The Cuban Missile Crisis, chap. in Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War
By Alexander George
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Alexander George, "The Cuban Missile Crisis," chap. in Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991), pp. 31-37.
In the Fall of 1962 the Soviet Union deployed ballistic missiles into Cuba. U.S. President Kennedy employed coercive diplomacy successfully to compel the Soviet Union to remove the missiles. Kennedy opened with a "try-and-see" approach. He avoided presenting Khrushchev with a deadline for withdrawal. He implemented the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba in gradual, deliberate steps. However, these relatively weak steps were backed up by a substantial build-up of U.S. military forces. Khrushchev responded with similar restraint, promptly ordering further Soviet military vessels en route to Cuba to turn back. This opening strategy successfully avoided escalation into naval warfare.
George argues that three factors contributed to this opening strategy's success in preventing escalation. First, Kennedy limited his demands to removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Further demands would have only provoked greater Soviet resistance. Second, Kennedy limited the initial means of coercion to a blockade. The blockade did not involve the immediate use of force, and bought Kennedy time to try persuasion with the Soviets. Finally, both Khrushchev and Kennedy followed important operational principles of crisis management. Kennedy in particular sent clear and consistent signals to the Soviets, acted to slow the pace of the crisis, and signaled his strong preference for a peaceful resolution.
Although they had avoided a naval battle, the crisis intensified as Cuba shot down a U.S. spy plane, and the previously clear communications between the Soviets and the U.S. began to break down. Both sides felt that it was crucial to end the crisis before another U.S. plane was shot down. Kennedy shifted strategy from the "try-and-see" approach to issuance of an ultimatum, coupled with offering incentives for the Soviets to withdraw. Khrushchev accepted the offered deal.
George identifies some further factors which contributed to the final success of Kennedy's coercive diplomacy. First, Kennedy succeeded in convincing Khrushchev that the U.S. was more motivated to achieve the removal of the Cuban missiles that the Soviet Union was motivated to keep them in place. Second, both leaders feared the possibility of escalation into nuclear war. Next, there were no serious miscommunications or miscalculations. Where there were opportunities to avoid escalation both sides were prompt to seize them. Finally, the leaders' respective images of each other played significant roles in the choices and strategies each employed.