John F. Kennedy’s Red Line in Cuba, October, 1962

Posted on March 18, 2014

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Ok, class, time for a review before the test. This is not a watered down SAT to make all test takers feel good about themselves. This is about what an old but effective Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, called “real politics.”

With the title as an almost dead giveaway, what did Kennedy do to the Soviet Union in October, 1962? No cheating, looking it up on Wikipedia, googling it. If you don’t know, read on. If you vaguely remember, do the same.

This is about a President, a Democrat by the way, but I suggest that he was not acting as a Democrat or a Republican, but as an American, who did indeed draw a line in the sand, and told the Soviets, “if you cross it there will be consequences.”

First a bit of background.

Early in January, 1959, a revolutionary hero, Fidel Castro, then only in his early thirties, rode into Havana triumphantly bringing his revolution to a conclusion by capturing the capital of Cuba. The last dictator of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, fled on a plane on New Year’s Eve and Castro arrived a few days later to a tumultuous hero’s welcome. Even Americans watching Cuba closely welcomed Castro, a revolutionary who promised to restore true democracy in Cuba and to eradicate Batista’s ways of favoritism, corruption, and dictatorship. Viva Fidel!

Castro even had a triumphant visit to the U. S. in the spring of 1959, welcomed and feted by his American admirers, although if one were reading tea leaves, there were already signals in the air that his regime would not just be reformist, but radical in its revolutionary promises. By 1960 it was clear that Fidel had a very socialist agenda—expropriating large landed estates, nationalizing industries, etc.—and the U. S. under Dwight Eisenhower’s last year as president broke relations with the Cubans.

Fidel turned to the Soviet Union for support as his regime grew increasingly communist. He chased dissenters out of the country, drove them underground, or simply lined them up against the walls and executed them by the hundreds. The old, avuncular, nice-looking-guy Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother running Cuba today, commanded the execution squadrons with cruel efficiency.

In April, 1961, the CIA sponsored an invasion of Cuba manned by Cuban proxies to overthrow Castro. It was a disaster, from the point of view of the new John F. Kennedy administration, but a triumph for Fidel. The Yankees, thoroughly revealed as sponsors, and even as participants in some instances, such as Alabama Air National Guardsmen flying several missions over the beaches of the Bay of Pigs during the invasion, had been repulsed and Cuba now moved to true independence from the heavy hand of America.

Fidel was not stupid. He needed support. The Americans could not be kept at bay for long, especially if they decided to intervene openly and militarily. Kennedy was frustrated by his indecisive behavior which had undermined the Bay of Pigs invasion and he vowed not to let this happen again. A World War II Navy veteran, who had served in combat in the Pacific as a torpedo boat commander, he knew that if power were to be projected to promote national interests then it had to be real, not just words or threats. He got his chance to do so sooner than perhaps he anticipated.

By the spring and summer of 1962, it was clear that Fidel was forming an alliance with the Soviet Union. One, Castro was moving Cuba deeply into communism, and the Soviet Union was the leading communist political entity in the world; and, two, Castro needed the Soviets to counter any continuing threats to his existence from the United States, clearly determined to remove him from power.

Castro, always a gambler, then did something that put everyone’s teeth on edge, both in Washington and Moscow. He accepted a Soviet suggestion to take a daring step against the Americans: put missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States.

When the Americans discovered that Soviet missiles were being placed on the island in September and October, 1962, Kennedy and his advisers went ballistic. Could the Russians really be so whacko as to think the U. S. would not respond? Castro had persuaded the Russians that the Americans would stand down from a nuclear confrontation. Look at what they did at the Bay of Pigs? They caved. Kennedy had not stepped up to the plate and saved the exile invasion force from being whipped and rounded up by Fidel’s army. The Americans were weak, and now was the time to press the advantage.

The Russians bought into the argument and started to send the equipment, missiles, and support troop and personnel to install the missiles.

Kennedy then drew his own line in the sand. He set up a naval blockade, only the Americans called it a Quarantine, to distinguish it from the more bellicose significance of “blockade” –an act of war in the language of international politics and warfare–but a blockade it was.

A line of Soviet ships, with missiles and men, were on the high seas headed to Cuba when the U. S. Navy took up stations to block the passage of any such vessels. It was October, 1962.

Would the Soviets turn back? The world took a deep breath and watched. And if they did turn back, would they withdraw the missiles already put in place on the island?On October 22, President Kennedy delivered a nation-wide televised address on the missiles and his own version of the red line.

It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Then, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted, “they blinked.” Soviet ships approached the blockade, and on October 24, they turned around.

A few more days of negotiating produced a solution: the Soviets would withdraw their missiles if the U. S. promised not to invade Cuba and to pull its offensive missiles aimed at Russia out of Turkey. Since they were antiquated, that part was easy and did not compromise U. S. offensive nuclear strategy.

Everyone stood down. Khrushchev sensed that Kennedy would push the button if the U. S. did not have its way in Cuba. The U. S. enjoyed a tremendous “first strike” capability and it would mean the end of Russia in a nuclear exchange, even if the Russians managed to squeeze off some missiles in retaliation.

Now you know how one president, John F. Kennedy, acted on the world stage. He had his defects and detractors, and he made some mistakes, but he also knew how to act as a president.

Published in my column, The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday March 23, 2014 as Kennedy Didn’t Back Down on World’s Stage.

Posted in: History