Kennedy’s Diplomacy in Cuba During the Cold War

The Cold War era was characterized by adversity between the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. The Eastern Bloc was led by the Soviet Union while the Western one by the United States. While these two Superpowers never engaged in direct combat, they carried out a number of proxy wars and adopted policies aimed at preventing the other side from expanding its sphere of influence. One of the US presidents who engaged in policies aimed at stopping the Communist ideology supported by the Soviet Union was J.F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s approach for containing the Soviets involved committing US resources to regions that were under the threat of Soviet influence. One situation that required US diplomatic efforts during President Kennedy’s rule was stopping Cuba from being a communist State.

Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean that was established as a Spanish Colony and gained its independence in 1902. This independence was obtained through significant US assistance. Bates and Joshua (1998) document that the Cuban Administration that took power was pro-American and as such, the US administration had great control and influence over Cuba. However, the pro-American government was unpopular among the citizens and in 1952 armed rebellions broke out in the country leading to the Cuban Revolution. This revolution continued for 7 years and it ended with the establishment of Castro’s regime in 1959.

Castro’s government was friendly with the Eastern Bloc and Fidel Castro legalized the Communist party. This Cuban leader made a number of significant economic deals with the Soviet Union leading to negative criticism from the US. As of 1960, Cuba had established itself as a country that was friendly with the Soviet Union. The US was opposed to this since it did not wish for a neighboring communist state (Pessen, 1990).

On May 7, 1960, Castro publicly announced that his government had started diplomatic relations with the USSR. Phillips (2007) asserts that this effectively placed an outpost of Soviet-style communism a mere 90 miles from the US city of Miami. By the time Kennedy was taking over presidency, the US was looking for ways to remove the Castro regime (Roskin & Berry, 2010). Replacing Castro’s administration was seen as the only way to remove Soviet influence in the Caribbean State.

President J.F. Kennedy made use of the doctrine of guerrilla warfare in response to communist expansion in Cuba. Specifically, the president authorized the Bay of Pig invasion, which was meant to topple Castro’s regime and install a pro-American government. The plan to invade Cuba and overthrow had been put in place by Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower (Pessen, 1990). President Kennedy had the option to carry out the plan or make use of other policies to deal with the Cuban problem. J.F. Kennedy chose to authorize the covert invasion of Cuba by some 1400 armed Cuban counter-revolutionaries.

The US government had trained and armed the Cuban rebels who were expected to carry out the attack on Cuba. These American sponsored Cuban rebels were supposed to begin a fight that would trigger a revolution. Dunne (2011) reveals that the rebels’ key objectives were to overthrow Castro and subsequently form a provisional government to appeal for recognition and military aid from the US. Kennedy’s Administration was ready to move in and support this pro-American regime. Thus implementing Kennedy’s Guerrilla Warfare policy, some fourteen hundred anti-Castro commandos carried out an invasion on 17 April 1961 (Smith, 1995).

The doctrine employed by Kennedy to the Cuban situation led to a major disaster. Bates and Joshua (1998) document that the invasion turned into a catastrophic failure as the American backed revels were defeated by Castro’s troops. The Cuban Army was able to capture and imprison 1,214 rebel fighters by the end of the war. Smith (1995) observes that Kennedy was humiliated by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. While the US had hoped to keep its involvement with the attempted plan to overthrow Castro secret, its participation was exposed. The Kennedy Administration was condemned by the international community for trying to dispose a legitimate leader (Bates & Joshua, 1998).

US influence in Latin America was damaged by the actions in Cuba. Despite having poor relations with the US, Cuba enjoyed good relationships with other countries in Latin America. Before the invasion, the US had tried to round up support within the western hemisphere against Cuba. However, the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) did not support any action against Cuba since they considered Castro to be a popular ruler. Kennedy’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs demonstrated that the US was willing to use its resources to promote its agenda in the Americas. The Latin American countries were opposed to this and they therefore tried to reduce US influence. As such, the doctrine used in Cuba led to a loss of US hegemony in Latin America.

The efforts by the US in Cuba had a number of significant effects. President Kennedy’s actions led to increased support for Castro in Cuba. Castro’s revolutionary government was experiencing some opposition in Cuba since it was a single-party political system. The government was suppressing civil liberties and controlling the trade unions in the country. Anti-Castro rebel groups sprung up in Cuba and they tried to carry out a counter-revolution against the Castro Administration.

The Bay of Pigs demonstrated that the US was the main power behind the anti-government revolutionary groups. The US emerged as the imperial power that was trying to control and exploit Cuba. This message was well received by the Cubans since Castro had conducted the revolution in the name of anti-imperialism. According to Phillips (2007), the actions by Kennedy allowed Castro to consolidate his power. The legitimacy of Castro’s administration was therefore increased due to the attacks. In addition to support from Cubans, Dunne (2011) notes that Castro gained increased popular support throughout Latin America.

The diplomatic efforts by the US effectively turned Cuba into a fully communist state. Following the invasion, Castro called on the Soviet Union to protect his country. In response to this, the Soviet Union increased its support of Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime. This support was in the form of economic grants and military equipment. The level of direct Soviet involvement in Cuba also increased significantly after the attempted invasion. Phillips documents that by December 1961, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned that he would “defend Cuba against American aggression, even to the point of thermonuclear war” (p.18). The attempt to prevent Cuba from being a communist state was therefore a complete failure.

In spite of its failure in the Cuban care, the doctrine followed by Kennedy had some significant advantages. To begin with, it did not involve the deployment of US troops on a neighboring country. Instead, the US made use of Cuban rebels and a few US CIA operatives. This ensured that the public backlash against the Kennedy administration was not great following the failure of the plan. Dunne (2011) notes that since the number of American lives lost in the invasion was minimal, there was little public outrage over the use of this doctrine. Another advantage of this doctrine was that it was relatively cheap to carry out. Wars are expensive undertakings and a country can incur billions of dollars in a war.

During the Cuban invasion, US involvement was at a minimal. After only 3 days, Castro’s forces had defeated the rebels (Pessen, 1990). If the US had sent ground troops to Cuba, the war would have lasted for longer with significant cost to the US. Another merit of this doctrine was that it showed that the Kennedy Administration was willing to support those who would want to fight communism in their country.

A major disadvantage of this doctrine was that it prevented the US from using all the resources necessary to ensure victory. Arming rebels and providing them with training was not as effective as sending US forces to Cuba. Smith (1995) notes that the anti-Castro commandos who invaded the Bay of Pigs in Cuba lacked the capacity to conquer the Cuban army. As such, they were bound to fail unless they received significant military support form the US. Furthermore, the doctrine increased tensions between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc. Kennedy’s policy demonstrated that the US was focused on destroying Communist regimes. In retaliation, the Soviet Union increased its support for communist states therefore increasing tensions between the two blocs.


Bates, S., & Joshua, L.R. (1998). Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. Cambridge: John F. Kennedy School of Government. Web.

Dunne, M. (2011). Perfect Failure: the USA, Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, 1961. Political Quarterly, 82(3), 448-458. Web.

Pessen, E. (1990). Appraising American Cold War Policy by its Means of Implementation. Reviews in American History, 18(4), 22-30. Web.

Phillips, C. (2007). April 17, 1961: Bay of Pigs Invasion. American History, 42(1), 17-18. Web.

Roskin, M., & Berry, N. (2010). IR: The new world of international relations: 2010 edition (8th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Longman/Pearson Education. Web.

Smith, T.G. (1995). Negotiating with Fidel Castro: The Bay of Pigs prisoners and a lost opportunity. Diplomatic History, 19(1), 59-87. Web.

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