In Saving Jackie K, JFK’s Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, laments the Commander-in-Chief’s missteps regarding the communist island nation of Cuba. But no one can debate Kennedy’s success in thwarting the volatile Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
On October 14, 1962, a US Air Force U-2 plane flying a reconnaissance mission over the Caribbean photographed alarming images of Soviet missile bases being constructed on Cuban soil. The military intelligence turned an already adversarial relationship into an imminent threat of war.
Three months into his presidency—in April of 1961—JFK had launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, an operation later deemed a fiasco by advocates and naysayers alike. Kennedy sent in CIA-trained Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro‘s communist regime. However, he failed to deliver promised Air Force support, and the exiles were defeated by Cuban armed forces.
Operation Mongoose had followed in November of 1961. A covert program involving propaganda, sabotage and psychological warfare to undermine the communist regime, the continuing operation was widely regarded as a policy failure of the US government.
On October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the American People in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and outlined his tactics:
“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”
He then warned his adversaries:
“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.”
Finally, he addressed the Russian premier directly:
“I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.”
Kennedy’s naval blockade proved effective. On October 28, Khrushchev announced his intention to dismantle and remove the missiles from Cuba. The confrontation marked closest point in time that the Cold War escalated to the brink of nuclear conflict.