entry to the island and bought time for cooler heads to prevail. On Oct. 22nd Kennedy declared that any missile launched from Cuba would warrant a full-scale retaliatory attack by the United States against the Soviet Union. On Oct. 24th Russian ships carrying missiles to Cuba turned back, and when Khrushchev agreed on Oct. 28th to withdraw the missiles and dismantle the missile sites, the crisis ended as suddenly as it had begun.
More than a year earlier, however, Kennedy’s leadership during the Bay of Pigs invasion had not turned out so well. In fact, historians often blame Kennedy’s failed leadership during the Bay of Pigs crisis for the ultimate boldness that caused the missile crisis.
The purpose of the Bay of Pigs Invasion had been to touch off a nationwide uprising against Castro, which members of the Eisenhower administration had put into place at the end of their tenure. When Kennedy took office, he abolished Eisenhower’s Planning and Operation Coordinating Board, thereby eliminating the checks and balances inherent in Eisenhower’s Council.
By financing and directing anti-Castro Cuban exiles, the U.S. hoped to overthrow Castro; it didn’t work. On April 17, 1961 the landing of 1,453 Cuban exiles on the southwestern coast of Cuba turned, within seventy-two hours, into a complete disaster, resulting in the capture of 1,179 invaders and the death of the remaining 274.
Not only did the offensive fail, it also aggravated already hostile relations between the U.S. and Cuba, intensified international Cold War tensions, and inspired the Soviet Union to install missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba the following year.
Most historians agree that Kennedy and the participants who planned the invasion made some fundamental errors in judgment that they didn’t repeat during the missile crisis:
- Perhaps naiveté, hubris, or inexperience caused Kennedy to disregard Eisenhower’s plans and the input of dissenting voices during the planning of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. No such overconfidence guided his judgment during the missile crisis.
- Kennedy made the decision to invade Cuba based on the theory that the incursion would start a large scale uprising, a miscalculation that proved later to be erroneous and costly. He more successfully based his conclusions on definitive information during the missile crisis.
- In general, the U.S. created an impression of irresolution in the invasion when it did not show enough aggression in its support of Cuban rebels. Kennedy specifically compromised the U.S. commitment when he refused the air support needed to protect the exiles. Conversely, Kennedy’s firmness in his negotiations with Khrushchev during the missile crisis showed the Russian leader that he had been mistaken in his assumptions that Kennedy would not have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.
- During the Bay of Pigs Invasion planning sessions, a high degree of cohesion and pressure to conform existed among CIA members. They hesitated to challenge one another and intentionally kept dissenting opinions, when someone had the nerve to express them, from the President. They sidestepped methodical research, planning, checks and balances, focusing, instead, on the Machiavellian approach that overthrowing Castor justified any means to an end. Kennedy did not question or uncover their subterfuge and shoddy research until it was too late.
- Kennedy allowed members of the invasion planning group to think affiliation with him and top CIA and military leaders rendered them invulnerable. They shared the illusion that they were insulated because of the secrecy and presidential involvement, so they invented justification for their actions. Kennedy tolerated no such illusions during the missile crisis.
- During the initial discussions of the invasion, Kennedy voiced his opinion before he heard from his experts. He needed dispassionate data, but he heard echoes instead, thereby dooming any chance for robust examination of all angles and possibilities
Kennedy’s leadership during his short tenure in the White House offers some of the most profound leadership lessons of modern time. First, the same man led in both situations–one a complete fiasco, the other a disaster averted. He shows us that leaders can learn from mistakes, as long as they show a willingness to examine what went wrong and commit to a different course of action.
Second, he illustrates that a failure–even one as large as the Bay of Pigs Invasion–need not define a leader’s tenure. Kennedy will be lauded this week for his pressure under fire, his willingness to compromise with Khrushchev, his resolve, his diplomacy, and his courage. He drew a metaphorical line in the Atlantic and warned of dire consequences if Khrushchev dared cross it, but he also negotiated a peaceful resolution that avoided nuclear war.
For more details, see Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis by Mark K. Updegrove