Leadership in Action: The Cuban Missile Crisis

By | October 14, 2015

[October 14, 2015]  The year 1962 was an atypical year in sports for a young boy in the Deep South.  But it was also a year of growing up when adult events took center stage and interrupted our thoughts of school and sports.  On October 14, 1962 the discovery of Soviet-made, nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba increased the threat of nuclear annihilation and thus began the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Young boys are however interested in different things.  We celebrated Jackie Robinson’s election into Baseball’s Hall of Fame – he was a Brooklyn Dodgers player.  The Ranger 3 space probe was launched.  And Neil Armstrong took the X-15 into the upper atmosphere.  We were consumed by school, sports, and also by space adventures.  Life was good but there was something more sinister lurking that would change all that.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy (JFK) notified Americans later in October about the presence of those missiles and explained his decision to enact a naval blockade around Cuba.  He also said that he was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize the threat to national security.  We began practicing Duck and Cover drills in case of nuclear attack. Our lives seemed to change from safety to fear.  Most of us grew up that Fall season as we waited for something to happen.

JFK was advised by Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense, on how the best to deal with the Soviets.  McNamara says that one of the many lessons he learned as a senior leaders was of the importance to “empathize with your enemy.”  He was saying the we need to try and look more at the world through the eyes of our enemies in order to understand their opinions and thought processes.1  Fewer mistakes will be made that way.

The Cuban Missile Crisis saw both the Soviet Union and American leadership resolve the threat without nuclear war; much to the relief of citizens of the U.S. and the USSR.  The Cuban leadership however took away different lessons.  Those lessons helped propel Cuba into future wars supporting nascent Communist nations, draining its’ limited resources and pushing Cuba further into dependence on the Soviets.

There were many lessons to learn from the crisis … of course.  Another was that weakness, even only apparent weakness, invites Soviet transgression.2  The main lesson, many argue, from this crisis was that superior military capability combined with a resolve to use that capability will deter aggression and repel an aggressor.  This has been the foundation for American foreign policy ever since.  [Don’t forget to “Like” the Leader Maker at our Facebook Page.]


  1. http://handofreason.com/2011/media/the-fog-of-war-eleven-lessons-from-the-life-of-robert-s-mcnamara
  2. http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/Sad-1.htm



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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.