Saturday, April 23, 2022


 Harry Targ

The Biden administration, however, is ignoring the most important lesson of the missile crisis: all lines of communication—political, military and diplomatic—must be kept open at all times, particularly in the nuclear age. The missile crisis ended without a formal agreement, but less than a year later the two sides signed a formal agreement to ensure safe and quick communications between Washington and Moscow. (Melvin Goodman, "Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis" Counterpunch, October 7, 2022.)



The 60 year anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis is approaching. In an introduction to the presentation of new documents on the crisis the National Security Archives warned  that “the combination of nuclear weapons and human fallibility will eventually result in nuclear destruction if these weapons are not abolished” ( The historical record shows that the decisions leading to the crisis which almost brought nuclear war have been repeated over and over again since the early 1960s. Many fear that the brutal Russian war on Ukraine and the US/NATO response could escalate to the point of nuclear war.

Particularly, the Kennedy Administration pursued numerous policies to forestall revolutionary ferment in the Western Hemisphere. These included covert military action, economic assistance, and nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The following blog essays address these policies. They are adapted from my book on United States foreign policy during the Cold War (Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II. 1986 available as a pdf at

The United States Invades Cuba

Before Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement seized power in Cuba in January, 1959, the United States had long controlled the island nation ninety miles from its shores. The country was ruled by dictator, Fulgencio Batista, a close ally of the United States, who, through repression and corruption, generated large-scale opposition in the countryside and the cities. In 1958 the State Department urged Batista to turn control over to a caretaker government, to forestall the victory of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camillo Cienfuegos, and their growing guerrilla armies, who were on the verge of overthrowing the dictator. Batista rejected the pressure to flee. His U.S. backed armies and police were defeated. The revolutionaries were victorious.

Before the revolution, United States investors controlled 80 percent of Cuba’s utilities, 90 percent of its mines, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, its three oil refineries, half its railroads, and 40 percent of its sugar. In a land rich with human and natural resources and a modern infrastructure and a tourist sector second to none in the Hemisphere, 600,000 Cubans were unemployed, more than half the population lived in slums, and one-half the population had no access to electricity. Forty percent of the Cuban population was illiterate, most Cubans spent much of their income on rent, and among wealthy Cubans, 1.5 percent of landowners owned 46 percent of the land.

When the Castro-led revolutionaries assumed office, they began to develop a series of policies to alleviate the worst features of Cuban poverty. The revolutionary government invested in housing, schools, and public works. Salaries were raised, electrical rates were cut, rents were reduced by half. On a visit to the United States in April, 1959, Castro, who had proposed a large-scale assistance program for the Western Hemisphere to the Eisenhower Administration, was ignored by the President.

Returning from a hostile visit to Washington, Castro announced a redistributive program of agrarian reform that generated opposition from conservative Cuban and American landowners. These policies involved transfers of land to the Cuban people from the huge estates owned by the wealthy. The Eisenhower administration responded by reducing the quantity of United States purchases of Cuban sugar. Cuba then nationalized the industry.

In February, 1960 Cuba signed trade agreements with the Soviet Union. The Soviets agreed to exchange their oil for sugar no longer purchased by the U.S.  When the U.S. owned oil refineries refused to refine the Soviet oil, the Cuban government nationalized them.

In July, 1960, the U.S. cut all sugar purchases. Over the next several months the Cuban government nationalized U.S. owned corporations and banks on the island. Therefore, between the spring of 1960 and January 1961 U.S. and Cuban economic ties came to a halt and the island nation had established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Shortly before Eisenhower left office, the break was made symbolically complete with the U.S. termination of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.

As U.S./Cuban economic and diplomatic tensions were escalating, President Eisenhower made a decision that in the future would lead the world to the brink of nuclear war. In March, 1960, he ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to create a Cuban exile force that would invade the island and depose Fidel Castro. Even the State Department knew at that time that Castro was enormously popular.

In April, 1961, the newly elected President Kennedy was presented with an invasion plan by the CIA. The agency claimed that the right-wing Cubans would be greeted as heroes when they landed at the Bay of Pigs. After the Castro regime was overthrown, all private assets would be returned, and a Batista-like government would be reestablished.

The Bay of Pigs invasion, April 17-19, 1961, was launched by fifteen hundred Cuban exiles. It was an immediate failure: 500 invaders were killed and the rest captured. No uprising against the revolutionary government occurred. Kennedy was criticized in the United States for not providing sufficient air support to protect the invading army. The critics ignored the fact that the revolutionary government had the support of workers and peasants who would fight to defend it.

After the invasion attempt failed, President Kennedy warned of the danger of the “menace of external Communist intervention and domination in Cuba.” He saw a need to respond to Communism, whether in Cuba or South Vietnam. In the face of perceived Communist danger to the Western Hemisphere he reserved the right to intervene as needed. The lesson he drew from the Bay of Pigs was the need for escalated adventurism, not caution.


