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How Far Was the Dispute over Berlin 1958-1961 a Primary Cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

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The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is frequently described as the moment the cold war turned hot. Many believe that this thirteen-day period was the closest the world came to nuclear conflict. This essay will focus on the primary causes of the Soviet Union placing missiles on Cuba: closing the missile gap, trying to force the issue of Berlin or to protect Cuba. The essay will focus on many individual factors, such as the Berlin blockade, and will attempt to answer one of the most controversial questions in the Cold war period.

The Berlin dispute was a pivotal factor throughout the cold war period and should be considered a primary cause of the Cuban crises. West Berlin was a enclave deep in East Germany. Its very existence repudiated the East German government’s claim to be the legitimate government of all of Germany. In 1948 and 1958 war had seemed near as the Soviet Union tried to force the west out. In 1961 the Berlin Wall had been built to prevent a mass exodus from East to West Germany, this was humiliating for the Soviets. Yet Khrushchev still wished to remove the western presence totally. Stalin was forced to resort to trapping people in East Berlin to stop them from escaping, not the best propaganda image for communism. The Soviet leadership was clearly intent on protecting Soviet interests at this juncture and viewed the west with increasing suspicion. It was a catalyst to conflict between the west and communist states and therefore a possible cause of the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev may have placed missiles in Cuba to use them as a bargaining tool with the US in hope that discussions would lead to the West staying out of Berlin, in exchange for the removal of the missiles in Cuba.

Khrushchev believed that by placing missiles on Cuba he would force the west out of Berlin. If the U.S. did strike at the missiles, it would give the Soviets an excuse to attack U.S. outposts closer to the Soviet Union. The one outpost that most concerned the EX COMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council was a body of United States government officials that convened to advise President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis)was West Berlin, where the Soviet Union had built a wall one year earlier. The missiles could be employed either to deter the Americans from declaring war or be used for bargaining purposes. Kennedy regarded this as Khrushchev’s main motives. Kennedy surmised that Khrushchev knew the placing of missiles was too big a risk just to restore the balance of power; he must have been using them to solve the Berlin problem.

Since Berlin was strategically more important than Cuba, the trade would be a win for Khrushchev. President Kennedy recognized this, “The advantage is, from Khrushchev’s point of view, he takes a great chance but there are quite some rewards to it.” It would appear that Khrushchev saw Cuba as a political pawn and that the Berlin dispute was a prime factor the Soviet Union’s decision to place missiles on Cuba. Khrushchev needed to restore Soviet dignity after the Berlin crisis and the country’s international recognition especially with the Chinese who thought that the Soviets were trying to appease the Americans. Hostility between the East and the West, evidenced by the construction of the Berlin Wall, was a causal link in Khrushchev’s decision to place missiles on Cuba; heightening the threat of nuclear war and resulting in the Cuban missile crisis.

While the Berlin dispute was a likely cause of the missile crisis, there are other factors to consider (some of them linked to the Berlin issue). Another possible reason as to why the Soviet Union decided to place missiles on Cuba was to re-establish the balance of missile power. Kennedy announced that he would increase the number of missiles and warheads that could be launched against the Soviet Union. By the end of 1962, the United States had ten times more missiles and warheads than the Soviet Union. Soviet analysts believed the U.S. military build-up was the preparation for a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, or at least an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union. Given the US build-up of weaponry – an aggressive move and a clear threat to Russia and its satellites– it is logical to assume that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba to try and prevent nuclear attack from the Americans. Given Khrushchev’s desire to improve his country’s international standing (and his sense of humiliation in relation the west’s actions in Berlin), he may have also felt the need to stand up to America and to show that the Soviet Union was not a country to be cowed.

Clearly, the missile gap favoured the United States. In 1962 the Soviets had only 20 ICBM’s compared with US’s 180. The US also had twice as many nuclear submarines and Soviet missiles. The US not only had a far greater missile advantage but they also had the first strike advantage. Deploying the Soviet missiles on Cuba could be considered a means of going some way to re-addressing this balance of power with the USA, but it was in fact another factor that led to the missile crisis.

It wasn’t just the missile gap that was frustrating the Soviets; the biggest blow to the Soviet Union’s military confidence was the placement of US Jupiter missiles in Turkey in 1961, on Russia’s border. The missiles became operational in 1962, under the Kennedy administration. The missiles were not the strongest missiles in America’s vast arsenal, but they could still pack a punch. They were also regarded as inaccurate and took hours to fire, but they were “provocative.” Clearly the Soviets did not want missiles right outside their front door even if they weren’t the best America had. The Soviet’s might have placed missiles in Cuba to level the playing field, Russia had missiles on it’s border and now so did America, this means that Russia were no longer at a disadvantage, both countries were of equal footing. Khrushchev also could have used the missiles as a bargaining point. Russia desperately wanted the missiles to be removed from Turkey and America was eager to get rid of the Cuban missiles. Khrushchev would have hoped that putting the missiles in Cuba might have lead to both countries removing the missiles from Turkey and Cuba reducing the tension between the two superpowers. Unfortunately placing the missiles in Cuba generated more tension and was significant factor for the cause of the missile crisis.

