The president faced a political and strategic dilemma: If he failed to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, his Republican opponents would have a field day (he even told his brother Bobby that he would be impeached). On the other hand, if he confronted the Soviets and miscalculated, he could plunge the nation into nuclear war. The stakes had never been higher—he and Khrushchev were “one mistake away” from triggering a holocaust.
New historical evidence suggests Kennedy handled the crisis with aplomb, navigating a viable course between the truculence of his ExComm hawks and the conciliatory logic of the doves. During the tense discussions, Kennedy listened carefully, asked probing questions, and demonstrated that he was in charge.
In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States and the first to begin rolling back the totalitarian excesses of Stalinism. To Americans, he seemed a crude, bombastic bear, a man who might be capable of anything (of course, most Soviets felt the same way about the American president).
For Khruschev, Cuba was the harbinger of socialism in the Americas and an opportunity for Soviet influence to escape the containment strategy of the Western allies. He courted Fidel Castro by giving the Cubans everything the Americans denied them: oil, cash, and weapons.
Encircled by superior U.S. nuclear forces, some of them stationed less than 200 miles from his own Black Sea dacha, Khrushchev decided to secretly place the Cuban revolution under the Soviet nuclear umbrella by basing short- and medium-range missiles in Cuba. Above all, Khrushchev wanted to be treated as an equal in the contest with Washington, and the Cuban missiles were designed to bring him one step closer to nuclear parity.
One year after the Americans discovered those missiles, however, the Soviet premier was removed from office, in part because he had failed to protect the interests of Communist Party hard-liners.
In the wake of the April 1961 U.S.-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro and other Cuban officials believed a new, more organized American invasion was imminent. The Soviet offer of nuclear missiles was quickly accepted.
The fact that a nuclear confrontation might lead to the complete destruction of the island and its people was a risk the revolutionaries appeared willing to take. It was preferable to giving in to U.S. attempts to put an end to the revolution.
But by the end of the crisis, Castro became infuriated with Khrushchev’s unilateral decision to remove the missiles and bombers he’d delivered only months before. “The Soviets have treated Cuba as a bargaining chip,” he said.
Castro didn’t believe Kennedy’s vague promise to leave Cuba alone. Relations between Havana and Moscow remained strained for several years.
One of JFK’s main challengers for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1960, Lyndon Johnson was eyed with suspicion within the Kennedy White House after he became vice president.
Nevertheless, the president did consult Johnson during the ExComm sessions, especially with regard to how Congress was likely to react to any attempt to resolve the crisis.
Although Johnson shared little in common with the Eastern establishment types who dominated the group, he was not intimidated and often took command when President Kennedy wasn’t present at the meetings.