The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later

by Lydia Saad

Most Americans backed Kennedy's Cuba blockade in 1962

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Forty years ago this week, the Cuban missile crisis started to unfold, quickly leading the United States and Russia to the brink of nuclear war. A look back at the Gallup Poll archives reminds us that Americans gave President John F. Kennedy their overwhelming support for the U.S. military blockade of Cuba that he ordered to halt the Soviet missile buildup there. The public also rewarded Kennedy for the successful outcome of the crisis with enhanced job approval ratings.

Today, the American public has vastly different views of the United States' adversaries in this crisis. The public's view of Russia has undergone a complete turnaround and is now largely positive, while opinion of Cuba and Cuban President Fidel Castro remains overwhelmingly negative. Nevertheless, Americans are generally supportive of rebuilding diplomatic and trade ties with Cuba.

Details

The "16 days in October" that have become known as the Cuban missile crisis began 40 years ago, on Oct. 15, 1962, when U.S. spy planes documented that Soviet missile bases were under construction in Cuba. The American public was first informed of the discovery a week later, when President Kennedy made a televised address to the nation, outlining his plan for encircling Cuba with U.S. Navy ships to prevent any further missile buildup. Within hours following Kennedy's speech on Oct. 22, The Gallup Poll conducted a special reaction survey and found what Gallup analysts at the time called "overwhelming support" for the president's decision to impose a blockade on Cuba.

Immediate Public Reaction to
Kennedy Blockade of Cuba
(Asked of those who had heard of the blockade)
Oct. 22, 1962

Of course, the crisis ended peacefully in late October, starting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's agreement on Oct. 28 to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba -- a resolution generally seen as a victory for the United States. Gallup trends on President Kennedy's job approval rating suggest that the public responded positively to Kennedy's leadership during this crisis. Prior to the blockade, in a late September 1962 survey, 63% of Americans approved of his job performance. Gallup saw little change in this in the initial days of the missile crisis (JFK's job approval was 61% in a poll conducted Oct. 19-24). However, in November, that figure jumped to 74%, and it remained in this range for several months.

Attitudes Leading Up to Missile Crisis

The story of the Cuban missile crisis is mostly about U.S.-Soviet relations during the height of the Cold War. But it is also about America's tension-filled dealings with Cuba following Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959. The failure of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and mounting evidence in 1962 that the Soviet Union was sending arms to Cuba, resulted in significant debate in the United States over how to handle Cuba.

One month before the Cuban missile crisis, The Gallup Poll posed this question to Americans: "Some people say that the U.S. should send our armed forces into Cuba to help overthrow Castro. Do you agree or disagree?" Only a quarter of Americans (23%) favored this course of action; 61% opposed it and 15% were unsure. The same poll found that 50% of Americans believed that a military effort by the United States in Cuba to try to overthrow Castro and the communists was likely to "bring about an all-out war between the United States and Russia." Only a third (36%) thought this was not likely, while 13% were unsure.

Thus, it is not surprising that in analyzing the post-speech survey on Oct. 22, the Gallup Poll editors concluded that "Kennedy's decision eased many frustrations that had been building up for months -- the frustration of wanting to ‘do something' about Cuba, but not wanting to go to war." Kennedy's naval blockade was clearly a less aggressive maneuver than the alternative of an all-out invasion that many Americans feared.

Whither the Trade Embargo?

One of the enduring legacies of this era of political history is the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which was tightened by President Kennedy early in 1962. According to poll archives stored at the University of Connecticut's Roper Center, neither Gallup nor any of the other major survey firms conducting public opinion polls in the 1960s asked the American public about the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba during this period. However, in recent years, Gallup has found the public more in favor of than opposed to ending the embargo. A Gallup survey conducted May 20-22, 2002 found exactly half the public in favor of ending it, with 38% opposed.

More generally, Gallup has found that Americans favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. In seven out of eight polls asking this question since 1974, a majority of Americans have favored this change in policy. Most recently, in May 2002, Gallup found 55% in favor of normalizing ties with Cuba, and just 37% opposed.

Do you favor or oppose re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba?

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter -- who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for what the prize committee called his "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development" -- championed the idea of normalizing ties with Cuba earlier this year, calling the embargo a failure. President Bush countered by reaffirming the current embargo, but saying the United States would end it if Cuba meets several pro-democracy and pro-capitalism conditions. Despite the fact that 50% of Americans favored the general idea of lifting the embargo, the same May 2002 poll found close to two-thirds agreeing with Bush's position. Only one-quarter believed the embargo should end even if Cuba does not meet Bush's conditions.

As you may know, President Bush said he would end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba only if it met several conditions, including holding free and fair elections and moving to a market economy. Which comes closer to your view – [ROTATED: the U.S. should end its embargo with Cuba only if it meets the conditions Bush set forth, (or) the U.S. should end its embargo with Cuba even if it does not meet the conditions Bush set forth]?
May 20-22, 2002

Another lasting effect of the Cuban missile crisis, or at least the set of conditions surrounding it, is Americans' negative view of Cuba and its leader. Gallup polling in the late 1950s and through the 1960s shows that public opinion of Castro during this period was highly negative. For instance, in 1960, a question asking the public to rate Castro on a 10-point scale found 80% giving him a negative rating (negative 1-5), and only 4% a positive rating (positive 1-5). By 1964, these figures were 92% negative and only 1% positive. This negative view holds today, as nearly eight in 10 Americans (78%) have an unfavorable view of Castro personally and only 9% have a favorable view of him.

Attitudes toward the country Castro leads are somewhat more positive, although still negative on balance. Six in 10 Americans have an unfavorable view of Cuba, compared to just under one-third who view Cuba favorably.

