|Cuban Missile Crisis
by Bruce L. Brager
The Cuban Missile Crisis, the October 1962 showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union over the Soviets placing nuclear missiles in Cuba and the American reaction, is justly considered the most serious incident of the Cold War.
Primary among the lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis is trying to answer the question of whether the crisis was solved because of John F. Kennedy’s presidential leadership, or whether it was solved because Kennedy, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, were able to successful hold back their forces and restraint their hawks. Was the danger leadership miscalculation, or just “some sonofabitch who did not get the word?” as Kennedy eloquently put it at one point, about a change in policy or a pending crisis settlement.
However, in one very important respect the lessons do not matter. The world was never closer to superpower nuclear war than between October 14 and October 27, 1962. On October 26, on at least three occasions, we were probably a few minutes away – when an American U-2 spy plane accidently flew several hundred miles into Soviet territory; when a second U-2 was shot down over Cuba (without authorization from Moscow);, and when a Soviet submarine, out of touch with Moscow, with a nuclear armed torpedo, was forced to surface and found itself surrounded by four American destroyers. The captain had to be talked out of firing off his nuclear torpedo. Even the next day, with the world pulling back from the brink of nuclear war, the American radar warning system reported a missile headed to Tampa. This turned out to be a misreport of a satellite, a result of an incredible timing coincidence between a radar test and the basic physics of a satellite in Earth orbit.
The bottom line is that when the crisis ended we were still around to learn, or mislearn, the lessons of the crisis.
The basic of the crisis are relatively simple to describe. The Soviet Union put offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, able to reach targets in the United States, obstensively to help defend Cuba against American attack by deterring the attack and to help lesson the Soviet strategic disadvantage. (The “missile gap” John Kennedy had used against the Republicans in 1960 did exist, but in favor of the United States.) The Central Intelligence Agency had some hint of what the Soviets were doing as far back as August 1962 (the same month in which a B-52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, got lost flying from Greenland to Alaska and started heading to the Soviet Union) but misinterpreted the information they received. The CIA did, however, spot undeniable preparations for the missiles on October 14, 1962.
The Soviet action was a dangerous destabilization of the balance of power, which had kept the peace between the superpowers, to that time. Their case that their missiles near America’s borders were not different that the already in place American missiles near Soviet borders was undermined by initial Soviet lying about the missiles being in Cuba. John Kennedy had photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba in his office during a meeting with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko when the Soviet again denied Soviet missiles being in Cuba. This did not help Soviet credibility.
American credibility, however, was not helped by our history of dealing with Cuba. We had strongly supported the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista, which Fidel Castro overthrew on January 1, 1959. There is no reason to believe that the United States had any window of opportunity, as it did with North Vietnam just after World War Two, to become friendly with Castro. But the United States did not try. Active efforts were well underway to overthrow Castro by the time John Kennedy became President on January 20, 1961. The Bay of Pigs plan for an invasion of Cuba was presented to Kennedy when he took office. Tinkering with the plan took what was probably a bad strategic idea to begin with and added tactical errors, if not downright incompetence. The April invasion failed. Castro held on to power until 2007, when health caused him to turn over power to his brother Raul.
What the Bay of Pigs did accomplish was to add nationalist support to counteract Cuban disillusionment with Castro’s already failing economic policies. The Soviets now saw the need to support their embattled Socialist brothers, providing ideological as well as strategic advantages to a base 90 miles from the United States. The Soviets also seem to have found the Cuban revolutionaries invigorating, at least initially, adding a breath of fresh air to the tired Soviet bureaucracy.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was marked by an odd lack of direct superpower negotiations, partially due to the lack of reliable high speed communications, and much of this negotiation was by public announcement. On the evening of Monday, October 22, 1962, President Kennedy spoke on television to the American people. This was, basically, the public announcement of the crisis. Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He declared a blockade, called a quarentine, of Cuba where all approaching vessels would be stopped and searched. Kennedy also announced that soviet or Cuban use of the missiles against any nation in the western hemisphere would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union against the United States, calling for a “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Khrushchev would spend some time blustering in the next few days. However, after receiving an American diplomatic letter announcing the quarantine, Khrushchev ordered most of the Soviet vessels headed to Cuba to turn around and return to the Soviet Union. The U.S. Navy let a few ships through, but no Soviet ship would challenge an order to stop. Khrushchev may have blinked, as members of the American policy making committee, Ex-Comm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) claimed two days later, but he blinked in private two days before.
On Thursday morning Moscow time, October 25, Khrushchev told the Soviet politburo that he was withdrawing the missiles. On Friday, he sent a message announcing this to Washington. But, a day later, a second message demanded the removal of American missiles from Turkey in exchange for taking Soviet missiles out of Cuba. Famously, Kennedy responded to the first message. Privately, word was spread to the Soviets that the missiles would come out of Turkey, something which happened in six months.
