Soviet missile site at Guanajay, Cuba, October, 1962.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Most historians agree that the world has never come closer to nuclear war than it did during a thirteen-day period in October 1962, after the revelation that the Soviet Union had stationed several medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. This lesson will examine how this crisis developed, how the Kennedy administration chose to respond, and how the situation was ultimately resolved. By examining both government documents and photographs students will put themselves into the role of President Kennedy during this crucial period, considering the advice of key administration figures and deciding on a course of action.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
In late September 1962, U.S. spy planes flying over Cuba discovered the presence of Soviet-made medium-range nuclear missiles on the island. The result, played out through the month of October, was the most serious foreign policy crisis of the Kennedy White House-indeed, probably the most serious foreign policy crisis in the history of the Cold War. Cuba was a mere ninety miles from the coast of Florida, and missiles fired from there could easily strike targets in the United States as far north as Cincinnati, and as far west as San Antonio-and with minimal warning time. Perhaps even more importantly, Kennedy felt that American prestige (as well as his own) was on the line; as recently as September 4 the president had given a speech in which he warned the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, against placing any such weapons in Cuba. That Khrushchev had done so in spite of this warning seemed to demand a response.
While most Americans remained blissfully unaware of the situation, the CIA formally presented its findings to President Kennedy and his "ExComm" (short for "Executive Committee," made up of several cabinet members and other major advisers) on October 16. The group considered a range of options for responding to the challenge, from opening face-to-face negotiations with the Soviets to launching an all-out invasion of Cuba. In the end they settled on a blockade of the Cuban coast-although for purposes of international law it was referred to as a "quarantine" rather than a blockade. Until the missile sites had been dismantled U.S. warships would stop and search all ships approaching the island for equipment related to the missiles. Those that were found to be carrying such equipment would be turned back.
Kennedy announced his decision to the American people in a radio broadcast on October 22, and U.S. warships immediately began stopping Soviet vessels bound for Cuban shores. For the next several days it seemed that the world hovered on the brink of a nuclear war, while feverish negotiations continued between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Finally, on October 27 a deal was struck—the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba in return for promises from the United States not to invade Cuba, and to pressure NATO into withdrawing its medium-range missiles from Turkey. On November 20, convinced that the last missile sites had been dismantled, Kennedy ordered an end to the "quarantine."
The crisis had several long-range effects. Fidel Castro, the pro-Soviet president of Cuba, felt betrayed by the Soviet leadership, since he had not been consulted at all on the settlement. More importantly, leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed genuinely rattled at how close they had come to nuclear conflict. In the months ahead they agreed to the installation of a telephone "hotline" connecting the White House and the Kremlin and allowing for instantaneous negotiation between the two. In addition, the two sides began the first steps toward limiting the nuclear arms race, working toward a treaty—eventually signed in August 1963—banning the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.
For more information on this subject, an excellent source is George Washington University's National Security Archive, accessible via the EDSITEment reviewed resource History Matters. A solid concise account of the crisis—including a brief chronology—may be found at "The World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis," an online exhibit of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource POTUS).
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the PDF Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
You should also become familiar with the interactive exercise which accompanies this lesson. This interactive puts the student in the role of President Kennedy, having to decide among several options for responding to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. By clicking on the names of individual advisers, students can read the views of men such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. After studying the strengths and weaknesses of each option, the student will be asked to choose an option, which will then bring up a new window that evaluates the response.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers a helpful page on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" which gives helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
The first activity will have students, either individually or in groups, play analysts for the CIA. First have them read the following statement that Kennedy made on September 4, 1962, warning the Soviets against placing missiles in Cuba.
Next they should study the following documents, most of which the CIA presented to Kennedy in his briefings during the early days of the crisis. These include:
Note that documents 2-6 are actually images, so teachers might choose to recreate the tension of this event by using a projector to show them to the entire class.