The Soviets felt that they needed to protect themselves and redress the balance of power, but another reason that is commonly used to explain the decision to put missiles on Cuba was for Cuba’s defence. Cuba was very important to the Soviets, it was the only western country to turn communist during the cold war and therefore Khrushchev wanted to show the west that communism could thrive anywhere, especially after the Berlin crisis, which made communism out to be an oppressive regime. Khrushchev even stated that if Cuba was lost, “ it would be a terrible blow to Marxism.”

Khrushchev had many reasons to believe that Kennedy was threatening Cuba. The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, despite its failure, did show America’s intent on overthrowing Fidel Castro. Kennedy believed that Castro endangered the whole western hemisphere and had to be stopped. In 1991 President Eisenhower told Kennedy that “the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do.” This is true the Soviet’s might have used the bay of pigs as an excuse to place missiles in Cuba in order to protect it. The Bay of Pigs also frightened Castro, causing him to make concessions to the U.S.S.R, which wanted to place military bases on the island of Cuba. In addition, there was Operation Mongoose.

This operation involved terrorist attacks inside Cuba: stores and factories were bombed, fields were burned, and sugar exports were contaminated. It included the start of the economic embargo against Cuba, which continues today. Operation Mongoose aimed to harass and undermine the communist regime in Cuba. There was also a military operation named Ortsac, which was a trial run for an invasion of Cuba. In February 1962, renewed attacks against Cuba by CIA-trained commandos seemed to indicate that the United States were prepared to act aggressively against Cuba, thereby undermining Soviet interests. Despite these missions being secret special assistant Raymond L. Garthoff stated, “ it was not surprising that Cuba and Soviet leaders feared an American attack on Cuba.”

Protecting Communist Cuba played a part in the decision to place missiles in Cuba. Cuba was vital in regaining communist dignity after the Berlin crisis. The country also showed the world that even in the west, communism could thrive. Soviet credibility would have suffered significantly if the leadership permitted Cuba to be invaded by the United States. The attacks, and the suspension of Cuba from the Organization of American States, appeared to be a forewarning of such an invasion. Given the circumstances, it would have been hard for Khrushchev not to place missiles in Cuba. The sabre rattling actions of the Americans and the Soviets, which were borne out of suspicion and fear (the Americans were fearful of the spread of communism), were designed to protect the interests of both countries. However, it was inevitable that these actions would lead to escalation as no one sign could climb down. Hence, protecting communist Cuba should be considered a main reason for the missile crisis.

To fully understand American antipathy toward Cuba it is important to go back further: The Cuban revolution in 1959. Castro felt that Cuba was American dominated. Cuba was a conveniently close, tourist resort; and low paid Cuban labour made it an attractive investment area, much of the island’s agriculture and industry being American-owned. Castro felt that he needed to harm US interests if he was to tackle the dire issues in Cuba such as poverty, ill-health and illiteracy’s. As a result he revolted against the humiliating position. The US was further angered when Castro’s nationalistic speeches became increasingly anti-American until America could no longer tolerated Castro, “The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US.”

This eventually led to Castro turning to communism in the face of US hostility. Economic sanctions and the US trade embargo were imposed on Cuba in 1962. The trade embargo would have bankrupted the island because exporting sugar to America was Cuba’s biggest money earner. In 1960 Castro referred to himself as a socialist not a communist and there was no real intention of teaming up with communist Russia. However the trade embargo brought the two countries together as Russia stepped in to by Cuba’s sugar and other exports. The actions of America as a result of Castro’s Cuban revolution drove Cuba towards Communism and in the long run lead to the Cuban missile crisis.

In addition, Khrushchev may have placed missiles on Cuba to prove to hard line communists like China that they weren’t being soft on capitalism. Khrushchev faced a lot of opposition from hard liners who accused him of being weak and appeasing the Americans. Khrushchev was desperate to maintain the relationships the Soviets had with other Communist countries like China and the only way they could keep this friendship going was to assert Soviet dominance and prove that communism does not back down to the West. Linked to other factors such as the Berlin dispute and US actions in Cuba, this could have been another reason for the placement of missiles on Cuba and the cause of the missile crisis. Russia’s relationship with China was strained during this cold war period. Increasing competition between Beijing and Moscow for influence in the Third World and the international communist movement intensified and soured relations. Placing missiles on America’s doorstep would certainly make this abundantly clear; a factor which may have resulted in Khrushchev placing missiles in Cuba causing the missile crisis.

Another factor that needs to be addressed when discussing causes of the Cuban missile crisis is economic conditions in the Soviet Union. Russia was spending a huge amount of money on its nuclear weapons program, roughly 2.4 billion dollars spent per annum. This constant expenditure was hard to maintain and the Soviets needed a way to reduce the spending. Khrushchev hoped that placing missiles in Cuba would stop the nuclear arms race with America; result in a level playing field so that the risks would be too great for either side to make a move. This would mean a reduction in Russia’s overall cost of nuclear defences and allow spending in other areas. The economic issue could be considered a powerful reason why missiles were placed on Cuba. Far too much money was being pumped into nuclear weapons, which could have been spent on education, or improving living conditions for the Russians. As well as this more money was needed to strengthen Soviet control over satellite states so Russia could be seen as a credible power. Possibly Khrushchev thought he could put an end to the nuclear arms race by putting missiles on Cuba, but it just became another factor that lead to an escalation in conflict and eventually the Cuban missile crisis.

