The Cuban Missile Crisis originated because of a number of different issues, stemming from the ongoing struggle between The United States of America and The Soviet Union and between Capitalism and Communism. There were various events and circumstances which caused this standoff. Firstly, the decision to place missiles on Cuban soil was taken by the Soviets as a means to offset their strategic inferiority.
The second main cause was the fact that America felt threatened by a Castro lead Communist Cuba. Their continued efforts to oust Castro was a significant factor in creating a very real fear in Castro of a US invasion of Cuba. This led him to form strong bonds with the Soviets and subsequently allowing them to place missiles in Cuba. We also look at America’s failed attempt to remove Castro with their ‘Bay of Pigs’, invasion of Cuba, in 1961. A final factor in the cause of the crisis is the possibility of the Soviets using the missiles as a means of strengthening their power, with regards to negotiating with America in matters outside of Cuba.
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The first aspect to look at when dealing with this question is Soviet insecurity and strategic inferiority with the US. The Soviets had many reasons to feel insecure or threatened in the period directly preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev had long known that the Soviets had a disproportionally lower amount of missiles than the Americans, however, it was not until after events surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall, that Kennedy, who had long publicly maintained that the Soviets had the advantage of the missile gap, made it known that it was in fact the Americans who had the numerical advantage.
“The United States had a growing missile gap in its favour and the USSR lacked sufficient intercontinental missiles to offset the American advantage.”
Because the missile gap was publicly revealed to be in America’s favour, the Soviets needed to find a way to repair the imbalance of strategic power.
Khrushchev was also very perturbed by the existence of American missiles in Turkey and Italy, which were capable of strikes on the Soviet Union. The missiles in Turkey were just ninety miles off the Soviet coast, and Khrushchev feared because the US had the clear advantage in first strike capabilities.
“both the Soviets and the United States were aware that the United States held a huge lead in strategic weapons. The Soviets feared that such a large lead might tempt US leaders to risk a first strike against the Soviet Union.”
These missiles in Turkey were provocative to Khrushchev and while on a trip in Crimea the first notion of placing missiles on Cuban soil originated. His defence minister, Rodian Malinovsky, accompanied him in Crimea and pointed towards the Black Sea stating that
“the American missiles in Turkey could strike the Soviet Union in ten minutes, whereas Soviet missiles needed twenty-five minutes to hit the United States.”
This is the most likely moment where Khrushchev decided that the Soviets needed to act to somehow balance out the strategic advantage the Americans held. The decision to secretly place missiles in Cuba was taken months later. If the missiles were operational, before US knowledge of their existence, it would greatly enhance Soviet strategic power in a number of different ways. Firstly it would neutralize the American’s first strike capabilities, and also be a psychological retaliation to American missiles in Turkey.
“The Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little taste of their own medicine.”
Secondly, it would go a long way to rectifying the Soviets ICBM’s deficiency. Finally, Khrushchev hoped that by gaining a stronger strategic position then he had before placing missiles in Cuba, that this would leave him in a stronger negotiation position with the Americans.
“In addition to protecting Cuba our missiles would have equalized what the west like to call ‘the balance of power’.”
This last point is an important one. Later evidence has shown that Khrushchev planned to apply more pressure on Berlin around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and so it could be argued that by placing missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev’s aim was in fact to achieve greater concessions in places like Berlin. This possible ploy was discussed by CIA analysts.
“they presented the missiles as a testimony to a ‘determination to deter any active US intervention’ as well as shifting ‘the world balance of power’ in ‘the bloc’s favour, perhaps in the hope that it would encourage the west to be more accommodating on Berlin”
Another vital aspect on the origins of the crisis was Cuba’s relationship with the US and their very real fear of a US invasion. Before discussing the threat of an American invasion of Cuba, it is necessary to explain the relationship between the two countries from Fidel Castro’s reign. Castro was seen as a threat by the US government when he came into power in Cuba. The Americans feared that communism would start to spread across Latin America, sparked by the uprising in Cuba. This would extend Soviet influence in Latin America. Thusly, Eisenhower wanted to drive Castro and communism out of Cuba.
“The decision to overthrow Castro’s regime had been taken by the Eisenhower administration in January 1960”.
The Americans tried to do this by implementing economic and political sanctions on Cuba. Cuba was reliant on the US economy to thrive and sanctions such as cutting off Cuban sugar exports, amongst other economic sanctions, were thought to be sufficient enough to destabilize Castro’s Cuba. These restrictions of US trade with Cuba, later expanded to a complete embargo on February 3, 1962. By this stage American/Cuban relations had completely broken down. Castro made trade agreements and received economic assistance from the USSR, as a way to offset the American sanctions on Cuba. As well as this his policies were becoming more and more anti-American. So, as a direct consequence of American sanctions, the Cubans actually forged greater ties with the USSR.
