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The relationship between Cuba and the United States had been in good standing until Cuban dictator and ally of the United States, Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown in the Cuban Revolution in late 1958 and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro took over, setting up a communist regime. The failed attempt to overthrow him in the Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17, 1961, raised, what Kennedy had feared could happen, international attention regarding the U.S. engagement on the island. It also triggered an obsession in both Jack and Bobby Kennedy to oust Castro—not only because John F. Kennedy had condemned the Eisenhower administration for not intervening, nor because allowing the establishment of a communist country in the Western hemisphere would damage Kennedy’s credibility, but also since the president felt publicly humiliated: yet, Kennedy managed to face the public, taking full responsibility for his actions and famously saying: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan”. Only he, and none of his advisors were dragged through the mud by the press. In a press conference on April 27, 1961 Kennedy would justify his actions as an obligation to restore peace:

“Our way of life is under attack, those who make themselves our enemy are advancing around the globe […] If you are awaiting a finding of clear and present danger, then I can only say that the danger has never been more clear”

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Map of Western Hemisphere showing ranges of missiles. United States. Department of Defense. Department of Defense Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Materials. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Less than two years later the world experienced its closest encounter with a nuclear World War III. On October 16, 1962 at 8:45 in the morning, President Kennedy was shown images of missile launching platforms being built in Cuba. So began the so called “13 Days,” but the term is problematic. It suggests that the crisis only started after the Soviet missiles had been introduced into Cuba and disregards Operation Mongoose, planned and executed by Robert F. Kennedy and the CIA, in which Americans and Cubans carried out sabotage acts in Cuba as well as the numerous attempts to assassinate Castro that had destabilized the situation.

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Nuclear Warhead bunker under construction in San Cristobal. United States. Department of Defense. Department of Defense Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Materials. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

As it was a question of credibility. Kennedy together with his advisors, the Executive Committe composed during the crisis, worked out a plan on how to respond, since only one month before the president had warned that “the gravest issues would arise,” if the Soviets introduced offensive weapons into Cuba. Besides, the Soviets had stated themselves that they had “no need or desire to station strategic missiles on the territory of any other nation.” Awaiting further planning, a meeting with Soviet ambassador Gromyko was arranged, but did not bear satisfaction: Gromyko denied the offensive purpose of the Russian arms deliveries to Cuba.

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Soviet Ship Poltava Enroute to Cuba. United States. Department of Defense. Department of Defense Cuban Missile Crisis Briefing Materials. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Although American nuclear missiles had been stationed near the border to the Soviet Union in Turkey with the same purpose, Kennedy managed to portray the Soviets as the clear aggressor. In an address to the American people, Kennedy blamed the USSR not only for this crisis, but for the Cold War, saying: “[…] Unlike the Soviets […] we have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system on its people”

After an exchange of letters between Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, terms were discussed to end the crisis. Appealing for common sense to stabilize the situation, the president wrote:

“I have not assumed that you or any other sane man, in this nuclear age, [would] deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”

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Cover page of the New York Mirror.

Kennedy, contrary to his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, was highly praised for his decision-making during this crisis that ended on October 28, 1962 with the deal that Russia would remove the missiles from Cuba, while the U.S. promised never to intervene on the island. In a secret deal, Kennedy agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey as well – a few months later.

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Meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

It took more than half a century before ties between the U.S. government and Cuba were reestablished by former President Barack Obama at the end of his second term.


Frieder Bruckmann