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Robert McNamara & the Cuban Missile Crisis

Instructor: Jason McCollom
President John F. Kennedy's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, played a key role in confronting the Cuban Missile Crisis. Learn about the crisis and the ways in which McNamara shaped America's response.

Cuba and the Cold War

The Cuban Missile Crisis was part of a broader global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasting from the end of World War II through the late 1980s. This so-called Cold War was a fierce ideological battle and confrontation between the U.S.--which represented democratic capitalism--and the Soviet Union--which represented communism. The Americans looked to confront and roll back communism across the world.

The Cold War heated up in the early 1960s. While running for president in 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy proclaimed 'The enemy is the Communist system itself--implacable, insatiable, increasing in its drive for world domination…This is not a struggle for supremacy of arms alone. It is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.' And this type of anticommunist fervor in the U.S. was taken to new heights when in 1959 Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, a Caribbean island only 90 miles from Florida. Soon after, Castro proclaimed himself a communist and he reached out to forge an alliance with the Soviets.

Robert McNamara and the Cold War

As Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara was one of Kennedy's most trusted advisors. McNamara was the President's spokesperson on affairs of national defense, and he convinced Kennedy to spend more money for military purposes, in order to gain the upper hand in the Cold War. Kennedy's Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles noted that McNamara and other national security advisors were 'full of belligerence…sort of looking for a chance to prove their muscle.'

President Kennedy and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
kennedy and mcnamara

However, McNamara also had a belief that if a nuclear war were to break out between the U.S. and the Soviets, it could be managed rationally and contained. McNamara believed a nuclear strike could be directed towards 'the destruction of the enemy's military forces, not of his civilian population.' This belief would soon be tested during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Kennedy, McNamara, and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In the summer of 1962, the Soviets began placing offensive missiles in Cuba. Major American cities were well within the range of these weapons. More alarmingly were the 9 tactical missiles with nuclear warheads. When American reconnaissance flights verified the placement of the Soviet missiles, Kennedy, McNamara, and the American people braced for a potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union. On October 16, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis began to unfold.

President Kennedy immediately set up an 'Executive Committee,' referred to as 'ExComm,' to deal with the crisis. ExComm included high-ranking officials, especially Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. For the next 13 tense days, October 16-28, ExComm debated America's response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Americans held their collective breath.

President Kennedy meets with members of ExComm. McNamara is seated to the left of Kennedy.
exComm meeting

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