Key Players in the Cuban Missile Crisis

It was a defining characteristic of the Cold War: A handful of powerful men with their fingers on triggers of firepower capable of destroying the entire planet.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the men who ran the affairs of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba were locked in a titanic struggle that tested their resolve and moral judgment. Their eventual avoidance of Armageddon was by no means inevitable.

At the White House, President Kennedy relied for advice on a select inner circle—the Executive Committee, or ExComm. They were America’s “best and brightest,” well-educated men who believed in their ability to manage any crisis. Under Kennedy’s leadership, their deft response to the missile crisis lead to a great foreign policy victory. From that point forward, Cuba ceased to be a viable threat to American security and there was never again a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.

Within two years, however, many of the same tough-minded “wise men” led another president into a bloody quagmire in Southeast Asia.

Public faith in the veterans of October ’62 plummeted as American soldiers died in Vietnam in the name of standing firm against Communism. Doubts grew about the defining logic of “mutual assured destruction” and “acceptable risks,” the rhetoric of nuclear security. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the men who ran the affairs of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba were locked in a titanic struggle that tested their resolve and moral judgment. Their eventual avoidance of Armageddon was by no means inevitable.

At the White House, President Kennedy relied for advice on a select inner circle—the Executive Committee, or ExComm. They were America’s “best and brightest,” well-educated men who believed in their ability to manage any crisis. Under Kennedy’s leadership, their deft response to the missile crisis lead to a great foreign policy victory. From that point forward, Cuba ceased to be a viable threat to American security and there was never again a direct confrontation between the two superpowers.

Within two years, however, many of the same tough-minded “wise men” led another president into a bloody quagmire in Southeast Asia.

Public faith in the veterans of October ’62 plummeted as American soldiers died in Vietnam in the name of standing firm against Communism. Doubts grew about the defining logic of “mutual assured destruction” and “acceptable risks,” the rhetoric of nuclear security.

John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency on a pledge that a “new generation” would resist communist aggression and maintain American nuclear superiority. Only a month before the missile crisis began, the president assured Congress and the nation that the Soviets had no plans to build a military base in Cuba—but if they did, he would “do whatever must be done” to protect American security and drive them out.

When missiles were discovered in Cuba, during an important mid-term election campaign, it came as a shock. Kennedy had been assured by the CIA and by private communications with Khrushchev that this would never happen.

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