KENNEDY AVOIDS NUCLEAR WAR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF
The ultimate non-violent resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred more in spite, than as a result, of the foreign policy decisions taken by the administration of President John F. Kennedy. In contrast to the determined and committed foreign policy actions of the previous Eisenhower administration, Kennedy’s administration provided inconsistent or ineffective responses to Soviet provocations.  Kennedy underestimated the belligerence of the Soviet Union, as exemplified by the conduct of its Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, at the UN in October 1960, just months before Kennedy took office. After taking office, Kennedy failed to provide effective U.S. commitment to the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy then decided to take a hard line and was determined to make no concessions at the June 1961 Vienna Summit. However, when the Soviet Union began the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, Kennedy took no concrete steps to challenge it. Following this, Kennedy authorised the placement of U.S. missiles in Turkey in early 1962. U.S. foreign policy swung like a pendulum between the extremes of unnecessary provocation and no response when one was required. Kennedy’s equivocal policies fostered a Soviet perception that its communist hegemony could be expanded without meaningful resistance by the United States and set the stage for a nuclear confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Eisenhower’s foreign policy was committed to the containment of communist hegemony.  For example, the U.S. (and Allied) decision to airlift supplies to West Berlin in 1948 as the response to a Soviet land blockade forced the Soviet Union into a position whereby it had to either take military action against the incoming aircraft, or back down. The Berlin airlift was sustained for over a year until the Soviet Union ended the blockade. Eisenhower also had a strong personal style. In May 1960 a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Russia, but Eisenhower refused Khrushchev’s demand for an explanation and apology. He also implemented the “Eisenhower Doctrine”, by which the U.S. committed itself to the defence of any NATO country. Because of these and other U.S. foreign policy decisions, Khrushchev and the Soviet Union had no reason to expect that the U.S. would take anything other than a firm and committed response to any act of Soviet aggression.
Kennedy failed to appreciate that the foreign policy “personality” of the Soviet Union would mirror the personality of Khrushchev, a leader with a power over his country that was unchecked by any democratic controls. When Khrushchev made his uninvited appearance on U.S. soil in late 1960 as the self-appointed head of the USSR’s UN delegation and put on his notorious shoe-banging performance at the Security Council, the soon-to-be President Kennedy should have realized that the Soviet Union was the equivalent of the schoolyard bully who would only be encouraged by any signs of weakness or failure to resist.
Kennedy’s first mis-step came with the Bay of Pigs invasion. The plan originally designed by Eisenhower called for “a minimum force of five thousand plus air cover, and [it] would take seven months to train to minimum standards.”  Despite warnings from CIA advisor Richard Bissell, Kennedy instead implemented an emasculated version of Eisenhower’s plan, essentially making it a “Cuban operation” involving a small guerrilla force without any US military involvement. The result was foreseeable – without U.S. air support, the Cuban landing force was slaughtered on the beach and the invasion ended in embarrassing failure. The Bay of Pigs fiasco undoubtedly made Castro wary of further U.S. intervention  and pushed tighter Cuba-Soviet Union relations, as well as reinforced Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy being weak and inexperienced. 
The Vienna Summit of 1961 was a meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev to discuss a variety of topics, including Berlin and nuclear arms test bans. Coming shortly after the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev’s strategy at the summit was to act belligerently, probably in the expectation that Kennedy would make concessions. Kennedy, in contrast to his weak stance on the invasion of Cuba, however, responded to Khrushchev in kind and the outcome of the talks was an abysmal failure — no issues were resolved.  Later that same summer a frustrated Khrushchev authorised the construction of the Berlin Wall. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued to escalate as a result of this act of aggression. Kennedy decided not to challenge the building of the wall and allowed the imprisonment of an entire nation. Rather than take direct action, he chose instead to resume testing nuclear weapons in early 1962, which included the installation of nuclear warheads in Turkey.
The net effect of these developments was that Khrushchev and the Soviet Union believed that Kennedy’s reaction was limited to posturing and indirect tactics and that he would be incapable of taking any action to restrict the spread of communist control or influence. This gave Khrushchev the confidence to push further and to implement the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba in September 1962.
After U.S. intelligence discovered the newly constructed missile launching sites in Cuba, Kennedy was advised as to a number of possible options, including launching an airstrike and invasion of Cuba. Fortunately for the world, Kennedy decided not to take this last option, deciding instead on a naval blockade to stop further Soviet shipments to Cuba. As we know, the Soviet Union “blinked” and a military confrontation between these two nuclear powers was averted. While Kennedy’s previous foreign policy decisions contributed to creating the crisis, he ultimately made the right decision – he wasn’t overly aggressive like he was in Vienna nor did he back down like he did with the Bay of Pigs invasion.
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Weinstein, Allen, and R. Jackson Wilson, An American History: Freedom and Crisis . New York: Random House, Inc.
“Where Is the Crisis? (The World; Berlin).” Time 26 Oct. 1962: 31.
“One-Third of the Earth. (The World; Communists).” Time 27 Oct. 1961: 30.
 Spanier, John W.. American Foreign Policy since World War II. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1998, 99
 Sewell, Michael. The Cold War. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 38.
 Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 167.
 Castro had good reason for wariness, given the late 1961 establishment of Operation Mongoose – a U.S. plan to destabilize Cuba and possibly assassinate Castro. Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 113.
 Freedman, Lawrence. Kennedy’s wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 224.
 Sewell, Michael. The Cold War. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 62.