The Obama-Putin faceoff on Ukraine inevitably brings to mind the Kennedy-Khrushchev faceoff during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev, of course, was much more dangerous given that it brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of all-out nuclear war. But the two confrontations are similar with respect to the pressure brought on the president to be “tough.”
Like Obama, Kennedy was accused of being a weak, vacillating president, one who wasn’t tough enough when it came to standing up to the communists. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the pressure on Kennedy to be tough against the communists came not only from American conservatives but also from the Pentagon and the CIA, both of whom wanted him to teach the Soviets and the Cubans a lesson they would never forget.
In fact, the pressure on Kennedy was so immense that Robert Kennedy Jr. even expressed a fear of an imminent military takeover of the United States, like the one that recently took place in Egypt and like the one that the U.S. national-security state helped achieve in Chile in 1973.
Bobby Kennedy wasn’t the only one who feared a military coup here in the United States. So did his brother, the president. Jack Kennedy even went so far as to encourage that the novel Seven Days in May be made into a movie, as a warning to the American people of the very real danger of a military coup on the part of the Pentagon. (See my 2009 FFF article “Seven Days in May.”)
The concern that the Kennedy brothers had about a military coup confirmed what President Eisenhower had told the American people as he was leaving office on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration. In his Farewell Address, Eisenhower warned Americans of the grave threat to America’s democratic processes posed by the military-industrial complex, whose power and influence was growing ever larger. Eisenhower was clearly referring to the danger of a military coup.
The problem was that the military, the CIA, and American conservatives viewed Kennedy as weak at best and a coward and traitor at worst. They were convinced that unless the president showed some real backbone in standing up against the communists, the result would ultimately be a communist takeover of the United States. Don’t forget, after all, that this was the height of the Cold War and of the obsessive anti-communist crusade that had taken control of American life.
Why were the Pentagon, CIA, and American right-wing putting so much pressure on Kennedy to stand up to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Don’t forget that what had happened at the Bay of Pigs was still fresh on their minds.
During the Eisenhower administration, the CIA had come up with a plan to have Cuban exiles invade Cuba with secret U.S. support. It was to be one of the CIA’s many regime-change operations, only this one turned out to be a total failure.
Although the military, CIA, and right wing were convinced that conservative anti-communist Vice-President Richard Nixon, who was in on the plan, would be elected president, the American people instead elected a liberal Democrat to be president.
After Kennedy’s election, the CIA persuaded him that its plan was sure to succeed, without U.S. air support. It was a lie. The CIA knew that air support would be needed but figured that once the invasion was under way, Kennedy would succumb to pressure to provide it, even though he had specifically told them that there would be no air support.
Once the invasion began, Kennedy stuck by his word and refused to provide the air support, earning him the ever-lasting enmity of the military, CIA, Cuban exiles, and the American right-wing. In their minds, Kennedy had betrayed them and betrayed his country. He had permitted a communist outpost to remain 90 miles away from American shores.
During his administration, Kennedy also refused to send troops into Laos, contrary to the demands of the Pentagon and the CIA. Instead, he reached a deal with the Soviets on a coalition government there. In Vietnam, Kennedy sent advisors but no combat troops. He permitted the Soviets to build the Berlin Wall rather than tearing it down, as many high U.S. military officials wanted him to do. He summarily rejected Operation Northwoods, the secret Pentagon plan to instigate terrorist attacks on Americans, with the aim of falsely blaming them on the Cubans, thereby providing a fraudulent justification for reinvading the island and effecting regime change. He objected to the CIA’s assassination attempts on foreign leaders.
Here’s what President Kennedy said about the possibility of a military coup here in the United States:
It’s possible. It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, “Is he too young and inexperienced?” The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment…. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen…. But it won’t happen on my watch.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the right-wing were exhorting Kennedy to be tough on the Soviets. They were demanding that he bomb the island and send thousands of U.S. troops to invade the island. In their minds, the crisis presented the perfect opportunity and justification for killing Cuban president Fidel Castro and countless other communists in Cuba and enable the United States to install another pro-U.S. dictator, such as Fulgencio Batista, who Castro had ousted and replaced.
Despite the enormous pressure on him to take military action against Cuba, Kennedy stood fast. He decided instead to reach a negotiated settlement with Khrushchev, one in which he gave up two things that were of prime importance to his adversaries in the military, CIA, and conservative movement. One was that he promised to remove American nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union that were based in Turkey. Two, he promised that the United States would not invade Cuba again.
To the Pentagon, CIA, and right-wing, Kennedy had blinked in the face of communist aggression. In their eyes, not only had he reduced America’s ability to initiate a nuclear attack against the Soviets from Turkey, he had also permanently dashed all the hopes and dreams of the military, CIA, Cuban exiles, and the conservative movement for regime change in Cuba. In their eyes, the Cuban Missile Crisis was an enormous, humiliating defeat for the United States, one that gravely threatened national security, especially coming on the heels of the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall, Laos, Vietnam, and the rejection of Operation Northwoods.
We now know though what Kennedy and the CIA, whose principal job was gathering intelligence, did not know. We now know that the nuclear missiles that the Soviets had installed in Cuba were ready to be fired and, more important, that Khrushchev had given battlefield authority to Soviet commanders in Cuba to fire the missiles in the event of a bombing attack or an invasion. If Kennedy had shown the type of “toughness” that the Pentagon, CIA, and right wing wanted him to show, there is virtually no doubt that the result would have been all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, something which, by the way, many Pentagon and CIA officials believed was inevitable anyway.
during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy showed great courage and moral fortitude in standing up to the enormous power and influence of the military-industrial complex and the national-security state apparatus and their army of right-wing supporters. Thank God he did.