Harry Targ

“I have called on all the people of the hemisphere to join in a new Alliance for Progress - Alianza para Progreso - a vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work and land, health and schools - techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuela….

To achieve this goal political freedom must accompany material progress. Our Alliance for Progress is an alliance of free governments-and it must work to eliminate tyranny from a hemisphere in which it has no rightful place. Therefore let us express our special friendship to the people of Cuba and the Dominican Republic-and the hope they will soon rejoin the society of free men, uniting with us in our common effort” (Address by President Kennedy at a White House reception for Latin American diplomats and members of Congress, March 13, 1961).

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable” (Address by President Kennedy to diplomats one year after his Alliance for Progress speech. March 13, 1962).

The Alliance for Progress as a “Non-Communist” Path to Development

The Kennedy Administration initiated a policy of foreign assistance in Latin America to complement the United States’ historic use of military force in the region. The President’s economic program was announced in the aftermath of long-standing complaints from Latin American dictators and some elected leaders that the United States had supported European recovery, the celebrated Marshall Plan of the 1940s, but ignored the Western Hemisphere. Most importantly, the Kennedy Administration and anti-Communist friends in the Hemisphere became increasingly concerned about the enthusiasm the Cuban revolution was generating in the region.

In the midst of what was presented to the public as the “threat of Communism” in Latin America, Kennedy presented his “Alliance for Progress” aid package to diplomats and Congressmen on March 3, 1961 (about one month before JFK authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion).

The Alliance, the President promised, would provide public and private assistance equivalent to $20 billion to Latin American countries over a ten-year period. The plan projected annual growth rates in Latin America of 2.5 percent and would lead to the alleviation of malnutrition, poor housing and health, single-crop economies, and iniquitous landholding patterns (all campaigns underway in revolutionary Cuba).

Loans were contingent upon the recipient governments, and their political and economic elites, carrying out basic land reform, establishing progressive taxation, creating social welfare programs, and expanding citizenship and opportunities for political participation.

However, the effect of the Alliance, even before Kennedy’s death, was negative. Problems of poverty, declining growth rates, inflation, lower prices for export commodities, and the maintenance of autocratic and corrupt governments persisted. The reality of the Alliance and most other aid programs was that they were predicated on stabilizing those corrupt ruling classes that had been the source of underdevelopment in the first place.

The connections between the Alliance program and the interests of United States capital were clear. For example, a section of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962 authorized the president to cut off aid to any nation which nationalized or placed “excessive” taxes on U.S. corporations or which terminated contacts with U.S. firms. The act also emphasized monetary stability and the kinds of austerity programs common to U.S. and International Monetary Fund aid, requiring nations receiving aid to reduce public services and to maintain low wage rates to entice foreign investment. Further, Alliance funds were often to be used to serve the interests of foreign capital; for example building roads, harbors, and transportation facilities to speed up the movement of locally produced but foreign-owned goods to international markets.

Finally, the symbolism of the Alliance proclamation by President Kennedy was designed to promote the idea that U.S. resources, in collaboration with reformism in Latin America, would create societies that met the needs of the people and encouraged their political participation. The Alliance was presented as a response to Fidel Castro, a “non-Communist manifesto” for development.

The record of poverty and military rule throughout the Hemisphere suggested that there was no correspondence between symbol and reality. Kennedy, in a moment of unusual frankness, was reported to have said that the United States preferred liberal regimes in Latin America, but if they could not be maintained, it would much prefer a right-wing dictatorship to a leftist regime. After Kennedy’s death, Thomas Mann, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, in the Johnson Administration, told reporters that U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere was not about economic development or democratization but fighting Communism and protecting U.S. economic interests.

In reality, the frankness about the motivations behind U.S. policy expressed by Kennedy after the Alliance speech and Thomas Mann after Kennedy’s death clearly showed that the bottom line in terms of U.S. policy remained support for international capital. The Castros of this world, the Kennedy Administration believed (as has every administration since), had to be crushed at all costs. What remained significant over the next sixty years was that the Cuban revolution could not be defeated.

As the next essay in this series suggests, the Kennedy Administration, having failed to overthrow Cuban socialism at the Bay of Pigs, nor diminish its luster in the region through the economic bribery of the Alliance for Progress program, was willing to go to the brink of nuclear war, the Cuban Missile crisis, to combat socialism in the Western Hemisphere.



"In the missile crisis the Kennedys played their dangerous game skillfully….But all their skill would have been to no avail if in the end Khrushchev had preferred his prestige, as they preferred theirs, to the danger of a world war. In this respect we are all indebted to Khrushchev." (I.F. Stone, “What If Khrushchev Hadn’t Backed Down?” in In a Time of Torment, Vintage, 1967).

