The Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later

October 23, 2012

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

“The Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, was the watershed event of the Cold War, an event where two superpowers went “eyeball to eyeball” and came perilously close to launching World War III.” Professor Stephen Knott of the United States Naval War College reflects upon the crisis and challenge it posed to US-Soviet relations.

John F. KennedyThe Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 became the centerpiece of the “Camelot” legend which held that a young John F. Kennedy rebuffed the “hawks” in his administration who yearned for an invasion of Cuba while at the same time he went “eyeball to eyeball” with Nikita Khrushchev. As the legend goes, JFK vanquished the Soviet dictator while offering him a face-saving exit from the crisis. Remarkably many of the myths associated with the missile crisis persist some 50 years after the event.

In August 1962, Kennedy’s CIA Director John McCone and Senator Kenneth Keating of New York charged that the Soviets were constructing missiles sites in Cuba, and on October 14th U-2 overflights confirmed the existence of these missiles.  Over the next 13 days, the “ExComm” [Executive Committee of the National Security Council] presented a number of options to the President, almost all of them recommending the use of force.

Kennedy rejected this advice and opted for a ratcheted and restrained response to the crisis, which became something of model for his successors to follow in dealing with their own security crises, including those in the jungles of Vietnam. At JFK’s direction, Robert Kennedy began meeting with a KGB agent and through this “back channel” a deal was brokered committing the President to remove American missiles in Turkey (along with a pledge not to invade Cuba) in exchange for Khrushchev’s promise to dismantle the missiles in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s “no invasion” concession was seen by Khrushchev as a “great victory” for the Cuban state and the Soviet bloc.

The roots of the missile crisis could be traced to Khrushchev’s assessment that the young American president was indecisive. Kennedy’s wavering stance during the Bay of Pigs fiasco was followed by a disastrous summit with Khrushchev in June 1961, where, as Kennedy himself admitted, the Soviet leader bullied the President. This in turn was followed by the President’s tacit approval of the Soviet erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

The real lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that presidential resolve and determination are essential prerequisites for conducting American foreign policy and preserving the peace. While Kennedy deserves credit for his thoughtful decision-making process during the 13 days, he also deserves some of the blame for what occurred, for his vacillating policies encouraged Khrushchev to engage in a high stakes game of nuclear poker in the Caribbean. To counter this image, the White House, in the aftermath of the missile crisis, portrayed an unwavering President standing up to Khrushchev. It would take the passage of decades for a more complete version of the missile crisis to emerge, although some documents remain closely guarded by a protective Kennedy family.

Below is a transcript of President Kennedy’s address from October 22, 1962, when he announced to a stunned nation and the world that the United States had uncovered a “deliberate deception” on the part of the Soviet Union involving an “extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles” in Cuba.

Stephen F. Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs, United States Naval War College

Read the Documents:

Memorandum for Discussion During the Cuban Missile Crisis
October 17, 1962

Record of Meeting During the Cuban Missile Crisis
October 19, 1962

Notes on Meeting with President Kennedy During the Cuban Missile Crisis
October 21, 1962

Speech Announcing the Quarantine Against Cuba
John F. Kennedy
October 22, 1962

New! Interactive Resource on the Bill of Rights

Ashbrook is happy to announce the latest in a series of Special Exhibits on the American Founding, with a new online resource on the Bill of Rights. With content created and edited by Professor Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University, the site chronicles the creation and adoption of the Bill of Rights starting with the English and Colonial tradition, and working its way through the American Revolution, the State Ratifying Conventions, and finally ending with the debates over Madison’s 39 Proposals in the First Congress. With the assistance of original sources, secondary commentaries, visual aids, modules, and Excel print outs, the site offers you and your students the opportunity to rethink a number of issues connected with the original and refined Bill of Rights.

You may explore the site at

Inside the Live Online Classroom

Courtney Reiner teaches history to eighth and ninth graders in Perrysburg, OH. She is driven to be the best teacher she can be. “I used to just try to follow the curriculum standards, figuring that if I gave my students the information outlined in those, and they memorized these facts, they’d be fine.”

Courtney Reiner

But Courtney knows that curriculum standards and memorization aren’t enough to make history come alive for her students. “This year my goal is for my students to get ‘it’—to grasp the overarching theme of each unit, and how that history relates to our own time, and then to build on what they’ve just learned in the next unit.”

Time is short for Courtney, who has a five-month old son and two year old daughter to care for, but the Ashbrook Center’s Live Online Courses in American History and Government are helping Courtney build the framework to make history come alive for her students.

We called Courtney late one afternoon to chat about her experience in one of Ashbrook’s new online seminars for social studies teachers. Reiner was folding laundry, her five- month-old son watching from his bouncy chair while her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter helped by handing mom items from the laundry basket. Reiner had just finished a full day of teaching US history to eighth graders and modern world history to ninth graders, but she talked animatedly about the MAHG program and the final course she was taking to meet her credit hours, the great texts course on The Federalist.

