Case-Study of US Foreign Policy Process


On October 16, 1962 President John F. Kennedy received information from his National Security Advisor (NSA), McGeorge Bundy, regarding the Soviet MRBMs, or medium range ballistic missiles, placed in Cuba. The President instantly pulled together a group of 14-15 of his closest advisors known as the EXCOMM, or the Executive Committee of the National Security Council. What followed for the next thirteen days until October 28, 1962 was a series of intense discussions usually held in the Cabinet Room which centered on how to respond to this situation.[1]

EXCOMM MeetingThe President’s primary response included a naval blockade or “defensive quarantine” put into effect on October 20, 1962. In addition to the naval blockade, preparations for an all-out military action, including a massive airstrike followed by an invasion of Cuba along with other “diplomatic initiatives” under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations (UN), and Rio Treaty were also approved by the President on October 20, 1962. The air strike was to be implemented following the blockade on October 23, 1962.[2] However, thanks to Kennedy’s firm resolve to pursue a more peaceful course, and a firm leash on the military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a full-fledged military strike was finally not undertaken.

The objective of this essay is to demonstrate that President Kennedy was completely in command of the US foreign policy process during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that there were several factors influencing Kennedy’s decisions during this process. The seven major factors identified here in order to explain the President’s firm grip on the foreign policy process during the Cuban Missile Crisis were: (1) the constant fear of escalation, (2) perception of Khrushchev as a rational decision maker, (3) the Berlin issue, (4) the Bay of Pigs, (5) Kennedy’s control over the continuous flow of information, (6) the notion of morality, and (7) credibility of the response. In addition, I argue that Kennedy’s foreign policy process reflected the small group model, meaning that the foreign policy was an outcome of a small group of people (the EXCOMM and the President) who were formulating the policy process. This model underlined the need for secrecy, decisiveness in policy making, speed and an extraordinary degree of liquidity in the flow of information to and from the White House. Hence, the small group model strongly explained the President’s decision making style during the crisis.

Overall, the foreign policy process was very complex, but I characterize it in terms of how President Kennedy headed the process and the various elements he factored in when formulating his response. Walt Rostow, Counselor and Chairman of Policy Planning Council at the State Department, recalled that “people’s views changed: Monday was different from Tuesday, which was different from Wednesday. It was a dynamic human process. People worried to different degrees, depending on how surprised they were that the Russians did it.”[3] In sum, this essay aims to prove that President Kennedy constructed the foreign policy response during the Cuban Missile Crisis in light of its complexity and his control over the foreign policy process mirrored the small group model.

Kennedy’s Control on the Foreign Policy Process

The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated that President Kennedy was spearheading the foreign policy process through a constructive deployment of his advisors in the EXCOMM. The US response to the crisis was a product of the President using the EXCOMM as a “way of getting information and ideas out” as mentioned by Raymond Garthoff, Special Assistant for Soviet Bloc Political and Military Affairs, Department of State, who further noted that in addition to the “exchange and hashing out of ideas,” it was also a way of “giving everyone a chance to vent his ideas and to feel he was participating.”[4] President Kennedy initiated the EXCOMM to ensure secrecy and vitality in the decision making process. Pierre Saligner, White House press secretary, remarked that “President Kennedy created EXCOMM because he did not want the American people to know about the crisis until he has made a decision.”[5]

Also, in terms of maintaining momentum in the process, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, mentioned that “the president thought that it was well to let his principal subordinates—the secretaries of State and Defense, his National Security Adviser, and so on—meet on their own without his presence and debate these things (e.g., blockade versus military action) among themselves as a matter of gaining a consensus among his chief advisers.”[6] This reflected how the President maneuvered the EXCOMM to synthesize a viable response during the crisis.  Kennedy’s exercise of authority was further underlined by Roger Hilsman Jr, Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research, Department of State, who stated that “in the case of the Cuban missile crisis, it very quickly became clear to Kennedy that it was his baby, and he became the desk officer; he could not delegate this one. So, boy, he was on top right from the beginning.”[7]

This implied that the OAS, NATO, UN, and allies such as France and Britain had no influence over the foreign policy process. We find President Kennedy agreeing with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and NSA McGeorge Bundy in the very first EXCOMM meeting on October 16, 1962 where he stated that “I don’t know how much use consulting with the British… I expect they’ll just object. Just have to do it. Probably ought to tell them, though, the night before [U.S. announces its policy response].”[8] Hence, it appears that none of these players had any impact whatsoever on Kennedy’s decision. For instance, Theodore Sorenson, Special Counsel to the President, in his “Summary of Agreed Facts and Premises of October 17, 1962,” stated that it was generally agreed that NATO and “certain Latin nations” would be “notified” but “not consulted immediately prior to any action by the United States” and he further observed that the President “would hold announcing the existence of the missiles and the justification of our action until that action has been completed.”[9] Hence, the OAS, NATO and the others alike had no impact whatsoever on Kennedy’s decision.

Furthermore, through a telephone conversation on October 28, 1962, McGeorge Bundy explained to Philip De Zulueta, Private Secretary to the British Premier Harold Macmillan that, although the placement of the missiles posed a much greater military threat and political challenge to the US interests in Berlin and Turkey than to the rest of the OAS and NATO members, the US saw itself obliged to inform the allies “so that they may not be caught with the feeling that we are acting in this area, a limited area, in a way which is going to harm them without them having a chance to both to be informed and to advise.”[10] In short, the nature and the direction of the policy response during the Cuban Missile Crisis was determined by the Kennedy Presidency while the allies, including the OAS and NATO, were only informed about the US policy. Hence, it was a gesture of diplomatic courtesy on the part of Kennedy Administration, nothing more.

Role of the Congress and Domestic Factors

Concerning the role of Congress in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Congress did not play any role in terms of participation/involvement in the foreign policy making. In actuality, the Congress was initially critical of the President’s approach in resolving the crisis. That is, Congress declared Kennedy’s response to be weak and called for a much more aggressive approach on the part of the US in dealing with the Soviets. This was evident from a congressional briefing on October 22, 1962 when the Republicans criticized the Kennedy Administration’s response to the Soviet build up in Cuba to be insufficient and advocated for immediate all-out military action against the missile sites. The most vigorous and aggressive proponent for military action was the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Richard Russell, who criticized President Kennedy by saying that “you have told them not to do this thing. They’ve done it. And I think that we should assemble as speedily as possible an adequate force and clean out that situation.”[11] Although President Kennedy held firmly to his ground and chose to proceed with a blockade, the manner in which congressmen such as Senator Russell perceived the US response to the missiles in Cuba mirrored the fact that the Congress viewed Kennedy’s response to the crisis through a very critical lens.