The Cuban Missile Crisis: Policy Options Essay

The Cuban Missile Crisis: Policy Options Essay

The Cold war has assumed dangerous connotations with the Russians now aiming to reduce their ‘missile gap’ and geo-political disadvantage by emplacing nuclear missiles in Cuba. That the Soviets wish to enlarge their communist outpost in the Americas can be gauged by Castro’s announcement “that the Soviet Union had agreed to help build “a fishing port” in Cuba to “facilitate the operations of the Soviet fishing fleet in the area of the Atlantic” (Time, 1962, 2). Intelligence gathered by our operatives over the last few months indicate that the Russian move is no fiction. Our Director of Intelligence has warned that “since July when the volume of Soviet military shipments to Cuba suddenly increased very substantially, 85 shiploads of various military items, supplies, and personnel have arrived” (Hilsman, 1962, 1). U-2 flights and intelligence gathered indicates that SS-4 and SS-5 missiles each with a one megaton warhead which could target almost the entire Continental United States now are on Cuban soil. Our sources indicate that 20 such missiles are in the vicinity of Campo Libertad, a small airfield on the western edge of Havana (Wright Jr, 1962, 5). The choices that have been identified to counter the situation are broadly to carry out a blockade, an airstrike, an invasion, or go in for negotiations. This memo aims to provide the President, policy options for resolving this grave crisis, which threatens the very existence of the world as we know it.


An effective naval blockade would require at least two to three weeks putting into place. The entire logistics machinery, diplomatic wherewithal as well as the tactical deployment of ships and aircraft would have to be worked out. Declaring a blockade in itself will not solve the problem of the nuclear missiles already in place in Cuba. A full naval blockade against Cuba will have to be weighed against possible reactions by the Russians. The writers of this memo do not believe that the Russians will actually go to war with the United States over a naval blockade of Cuba. Their ability to retaliate and declare a counter-blockade elsewhere in the world would be difficult as there are no sufficient grounds which the Russians can quote to do so. The Russian Navy is no match for the US navy in terms of numbers, types of platforms required for blockading and the degree of sophistication of their platforms. On the other hand, “resort to an all-out blockade, which would probably require a declaration of war and to be effective would mean the interruption of all incoming shipping” (Cone, 1962, 2). The blockade in itself may not be 100% successful as the Russians may resort to smuggling in nuclear weapons through their submarines to Cuban ports. In such cases, we would require a strong anti-submarine force levels and detection systems. Blockades, however, have a degree of acceptance in international law and thus are the most viable option which is likely to generate least escalation. Blockades can also be graduated and offer the flexibility of tightening or loosening it as desired depending on the dictates of the Geopolitical situation. It must however be reiterated that Blockade in itself will not solve the crisis as the missiles already in place cannot be addressed by the blockade. Our blockade policy will have to look at the dynamics of world shipping and the trade imperatives of our own allies. Clear set rules would have to be formulated as to how America will deal with the requirements of non-lethal shipping of friendly countries with Cuba. Will the contraband list also include possible dual-use items? If so, what would be the conditionality and determinants of those dual use items which can be proscribed? It may well be possible to explore the idea that a blockade can well be declared without having to use the formal terms of a blockade to avoid the rather strict legalities that declaration of a blockade entail. In the worst case, the possibility of the Soviets resorting to an all out war in response to our declaration of a blockade cannot be ruled out. Thus the decision to declare a blockade will have to take into consideration the various pros and cons of the geo-political situation, the force levels as well as the degree of blockade to be put into place.

Air Strike

Air Strike offers the quickest way of neutralizing the missile sites known and identified. For the air strikes to be effective, they would need to be carried out before the missiles are deployed. The Cubans do not have an air force or air defense system robust enough to counter the mighty US Air Force and our carrier borne aircraft. The attendant risks however need to be clearly calculated. While the SA-2 sites are not known to be able to hit high flying aircraft, there is every possibility that we may suffer some casualties. These should be accepted as exigencies of the situation. However own casualties are not the main criteria for not opting for air strikes. Rather, it is the fact that no air strike can achieve 100 % success that makes airstrikes a risky proposition. There is always a chance that some missiles may not be destroyed. The chances of escalation are indeed high under these circumstances. The soviet battery commanders of the missile sites in Cuba may, in panic launch a surviving weapon that can hit a mid- sized city in continental United States and cause millions of deaths as also spark an all out nuclear war. The chances of killing a large number of innocent Cuban civilians is also very high that would cost us a great deal of ‘diplomatic capital’. An airstrike may invite a retaliatory air strike or even a ground attack against our Bay of Pigs facilities. At the geopolitical level, since the missiles are Russians, the Soviets may be tempted in striking at our Jupiter deployments in Turkey which they have loudly proclaimed to be threatening the Soviet homeland. An attack on Turkey would act like a domino and spark an all out war in Europe which would be detrimental to us as the Soviet ground forces are significantly larger than our forces including those of our allies. An air strike therefore, can quickly go out of hand and escalate dramatically leaving us very little room for maneuver. Airstrike at this stage is considered too risky an option to be used. However, as a negotiating tool, it could be considered.


