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How much influence did Congress exert in the events of the Cuban missile crisis? Conventional wisdom tells us that the legislature’s influence was minor or even nonexistent. Graham Allison, who some observers regard as the leading expert on the Cuban missile crisis, wrote, “What direct role did Congress play in these decisions? Zero—none at all.” Arthur Schlesinger likewise wrote in “The Imperial Presidency” that “there was no legislative consultation, there was most effective executive consultation … [b]ut Congress played no role at all …. It was only after he had made his decision that Kennedy called in congressional leaders. The object was not to consult them but to inform them.” President Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, recalled in his memoirs that, during a key meeting with prominent members of Congress, “no one present questioned whether Kennedy had constitutional authority to initiate a quarantine. No one suggested that Kennedy come to Congress for authorization.” Presidentialists have come to see the crisis as evidence of the need for a strong, independent commander in chief, while congressionalists bemoan the potentially dangerous precedent it created.
In a narrow sense, it is correct that Congress did not actively participate in decision-making during the acute crisis from Oct. 16 to Oct. 28, 1962. Such analysis and policymaking was undertaken almost exclusively by the quickly formed Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM), which—while consisting of key Cabinet secretaries, military leaders and foreign policy advisers—notably omitted congressional representation in any form. A meeting was held with congressional leadership shortly before a quarantine of the island was publicly announced on Oct. 22, but this occured after EXCOMM and the president had already decided on the appropriate course of action.
Nonetheless, interpreting a lack of congressional involvement in EXCOMM discussions as evidence of Congress’s lack of influence in the crisis seems to be strongly against the weight of the evidence. To the contrary, it seems that congressional opinion and the passage of the so-called Cuba Resolution figured prominently in the crisis as many decisions were taken with clear knowledge of congressional sentiment about the issue. Specifically, EXCOMM made decisions that were heavily influenced by its knowledge of Congress’s unambiguous sentiment expressed in the few weeks prior. Some scholars even argue that congressional pressure contributed heavily to the crisis arising in the first place. Furthermore, Soviet and Cuban leaders were well aware of congressional sentiment and took it into account in their own decision-making.
In short, while congressional leaders may not have been directly involved in the day-to-day decisions of EXCOMM—what Allison termed a “direct role”—the crisis very much occurred under the shadow of Congress (emphasis added). Congress was not involved in substantive executive branch deliberations and negotiations, but this was because Congress’s position—a virtually unanimous demand for strong action—was already unambiguous to both the White House and U.S. adversaries immediately prior to the discovery of missiles. In other words, there was little need to consult with Congress during the crisis because its position was already crystal clear to all sides.
In the few weeks prior to the discovery of missiles on the island, Congress debated the issue of Cuba numerous times while suspecting the presence of such weapons. For example, “Cuba” was mentioned more than 2,000 times in congressional floor speeches in the few weeks prior to the crisis (note that the last date in Figure 1 is Oct. 13—three days prior to the beginning of the crisis). U.S. policy over the island was heavily debated in September and the beginning of October under the assumption that weapons would be soon arriving or were possibly already in place. Furthermore, in these Cuba-related speeches, “blockade” was mentioned 72 times—all prior to Oct. 16, the beginning of the “thirteen days” of acute crisis. Thus, the idea of “quarantining” the island was discussed widely prior to missiles being discovered and prior to EXCOMM bringing up the idea. Congressional pressure over Cuba was covered in the press and was widely recognized by both the White House and Soviet leaders.
Figure 1. Congressional floor speeches mentioning Cuba (prior to the crisis).