The Americans decided that a more forceful approach was needed to remove Castro and devised a plan to support a Cuban exile invasion of Cuba. It was similar to a successful operation carried out by the CIA, to remove Guatemalan leader, Jacobo Arbenz, by supporting and organizing a small exiled army to attack their homeland. By early 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had replaced Eisenhower as the US president and had made commitments to Cuban exiles that he would fight communism at every opportunity and do all he could to remove Castro. Eisenhower reported to Kennedy on the matter just days before his inauguration.
“I have sought to help the anti-Castro forces being trained in Guatemala, ‘to the upmost’ and urged ‘that this effort be continued and accelerated.”
The plan was to attack Cuba, with a CIA-supported exile army, at the Bay of Pigs, to oust Castro from power. The attack was not successful and Castro defeated the exiles. Castro was well aware that this attack was US-backed and it proved to him that they were willing to resort to extreme measures to remove him. Castro made his feelings clear during a speech made after the failed exile attack.
“We have always been in danger of direct aggression. We have been warned about this in the United Nations: that they would find a pretext, that they would organize some act of aggression so that they could intervene. The United States has no right to meddle in our domestic affairs”
This blatant failed attempt to remove Castro from power only served to encourage Castro to appeal to the Soviets for more military support, an appeal that was successful. It did not however dissipate Kennedys’ resolve to remove Castro and he continued making plans to remove him from power. Following a US large military exercise in 1962 on a Caribbean island, Castro was convinced that the US was planning an invasion. In reality, the exercise was planned to make Castro anxious. This fear, of what Castro expected to be an inevitable invasion, was one of the major influences of Castro agreeing to allow Soviet missiles in Cuba. The timing of these mock military exercises was around the same time that Soviet leaders were discussing possible increased military assistance in Cuba.
“The US exercises in April and May were highly significant because that was the period when the Soviet leaders were considering and making important decisions about expanded military support for Cuba, including the decision to deploy Soviet missiles.”
The reports of these exercises were a factor in the Soviet thinking before deciding to deploy missiles in Cuba and would have helped persuade them that the missiles were necessary.
The Soviets were very concerned with the defence of Cuba from American invasion and viewed the missiles as a defence mechanism against the Americans.
“the rational for the missiles was to deter an American invasion of Cuba.”
The USSR was determined not to allow the US to oust Castro and communism out of Cuba. If this was allowed to happen then it would have been a great setback for the Soviet Union because it would have highlighted that, because of America’s superior strategic position, they could achieve their goals of removing communist leaders from communist states. If it was shown that the Soviets could do nothing to stop the US from overthrowing communist regimes then it would have been a huge blow to communism on a global level. The USSR would have been seen to have been the weaker of the superpowers. This would also have been a great victory for America and could have made their collective resolve to try and eliminate communism from around the world even greater.
Castro had another reason to allow the Soviet missiles into Cuba. He felt it was an obligation of Cuba to accept the missiles because of the assistance they had already received, both economically and militarily, from the Soviets and also to help strengthen communism on the world scale.
“Since we were already receiving a large amount of assistance from the socialist camp, we decided we could not refuse. That is why we accepted them. It was not in order to ensure our own defence, but primarily to strengthen socialism on the international scale”
There are a few important conclusions to be drawn from the various reasons and issues which caused or seemed to cause the Cuban Missile Crisis. The main conclusion is that the Missile Crisis was very indicative of the Cold War in general, in the sense that both sides were continually second-guessing each other, without actually knowing what the true intensions of the other was. Were the Soviets missiles in Cuba solely as a measure to defend against American invasion or had they a more aggressive plan they were willing to execute?
Were the Americans really planning an invasion on Cuba or was this just a tactic to demoralize Castro? Did the Soviets have American concessions in places like Berlin on their mind, when they decided to place missiles in Cuba? At the time these questions were impossible for either side to answer with any certainty which added to the tension.
By having the advantage of being able to look at the origins from all sides, we can now conclude that a lot of the reasons stated for the crisis were not the real motivating factors behind its origins. For example, the Soviets claim to be defending Cuba, while having some merit, was more than likely just a good excuse for the USSR to try to regain a strategic parity with the US. Also, Castro’s claim that he wanted to increase socialism on a global level, while again probably has a lot of validity to it, was secondary to the fact that he needed Soviet presence in Cuba to ward off an American invasion. Generally, what we can take from this essay, is that the origins of the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed to be an exercise in misdirection in order to gain an advantage somewhere else.
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