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Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Excerpt from:
Sad and Luminous Days:
Cuba's Secret Struggles with the Superpowers after the Cuban Missile Crisis

By James G. Blight and Philip Brenner
Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

The most frequently chanted lesson of the missile crisis is derived from the traditional U.S. perspective: superior military capability combined with the firm resolve to use that capability will deter aggression and repel an aggressor. Raymond Garthoff, at the time an intelligence analyst in the State Department, summarized this guideline well in a memo for the Under Secretary of State on October 29, 1962, writing:

"If we have learned anything from this experience, it is that weakness, even only apparent weakness, invites Soviet transgression. At the same time, firmness in the last analysis will force the Soviets to back away from rash initiatives."

U.S. military superiority was seen as the "decisive factor" in bringing the crisis to a peaceful and successful conclusion. The metaphor of the two superpowers going eyeball to eyeball, as if in a macho game of "chicken," dominated post-crisis evaluations. Success became a matter of "buts," of proving resolve, because it was assumed that Khrushchev placed the missiles in Cuba in order to test Kennedy's resolve. "As a result of the crisis," James Nathan astutely observes, "force and toughness became enshrined as instruments of policy."

A Shared U.S.-Soviet Understanding

In reality, Kennedy was both more flexible than the early postmortems suggested and more sensitive to the Soviet need to salvage something positive from the crisis. In order to buy some time and avoid a direct confrontation with the Soviets, on October 25 he permitted a Soviet tanker (the Bucharest) to proceed through the quarantine. On October 28 the president instructed the ExComm members, as Robert Kennedy recalled, "that no interview should be given, no statement made which would claim any kind of victory. [President Kennedy] respected Khrushchev for properly determining what was in his own country's interest and what was in the interest of mankind." Perhaps most importantly, he offered up removal of the U.S. missiles in Turkey and was prepared to accept a public trade of the missiles if that was necessary to prevent a conflagration. The appropriate lesson that should have been drawn from this behavior, then, is that flexibility, compromise, and respect for an adversary's calculus of its vulnerability is essential for the peaceful outcome of a crisis. Instead, the traditional view of what is needed in a crisis-toughness and inflexibility-seemingly has guided U.S. officials for decades, in confrontations from Vietnam to Iraq.

A second lesson of the crisis emerged from the plaudits given to Kennedy for the way he handled the crisis. Arthur Schlesinger captured this lesson-that crises can be managed-in his elusive observation that the world escaped a nuclear war and the United States achieved its aims because of the president's "combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated." A clearer way of stating this lesson, though, might be that nuclear crises can be managed only when several unlikely conditions are present: leaders have sufficient time away from the glare of the media to learn about each other's positions and interests; good fortune at that moment provides each of the adversaries with leaders who have adroit political skills, the political will to limit their objectives, and sufficient self-confidence to reject advice from forceful advisers; and unforeseen events and unanticipated behavior by any of the thousands of people involved does not set off an uncontrollable chain reaction.

Since then, there have been many critiques of the view that the United States can act with blithe confidence that nuclear crises can be managed, though none is more poignant than the one articulated by Robert McNamara, who originally had embraced the traditional view. He noted that, had the Soviets launched any of their nuclear weapons in 1962, "the damage to our own [country] would have been disastrous." Then he added,

"But human beings are fallible. We know we all make mistakes. In our daily lives, mistakes are costly, but we try to learn from them. In conventional war, they cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to affect decisions related to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning period. They would result in the destruction of entire nations. Therefore, I strongly believe that the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of a potential nuclear catastrophe."

Notably, this was the lesson the Soviets took away from the crisis. For them, it was not the threat of force that ended the crisis. They saw U.S. threats-in the form of Gilpatric's speech and seeming plans to invade Cuba-as the cause of the crisis. Though some in the Kremlin may have derived a lesson similar to U.S. policymakers-that superior U.S. force led to a humiliating withdrawal that they would avoid in the future by building up their military forces.-the Soviet leadership believed the crisis ended because both Soviet and U.S. officials realized they were at the brink and that the crisis was threatening to destroy humankind. They did not fear only for their immediate safety and were not worried merely about losing a battle in Cuba. That kind of fear is of a personal nature, where one's own safety is at risk. That is the kind of fear evoked by the image of leaders going eyeball to eyeball. But a leader whose decisions may result in the deaths of thousands of others may experience a second kind of fear that is not common, the fear of deciding the fate of so many others, even civilization itself. Leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union experienced the second kind of fear during the missile crisis, which in fact was what enabled them to reach a peaceful solution.

