Law and the Quarantine of Cuba

A boy dances in the rain during a heavy tropical shower in a street of Havana. Desmond Boylan / Reuters

The Soviet missiles in Cuba were a threat to the security of the United States and the Western Hemisphere. As such they endangered the peace of the world. The action undertaken against this threat carried its own dangers. But as President Kennedy said on October 22, "the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing."

The course on which he then embarked was successful in securing the removal of offensive weapons from Cuba. This success was due, in the first instance, to the ability and will of this country to enforce the quarantine and to the mobilization of allies and others throughout the world in our support.

The confrontation was not in the courtroom and, in a world destructible by man, a legal position was obviously not the sole ingredient of effective action. We were armed, necessarily, with something more substantial than a lawyer's brief. But though it would not have been enough merely to have the law on our side, it is not irrelevant which side the law was on. The effective deployment of force, the appeal for world support, to say nothing of the ultimate judgment of history, all depend in significant degree on the reality and coherence of the case in law for our action. It is worthwhile, I think, to set out that legal case and to examine some of its implications.


The blunt fact of the quarantine is that it involved the use of naval force to interfere with shipping on the high seas, though, to be sure, the carriage of offensive weapons, against which it was directed, was something other than ordinary maritime commerce. Historically, the United States, as a great maritime power, has resisted interference with the freedom of the seas. In 1793, when France and England, struggling for the mastery of Europe, seized and blockaded United States shipping, Jefferson wrote:

. . . those who choose to live in peace retain their natural right ... to carry the produce of their industry, for exchange, to all nations,

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