'I should have said we don't care': Kennedy, Cuba and the impossibility of having it all

Fifty Years Without JFK: Rethinking Global Diplomacy
Americas: Panel 2

'I should have said we don't care': Kennedy, Cuba and the impossibility of having it all.
Luca Trenta (Durham University)

The eighteen months separating the Bay of Pigs from the Missile Crisis remain a relatively unexplored territory. The surreal Operation Mongoose; the shadowy and (sometimes) ridiculous assassination attempts; the massive military exercises never intended (or so it seems) as prelude to invasion: these have generally baffled scholars. Not surprisingly, with few exceptions, the accounts provided have been unsatisfactory. Some have gone back to the old 'orthodox'/'revisionist' debate dominating the literature on the Kennedy Administration (Bohning and Talbot). Others have quickly dealt with these months only as the origins of the Missile Crisis (Dobbs), or the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs (Rasenberg). And more recently, some have focused on small details, such as the 'photo gap' (Barrett and Holland).

This paper builds largely on FRUS, National Security Archives and CIA documents to achieve two aims. First, the paper will contribute to the redressing of the balance in the literature, divided as it is between the hyper-studied 'thirteen days', and the under-studied eighteen months. Second, eschewing the 'orthodox'/'revisionist' debate, the paper will suggest that, dealing with Cuba, the Kennedy Administration faced an impossible conundrum for which it was largely responsible. President Kennedy's hostile posture towards Castro (adopted largely for political reasons) prevented any possibility of learning to live with Cuba. On the other hand, Kennedy also recognized the tremendous risks involved in an open confrontation with the Revolutionary government. The consequences of this conundrum were evident in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, with Kennedy imposing a series of limitations to maintain the 'deniability' of the operation. After the invasion, the paper will argue, with both the hostility towards Castro and the risks of escalation increasing, Kennedy failed to break free from this Cuban conundrum, repeatedly going back to the same mistake that had doomed the Bay of Pigs: the adoption of middle-of-the-way measures, too small to be effective, but too big to go unnoticed.

Concluding his analysis of the Bay of Pigs failure, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that the failure in Cuba in 1961 contributed to the success in Cuba in October of 1962. At a closer look it is safe to argue that the policies adopted by the Kennedy Administration between the Bay of Pigs and the Missile crisis demonstrated a failure in learning the most important lesson: 'you can't have it all'.

Institute for the Study of the Americas
Luca Trenta (Durham University)
Event date: 
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 - 12:00am
Download on iTunes