President Kennedy’s Decision to Impose a Blockade in the Cuban Missile Crisis: Building Consensus in the ExComm After the Decision

  • Elizabeth Cohn


According to most accounts of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba in response to the discovery of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) on October 16, 1962 was based on the debate and consideration given the matter by the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). Newly released documentation of the decision-making process, however, raises doubts about the traditional analyses.2 These declassified documents show, first, that well before President Kennedy’s announcement on October 22 to initiate a blockade, the U.S. government had already developed contingency plans for military actions against Cuba. These actions, known as OPLAN 312, OPLAN 314, and OPLAN 316, included a blockade, invasion, or air strike. In addition, the declassified documents indicate that a decision was made as early as October 1, 1962 to reconfigure the Atlantic Fleet in preparation for a blockade, ordered to be complete by October 20. Two days later, on October 3, the ships began to be moved into position.3 Thus, as of October 3 the necessary ships were already moving into place for a possible blockade against Cuba.


Building Consensus Contingency Operation Friday Morning National Security Council Military Adviser 
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  1. 3.
    Secretary of State Dean Rusk, however, in an interview 25 years after the crisis, stated that he knew nothing of these contingency plans. “‘I don’t recall any [U.S. military preparations] that preceded the location of the missiles in Cuba,’ Rusk said. He added that he presumed the readiness steps outlined in the CINCLANT report represented ‘normal contingency planning’ but that it was ‘theoretically possible’ that the State Department was deliberately excluded from military planning that took place ‘outside of cabinet channels.’” (James G. Hershberg, “Before ‘The Missiles of October,’” Diplomatic History 14, no. 2, Spring 1990, p. 192).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 8.
    For the most complete account see James G. Hershberg, “Before ‘The Missiles of October’: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike Against Cuba?” Diplomatic History 14, no. 2, Spring 1990, pp. 163–198. Hershberg argues that what prompted U.S. contingency operations was the Kennedy administration’s eagerness for Castro’s downfall, not the Soviet military buildup.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 19.
    Kennedy preferred advice from ad hoc groups, rather than from an established bureaucracy. Kennedy thought of himself as decisive, able to make his own decisions. For more on this see David Detzer, The Brink (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), pp. 101–102.Google Scholar
  4. 29.
    Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), pp. 203–204.Google Scholar
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    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 831.Google Scholar
  6. 31.
    Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 691. Roger Hilsman corroborates this impression. See Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation (New York: Dell, 1964), p. 204.Google Scholar
  7. 32.
    David Detzer, p. 145. See also Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), pp. 21–22, and Frank Sieverts, “The Cuban Crisis, 1962,” August 22, 1963, p. 60.Google Scholar
  8. 34.
    Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1972), p. 318.Google Scholar
  9. 44.
    Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966), p. 94.Google Scholar
  10. 50.
    Dean Acheson, “Dean Acheson’s Version of Robert Kennedy’s Version of the Cuban Missile Affair,” Esquire, vol. 71, no. 2, February 1969, p. 77.Google Scholar
  11. 52.
    Richard E. Neustadt, “White House and Whitehall,” The Public Interest, no. 2, Winter 1966, p. 64.Google Scholar
  12. 54.
    A complete listing of books on the missile crisis is unnecessary here, but others that emphasize the importance of the ExComm are Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971); Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), pp. 57, 200; David Detzer, The Brink (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979); and Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation (New York: Dell, 1964), pp. 194–206.Google Scholar
  13. 56.
    Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, David A. Welch, “Essence of Revision,” International Security 14, no. 3 (Winter 1989/1990), p. 159. See also David A. Welch and James G. Blight, “The Eleventh Hour of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security 12, no. 3 (Winter 1987/1988), pp. 15–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  15. 63.
    See Irving L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.Google Scholar
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    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978), p. 511.Google Scholar
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    See Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1960). Kennedy was a great admirer of Neustadt’s ideas about the qualities of a good president.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© James A. Nathan 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Cohn

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