American Portraits

Thirteen Days: John F. Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn how President John F. Kennedy achieved his purpose of protecting the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They will also understand how they can be purposeful in their lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


In early September 1962, Kennedy and several advisers spent hours preparing a statement to address the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba along with combat forces. Kennedy stated that while there was no immediate military threat to the United States, the administration was monitoring the situation carefully….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you achieve your purpose?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how President John F. Kennedy achieved his purpose of protecting the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They will also understand how they can be purposeful in their lives.


  • Students will analyze President Kennedy’s purposeful decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of purpose to their own lives.


President John F. Kennedy faced a great crisis in 1962 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev started building nuclear sites in Cuba. Khrushchev planned to house forty nuclear missiles that could reach the continental United States, as well as to build bases for 40,000 support troops. The missile sites and bases would be only a few dozen miles away from the coast of Florida. In 1961, early in his administration, Kennedy had launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion to oust communist leader Fidel Castro from Cuba. The failure was a huge embarrassment for the new president, but he took responsibility for the attack and learned a lesson about taking rash actions without significantly considering all of the possible consequences and alternatives.

Kennedy’s administration suffered a blow in prestige in global affairs, especially in the view of the Soviet Union. In August 1961, Khrushchev tested Kennedy’s resolve by blocking off East Berlin from West Berlin by building the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was not willing to start a war over the issue, and again Khrushchev thought that the American president was weak. The Soviet leader came to the conclusion that he could threaten the United States without repercussions.

However, Kennedy would not be bullied so easily. He was born in 1917 and came of age during World War II. He fought in that conflict and saw firsthand the tragic results that appeasing Hitler had brought about. When the Cold War began in the 1940s, Kennedy agreed with the predominant view that the U.S. must contain Soviet expansion and aggression around the globe. He was elected to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate before winning the presidency in 1960. Kennedy wanted to avoid a nuclear war, but he was willing to take a strong stand against the Soviet Union—even if it increased tensions. His purpose was to protect the free world from communist aggression.


  • Crisis
  • Nuclear
  • Missiles
  • Continental
  • Disastrous
  • Oust
  • Communist
  • Appeasing
  • Predominant
  • Avert
  • Belicose
  • U-2
  • Analysts
  • Missile silos
  • ExComm
  • Ascertain
  • Installation
  • Blockade
  • Quarantine
  • Bellicose
  • Intervening
  • Combative
  • Annihilation
  • Steely

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website


Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was President Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis?
  • What was Kennedy’s purpose?
  • What decision did Kennedy make in the Cuban Missile Crisis? Why? Do you believe it was the right decisions? Why or why not?
  • How did President Kennedy’s purposeful decision in the Cuban Missile Crisis help protect freedom?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Blight, David G. and David A. Welch. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Re-examine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
  • Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Boston: Little Brown, 2003.
  • Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: Norton, 1997.
  • May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.