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The Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations Reevaluated: Why Was Cuba a Crisis?

  • Richard Ned Lebow

Abstract

For more than a quarter of a century, there have been two diametrically opposed points of view about why Cuba was a crisis and why it was resolved. The traditional interpretation, enshrined in the writings of Theodore C. Sorensen, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Elie Abel, describes the Cuban missiles as an intolerable provocation.1 President John F. Kennedy had to compel the Soviet Union to withdraw the missiles to defend the balance of power, preserve NATO, and convince Nikita S. Khrushchev and the world of American resolve. Sorensen, Schlesinger, and Abel laud the “quarantine” as the optimal strategy, depict the outcome of the crisis as an unqualified American triumph, and attribute it to Kennedy’s skill and tenacity. The revisionist interpretation, primarily associated with the writings of I. F. Stone, Ronald Steel, and Barton J. Bernstein, contends that Kennedy needlessly risked war for domestic political gain. Revisionists condemn the blockade as irresponsible and explain the resolution of the crisis as the result of Soviet moderation and American good luck.2

Keywords

Foreign Policy Central Intelligence Agency Domestic Politics Ballistic Missile Traditional Interpretation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York, 1965); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston, 1965); Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (Philadelphia, 1966).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The best revisionist critiques are I. F. Stone, “The Brink,” New York Review of Books, 14 April 1966; Ronald Steel, “End Game,” review of Thirteen Days by Robert Kennedy, New York Review of Books, 13 March 1969; James A. Nathan, “The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now,” World Politics 27, no. 2 (January 1975): 265–81; Barton J. Bernstein, “The Week We Almost Went to War”, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 32, no. 2 (February 1976): 12–21; and idem, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey?” Political Science Quarterly 95, no. 1 (1980): 97–125. See Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston, 1982), 235–74, for a more recent revisionist critique.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 7.
    Theodore C. Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy (New York, 1969), 187.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    For a recent argument to this effect see David A. Welch and James G. Blight, “An Introduction to the Excomm Transcripts,” International Security 12 (Winter 1987–88): 25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 22.
    Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy, (Garden City, NY, 1967), 196.Google Scholar
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  7. 28.
    Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment (New York, 1977), 74–95. For its application to foreign policy see Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis, (Baltimore, 1981); and Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein, Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore, 1985), chaps. 3–4, 9.Google Scholar
  8. 40.
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  9. 42.
    Richard Ned Lebow, “Provocative Deterrence: A New Look at the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Arms Control Today 18 (July–August 1988), 15–16; Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, rev. ed. (Washington, 1989), 6–42; Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War (forthcoming), chap. 4.Google Scholar
  10. 43.
    Ernest R. May, Lessons of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York, 1973), for the relevance of the 1930s to American intervention in Vietnam; and Richard Ned Lebow, “Generational Learning and Foreign Policy,” International Journal 40 (Autumn 1985): 556–85, for a broader treatment of the lessons of the 1930s and their relevance to postwar American foreign policy.Google Scholar
  11. 44.
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  12. 46.
    Sorensen, Kennedy, 549; Hugh Sidey, “What the K’s Really Said To Each Other,” Life, 16 June 1961, 48–49; Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, trans. Strobe Talbott (Boston, 1974), 491–98.Google Scholar
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  14. 50.
    For a fuller discussion of these incidents and a critique of the argument that they influenced Khrushchev’s judgment of Kennedy’s resolve, see Richard Ned Lebow, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly,” Political Science Quarterly 98, No. 3 (Autumn 1983): 431–58, and Lebow and Stein, We All Lost the Cold War, chap. 4, which makes use of the latest Soviet sources.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 54.
    Several Kennedy advisers spent two days trying unsuccessfully to draft a letter. They were unable to find a way of expressing American indignation and the demand that the missiles be removed in a manner that would not provoke the kind of crisis the letter was meant to avoid. Theodore C. Sorensen’s notes of the 18 October 1962 ExComm meeting, 1, and “Memorandum,” 17 October 1962, 1–4; Sorensen, Kennedy, 683; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston, 1978), 513.Google Scholar
  16. 55.
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    Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929–69 (New York, 1969), 491–92; Sorensen’s notes of the 18 October 1962 ExComm meeting, 1, and “Memorandum,” 17 October 1962, 1–4; Sorensen, Kennedy, 683; Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times, 513.Google Scholar
  18. 65.
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  20. 72.
    Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, 1987), 87.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James A. Nathan 1992

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  • Richard Ned Lebow

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