Role in shaping the policies

Role in shaping the policies

What do the following extracts suggest about Robert Kennedy's role in shaping the policies of the John Kennedy administration toward Cuba? Answer in essay form with reference to three of the following extracts.

Robert Kennedy was one of the most important figures in calming a crisis which would have led to nuclear war. He was made attorney general by his brother, John Kennedy. This is because, as John Kennedy's brother, he was one of the most trusted cabinet members. He had three main roles to play in shaping policies toward Cuba. Firstly, as is shown by the source dated 4 October 1962, he helped to devise Operation Mongoose, which was an attempt to usurp Castro from power in Cuba. He was also a key member of the counter-insurgency group to help restrict Castro's influence. He also, eventually, favoured a blockade over an air strike and tried to persuade the cabinet why a blockade was more likely to avoid a war, which is evident in the source dated 21 October 1962. He also met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Russian Ambassador, which acted as a mediating role between The White House and the Kremlin, (24 October 1962). However, at times he was rather hawkish and shifted between views. As will be evident, he also made himself look like 'the saviour of mankind', which at times was exaggerated. Also, the three sources mentioned above do not really touch on this exaggeration, so they are limited to some extent. Thus, he helped shape policy towards Cuba, but at times the extent to which he did so can be questioned.

One of Robert Kennedy's key roles in shaping policies towards Cuba was helping to initiate and direct Operation Mongoose. According to White, the president had a direct link about the planning of Mongoose through is brother, Robert Kennedy.[1] Indeed, the 'memorandum of meeting on operation Mongoose, 4 October 1962', declares that the President was 'dissatisfied with the lack of action' and claimed that 'nothing was moving forward.' Firstly, this shows that Robert Kennedy did have a close link with his brother, in helping to shape policies towards Cuba. Moreover, the President assigned Robert Kennedy to the 'Special Group Augmented' (SGA), to enhance this link. Secondly, the fact is that this operation did not mount any notable operations. Their main aim was to use anti-communist Cubans to create a conspiracy within Cuba, however, this did not come into fruition. The larger picture was that the Bay of Pigs Operation before had been a disaster, as the non-Communist Cuban soldiers were killed by Castro's militia. Thus, it is unsurprising that Robert Kennedy made these statements, as he and the President were desperate to usurp Castro from power. Thus, this source shows Robert Kennedy as a pragmatic and demanding individual who wanted to get things moving.

This source also states that, Robert Kennedy instructed 'General Lansdale to consider.......more dynamic approaches.' Lansdale was a CIA member and thus was responsible with Robert Kennedy in organizing this Operation and helping to shape policies towards Cuba.[2] However, Hilsman suggests that Lansdale was unpopular and so he and Robert Kennedy could not get along in creating a coherent programme for this Operation.[3] This view is limited because it was Robert Kennedy who made Lansdale the important figure in running this Operation, so he did trust Lansdale. However, Robert Kennedy did criticise Lansdale as 'one effort attempted had failed.' This view is valid because, during Operation Mongoose, a contaminated shipload of sugar was sent to Cuba, which was expected to create a conspiracy and create distrust against Cuban sugar. However, Robert Kennedy and the President played a role in preventing this shipload reaching Cuba, by ordering Lansdale to buy the sugar and dump it in the sea.[4] Thus, this source shows that the relationship between Robert Kennedy and General Lansdale was important in shaping policies towards Cuba.

White suggests that these 'dynamic approaches', included all acts of sabotage and a way of seizing Castro supporters for interrogation.[5] Indeed, it was General Lansdale who came up with three proposals after this meeting, without Robert Kennedy's help.[6] This is important, because in Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy rarely gives General Lansdale credit for helping to manage Operation Mongoose.[7] Instead, he uses the first person 'I' very often, to make it sound as if he manages everything, which is clearly not the case. Thus, although Robert Kennedy did help shape the Kennedy administration's policies with regards to Operation Mongoose, the source suggests that he did so with General Lansdale's help.

