By September of 1962, one could understand why President Kennedy felt that he was under attack: Nikita Krushchev was implementing a strategy of creating Cold War crises against the U.S., while Fidel Castro (and his beard) was doing his best to agitate and irritate the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere. The antagonism from those two leaders were very real, but a far more significant threat to the national security of the United States that autumn came from an unexpected quarter: the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JFK's true achievement in avoiding nuclear war in October, 1962, was to keep the military "Hawks" from taking over the decision-making on how to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.
JFK's faith in his military and intelligence advisers would wane considerably in the second-half of 1962, however. The CIA, in a case of nightmarish deja vu from the Bay of Pigs, again failed Kennedy. In 1959, the USSR, for the first time, decided to locate nuclear missiles outside of their borders in East Germany. At the "11th Hour", Krushchev pulled the plug on the venture, but operatives in the CIA learned about the plan. On the Soviet side, Krushchev assumed that the U.S. didn't detect his plan in East Germany, so therefore he could try again in Cuba. On the U.S. side, the CIA just sat on their intelligence of what they learned in East Germany, and never provided JFK that crucial piece of information when he needed it most.
Once briefed on the fact that the USSR had active nuclear missiles in Cuba, JFK turned to the group of advisers that had largely failed him so far in his presidency. The number and members of what would become known as the Executive Committee (ExComm) would vary, but the purpose of this group of advisers was to provide a broader base of opinions than what occurred before with the Bay of Pigs. For the nearly two weeks the ExComm met, most favored prompt action, while JFK seemed to be the only one, at times, that urged caution. President Kennedy had to decide which basic military strategy to pursue - Eisenhower's "Mutual Assured Destruction", or General Maxwell Taylor's "Flexible Response". In the end, JFK chose both - the "Flexible Response" strategy provided his first option, while MAD was tabled as tactic of last resort.
JFK had two "agents" in place for the ExComm meetings - RFK and SecDef McNamara. RFK served as JFK's "sounding board" for options in ExComm, which provided freer discussion, whether-or-not JFK was in attendance. McNamara had by far the more crucial role, in that he was the "How Will the Soviets Respond" voice in ExComm; no longer sidelined for Cuba, JFK met with his SecDef before ExComm, making sure he knew his role.
a) Give the USSR an ultimatum, and attack if necessary; b) Conduct a surprise air raid on the missile sites; c) Enact a naval blockade on Cuba; d) Execute a large-scale air strike followed by a massive ground invasion.
JFK also was given counsel from an expert on Krushchev which was probably the most important advice he received during the crisis: make it as easy as possible for Krushchev to back down. That advice, more than anything else, meant that acting on the suggestions from his military advisers would almost have certainly led to nuclear war. Of the four options provided by ExComm, only the blockade provided a potential exit for Krushchev; as the Joint Chiefs kept pressing for one, two, or all three of the other options, JFK's distrust of his military advisers increased.
On 22 October, the naval blockade was made public, while a letter was sent to Krushchev, giving him official notice of the blockade. While Krushchev responded the next day with typical bluster (the U.S. was engaging in "aggressive actions"), Arthur Schlesinger told JFK that he had a information that Krushchev wanted out of this crisis as quickly as possible. When JFK sent a follow-up letter based on this information to Krushchev, in essence, the military advisers (and most of ExComm) were no longer relevant to JFK in terms of ending the crisis. Also, by 22 October, since it was no longer possible (or desirable at that point) to keep the crisis secret, JFK arranged for a televised address to the nation that evening. JFK gave this address for at least two reasons: first,it was the only way he was able to communicate directly with Krushchev, and secondly, for political cover, he needed to look and sound like the Ultimate
(Below: a portion of JFK's nationally televised address on 22 October, 1962, where he announces the quarantine (blockade), and states what will happen if any missiles are launched from Cuba . . .)
On 26 October, at 4:30 pm, JFK received confirmation that Krushchev would remove the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would pledge to leave Castro alone. As JFK continued to read, however, his heart must have sank - Krushchev demanded that the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey needed to be removed since he was removing Soviet missiles in Cuba. At this point, RFK came to the rescue, in that in personal negotiations with Anatoly Dobrynin (USSR Ambassador to the U.S.), he guaranteed the removal of the outdated Jupiter missiles in the upcoming months, but the USSR could not say anything on the matter . . . it wasn't just Krushchev that wanted to save face for political reasons during the missile crisis.
(Below: scroll in about 55 seconds, and see a great moment for the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis - U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Adlai Stevenson, confronted his Soviet counter-part, Valerian Zorin, on the global stage on 25 October, 1962)
During March, 1963, JFK found it impossible to keep a lid on the infighting that was happening among his advisers over Cuba. JFK, as with Vietnam, refused to make a decision on what to do in Cuba, and the situation festered (and Uncle-Festered) . . . JFK wanted Cuba to no longer be a problem, but he couldn't find a way to let "Cuba go" without being accused of appeasement as he was gearing up for re-election. So, JFK continued efforts to weaken or remove Castro without any overt U.S. involvement, basically to maintain a "noise level" for political reasons. Had JFK's advisers been of one mind on letting go of Cuba, JFK would have done so . . . kind of ironic for a "Decider", but to be fair, JFK needed a cooperative Senate for any future nuclear test-ban treaty with the USSR, and he wanted to be re-elected as President, so in essence his hands were indeed tied in dealing with Castro.
Before long, another leader would frustrate and confound JFK to the "Nth Degree", and JFK would again need to deal with his military advisers while he tried to find a way to keep events from escalating out of control, this time in Southeast Asia . . . President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam would prove to be every bit as difficult as Castro - the difference being that he was supposedly an ally of the United States.