The purpose of this paper is to analyze the reasons why the USSR decided to place missiles on Cuba causing the Caribbean crisis of 1962, the time when the world was the closest to the beginning of the nuclear war. The most striking proof of the level of fear created by that decision is the official memorandum “Relocation of dependents of personnel involved in the White House Emergency plan” (“Map of the United States Showing the Range of Missiles”). John Kennedy issued that memorandum, asking people working for the government and their families to leave Washington or, at least, be near the phone in anticipation of the news of the launch of missiles. Historians still argue about the main reason that led Khrushchev to put world peace in danger: it is most common to believe that multiple factors need to be considered to understand the main events of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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Khrushchev had always insisted that the single goal of the deployment of missiles on Cuba was the defense against the American invasion. Cuba was the only communist country so close to the USA, so Khrushchev genuinely wanted to protect Fidel Castro. However, the protection of the regime was, most likely, just an excuse: the Cubans agreed to the deployment of the missiles not for protection, but for strengthening the defense of the USSR and other communist countries. For the Cubans, as for all others, it was clear, that the creation of a nuclear missile base on an island ninety miles from the United States, increased the risk of the American invasion. Therefore, it is hard to believe Khrushchev’s only motive was to ensure the safety of the island.
Along with the protection of Cuba, it seems that Khrushchev simultaneously pursued another goal: to prove that the USSR was still a significant player in world politics and to gain back lost inferior vision of the country. Having medium-range missiles so close to the USA should have prevented the missile gap between the USSR and the USA, restoring the balance of power in the world (Andrew et al. 29). Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate the Soviet power and create conditions of political and military parity. He saw the deployment of the missiles as “an immediate solution to the strategic vulnerability problem at very little cost” (Lebow 19). The USSR did not have enough resources for a fight, so deployment was the last chance to achieve parity.
Through deploying missiles on Cuba, Khrushchev wanted to achieve recognition of the GDR, consolidation of the new status of West Berlin, and a serious improvement in the Soviet – American relations based on the detente and limitation of the arms race. He believed that it could help him reach new terms of negotiations and create an opportunity for an equitable compromise. Khrushchev wanted to be perceived as a strong leader, not scared of making bold moves: his risky actions were more about making a point rather than starting an actual war with the USA (Scott 39). He never thought of ordering a nuclear strike on the United States: he realized that at the time the United States had all the power to defeat the Soviet Union and more than half of its population.
International relations paradigms could help to understand the motives of the USSR government further. One can argue that the decision to deploy missiles in Cuba came from the realist philosophy: the USSR was looking out for its interests first, even though it had to put the wellbeing of the whole world in jeopardy. Realism suggests that competition between states is the primary driver of their decisions, and the Cold War between the USSR and the USA is an excellent example of that claim (McGlinchey 7). Both countries were trying to gain as much political and military power as possible, willing to engage in risky policies. However, the liberal approach explains the solution to the conflict: the countries were able to sit down and negotiate, leading to the deescalating and reaching an agreement that prevented a global catastrophe. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy recognized the possible devastating effects of nuclear war and signed the deal in which the USA pledged not to attack Cuba if they dismantle the weapon sites (“Cuban Missile Crisis”). After the Cold War, the liberal approach gained popularity and became one of the primary considerations in the international relations decisions for every country.
Throughout the post-war period and even now many Americans believe that with the Soviet Union (now Russia), negotiation is only possible from a position of power. Khrushchev thought the same about the Americans. He believed that they are too strong and too self-confident: it was impossible to talk like equals, without demonstrating power. Therefore, both goals – protection of Cuba and the change of the strategic balance – probably merged into his mind as a single goal of showing to America that there had been a radical shift in power and the USSR could fight back.
Andrew, Christopher, et al., editors. An International History of the Cuban Missile Crisis: a 50-Year Retrospective. Routledge, 2015.
“Cuban Missile Crisis”. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Web.
Lebow, Richard Ned, editor. Richard Ned Lebow: Key Texts in Political Psychology and International Relations Theory. Springer International Publishing, 2016.
McGlinchey, Stephen, et al., editors. International Relations Theory. E-International Relations, 2017.
Map of the United States Showing the Range of Missiles. National Archieves Catalog, Web.
Scott, Leonard V., and R. Gerald Hughes, editors. The Cuban Missile Crisis: a Critical Reappraisal. Routledge, 2016.