In contrast to the Americans, the Soviets did not leave this episode with a belief that crises could be managed. They emphasized that crises must be prevented. Hard-liners argued that this could be achieved by building up Soviet military forces, to discourage U.S. aggressive tendencies. But Soviet concerns about losing control over their nuclear weapons also led them to resolve never again to place nuclear missiles in a country so far away from their home territory. Mark Kramer explains, "By underscoring how easily control could be lost, the crisis inevitably bolstered Moscow's determinations to ensure strict centralized command over all nuclear operations." The crisis taught others that political "means must govern international politics and be used to prevent or resolve conflicts." In this vein, they sought ways to improve communications between U.S. and Soviet leaders, to avoid the sorts of misunderstanding that occurred during the missile crisis that could escalate a confrontation unintentionally. Both countries embraced the installation of a "hotline" to facilitate the rapid and direct exchange of information between heads of state.

Cuba Learns a Different Lesson

But what would Kennedy have said to Fidel Castro if such a hot line had existed before the crisis? Imagine the conversation in which the U.S. president explained to the Cuban leader that "we are trying to assassinate you, but you shouldn't take it personally." From the Cuban perspective, the lessons of the crisis were not about the inability to control events due to misjudgment and miscalculation. Cuban leaders accurately perceived that the United States was trying to overthrow their government. In the first instance, crisis prevention for them meant that a superpower should treat all countries-not just another superpower-with equal respect. They believed Cuba's sovereignty should be accorded as much deference as the United States demanded for itself.

Cuba viewed the crisis from the vantage point of a small power, for whom an invasion by conventional means would be as threatening as a nuclear confrontation would be to a superpower. The Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement seemed to place Cuba in a perilous situation. It had been transformed into a strategic U.S. target when the Soviet Union placed missiles there. But then Soviet withdrawal of the missiles in the face of U.S. pressure made Cuba even more vulnerable. The Soviet Union's acquiescence suggested that it would not come to Cuba's assistance were the United States to attack the island. The Soviet posture, in Cuba's view, had created a new set of conditions that would encourage hard-liners in the United States to press for an invasion.

The Soviets did not seem to comprehend this perspective, and so they did not appreciate fully why the removal of the IL-28 bombers was so significant to the Cubans. Mikoyan tried to explain to Castro that the Soviets were leaving other weapons in Cuba that were superior to the IL-28s. But the Cuban leader saw the withdrawal of the bombers as tantamount to inviting a U.S. invasion, because it demonstrated to the United States that the Soviet Union would not stand with Cuba in the face of U.S. threats. "We realized," Castro explained to the 1968 Central Committee, "how alone we would be in the event of a war." In the same mode, he described the Soviet decision to remove all but 3,000 of its 42,000 military personnel from Cuba s "a freely granted concession to top off the concession of the withdrawal of the strategic missiles."

The primary lesson Cuba drew, then, was that neither superpower could be trusted. It viewed U.S. guarantees as ploys and Soviet promises as hollow. Both countries ignored Cuba during the crisis, and Castro's suspicion that the Soviets were treating Cuba as a bargaining chip were confirmed early in 1963 during his trip to the Soviet Union. He learned inadvertently then about the secret agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev to exchange U.S. missiles in Turkey for Soviet ones in Cuba. cover

Though the United States posed the immediate menace to Cuba in 1962, Castro was concerned about Cuba's relationship with the other superpower. Given the Soviet arrogance and lack of concern about Cuba's fundamental rights, joining the Soviet camp as a subservient member posed a potential long-term threat to Cuban sovereignty and independence. And so, in the six years immediately after the October Crisis, Cuba was worried about the threat posed by its friendship with the Soviet Union as it was about the danger arising from its enmity with the United States.

The Cuban Missile Crisis