This pressure campaign began well before the October crisis. Two months earlier, in August 1962, Republicans in Congress—led by Sen. Kenneth Keating of New York—began a very public campaign to force a strong response against the island. Republicans began drafting congressional resolutions stating such a firm position that the administration and its Democratic allies on the Hill felt it necessary to water down the proposals so as to not inadvertently escalate the situation. Members of Congress explicitly sought to pass something similar to the Formosa Resolution of 1955 or the Middle East Resolution of 1957, but Kennedy knew that Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were paranoid about an American invasion of the island after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion only a year earlier. If Khrushchev’s reason for deploying missiles to the island was merely to deter an invasion, then an overly aggressive statement from the United States risked causing the very action that it sought to avoid—the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. As Ted Sorensen put it, “[Kennedy] refused to give in to the war hawks in the Congress and press (and a few in the Pentagon) who wanted to drag this country into a needless, irresponsible war without allies against a tiny nation which had not yet proven to be a serious threat to this country.” The White House—even Kennedy himself—was also involved in the drafting of the Cuba Resolution. The administration pushed a less aggressive resolution in order to “to head off [Republicans] giving us something much worse.”
The concern that the U.S. would try to invade and overthrow Castro was a particularly sensitive issue in U.S.-Soviet relations at the time. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had met with Khrushchev on Sept. 6, and, among other things, the Soviet premier said, “I have been reading what some irresponsible Senators have been saying on [Cuba]. A lot of people are making a big fuss because we are giving aid to Cuba. … [W]e give [Castro] what he needs for defense. … But only for defense. However, if you attack Cuba, that would create an entirely different situation.” Udall responded that “the President has made his position on Cuba clear. A few people in Congress may call for invasion, but the President makes the policy.” Khrushchev nonetheless continued to express concern about “your Congressmen [who] want to attack Cuba.” An internal Kennedy administration memo written the next day, Sept. 7, described resolutions being proposed by Republicans as far too aggressive: “A resolution authorizing the President to use armed forces against Cuba in present circumstances seems to imply … a military attack—an aggressive act, a warlike act, against the island, with American troops. What else can it imply?”
When testifying before Congress on the issue of a resolution on Sept. 17, Secretary Rusk stated that “the executive branch does believe it would be valuable at the present time if the Congress should see fit to pass a concurrent resolution” (emphasis added) and that:
such a resolution would be helpful in direct relationship, direct proportion to the extent that it … could reflect a very agreement in the Congress, rather than a resolution which might fail to get the overwhelming support of the Congress. … I think that certain signals would go out from Congress which would be important. … [F]or example, the signals that this would give to Moscow.
Notably, when congressional leaders pushed instead for a joint resolution, Rusk clarified that he did not know the administration’s position on a joint versus a concurrent resolution. Democrats were able to remove some of the most aggressive language from the eventual joint resolution and ultimately the text stated:
[T]he United States is determined … to prevent by whatever means may be necessary, including the use of arms, … in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States[.]
Some observers might argue that the resolution was not an authorization for the use of force because it did not specifically state that the president was given the authority to employ military force but, rather, merely conveyed the resolve of Congress. Many policymakers at the time, however, seemed to consider the Cuba Resolution as more or less equivalent to the other so-called area resolutions from the period. When passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution two years later, for example, legislators referred to the Formosa, Middle East and Cuba resolutions collectively as precedents. Similarly, when Congress sought to repeal the other area resolutions along with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1970, the Cuba Resolution was included. Likewise, international observers thought of the four “area resolutions” as similar instruments. Regardless, the resolution was clearly meant to have a strong effect: While the bill had originally been introduced as a not legally binding concurrent resolution in both houses, it was intentionally altered into a legally binding joint resolution before passage. Congressional leadership specifically recommended:
that this statement be passed in the form of a joint resolution which would require the signature of the President. Thus the determination expressed in the resolution would be joined in not only by the Congress but also by the President …. The force of the declaration would be further strengthened.
Furthermore, the use of a joint resolution makes it possible to avoid constitutional arguments over the relative powers of the President and the Congress respecting the use of American Armed Forces. … [I]t is important in the current instance that they not obscure … the essential unity of purpose, not only of the Congress, but of the President and American people as well.
