The presidency of John F. Kennedy was perhaps the strongest one America has ever seen. It was defined by, and will forever be associated with, the Cuban Missile Crisis, an international calamity in the fall of 1962 that brought the world dangerously close to nuclear annihilation. As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war, President Kennedy demonstrated that he possessed the courage which he so admired and wrote about as “Grace under pressure.” He did this by being decisive in standing up against his military leaders who all were urging him to launch an invasion of Cuba, and his willingness to reach out to the Soviets and negotiate a win-win solution to the crisis (i.e., U.S. missiles out of Turkey in exchange for Russian missiles out of Cuba), all while following and upholding the U.S. Constitution that he had sworn to protect.
President Kennedy was born in Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. He was the second-oldest of nine children, and two of his younger brothers also became high-ranking government officials, with Robert F. Kennedy as his Attorney General at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis being the most noteworthy. President and Attorney General Kennedy’s had a close and trusting working relationship which was perhaps never better displayed than during the Crisis. President Kennedy implicitly acknowledged this truth when he was overheard by his aide David Powers during the Cuban Missile Crisis saying to himself, “Thank God for Bobby!”
On October 16, 1962, the American government learned that Soviet missile bases were being built in Cuba. The Soviets wanted a tactical leverage to hold over the U.S., and their new ally Cuba–which was strategically just 90 miles from the Floridian coast–offered them that opportunity. The close proximity would enable Soviet nuclear missiles positioned there to hit major U.S. cities on the East Coast within minutes.
After learning of this, President Kennedy immediately convened a group of trusted advisors–known as the ExComm–to debate
different strategies and offer recommendations for how he should handle the crisis. While some on the ExComm continued to urge an immediate attack on the missile bases, Attorney General Kennedy threw his support behind those who championed first using the option of a naval blockade or quarantine to stop further Russian supplies from entering Cuba. What the quarantine option also offered was much needed time for U.S.-Soviet negotiations to be conducted in order for a possible resolution of the crisis to be reached. Despite the relentless and ongoing pressure to attack Cuba from his military leaders, President Kennedy opted for the quarantine and for negotiations. This showed his courage and decisiveness, as President Kennedy had to take in all the data that his team was giving him and make an informed decision entirely on his own about the safety of his country that went against what many of his advisors were telling him to do. He made the important and risky decision to seek further negotiations, and thus, properly used his power as president to seek a peaceful resolution.
As the crisis escalated, however, the generals continued to urge the president to invade, much like they did the year earlier with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Deciding not to invade was the best decision President Kennedy could have made because, although no one at the time knew, the missiles in Cuba were already active and in place. It was only learned years later that if President Kennedy had in fact authorized an invasion during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba was thoroughly prepared to launch the nuclear missiles on America in retaliation, which would in turn open the door to nuclear annihilation.
The generals, just like at the Bay of Pigs, were once again wrong during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only thing that saved America was the young president’s ability to learn from his past experience, to lead, to be courageous and decisive, and to use his presidential power constitutionally to protect the safety of the American people and the world.
President Kennedy was tragically assassinated on November 22, 1963, only a little over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those that knew President Kennedy the best, who worked by his side during his years in the White House, Senate, and Congress, had much to say about his leadership. House speaker John William McCormack once said, “Surely no country ever faced more gigantic problems than ours in the last few years. And surely no country could have obtained a more able leader in a time of such crisis.” House Speaker McCormack was referring to the fact that The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most terrifying events to happen to any country at the time, and the U.S. would not have been able to get through it if they had anyone other than President Kennedy in the White House. As well, Senator Everett Dirksen, his long time colleague, had much to say to remember him by, “We saw him come to the Senate at age thirty-five. We saw him grow, we saw him rise. We saw him elevated to become the chief magistrate of this nation. And we saw him as the leader of both branches of this Republic, assembled to deliberate over common problems… He had vision that went beyond our own. His determination to effectuate a test-ban treaty is a living example. He was his own profile in courage, his unrelenting devotion to equality and civil rights attests that fact. He was devoted to our system of constitutional government.” Senator Dirksen acknowledged that President Kennedy was courageous and constitutional throughout all his years in politics, not just in the White House.
Ultimately, what President Kennedy brought to bear during the missile crisis was true presidential leadership. Because of his steady hand and his willingness to search for and achieve a peaceful resolution through negotiation, which included his secret agreement to withdraw US missiles from Turkey if the Russians would follow suit in Cuba, he is rightfully remembered and honored for his presidential leadership in protecting the lives of millions of people all over the world, while still upholding the Constitution. Surely the country that is so beloved today would be completely different, if it were even still standing, if someone else was in the White House at the time of the Crisis. President Kennedy is rightfully beloved and remembered largely because he was his own description of courage: he had grace under pressure.
By Rachel Suggs, Staff Writer