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What were the causes and significance of the Cuban missile crisis?

(......This essay was written as part of a mock exam by a member of the 12th grade some years ago. It doesn't quite give the international context of the time (Berlin Wall, summits, U2) and has too little to say on the Kennedy/Khrushchev relationship). But it is a well considered and well controlled piece which scores very highly indeed. Notice how it avoids description by making reference to events at relevant moments in the analysis....)


"The origins of the Cuban missile crisis, which many historians consider to be the point at which the Cold War came nearest to open conflict, and which was, without any doubt, an event of world-wide importance, are paradoxically to be found in regional Latin American politics.

In the beginning, the developments in Cuba followed roughly speaking a pattern already known from other countries in the region. A leftist (but not communist) guerrilla movement was organized against the island's dictator (Batista), setting as its aims: more social equality among the country's citizens and relative independence from the United States; a movement playing, as so often, on the peoples hatred of the gringos and of big proprietors (the two often coinciding). What was different from other cases, was Castro's unexpected success and the inability of the United States to respond to it, mainly because they had not backed Batista in the last years of hid regime and as a result had not any group on which Castro's overthrow could be based (contrary to Guatemala, where they had been able to count on the military's support). The Bay of Pigs proved that this group could not be Cuban emigrants.

Only gradually, as Cuba was being sanctioned and was threatened by isolation, did this regional conflict become part of the Cold War. It is important to notice that it was rather Castro who had the idea of making his revolution part of the East-West conflict -(he asked the communist states to sell him arms)- than Khrushchev seizing an opportunity to challenge the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Initially, the Soviet Union did not seriously consider intervening on a larger scale in what was generally recognized, since the formulation of the Monroe doctrine, as an exclusively American sphere of influence.

At the stage when the USSR promised economic and then military aid to Cuba, we can first speak of the broader causes of the missile crisis. If Khrushchev took the risk of placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, it was because it would give him enormous advantages (or reduce the existing disadvantages) over the United States. Since the Soviets were only starting to develop ICBM's, they could hope to attack the continental United States only by placing medium-range rockets in a place like Cuba. The Americans had the geographical advantage of being able to deploy their missiles in Europe or in Turkey and the technical advantage of possessing more ICBM's. A success in Cuba, moreover, could enable Khrushchev to impose solutions in other urgent issues, such as the recognition of a divided Germany and the withdrawal of Allied forces from West Berlin. As in other cases (like the threat of handing over the whole of Berlin to the East German administration or boasting his nonexistent military superiority) the Cuban affair was in great part a bluff, conceived to force out concessions from the new president whom Khrushchev considered to be weak. Thus, in retrospect, we should not be surprised that he backed down soon after Kennedy's ultimatum.

The impact of the crisis was, contrary to its origins, global and affected countries which had not taken part in it. On the regional level, it affirmed the sovereignty of the new Cuban government and enabled Castro to survive. Cuba would be from now on independent from the United States, but the crisis made it irrevocably bound to the Soviet bloc, both in economic and ideological terms, the more so as member states of the OAS (except Mexico) were made to break up relations with Cuba.

Cuba's case was to be an example for other countries in the region, proving that it was possible to oppose the US hegemony in Latin America. the Caribbean island was to become a base for other revolutionary anti-American movements, which Castro and Che Guevara set out to support actively, while the Soviet Union had moderate belief in the possibility of competing with the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Later on, the Cuban military could be used in countries like Angola where the Soviets preferred not to intervene directly.

For the United States, the crisis was a clear message that they should have more decisive policies in their "backyard" and consequently worsened their relations with Latin American States. In the future they would be more repressive, and fearing another Cuba, would sometimes overreact, like in the case of the Dominican Republic after the assassination of the dictator Trujillo. Kennedy's management of the crisis brought him some new popularity, which he, however, would not enjoy for a long time. In fact, there were many US politicians who thought he had not been harsh enough with the Russians, and this discontentment among the political establishment might well have been one of the reasons for his death. (Marginal comment here shows the teacher complaining about the influence of Oliver Stone)

The fact that Kennedy did not consult with his West European allies when dealing with the crisis was another sign that the power of Great Britain and France was fading. For de Gaulle it was another reason to distrust the Anglo-Saxons and made him finally withdraw French forces from NATO and set into practice his plans for a French "Force de Frappe".

At last, the crisis "frightened" both superpowers and made them realize that a local conflict and a few miscalculations on either side could possibly bring about the prospect of another world war. As a result, a "hot line" between Moscow and Washington was established to allow consultation on urgent matters and a treaty on nuclear weapon signed, placing a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere and underwater. The only two counties who possessed atom bombs and who could afford not to sign were France who, as we mentioned took a more independent course after the crisis, and China who by that time had placed itself outside the direct East-West confrontation because of worsening relations with the Soviet Union. As to the impact on ordinary citizens, the Cuban missile crisis must have broadened the awareness of the atomic threat and of the stalemate in which a war could not any more result in the victory of either side, but would bring about mutual destruction."


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