The Soviets clearly paid attention to the passage of the resolution as Khrushchev specifically noted the piece of legislation in a letter to Kennedy dated Sept. 28, 1962:
What is going on, for example, in the U.S. Congress? … Very serious consequences may have the resolution adopted by the U.S. Senate on the Cuban question. The contents of that resolution gives ground to draw a conclusion that the U.S. is evidently ready to assume responsibility for unleashing thermonuclear war. We consider that if what is written in that resolution were actually carried out it would mean the beginning of war because no country can agree with such interpretation of rights, with such arbitrariness.
In his memoirs, Khrushchev focused on the reaction in the press and in Congress—among both Republicans and Democrats—when assessing American resolve upon learning of the missile deployments. He noted that “Republican Party leaders began speaking out, and then Democrats joined in. They began demanding decisive action on the part of their government.” Similarly, in an Oval Office meeting during the crisis with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Khrushchev cited “the Congressional resolution, the Reservists call-up authority, various statements to the press and other U.S. interference with what he regarded as a small nation that posed no threat.” The Cubans also paid attention to the resolution. According to Asa McKercher, “[c]ertainly the Cubans were alarmed: in Havana, Noticias de Hoy denounced this latest sign of U.S. ‘hysteria’; at the United Nations, Cuba’s president, Osvaldo Dorticos, castigated Congress for having ‘legitimize[d] in advance the use of arms, armed aggression against our country’.”
The U.S. administration, for its own part, seemed to value the resolution once the crisis began. When internally planning for the possible use of sustained airstrikes against the island, Kennedy and his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, specifically noted the authority given by the resolution from Congress. It also seems that Kennedy would not have ordered an invasion of the island without substantial congressional support. An interagency study contemporaneous with the crisis stated that “[b]efore intervening in Cuba we would determine on the basis of reliable intelligence whether the minimum desirable political conditions” were met, including “that U.S. Congressional and public opinion would generally support the Presidentʼs action.” Kennedy publicly cited the congressional resolution twice in his famous TV address to the nation as a basis for his authority in ordering the blockade, and privately he specifically cited the resolution in his letter to Khrushchev on Oct. 22, 1962:
It was in order to avoid any incorrect assessment on the part of your Government with respect to Cuba that I publicly stated that if certain developments in Cuba took place, the United States would do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies. Moreover, the Congress adopted a resolution expressing its support of this declared policy. (Emphasis added.)
Later, in one of the most dramatic meetings of the crisis, Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to reach a final settlement of the crisis before war broke out. This meeting holds evidence of the American side trying to use the unambiguously hawkish sentiment of Congress as a bargaining advantage. According to Khrushchev, Robert Kennedy stated, “You should take into account the particular features of our government system. It’s hard for the president. Even if he doesn’t want war and doesn’t wish for war, against his will something irreversible might happen.” It is for this reason that Roseanne McManus argues that Congress’s firm stance in the crisis actually helped convince the Soviets that Kennedy’s threat was no bluff. By publicly seeing the Congress demand a tough response—and, therefore, that the legislature would not be stymying Kennedy’s ability to “follow through” with his threat—Khrushchev and other Soviet decision-makers increased their estimation of U.S. resolve in the crisis.
While Congress may have not been represented in EXCOMM, its actions strongly influenced the crisis. Congress had expressed itself clearly in the weeks prior to the discovery of missiles on the island, and the White House had little uncertainty about the action it would demand once unmistakable evidence of offensive missiles was discovered. The Soviets, too, knew the pressure Kennedy faced from Congress and backed down rather quickly once its plans were discovered. While many scholars have argued that the Cuban missile crisis illustrates the need for a strong, presidentialist reading of the Constitution—or that it serves as a dangerous precedent of enormous presidential war power—a better reading of the crisis is as an effective episode of crisis management between the political branches. Congress gave a clear mandate for the president to follow during the crisis, and the White House more or less adhered to these preexisting congressional demands. Instead of being seen as evidence of Congress’s lack of ability to direct national security in an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the episode can be seen as a confirmation of the legislature’s ability to speak clearly and effectively even in the most acute and dangerous of crises.