The invasion of Cuba seems to be an attractive option since it offers twin benefits of destroying the missiles as also removing Fidel Castro from power. However, the geopolitical situation is not conducive to such a course of action. The Soviets have invested heavily in cultivating this communist outpost in the Americas. Experts have previously voiced that had America openly involved itself in invading Cuba on behalf of the Cuban exiles, “Russia would have moved into West Berlin” (Szilard, 1962, p. 24). These views must be taken seriously as an invasion may possibly encourage a Russian onslaught across East Berlin and an all-out war in Europe. The Soviets may calculate that the rest of the world is not likely to oppose their course of action as it was the Americans who initiated aggression first. Invasion of a sovereign country, in this day and age by the United States, the champion democracy and democratic values will not go down well with the international community. Though we could cite the international law clauses of Self Defense and Anticipatory Self Defense, it is not likely to garner sufficient support in the international community. Planning an invasion of Cuba would require months of planning as well as an equal amount of time building up the necessary resources. It must be reiterated here that the exact number of Soviet forces in Cuba are not known. Also, the Cubans will unite and rise as a nation. An invasion of Cuba will most probably deteriorate into a protracted guerilla war, which would be very difficult to combat given our relative inexperience in fighting unconventional wars. The popular support for Fidel Castro in Cuba is significant and we must not lay too much credence on the reported disenchantment of the Cuban public by the exiles. At the other end of the spectrum, an invasion is most likely to intensify into a global conflagration with a high chance of it turning into a nuclear war. As a policy option, invasion is the least viable way ahead.


Often times in international affairs, negotiations have proved to be the best panacea for vexing issues. However, for any negotiation to succeed requires bargaining from a position of strength as well as providing the opponent an escape route and a face saving measure. Negotiations without these two parameters are doomed to fail and may be taken as signs of weakness. Indeed, the Soviets may use the time spent under negotiations to further buildup their missile inventory in Cuba and operationalise the existing missile sites. If that happens, our negotiating stance will be weakened considerably. Negotiations must not deteriorate into a position of appeasement as they did during the opening moves of the Second World War with the appeasement of Hitler. Negotiations offer the least escalatory option but also the least chance of succeeding without a robust and visible show of strength. These must be considered while arriving at the recommended options.

Recommended Policy Option

The authors of this memo recommend that the United States declare a naval blockade and back it with hard negotiations. The blockade will be the visible end of our strategy which will help the United States to negotiate from a position of strength. Strong statements by the President to the free world will have to be backed by a visible demonstration of our serious intent. This demonstration can also include a demonstration of our military power in all the three spectrums air, surface and sub-surface by conducting military exercises and weapon firing demonstrations to send the message across to the other side as also reassure our allies of America’s strength. Our blockade need not be a total blockade lest we be labeled as enemies of humanity. A carefully declared contraband list that does not stop food, medicines and other non-military material from reaching Cuba could be declared. The blockade must then be enforced with all strength and vigor to prove to the Soviets our resolve. However, since we are not declaring a full blockade, we could call the blockade by some other name to obviate over reaction or miscalculation by the Soviets. While the blockade unfolds, our diplomatic Corps must unleash the full force of its repertoire against the Soviet state. In this, not only all international formal organizations must be harnessed but also track II organizations. Our negotiating stance must be firm and unambiguous. It should focus solely on the issue of removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba. There are others in the government who call for removal of Castro (McNamara, 1962, 3). Such calls must not be entertained. Inclusion of such a secondary demand will allow the Soviets tremendous maneuvering space that is likely to obfuscate the main issue and may ultimately rebound on us. At the same time, the US Armed forces and its allies must prepare for the worst case scenario – of an all out war should the negotiations and the naval blockade fail.

Thus in conclusion it can be reiterated that the options namely to carry out a blockade, invasion, airstrikes or negotiations each has its concomitant risks. A comprehensive analysis of the cost-risk ratio and the likely pay offs has been attempted in this memo. It becomes evidently clear that an invasion leaves no room for maneuver and carries the risk of serious escalation. Airstrikes will not guarantee 100% destruction of all missiles as the possibility of the U-2 reconnaissance having discovered all missiles is itself doubtful. Also, airstrikes may escalate the conflict beyond reasonable limits as the possibility of a surviving Russian missile site commander launching a nuclear missile at continental United states cannot be ruled out. Such an act would trigger a global nuclear war. Negotiations alone would not persuade the Russians to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. Negotiations without supporting credible and visible show of strength would be appreciated by the Russians as signs of weakness and that may encourage them to further up the ante. A naval blockade carries the least risk of escalation as it is scalable, which can be tightened or relaxed depending upon the situation. Naval blockades require time to build up and about three weeks are required for a fully effective blockade to be set up. Therefore, the authors of this memo believe that the recommended course of action revolves around an effective and operative naval blockade (called by some other name) of Cuba in tandem with hard negotiations would achieve our aim of resolving this vexatious issue.

Works Cited

Cone, M. (1962, October 17). Memorandum by Director of Central Intelligence McCone . Retrieved May 20, 2009, from The Avalon Project:

Hilsman, R. (1962, October 2). Memorandum From the Director of Intelligence and Research (Hilsman) to the Under Secretary of State (Ball) . Retrieved May 20, 2009, from Avalon project:

McNamara, R. (1962, October 2). Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Taylor). Retrieved May 20, 2009, from The Avalon Project:

Szilard, L. (1962, April, Vol. 18, No. 4). Are We on a Road to War. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , 1-48.

Time. (1962, October 5). A Fishing Tale. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from,9171,829164,00.html

Wright Jr, J. R. (1962, September 28). Analysis of SAM sites. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from The Avalon Project:

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