Opinion of Fidel Castro and Cuba

In contrast to the enduring animus Americans feel for Cuba, their image of Russia has undergone a complete turnaround in recent years. Two-thirds of Americans told Gallup this past February that they have a favorable view of Russia; barely one-quarter feel unfavorably. As with attitudes toward Cuba, attitudes toward Russia in 1960 were highly negative, with 78% of Americans holding an unfavorable opinion, and just 9% a favorable view.

Opinion of Russia
Feb 4-6, 2002

Survey Methods



Results to the October 22, 1962 one night survey are based on a nationally representative sample of 553 national adults who said they had listed to or watched President Kennedy's Cuban missile crisis speech. All other survey results reported in this article are based on Gallup interviews with randomly selected national samples of at least 1,000 national adults, 18 years and older. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Next, we'd like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news. As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of this person -- or if you have never heard of him. How about – [ITEM A, ITEMS B-E ROTATED]?

E. Cuban President, Fidel Castro

 


Favorable


Unfavorable

Never
heard of

No
opinion

2002 May 20-22

9%

78

3

10



Do you favor or oppose re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba?

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2002 May 20-22

55

37

8

2000 Oct 25-28 ^

56

35

9

2000 May 5-7

57

36

7

1999 May 7-9

71

25

4

1999 Mar 19-21

67

27

6

1996 Apr 25-28

40

49

11

1977

53

32

15

1974

63

37

0

^

WORDING: Suppose that on election day this year you could vote on key issues as well as candidates. Please tell me whether you would vote for or against each one of the following propositions. Would you vote -- for or against re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba?



Apart from their diplomatic relations, do you favor or oppose the United States government ending its trade embargo against Cuba?

BASED ON -- 488 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

%

%

%

2002 May 20-22

50

38

12

2000 May 5-7 ^

48

42

10

1999 May 7-9 ^

51

42

7

1999 Mar 19-21 ^

51

39

10

^

WORDING: Suppose that on election day this year you could vote on key issues as well as candidates. Please tell me whether you would vote for or against each one of the following propositions. Would you vote(Rotate)?How about -- For or against ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba?



As you may know, President Bush said he would end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba only if it met several conditions, including holding free and fair elections and moving to a market economy. Which comes closer to your view -- [ROTATED: the U.S. should end its embargo with Cuba only if it meets the conditions Bush set forth, (or) the U.S. should end its embargo with Cuba even if it does not meet the conditions Bush set forth]?

BASED ON -- 514 -- NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

 


End embargo only
if meets conditions

End embargo even
if does not meet conditions


No
opinion

2002 May 20-22

63%

27

10



Next, I'd like your overall opinion of some foreign countries. First, is your overall opinion of [RANDOM ORDER]very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable? How about -- [INSERT NEXT ITEM]?

E. Cuba

Very
favor-
able

Mostly
favor-
able

Mostly
unfavor-
able

Very
unfavor-
able

No
opin-
ion

Total
favor-
able

Total
unfavor-
able

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Feb 4-6

4

27

41

20

8

31

61

2001 Feb 1-4 ^

4

23

41

27

5

27

68

1999 May 7-9

4

20

45

24

7

24

69

1999 Mar 19-21

4

28

48

13

7

32

61

1996 Mar 8-10 ^

2

8

40

41

9

10

81

T. Russia

Very
favor-
able

Mostly
favor-
able

Mostly
unfavor-
able

Very
unfavor-
able

No
opin-
ion

Total
favor-
able

Total
unfavor-
able

%

%

%

%

%

%

%

2002 Feb 4-6

11

55

20

7

7

66

27

2001 Feb 1-4 ^

6

46

27

15

6

52

42

2000 Nov 13-15

5

35

39

14

7

40

53

2000 Mar 17-19

5

35

39

12

9

40

51

1999 Nov 4-7

4

34

44

14

4

38

58

1999 May 7-9

4

42

36

13

5

46

49

1999 Apr 13-14

3

30

45

14

8

33

59

1999 Feb 8-9

6

38

34

10

12

44

44

1997 Nov 21-23

7

49

29

7

8

56

36

1996 Mar 8-10

6

46

29

10

9

52

39

1995 Apr 21-24

5

44

32

12

7

49

44

1994 Feb 26-28

8

48

28

11

5

56

39

1992 Feb 6-9

12

45

20

13

10

57

33

1991 Nov 21-24

7

45

24

12

12

52

36

1991 Aug 23-25

9

51

22

9

9

60

31

1991 Aug 8-11

11

55

19

6

9

66

25

1991 Mar 14-17

6

44

32

10

8

50

42

1991 Jan 30-Feb 2

8

49

26

9

8

57

35

1990 Sep 10-11

7

51

23

9

10

58

32

1990 May 17-20

7

48

24

8

13

55

32

1990 Aug 10-13

8

43

27

13

9

51

40

1989 Feb 28-Mar 2

7

55

20

9

9

62

29

1989-1992 WORDING: Soviet Union

For each of the following countries, please say whether you consider it an ally of the United States, friendly, but not an ally, unfriendly, or an enemy of the United States. How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

F. Russia

 


Ally

Friendly, but not an ally


Unfriendly


Enemy

No
opinion

2001 Apr 20-22

11%

45

25

13

6

2000 May 18-21

12%

49

22

11

6

2000 Mar 17-19

9%

34

26

14

17

1999 Apr 13

2%

44

27

5

22



For each of the following countries, please say whether you consider it an ally of the United States, friendly, but not an ally, unfriendly, or an enemy of the United States. How about … (Random order)?

E. Cuba

 

Ally

Friendly, but not an ally

Unfriendly

Enemy

No opinion

2000 May 18-21

5%

12

42

36

5



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