As CIA analysts, the students' job is to draft a memorandum for the president, in which they must explain to him why the presence of these missiles presents a threat to U.S. national security. (Students might be asked to do this individually, or in small groups, at the teacher's discretion.) A worksheet with the documents and directions-including an excerpt from the last document (#7), which in its complete form is quite lengthy-is included as pages 1-2 of the PDF Text Document accompanying this lesson. Because some of these materials include technical terms related to Soviet weaponry, a brief glossary has been provided on page 3 of the PDF Text Document.
Now that students have determined that the presence of the missiles constitutes a threat to national security, the second activity will put them, either individually or in groups, into the role of President Kennedy through the use of the interactive exercise. They will be presented with a menu of possible options, and then will have the opportunity to consult with advisers before choosing one of the options. By scrolling over the photograph of Kennedy and his cabinet, the names of certain advisers will appear. By clicking on a name a brief list of statements by that individual will appear at the bottom of the screen. After they have done this, students should next read the "Special Intelligence Estimate" prepared by the CIA; this will appear when the "Special Intelligence Estimate" tab is clicked.
After students have consulted the cabinet and the Special Intelligence Estimate, they should make a decision regarding how to respond to the missiles in Cuba, and click on the option that most closely resembles their choice. This will produce a brief narrative explaining whether or not this was also the decision reached by the president, and why or why not. Once students have completed the exercise, teachers should conduct a class discussion about why they chose the options they did. After they have done so the class will move on to the third activity, which deals with Kennedy's actual response.
A worksheet to help guide students through this exercise is available on pages 4-5 of the PDF Text Document.
By October 22 President Kennedy had made his decision; it was now time to announce it to the world. For the third activity students will read the text of Kennedy's radio and television address to the nation, in which he announced the "quarantine" of Cuba. The full text is available at the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site POTUS). Located at the same site is an audio version of the document, which teachers might wish to have students listen to. An excerpted version, which includes the most important sections of the speech, is also available on pages 6-8 of the PDF Text Document.
After reading or listening to the speech (or its excerpts), students should answer the following questions (included on a worksheet on page 8 of the PDF Text Document):
Teachers may wish to conclude this activity with a class discussion of the speech; i.e., whether Kennedy made the right choice, what its implications were, and how effective the speech was in conveying the seriousness of the situation.
It was on October 22 that the crisis began in earnest, for on that day Kennedy revealed to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—and to the rest of the world—that he was aware of the missiles in Cuba. The result was a week of furious negotiation between the two sides, while U.S. warships began stopping Soviet vessels off the Cuban coast. In the fourth and final activity students will read excerpts from the following seven documents—correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev, in which the two sides negotiate a deal for the removal of the missiles. This exchange may be found in its entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "The Avalon Project." Excerpts have been provided on pages 9-13 of the PDF Text Document that accompanies this lesson.
Students might be asked to do this reading on their own as homework. Alternatively teachers might select students to read particular sections aloud in class. Either way, the activity should conclude with an in-class discussion focusing on the following questions:
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraphs) essays answering the following questions:
For more advanced students these four might be combined into a single, longer essay:
Finally, to encourage critical thinking about this episode, students might be asked to write an essay in response to the following:
Teachers who have additional time to devote to this subject might want to show their students the 2000 Hollywood film Thirteen Days, which is a dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Afterward students can discuss how the events in the film compared to what they have learned in this lesson. For one historian's take on the film, see "'Thirteen Days' Doesn't Add Up," located at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters.
In the wake of the crisis Kennedy and Khrushchev both agreed that some more efficient means of communications had to be found between Washington and Moscow in order to prevent future crises from escalating. This led to the installation of a "hotline" in which either the President of the United States could pick up a telephone and be immediately connected with his counterpart in the Soviet Union, or vice versa. Teachers may wish to have students read the memorandum that established this hotline, available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource The Avalon Project at Yale University. It might be worth asking why both sides might, as the result of the crisis, have considered this to be important. Having students look back at the correspondence between JFK and Khrushchev (see Activity #4)—paying particular attention to the fact that it took place over a seven-day period—might help them better understand the two men's reasoning.
Teachers might also wish to have students construct a timeline of the events surrounding the crisis. An online template for this is available at "Read-Write-Think." An excellent source of information to help students fill in the gaps is "The World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis," an online exhibit of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
3-4 class periods