Key Players in the Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy seemed to trust him completely, and McNamara was very successful in his management of the Pentagon and Congress during the early 1960s. He was far less successful within the Johnson administration, however, when his policies led the U.S. deeper into a hopeless civil war in Vietnam.

Undersecretary of State George W. Ball was already active at the State Department in implementing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (which continues to this day).

When the missile crisis began, Ball used his skills as a successful attorney to argue in favor of the naval blockade.

He later served in the Johnson White House, advising the president on American policy in Vietnam.

John McCone inherited the leadership of the American spy agency after the CIA’s disastrous management of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

He was the first administration official to become convinced of a Soviet military build up in Cuba and he ordered the U2 reconnaissance flights on Oct. 14 that discovered the first hard evidence of nuclear missiles on the island.

McCone began each ExComm meeting he attended with an intelligence update on the status of the Cuban bases. He advocated a hard line toward the Soviets throughout the crisis.

Gen. Maxwell Taylor was a trusted friend of the president, but during the ExComm meetings he spoke for the Joint Chiefs of Staff—career military men who were suspicious of the Kennedy brothers and eager for aggressive action against Cuba and the Soviets.

A self-described “two-fold hawk from start to finish,” Taylor joined with assistant Defense Secretary Paul Nitze and the other hard-liners in advocating military action.

He believed firmly that the United States must maintain absolute nuclear and conventional military supremacy in the Western hemisphere.

Llewellyn (“Tommy”) Thompson, the former U.S. ambassador to USSR, was the sole Soviet expert on the ExComm and the only adviser prepared to assess Khrushchev’s character. He spoke with confidence and authority and was one of the few ExComm members who didn’t hesitate to interrupt or correct the president.

Thompson supported the naval blockade and argued against trading American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was instrumental in persuading JFK to accept Krushchev’s Oct. 26 proposal and to publicly ignore the second part of that communication that suggested a quid pro quo.

One of the most hawkish members of ExComm, Paul Nitze brought strong negotiating skills and Pentagon experience to the table during the missile crisis.

He urged immediate military action to take out the Cuban missile sites, saying they dramatically altered the strategic nuclear balance—a view few other ExComm members shared. Nitze argued U.S. military superiority in the Caribbean would prevent the USSR from retaliating for an American attack on Cuba.

JFK chose Republican businessman C. Douglas Dillon as his Treasury Secretary, to reassure Wall Street and because he fit in so well with the elite, patrician character of Kennedy’s other trusted advisers.

Dillon had been a staunch anticommunist since the dawn of the Cold War. As a member of ExComm he initially favored a quick air attack on the Cuban bases. As the crisis deepened, he was persuaded by Robert Kennedy and others to support the naval blockade, but continued to side with the hawks in recommending a military solution if that failed to resolve the problem.

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