US Policy Of Containment – How Successful Was It In The Cuban Missile Crisis
One needs to go back to the period soon after the Second World War to understand the Policy of Containment. Immediately after the World War, large swathes of land came under the influence of either the US or the Soviet Union. Most of Eastern Europe had embraced communism under coercion from the Soviet Union in violation of the Yalta Agreement. This was viewed with extreme misgiving by US and the State Department began a scheme of rewarding countries that resisted communism.
The term “Containment” was coined by George Keenan in Feb 1946 while analysing Soviet foreign policy. In an article called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Keenan elaborated on the best ways of resisting and containing Soviet influence both militarily and politically. Later, President Truman accepted this theory of containment in order to “support free peoples” all over the world and wean them away from communism. After WWII, British influence in countries like Greece and Turkey, which had large communist groups, was ebbing and US strongly desired to keep them in its fold.
To keep communists out of power, US would support known dictators in spite of their terrible human rights record. The condition was no different in Cuba. Batista, who was the President, had allowed American corporations to buy land at undervalued rates and the workers there were paid very low wages. Oil exploration was under way and large blocks had been handed over to the US companies.
America turned a blind eye to the fact that Batista had no constitutional powers and his human rights record was abominable. All opposition to him was crushed and opponents disappeared without a trace. All this changed when Castro came to power after overthrowing Batista in a gorilla war. America banned trade with Cuba and Castro retaliated by nationalizing all American companies. They were compensated at the artificially low rates that Batista had earlier fixed to help the US corporations buy land. US hit back by cutting Cuba’s US sugar quotas which were immediately picked up by the Soviets.
Castro believed that an American attack was imminent and wanted to arm Cuba against such an eventuality. Though Castro claimed to be non-communist, his natural anti-imperial leanings brought him within the sphere of Soviet influence. The Bay of Pigs incident only served to confirm his worst fears. The US was determined to remove this communist leaning ruler from their doorstep. The CIA trained and armed Cuban expats who had fled when Castro came to power after overthrowing Batista. In April 1961, 1400 of them landed in Cuba expecting to be able to capture Castro and regain power. They had miscalculated the determination of the Cuban army and the strength of their resistance. The invasion was crushed and large numbers taken prisoners. It was clear to Castro that the resistance was orchestrated by the US.
The Soviets carefully cultivated Castro plying him with technical help and money to set up industries and infrastructure that had been neglected by Batista. The strategic importance of Cuba was not easy to miss. The Soviets were chafing under the loss of influence among the western world and this seemed to be a way to make up. The US had missiles positioned in Turkey from where they could hit USSR easily. But the Soviets had nothing comparable.
Soviets saw in Cuba a window of opportunity to place their missiles within striking distance of the US. It clandestinely moved missiles that be fitted with nuclear heads later. In August 31, 1962, the first announcements of a Soviet missile build up were made in America. On October 14, reconnaissance aircrafts picked up the first images of missiles stacked in the open. There was pressure mounting on President Kennedy to launch an air strike. But both he and his Soviet counterpart were aware of the catastrophic consequences of such a move.
Rather than launching an offensive, President Kennedy enforced a quarantine by which no ship was permitted to sail within 800 miles of the Cuban coast. Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged a series of letters following which while Soviet Union promised to remove the missiles placed in Cuba, President Kennedy announced that US would never invade Cuba.
There is much debate whether the Policy of Containment worked to the advantage of America during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There have been times when containment has been used as an alternative to war and also times when it has been used as a form of warfare. During the Cuban Crisis, containment of the Soviet ships carrying the missiles was used as an offensive tactic. The fear that US had was not of Cuba attacking it, but of the missiles placed there being launched into American territory. The naval blockade of Cuba was America’s way of stopping the deployment of the missiles.
The Policy of Containment worked in this instance as the Soviets fully believed that US would use all its power to enforce the blockade and if the Soviets used force to push its ships through, that move would be answered with aggression. Containment works only when a country works decisively and swiftly to stop the nation it identifies as the aggressor. It is not used instead of war but as a military tactic that is part of war.
The Policy of Containment failed during the Cuban crisis in so far as that Cuba remained entrenched within Soviet influence. The years of uncertainty only pushed Castro to declare himself a communist. US came to grudgingly acknowledge Castro’s determination to steer Cuba firmly away from all American influence. All forms of travel between the two countries remained suspended for several years. On the positive side the statesmanship of Kennedy and Khrushchev saw the day through and brought the world back from the edge of a nuclear cataclysm where it had teetered for six days. Rather than depend on telegrams and letters which saw inordinate delays during which much could go wrong, a hotline between the two capitals cities were established for fast communication.