“I have really enjoyed Dr. William Allen’s class,” she said. “He is a very helpful and thoughtful teacher.” The webinar format allows students to see the professor who is lecturing in a full-screen computer image and to pose questions in real time. It also allows students to follow the professor to a different venue; on the previous evening, the class had watched as Professor Allen delivered a Constitution Day lecture in Hartford, Connecticut.

Most MAHG students and faculty chose the program because its schedule of traditional classroom-based courses offered on a summer schedule provided the opportunity to interact with colleagues who have a common passion for teaching the story of America. Competing online programs are notable for their lack of interaction, and there was initial trepidation when the program’s first “online” classes were proposed.

The more they learned about the “live” nature of MAHG’s online courses and the way web conferencing effectively replicates the feeling of a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, the more they embraced the concept. Reiner saw the option as an invaluable opportunity to finish coursework and move toward the thesis work she plans. She had already taken the pilot online course last winter—an American foreign policy seminar with John Moser—and that had worked well.

Moser admitted he had been hesitant when asked to teach the class. “I had taught one online undergraduate course at Ashland, and wasn’t at all happy with the experience. I could assign readings, and have students take quizzes and exams online, but comments on a bulletin board or in a chat room were no substitute for actual discussions. The worst part was that I couldn’t bring myself to care about the students taking the course; after all, I never really interacted with them. As a result, my work for that course always ended up falling to the bottom of my to-do list, and I’m sure the students who took it would say the same thing.

“I soon learned that the experience of a MAHG online course is completely different. The fact that it meets in real time, with face-to-face videoconferencing, is the key to its success. Even though I was in my home in Ashland, and the students were scattered across the country, we were able to have a real conversation, almost as if we were all together in the same classroom. The students seemed to enjoy the experience as much as I did; when they showed up on my computer screen they had clearly done the reading and were prepared for discussion.”

The Federalist is one of the more challenging courses offered in the program, since it involves close reading of this and other 18th century texts written during the 1781-1788 ratification debate over the US Constitution. To supplement the primary document, Reiner and her fellow students are reading a commentary on the work written by Professor Allen himself, allowing them to pose questions directly to the person most qualified to answer them.

Given Reiner’s goals for her own teaching, she will use the online opportunity to get the best grasp she can on this fundamental text in American political history. “I used to just try to follow the curriculum standards, figuring that if I gave my students the information outlined in those, and they memorized these facts, they’d be fine. Not any more. This year my goal is for my students to get it—to grasp the overarching theme of each unit, and how that history relates to our own time, and then to build on what they’ve just learned in the next unit.”

“I really like the MAHG program,” Reiner continued. “I’ve never met a group of more intelligent yet more down-to-earth professors. They understand we have lives outside of class, yet they find a way to keep pushing us to think harder, outside of the usual textbook-designed box.”

Live Online Graduate Courses for Teachers

New! Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Institutes in American History and Government are rigorous, 2 semester credit hour graduate-level courses in American history and government offered in a live, interactive webconference format. Whether you are looking to refresh and renew your skills as a teacher, renew or add a subject field to a teaching license, or simply get a taste of the graduate school experience, Ashbrook’s Live Online Graduate Courses provide the rich content and convenient delivery format you are looking for.

See the schedule of upcoming courses or register today.

Online Saturday Seminars for Teachers

New! The Ashbrook Center is pleased to offer social studies teachers a series of online seminars this school year. These seminars will be offered on Saturday mornings throughout the fall and spring semesters. Seminars are designed to give teachers the opportunity to learn about and discuss important topics and texts in American history and government with nationally recognized scholars and teachers.

The Saturday Online Seminars will be broadcast through the WebEx Training Center. If you have a computer with a standard web browser and a broadband internet connection, participation is as simple as clicking on a link; WebEx Training Center will take care of the rest.

For more information, or to register, click here.

Ashbrook High School Webinar Series

New! Ashbrook introduces a series of free webinars designed to bring the nation’s best historical scholarship into your classroom. Delivered live via the WebEx web conference platform, your students can learn from leading scholars in US history and government. You and your students can see, hear, and speak to our professors live and online.

Each webinar investigates key themes in American history and various topics are offered on a schedule designed to track the curriculum and pacing of an Advanced Placement United States History course. For more information about the program or to apply to host a webinar in your classroom, click here.

Constitution Booklets Available

The Ashbrook Center offers a pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. These convenient booklets make excellent classroom resources for American history, civics, and government classes.

Copies of the booklet are available for $2.00 each. Special bulk pricing is available for quantities of 10, 25, 100 or more. Standard shipping and handling is included at no charge; rush delivery is available for an additional fee.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit us at

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