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962, President Kennedy was regarded as malleable and weak by the Soviets, one Soviet adviser wrote, “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations.” The EX COMM believed that Kennedy had not been firm enough with the Soviet leader in their 1961 summit meeting in Vienna. Placing the missiles on Cuba may have been a way of testing how strong a president Kennedy was – an opportunity to see how Kennedy reacted in the face of danger. Khrushchev was an adventurer who was testing the United States in general and Kennedy in particular. If the United States accepted the missiles in Cuba, it would only encourage the Soviet Union to act aggressively elsewhere. Khrushchev hadn’t previously thought about trying to spread communist influence across the volatile area of South America. He may have seen Cuba as a perfect way to start the process. This seems like a possible motive for putting the missiles in Cuba because if the world’s largest military superpower didn’t react badly to missiles being placed on the border, would any other country? A benign response from the US would have given Khrushchev confidence to do the same in other countries and begin communist expansion in South America. Khrushchev’s plan of testing Kennedy could have been a main reason leading up to the Cuban missile crisis.

A related motive would be to embarrass the United States and undermine U.S. credibility, making the Soviets appear much wiser and communism a more attractive prospect for some countries, especially after the humiliation of the Berlin blockade. Also Khrushchev may have wanted to lure the young, vulnerable president into a nuclear war against the Soviet Union which had a much more experienced leader. This seems plausible because there was no attempt by the Soviet’s to hide the missiles, they were so easy to spot by the American spy planes that it seemed like they were placed there just to provoke America and draw them further into a nuclear war. Creating tension by placing the missiles in Cuba to provoke America would have led to increased hostility between the two countries and the Cuban missile crisis.

There are many different historical perspectives of the main causes of the Cuban missile crisis. One perspective is that the main causes of the Cuban missile crisis were related to Khrushchev’s deliberately provocative placement of the missiles in Cuba to try and drag America into a nuclear war. This view is clearly shown in the film ‘Thirteen days’ by Nancy Russell. It portrays the Russians to be warmongers who are intent on destroying America. It doesn’t focus on what the Soviet’s hope to achieve by putting missiles on Cuba, only anti-communist American assumptions. John Lewis Gaddis talks about this in ‘The Cold War’: “but Kennedy and his advisers knew nothing of Khrushchev’s reasoning.” This quote shows that the president and his advisors were unaware of Soviet motives for placing the missiles in Cuba and just thought Khrushchev was looking for a fight.

Gaddis acknowledges that Khrushchev had his motives and was not just provocative, he shows this also in ‘The cold war’, “ just what it feels like you have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.” Gaddis uses this quote to show that Khrushchev was unhappy with the Jupiter missiles in turkey aimed at Russia. It shows a different perspective that maybe Khrushchev was using the missiles for bargaining purposes to reach equilibrium with the United States. There is also the Cuban perspective; some Historians think that the missile crisis was caused by the oppressive American grip on Cuba that dominated the way of life there. This resulted in the Cuban revolution and Castro finding an alternative trading partner with the Soviet’s, a powerful backdrop to growing conflict between the US and the Soviet Union and a convincing trigger of the Cuban missile crisis.

To conclude, I don’t believe the primary cause of the Cuban missile crisis was the Berlin dispute. I agree that it could have been a contributory factor in the sense that the Soviet administration might have been looking for a bargaining chip with the US to remove the west from Berlin, and also to reduce military expenditure, which was crippling the Soviet economy. But I believe that it was the Soviet Union’s desire to protect a fellow communist state, Cuba, while defending its own personal interests, that was the prime factor that triggered subsequent events that ultimately led to the missile crisis. In memoirs written after being ousted as Soviet leader in 1964, Khrushchev claimed that he was primarily motivated by the desire to defend the Cuban revolution, and his ally Fidel Castro, from aggression by the United States, such as the Bay of Pigs disaster. Khrushchev later wrote, “One thought kept hammering away in my brain: what will happen if we lose Cuba? It will be a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism.”

There were many other important factors that definitely led to the crisis, such as the Jupiter missiles in Turkey. This infuriated Khrushchev – he had to be seen to be reacting to the US, at home and internationally – and US actions may have forced his hand and led him to place missiles on Cuba; the Soviet premier thought it was “high time America learned what it feels like to have her own land and her own people threatened.” In addition, Khrushchev was determined to be on equal footing with the United States and did not want Russia to fall behind in the arms race. Khrushchev thought that by placing missiles in Cuba he would be able to redress this military imbalance, to degree. Ultimately, suspicion and the desire to defend an ideology resulted in a build-up of tensions between both nations. Cuba was the poster child of communism – to be defended and propagated at all costs by the Soviets. So much so that the Soviet nation was willing to risk all. As presidential aide and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. declared, the Cuban Missile crisis was, “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

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