Another role which he played, to help shape policies over Cuba, was favouring a blockade over an air strike, once America had found out that there were missile bases in Cuba. Robert Kennedy himself has stated that he completely favoured a blockade.[8] Even in the document of '21 October 1962', McNamara wrote, 'he (Robert Kennedy) was opposed to such an air strike.' However, a different view is offered by White, who believes that Robert Kennedy was hawkish when debating whether he preferred an air strike or a blockade.[9] An interpretation for this was that he was probably trying to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of both methods. As the source states, an air strike would have been a 'pearl harbour type of attack.' Indeed, America did have sympathy for the Cuban people who were trapped in this autocratic regime, and so it was wise that they did not deploy an air strike, as it would make their lives worse. Another reason given by Robert Kennedy is that it would lead to 'nuclear war.' The fact is that people had witnessed the destruction of Second World War and the increasing tensions between the superpowers, and so a nuclear war would create similar havoc. Robert Kennedy, also states it would lead to 'unpredictable military responses by the Soviet Union.' The larger cold war context was that the Americans had seen the unpredictability of the Soviet Union in the past with the Berlin Crisis.[10] Also they had little faith left with them as they had lied to the Americans about the presence of Missile bases within Cuba. Here, we see Robert Kennedy looking at it from a moral perspective. This source suggests that Robert Kennedy played an important role in shaping the views of John Kennedy in favour of a blockade. Moreover, Robert Kennedy, as Attorney general, could influence John Kennedy's decisions and as he was his brother, he would probably listen to his opinions more.

Returning to White's view, that Robert Kennedy weighed up several views before deciding on a blockade with his reasons stated above, it can be questioned whether it was his views. The source, 21 October 1962, fails to reveal whether they were actually his views. For example, Secretary McNamara certainly favoured a blockade over an air strike and made himself heard in the ExComm meetings. Eg, 'Secretary McNamara noted that the air strike...would result in chaos.'[11] John McCone also favoured a blockade, 'he argued that we should institute a blockade.'[12] Moreover, Robert Kennedy agreed with General Taylor about destroying missiles in Cuba.[13] Even, when the blockade was in place, he favoured an air strike.[14] This may have been important in shaping policies because it revealed the dangers of an air strike to Robert Kennedy and furthered the importance of preventing war by having and extending the blockade. Thus, one can question whether Robert Kennedy was influenced by these other members, and in Thirteen Days, passed them on as his own views.[15]

Although the source of 21 October 1962S shows Robert Kennedy totally backing a blockade, some historians have suggested that before the missile bases were seen in Cuba, Robert Kennedy demanded that the Americans invade Cuba.[16] For example, Robert Kennedy stated, 'We would have to act or be judged paper tigers by Moscow.'[17] This reveals two things of importance. Firstly, it was important for America to be seen as the great superpower, and being judged 'paper tigers' may have made America look weaker than the Soviet Union. The only way to prevent this was to attack Cuba, to reveal American aggression. Secondly, this also shows Robert Kennedy totally set on attacking Cuba. This suggests that the only reason why Robert Kennedy changed his mind to favouring a blockade was because of the threat of the missile bases, which shaped policy towards Cuba as it meant that America had to be more careful and conservative.

A further role he played, to help shape policies over Cuba, was his mediating role with the Russian Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. These discussions were held in private and were secretive, but still highly important in shaping American policy towards Cuba. Garthoff suggests that Dobrynin told Robert Kennedy on the 4 September that there were no missiles in Cuba.[18] This reveals the 'duplicity of the Russians', as the source dated 24 October 1962 states, because Robert Kennedy had had reassurances from Dobrynin that there were no missile bases within Cuba. However, an American surveillance plane found Cuban missile bases within Cuba. This made the Kennedy's extremely angry and agitated. This suggests that Robert Kennedy helped shape policies towards Cuba by meeting Dobrynin, as now the cabinet had to think of new ways of dealing with the situation: an air strike or a blockade. It also made them forget about usurping Castro form power, as there was now a new threat: nuclear war.

