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Cuban Missile Crisis Anniversary Brings Analysis of Kennedy Speech at UMaine

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The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the major moments in the presidency of John F. Kennedy and of the decades-long Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As the 50th anniversary of the crisis approaches, it is useful to reflect on a speech Kennedy delivered at the University of Maine more than a year later.

Speaking on Oct. 19, 1963 — more than a month before he would be assassinated in Dallas — on the occasion of his receipt of an honorary degree of doctor of laws, Kennedy considered the events of the crisis, which began Oct. 14, 1962, when a U2 aircraft took pictures of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) sites in western Cuba. The photographs were confirmed the next day and Kennedy was informed of the missile sites on Oct. 16.

The crisis ended on Oct. 28 when the Soviet government announced it would withdraw the missiles and the United States promised not to invade Cuba.

“While only the passage of time and events can reveal in full the true perspective of last October’s drama, it is already clear that no single, simple view of this kind can be wholly accurate in this case,” Kennedy said in his speech, which he delivered at the University of Maine’s athletic stadium in front of then-Gov. John H. Reed, U.S. Sens. Margaret Chase Smith and Edmund S. Muskie, U.S. Reps. Stanley R. Tupper and Clifford G. McIntire, and UMaine President Lloyd Hartman Elliott.

“While both caution and commonsense proscribe our basting of it in the traditional terms of unconditional military victory, only the most zealous partisan can attempt to call it a defeat,” Kennedy continued. “While it is too late to say that nothing is changed in Soviet-American relations, it is too early to assume that the change is permanent. There are new rays of hope on the horizon, but we still live in the shadows of war.”

UMaine historian Nathan Godfried identifies two major themes in the president’s remarks — what Kennedy said, and what he omitted.

“The speech obviously focused on the missile crisis and its meaning for U.S.-Soviet relations,” says Godfried, whose research interests include 20th century history, mass communication and popular culture. “By and large, Kennedy was justifying his administration’s move to secure an atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty and perhaps to set the stage for some kind of nuclear disarmament negotiations. At the same time, Kennedy maintained the country’s long-standing opposition to the Communist menace. I do think that the speech reflects a shift in Kennedy’s approach to the nuclear arms race, having helped to bring the world to the edge of destruction the previous year.”

Godfried also points out Kennedy did not mention Cuba at all in his comments at UMaine, which is interesting because although the missile crisis did mark a minor but noticeable shift in the U.S. approach to nuclear arms and the USSR, it did not result in any significant shift in the U.S. approach to Cuba.

“In the words of Latin American historian Stephen Rabe, the conclusion of ‘the missile crisis did not lead to a detente between the United States and Cuba,’” Godfried says. “Indeed, the Kennedy administration conducted a bellicose and often violent policy toward Cuba before the crisis and after it. JFK and his national security team remained absolutely committed to plotting against Castro, including numerous assassination attempts.”

The text of Kennedy’s UMaine speech is available online at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9483.

Contact: Jessica Bloch, (207) 581-3777; jessica.bloch@umit.maine.edu

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