Pitfalls from Cuban missile crisis still in play
The Cuban missile crisis occurred more than a half century ago, but the lessons of that terrifying Cold War episode remain important. Fading of memories over time argue more strongly for reviewing the story.
Dangers of fatal military miscalculation may be greater today than during the Cold War. In the United States, our military presence in the Mideast fuels partisan political debate but little discussion of potential confrontation with Russia.
During Oct. 22-28, 1962, the Cuba crisis dominated world attention, as Washington and Moscow sparred on the edge of thermonuclear war. Lessons include difficulty of securing accurate intelligence, and the unpredictability of events.
On Oct. 14, 1962, U.S. reconnaissance photos revealed the Soviet Union was placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite contrary assurances. On Oct. 16, after thorough review and analysis, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy and his advisers spent a week debating options. On Oct. 22, 1962, he addressed the nation and stated the missiles must be removed. Until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw them on Oct. 28, Armageddon loomed.
Senior Kennedy administration officials, with the exception of CIA Director John McCone, had assumed Moscow would never put long-range missiles into Cuba. They erroneously calculated the Soviets also felt the move would be just too risky.
Earlier, reconnaissance flights over Cuba were curtailed to avoid antagonizing Moscow, and resumed only because McCone aggressively pressed the matter. Analysis developed photographic evidence of the Soviet deception just before the missiles would become operational.
However, there was already circumstantial evidence, including reports from reliable Cuba agents, that something of this nature was underway. As with the George W. Bush administration regarding Iraq weapons, senior officials chose evidence they preferred.
At the start of the crisis, there was strong sentiment, especially among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a conventional air attack followed by an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy imaginatively decided instead on a naval quarantine as the U.S. first step.
Years after the crisis, surviving policy makers from Cuba, the Soviet Union and the U.S. initiated a series of meetings which have revealed important new dimensions and insights. Soviet commanders already had shorter-range nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, and at least for a time the authority to use them in the event of an American invasion of the island.
Soviet submarine commanders had nuclear-armed torpedoes. The important book by Michael Dobbs, “One Minute to Midnight,” documents an occasion in which the commanding officer of a Soviet sub nearly launched one against the harassing U.S. Navy ships.
At the top of our own government, civil-military relations were in some respects sorely tested. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara already had generally poor relations with most, though not all, senior uniformed officers. He clashed heatedly, and publicly, with Chief of Naval Operations George Anderson. Yet organizational discipline, and our nation, survived.
Bundy’s history of the nuclear age, “Danger and Survival,” published a quarter century after the crisis, revealed that Kennedy privately accepted (while publicly rejecting) a Soviet proposal for a Cuba-Turkey missile trade.
Throughout the crisis, Kennedy demonstrated calm, open-minded engagement. He assembled a group that freely debated a wide range of options. When tensions mounted, the president would shrewdly suggest taking a break. The initial strong support for immediate military attack dissipated.
Lessons of the crisis include importance of thorough, objective intelligence analysis and communicating effectively with opponents. Then and now, strong U.S. presidential leadership is essential.
Today, U.S. troops are in the Mideast along with forces from Russia, Iran, Israel, Syria, Turkey and various national and terrorist groups. Yet partisan politics drives the debate, not clear consideration of our national interests. There is almost no discussion of possible accidental war.
Cuban missile crisis lessons remain important, ignored at our peril.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”