John F. Kennedy: Cuban Missile Crisis
On 16 October 1962, the course of Jack Kennedy's presidency changed forever. At 8:45 in the morning, he was shown a series of photographs documenting the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in western Cuba. Although JFK was unsure of Khrushchev's intent ("What is the advantage?" Kennedy asked of his advisers)27, it was clear that the Soviet Union was provoking the United States and attempting to shift the balance of power in the West. National security analysts estimated that the missiles would be ready to launch within two weeks, which meant that Jack had limited time to formulate a plan28. To let the Soviet Union install nuclear weapons so close to the United States would likely encourage Soviet aggression elsewhere; the president had to act decisively and wisely. Thus, on that chilly morning in October, Jack faced both his greatest challenge and his greatest opportunity as president: the chance to stand up to Nikita Khrushchev and assert the strength of the United States in a major Cold War confrontation.
For the next week, Kennedy and his top advisers—forming an emergency working group called the Ex-Comm—holed up in the White House, conducting top-secret meetings to determine the best course of action. The main point of contention was whether to commence a military attack against the Cuban missile sites or to send a letter of warning to Khrushchev notifying him of a U.S. blockade. At 7:00 PM on 22 October, Jack made a televised speech announcing the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil and the initiation of an American blockade to prevent further shipments of Soviet arms from reaching Cuba. Kennedy resolutely declared to the American public that, if any of the Cuban missiles were launched onto Western Hemisphere soil, the United States would conduct "a full retaliatory strike upon the Soviet Union."29 Following Kennedy's statement, he and Khrushchev exchanged numerous letters, with Jack defending his decision and Khrushchev angrily criticizing the U.S. for interfering with Cuba and "breaking" international law. Kennedy, however, was not intimidated. By 26 October, the blockade had proved effective—Soviet ships thought to contain nuclear weapons turned back before confronting American battleships off the coast of Cuba.
Despite the success of the blockade, tensions between the two nations continued to rise. In the event of Soviet resistance, the United States military was preparing forces for a massive air strike on Cuba, and the American public was consumed with fears of nuclear war. On 27 October, Khrushchev offered Kennedy a deal: if the United States would remove its own nuclear missiles from Turkey (in 1961, the U.S. had installed Jupiter missiles in that country along the USSR's southern border), the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba. Eager to take the deal, but reluctant to publicly yield to Khrushchev's demands, Jack decided to negotiate an agreement with the Soviets behind closed doors. He sent Bobby to meet with the Soviet Ambassador to the United States and arrange for the U.S. to remove its missiles from Turkey, under the condition that the plan remain secret. The Soviet Union agreed to Bobby's proposal; shortly thereafter, Jack announced to the public that the United States would remove the blockade and not invade Cuba so long as the Soviet Union removed its missiles from the Communist nation.
The strategy, to negotiate the deal both publicly and privately, ended in success. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis is often viewed as an example of Kennedy's resolute steadfastness (as Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously said, "we're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."30), it is important to note that the president managed the crisis by employing diplomacy, not an iron fist. On 28 October 1962, Khrushchev agreed to President Kennedy's proposal and assured the world that the Soviet Union would begin removal of the missiles on 30 October. Unlike the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated Jack's political acumen and ability to negotiate. For Kennedy, the crisis was his greatest political achievement. In the wake of the crisis, the president's approval rating rose to 77%.31
Jack's other major Cold War success was the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of nuclear war loomed large in Kennedy's mind, and he felt a pressing need to prevent future nuclear conflict. Throughout June and July of 1963, Jack and his team of advisers crafted a rough proposal for a test ban treaty and sent an American diplomat, Averill Harriman, to negotiate the terms of the treaty with Soviet officials in Moscow. On 25 July, two rival superpowers reached an agreement to ban the testing of nuclear bombs in air, space, and water—but not underground. For this reason, the treaty is referred to as the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The next day, Kennedy went on television to inform Americans about the proposed treaty and garner support for the agreement, which was ultimately signed in Moscow in August. It was a watershed moment for Soviet-American relations.