Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Kennedy, Congress, and Cuba

Asa McKercher, "Steamed Up: Domestic Politics, Congress, and Cuba, 1959-1963." Diplomatic History 38, 3 (2014): 599-627.


Studies examining the initial response of the United States to Cuba’s revolution largely ignore the role of Congress, an oversight reflecting both a scholarly trend emphasizing the actions of the presidency in regards to American foreign policy making and the separation of powers in the U.S. constitution. Redressing the balance, this article examines how members of Congress reacted to the course of U.S.-Cuban relations throughout the crisis years of 1959–1963. Illuminating Cuba’s place in domestic debates about foreign affairs it also looks at the politics surrounding the American response to the Cuban revolution. Lawmakers quickly emerged at the forefront of those calling for a strong stance toward Cuba. In turn, congressional pressure to confront Fidel Castro both helped and hindered presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. For Kennedy, in particular, domestic politics and actions by Congress were major concerns that tempered his actions in dealing with the Cuban revolution.

The key argument is that studies of early U.S. policy toward the Cuban revolution focus on the executive, so this is opening that up. The ultimate conclusion is not too surprising.

Thus, the executive found it necessary to look tough in standing up to Castro. However, as President Kennedy’s comments to the press in September 1962 indicate, he was focused not only on avoiding the appearance of appeasing Castro but on resisting congressional pressure to take precipitate action against Cuba.

I enjoy these sorts of studies because even as a political scientist I like diving into archival records. We tend to get stuck on the idea that presidents intervene without providing the context for it. With Kennedy we know very well from the Cuban Missile Crisis that he was not anxious to get involved, so it makes good sense to look more closely at the congressional side.

If you're wondering, the conclusion here is that Congress was committed to sanctioning Cuba as much as possible, a pressure Kennedy had a difficult time resisting. The debate sounds eerily similar to the one going on now with Venezuela, though the stakes of course are far lower so it remains largely peripheral to the public eye.

It would benefit a bit, though, from more attention to work by political scientists. In my graduate U.S.-Latin American Relations course I use Michael Grow's U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions, where he looks at domestic opinion--generally driven by congressional leaders--as a main explanatory variable for understanding presidents' decisions to intervene.


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