The interesting thing about the crisis is that the big power messages, though they settled the crisis, did not reflect what may have been the more dangerous problem. Both sides had hawks urging them to military action. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff, in particular Air Force commander Curtis LeMay, urged immediate military action. LeMay is considered the model for the ultra hawkish General Buck Turgidson in
Dr. Strangelove, though it has to be remembered that Turgidson is not the one who started the final war. That was started by a nutty relatively junior general, with the not so subtle name of Jack D. Ripper. Perhaps accidently, this also reflects missile crisis realities, that lower level commanders, without knowledge of a doomsday weapon (or tactical Soviet nuclear weapons) could outdo even their seemingly reckless bosses in causing fatal damage.
Interestingly, the hawkish posturing by the American military commanders overt Cuba came almost totally from the Air Force and the Navy, not the Army and the Marines who would have provided the boots on the ground in Cuba.
The Soviets had short range tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. They would probably have been used against invading American troops, or naval concentrations, likely causing heavy casualties and provoking a strategic nuclear exchange. In theory these weapons could only be used after a direct order from Moscow, but little technology existed to prevent weapons from being fired by local commanders. This included nuclear armed cruise missiles aimed at Guantanamo Naval Base.
Khrushchev had more control over his own immediate subordinates. (Two years later he learned he had less control than he thought.) His hawks primarily were the Cubans. Castro expected an American invasion at any moment, and kept urging the Soviets to stage a preemptive nuclear strike. Khrushchev would not even consider such action. Local Soviet commanders did respond to Cuban complain about low and higher level American reconnaissance flights. The Cubans fired at some flights, but to no effect. However, on Saturday afternoon, October 27, the Soviets destroyed a U-2, killing the pilot, with a Surface to Air, SAM, missile. The missile was fired on the authority of local commanders, who did not check first with Moscow.
Reckless he may have been, but Fidel Castro survived both Kennedy and Khrushchev by 45 years. John Kennedy was assassinated 13 months after the crisis ended. Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in October of 1964, and died in 1970. Castro stayed in power until 2007.
To add to the missile crisis danger, each side conducted a nuclear test at this time. An American U-2 flew to the North Pole to try and collect radiation samples. At about the same time the U-2 was shot down over Cuba, the North Pole pilot got lost on the way back to his base in Alaska, and ended up several hundred miles over Soviet air space. Fortunately, the pilot made it back with no further danger. It turned out that even the Air Force commanders did not know about this particular flight, part of an ongoing series. (The pilot stayed in the Air Force, but was forbidden to fly anywhere near the North Pole or the Soviet Union.) An interesting thought is what have happened had a B-52 strayed over Soviet territory, as one almost did two months earlier.
Before 1963 was out, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed treaties establishing the hot line and banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The two U-2 incidents have to have been the back of the minds of the government when the United States, and the Soviet Union, developed satellites that could monitor military actions, with no need for more dangerously provocative over flights.
The United States learned the wrong lesson in Cuba for the Vietnam War. A controlled series of escalations might work against a major industrial power, like the Soviet Union, when it is also given a way out. It did not work against North Vietnam. Added to the fact that, like the American Revolution, the insurgent power had a lot more to gain from winning than the great power had to lose by losing, and the results in Vietnam might have been predicted.
The Soviets swore they would never again be forced to back down. They began a 25 year program of building up their nuclear forces to a level comparable with the Americans. But the Soviet economy was nowhere near comparable and could not take the strain. The final blow was the Soviet failure in Afghanistan, learning for themselves what we learned in Vietnam, and may have forgotten in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that high technology is surprisingly ineffective against low tech enemies. The historical irony is that the two Soviet uses of military force outside of Europe, Cuba and Afghanistan, proved disastrous. Two years after they withdrew from Afghanistan, 29 years after they agreed to take the missiles out of Cuba, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted from miscalculations on the part of both the Soviet Union and the United States, with the Soviet making the more serious error. The lessons for the future are not just the technical ones of the need for information and rapid communications, but the need for cool judgment by leaders, and by subordinates. The Cuban Missile Crisis was settled when both national leaders realized that playing for a win was not the goal, avoiding war was.
Allison, Graham. Essence of Decision. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
Brager, Bruce L. The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe. Forward by Senator George J. Mitchell. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.
Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
-The most recent work on the crisis. Uses information not available to other writers, to stress the theme that Kennedy and Khrushchev probably spend as much time keeping others from starting a war as in diplomacy and peace making.
Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days. Introductions by Robert S. MacNamara and Harold MacMillan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1969.
Munton, Don, and Welch, David A. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007
Scott, L. V. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Threat of Nuclear. London and New York, Continuum, 2007.
Copyright © 2011 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 01/30/2011.
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