The Kennedy Administration Goes to the Brink of Nuclear War

The period between the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the announcement of the Alliance of Progress economic assistance program, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of escalating hostilities. Fidel Castro declared Cuba a Socialist state. The United States pressured members of the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Cuba. The CIA began campaigns to assassinate the Cuban leader and President Kennedy initiated the complete economic blockade that exists until today. (During the Trump Administration over 240 new sanctions were imposed on Cuba to starve the population into submission. Despite campaign promises the current Biden Administration has not lifted these sanctions, even though the former Obama Administration in which Biden served had made substantial efforts to open economic and political relations).  In addition, Castro warned that the U.S. was continuing to plan for another invasion. The Soviet Union began providing more economic and military support to the Cubans, including anti-aircraft missiles and jet aircraft.

In October, 1962, U.S. spy planes sighted the construction of Soviet surface-to-air missile installations and the presence of Soviet medium-range bombers on Cuban soil. These sightings were made after Republican leaders had begun to attack Kennedy for allowing a Soviet military presence on the island. Kennedy had warned the Soviets in September not to install “offensive” military capabilities in Cuba. Photos indicated that the Soviets had also begun to build ground-to-ground missile installations on the island, which Kennedy defined as “offensive” and a threat to national security.

After securing the photographs Kennedy assembled a special team of advisors, known as EXCOM, to discuss various responses the United States might make. He excluded any strategy that prioritized taking the issue to the United Nations for resolution.

After much deliberation EXCOM focused on two policy responses: a strategic air strike against Soviet targets in Cuba or a blockade of incoming Soviet ships coupled with threats of further action if the Soviet missiles were not withdrawn. Both options had a high probability of escalating to nuclear war if the Soviet Union refused to back down.

High drama, much of it televised, followed the initiation of a naval blockade of Soviet ships heading across the Atlantic to Cuba. Fortunately, the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, sent notes to the President that led to a tacit agreement between the two leaders whereby Soviet missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba and the United States would promise not to invade Cuba to overthrow the Castro government. In addition, the President indicated that obsolete U.S. missiles in Turkey would be disassembled over time.

Most scholars argue that the missile crisis constituted Kennedy’s finest hour as statesman and diplomat. They agree with the administration view that the missiles constituted a threat to U.S. security, despite Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s claim in EXCOM meetings that the missiles did not change the strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Most of these scholars have agreed that the symbolic value of the installation of Soviet missiles could have had grave consequences for U.S. “credibility.”

Given the importance of the missiles, leading social scientists have written that the Kennedy team carefully considered a multitude of policy responses. EXCOM did not ignore competing analyses, as had been done in the decisional process prior to the Bay of Pigs. The blockade policy that was adopted, experts believe, constituted a rational application of force that it was hoped would lead to de-escalation of tensions. All observers agreed that the United States and the Soviet Union had gone to the brink of nuclear war. Even the President estimated that there was a fifty percent probability of full-scale nuclear war.

In the end the Soviets withdrew their missiles. Analysts said the Soviet Union suffered a propaganda defeat for putting the missiles on Cuban soil in the first place and then withdrawing them after U.S. threats. Khrushchev was criticized by the Chinese government and within a year he was ousted from leadership in the Soviet Union.

In the light of this U.S. “victory,” Kennedy has been defined as courageous and rational. The real meaning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, is different, even sixty years after the event. The crisis actually suggests that the United States quest to maintain and enhance its empire would lead it to go to any extreme, even nuclear war, to defend the interests of capitalism. To avoid serious losses, whether symbolic or material, for capitalism, any policy was justified.

Further, in terms of U.S. politics, Kennedy was calculating the effects of the missiles on the chances for his party to retain control of Congress in 1962. A second “defeat” over Cuba (the Bay of Pigs was the first) would have heightened the opposition’s criticisms of his foreign policy.

Finally, in personal terms, Kennedy was driven by the need to establish a public image as courageous and powerful in confronting the Soviets. Khrushchev had spoken harshly to him at a summit meeting in Vienna in 1961 and Castro had been victorious at the Bay of Pigs. The President’s own “credibility” had been damaged and a show of force in October, 1962, was necessary for his career.

Because of imperialism, politics, and personal political fortunes, the world almost went to nuclear war sixty years ago. As I.F. Stone suggested shortly after the crisis, nuclear war was avoided because the Soviet Union chose to withdraw from the tense conflict rather than to engage in it further.

National Security Archives files referred to earlier suggest, “the historical record shows that the decisions leading to the crisis which almost brought nuclear war have been repeated over and over again since the early 1960s” ( The danger of the unabashed and irresponsible use of force and the legitimation of the idea that diplomacy can be conducted using nuclear weapons and other devastating weapons systems still represents a threat to human survival.

These comments were adapted from Harry Targ, Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II, 1986. It is the third essay in a series on “The Cuba Story” available at Recent escalation of tensions and war in Eastern Europe reminded the author of sixty years ago when the world almost went to nuclear war.