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President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

1. Read an excerpt from the Killing Kennedy script.

Assign students to play the different roles in the Cuban Missile Crisis Scene selection from the Killing Kennedy script. Have students act out the scene. Before reading, ask the remaining students to listen to identify what problem President Kennedy faces in this scene. After, ask:  What problem did President Kennedy face in this clip? Explain to students that this problem has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It occurred in 1962. For thirteen days, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Ask: Why did missiles in Cuba pose a threat to the United States?

2. Review Kennedy’s policy options in the face of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Explain to students that they will be acting as Kennedy’s advisers during this thirteen-day period. They will need to research and analyze the documents that Kennedy’s real advisers had available to them, and then present their findings to the president (you).

Tell students that President Kennedy had several options in responding to the threat posed by the placement of missiles on Cuban soil. Ask students what options they think Kennedy had. List student responses on poster paper or on a whiteboard. Use the discussion to prompt students to include all of the options listed below. You may wish to project the list for students to read. 

  1. Do nothing: American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new. Newly placed missiles in Cuba made little strategic difference in the military balance of power.
  2. Diplomacy: Use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
  3. Warning: Send a message to Castro to warn him of the grave danger he, and Cuba, were facing.
  4. Blockade: Use the U.S. Navy to block any missiles from arriving in Cuba.
  5. Air strike: Use the U.S. Air Force to attack all known missile sites.
  6. Invasion: Launch a full force invasion of Cuba and overthrow of Castro. 

3. Students research Kennedy’s policy options using primary resources and role-playing as EXCOMM.  

Explain to students that after the failure of Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy encouraged dissent among his advisers. If an idea was bad, Kennedy wanted his advisers to tell him; he did not want “yes men” to help him make decisions. Explain to students that during the Bay of Pigs invasion, members of Kennedy’s staff who disagreed with the action refused to voice their negative opinions, not wanting to criticize the larger group. After this failure, Kennedy altered his leadership style, wanting to explore all options before making a decision.

Tell students they will now be role-playing as national security advisers to President Kennedy, a group known during the Cuban Missile Crisis as EXCOMM. Each student group will be assigned one policy option brainstormed earlier and will be responsible for:

  • List of pros and cons for the group’s policy choice
  • Visual aid—on poster paper—to present pros and cons to the class

Divide the class into groups and assign one policy option per group for further exploration. Distribute the Confidential Files to each group. Tell students they will use these Confidential Files to support their policy choices. Distribute a T-Chart to each group and instruct them to use it to make a pros/cons chart. Distribute poster paper and markers to each group to develop a visual aid that will identify their policy option as well as the pros/cons of that option.