Robert Kennedy's role is also crucial, because he met Dobrynin on the 23 October 1962, the date before this memorandum to John Kennedy was written. The date here is important because it was a few days after the blockade was put in place, due to the presence of the missile bases within Cuba. Robert Kennedy also writes, 'as you (John Kennedy) made the following points.' This once again shows the role of Robert Kennedy, working closely with his brother, to ensure that the situation remained under control. Robert Kennedy tells Dobrynin, that the reason why the Americans decided on a blockade was due to the 'duplicity of the Russians.' This suggests that Robert Kennedy did not trust the Russians for lying to them, but a more significant point is that by Robert Kennedy letting Dobrynin know of the blockade, showed that America was willing to deal harshly with them. Thus, this source shows Robert Kennedy as a tough character. The source fails to mention that Dobrynin was still denying the presence of missiles in Cuba, although he did acknowledge the presence of missile bases.[19] This is important in shaping Kennedy's administration towards Cuba, as Robert Kennedy rejected Dobrynin's view and claimed that there were missiles in Cuba, which helped to strengthen the American view of containing the threat. Following this meeting, it also made the possibility of an air strike viable. Thus, Robert Kennedy's meeting with Dobrynin was an attempt to assert America's authority in the crisis and let the Soviet Union know, where they stood.

Robert Kennedy appointed General Lansdale as the head of managing Operation Mongoose, and although it failed, both men did attempt to usurp Castro from power. He was also a member of the counter-insurgency group to contain Castro within the Western hemisphere. He favoured a blockade because it would prevent a war and it reminded people of pearl harbour. However, he was hawkish in weighing up the alternatives, and after the blockade had been instigated, he did state that he favoured an air strike. Moreover, he met with Anatoly Dobrynin, which was important as it was a mediating role. By this point, he distrusted what the Russians had to say, as they had lied about having missile bases within Cuba. The three sources mentioned in the essay do reveal, that Robert Kennedy was a central figure in shaping policies towards Cuba, but it is important to note, that other people also need to be given credit, in order to show that Robert Kennedy was not the only person to help shape policies, as he himself attempted to portray several times.


Allison, Graham, Essence of Decision, (Longman, London, 1999).

Chang, Laurence and Kornbluh, Peter, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 : a National Security Archive documents reader, (New Press, New York, 1998).

Garthoff, Raymond, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, (The Brookings Institution, Washington, 1989.

Hilsman, Roger, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The struggle over policy, (Praeger Publishers, Westport, 1996).

Hilty, James, Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector, (Temple University, Philadelphia, 1997).

Kennedy, Robert, Thirteen Days, (W. W. Norton and Company. Inc, Washington, 1969).

Nathan, James, The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, (St Martin's Press, New York, 1992).

White, Mark, Missiles in Cuba, (Ivan.Dee Inc, Chicago, 1997).

[1] Mark White, Missiles in Cuba, (Ivan.Dee Inc, Chicago, 1997), p. 19.

[2] James Nathan, The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, (St Martin's Press, New York, 1992), p. 38.

[3] Roger Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The struggle over policy, (Praeger Publishers, Westport, 1996), p. 23.

[4] Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The struggle over policy, p. 28.

[5] White, Missiles in Cuba, p. 78

[6] White, Missiles in Cuba, p. 77

[7] Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days, (W. W. Norton and Company. Inc, Washington, 1969), p. 35.

[8] Kennedy, Thirteen Days, p. 23.

[9] White, Missiles in Cuba, p.84.

[10] Nathan, The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, p. 25.

[11] Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 : a National Security Archive documents reader, (New Press, New York, 1998), p. 103.

[12] Chang and Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 : a National Security Archive documents reader, , p. 138.

[13] Chang and Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 : a National Security Archive documents reader, , p. 151.

[14] Chang and Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 : a National Security Archive documents reader, , p. 139.

[15] Kennedy, Thirteen Days, p. 45.

[16] Hilsman, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The struggle over policy, p. 28.

[17] White, Missiles in Cuba, p. 16

[18] Raymond Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, (The Brookings Institution, Washington, 1989, p. 90.

[19] Graham Allison, Essence of Decision, (Longman, London, 1999), p. 238.

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