For thirteen days in October of 1962, the world stood and watched as individual superpower leaders moved toward a political abyss that history books claim nearly resulted in nuclear destruction when U.S. intelligence planes recorded photos of Soviet nuclear missile technology in Cuba. The intelligence revelation not only threatened to shift the bipolar balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, and on a larger scale between international capitalism and communism, it threatened military escalation between the two great nuclear powers of the Cold War period which, without solution, could have had irreversible ramifications to the entire globe. In retrospect, a possible nuclear holocaust was not diverted by the efforts of multilateral international alliances nor was the possible conflict diverted by the domestic mechanisms within the state structure, neither Council of Ministers nor Congress. Instead, the eyes of the world, from the young to old, were on three individual human leaders: President John F. Kennedy of the United States, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro of Cuba. The decisions and leadership styles of these individual men during the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially Kennedy and Khrushchev, would avert possible world nuclear disaster.
The Cuban Missile Crisis culminated through a series of events that, as previously mentioned, began with the identification by U.S. intelligence of Soviet missile technology in Cuba. The alarming revelation resulted in U.S. demands on the international stage for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and the implementation of a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba to prevent, as Kennedy claimed, the importation of further Soviet missiles, which Khrushchev declared would bring Soviet retaliation should any U.S. ship attack Soviet ships destined for Cuba. The leadership styles utilized by the involved state leaders during the negotiations of October 26, 1962 brought the crisis to a peaceful resolution and it is important to analyze those leadership traits in the form of Khrushchev and Kennedy’s private and public letters of communication.
Foreign Policy Objectives
During the period between the end of the Second World War and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the three state leaders involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis were heads of states with very different policy objectives and those objectives played heavily into leadership decisions and actions as the 1962 crisis bloomed. The main Cold War foreign policy objective for the United States was the containment of communism, heavy efforts on limiting Soviet influence on the international stage, and the extension and protection of western international capitalism through the creation and utilization of NATO as a military containment mechanism. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, “felt threatened by a rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), by the United States alliance system encircling the Soviet Union, and by the West's superior strategic and economic strength” (Zickel, 1989, p. 87), in addition to U.S. missiles in Turkey, and sought to improve Soviet negotiating power within the international balance of power. While the policies of the two Cold War global powers are clearly political positioning on the balanced international stage, the Cuban state was an unstable state entity that had recently underwent an armed regime change with the forced exile of Fulgencio Batista and the rise of Fidel Castro as leader. It must be noted that the Cuban Revolution was not communist based and that “organized labor, whose ranks were heavily influenced by the Communist Party (PS), opposed the July 26th Movement until almost the very end” (Prevost, 2012, p. 21). The Bay of Pigs event in 1961 documents U.S. CIA operations providing “money, weapons and training” (Mooney, 2006, p. 18) to exiled opposition guerrilla fighters training in Central America with the goal of overthrowing Castro in favor of a more capitalist-friendly Cuban leader or the possible return of Batista. Being under the rifle scopes of a neighboring superpower, it was only natural for Castro to seek closer economic and military relations to the Soviet Union, which would later result in the Soviet purchase of 2.7 million tons of sugar (Prevost, 2012, p. 14), to bolster and secure the longevity of his newly established regime and the state of Cuba.
Individual Leadership Styles
In their theoretic discussion on the effects of individual leadership, Hermann and Preston offer four leadership styles that categorize how leaders react differently to political situations based on how leaders respond to constraints, openness to information, how the leader focuses on a political situation at hand and the political relationships surrounding the problem (2001, p. 95). Fidel Castro, while certainly not a major player in the negotiation phase of October 26, 1962, is easily identifiable as a crusader-styled leader due to his “political career engaged in trying to export the socialist revolution in Latin America” (Hermann and Preston, 2001, p. 96), but the actions of Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis negotiations are more difficult to narrow down and would seem to fall between the categories of strategic and opportunistic, which stress openness to information, challenging constraints, and respecting constraints (Hermann and Preston, 2001, p. 96).
Both Khrushchev and Kennedy showed strategic and opportunistic leadership styles during the Cuban Missile Crisis build-up and negotiations, and the outcome of the crisis could have been much different had either of these leaders acted in another role such as the crusader or the pragmatist. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy acted as strategic leaders during the build-up to the culminating negotiation by challenging constraints and remaining open to information, and later during negotiations assumed opportunistic leadership styles. In the build-up period, Khrushchev challenged constraints by approving the Cuban request for missiles, since Soviet diplomatic relations had opened with Cuba after Castro’s successful revolution, while Kennedy had challenged constraints by allowing the CIA to train exiled fighters in order to return Fulgencio Batista, or a capitalist-friendly leader, back to power. An argument can actually be made that the Cuban missile request to the Soviet Union was in response to the U.S. Bay of Pigs failure. Both leaders, and their respective states, were incremental in using maneuverability and flexibility while engaging others, the Soviets with Castro’s government and the U.S. with Batista exiles, during the process. During the same time window, both leaders were open to information from each other, as is evident by the letters dated over the thirteen days in October 1962, and the communication lines between the Soviet Union and the United States had been, and remained, open. Khrushchev had even visited the United States while Eisenhower was in the White House, just a year prior to Kennedy’s election.
Something interesting occurred as the situation acuminated toward possible military confrontation and escalation. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy changed leadership styles to fit the opportunistic model. Both leaders worked with and respected the constraints of the United Nations under newly posted Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant, and open communications between the two leaders drastically increased. Both leaders became reactive in order to assess what gains were possible under the problematic situation, and both leaders became accommodative in the political relationship. In the exchange of letters between Khrushchev and Kennedy, available on the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website, Khrushchev hinted on U.S. missiles in Turkey and the protection of Cuba from possible U.S. invasion while Kennedy followed Khrushchev’s lead and made subtle promises to remove the naval blockade if the Soviet weapons in Cuba were destroyed under the auspices of the United Nations, while also quietly agreeing to remove U.S. Missiles from Turkey.
In closing, while the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis were clearly the result of Castro’s successful Cuban revolution and the failed U.S. attempt to overthrow the Castro government, along with the initiation of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the new Cuban government under Castro, it was the flexible individual leadership styles of Khrushchev and Kennedy that worked rationally to bring a peaceful resolution to the matter without international conflict or possible nuclear strikes.
Gary Prevost. 2012. “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution” Headwaters: The Faculty Journal of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University 24 (4): 19-33. Accessed on January 25, 2014. http://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1040&context=headwaters
Margaret Hermann and Thomas Preston. 2001. Who leads matters: the effects of powerful Individuals. International Studies Review 3, no. 2 (Summer): 83-132.
Matthew Mooney. 2006. “On the Brink: From the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis.” California: University of California, 2006. Accessed on January 25, 2014. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/history/ucihp/resources/11th%20grade%20for%20website/11.9%20HOT%20On_The_Brink.pdf
Raymond Zickel. 1991. Soviet Union, a country study. The Library of Congress, 1991. Accessed on January 25, 2014. https://archive.org/details/sovietunioncount00zick
U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian. “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume VI, Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges: Kennedy-Khrushchev Exchanges.” Accessed January 25, 2014. http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v06/comp1