Editor’s choice January/February 2013

The Real Cuban Missile Crisis

Everything you think you know about those 13 days is wrong.

Remarkably, given the alarmed and confrontational posture that Washington adopted during the missile crisis, the tapes of the ExComm deliberations, which Stern has minutely assessed, reveal that Kennedy and his advisers understood the nuclear situation in much the same way Khrushchev did. On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”

Once that was straightened out, Kennedy himself declared repeatedly that the Jupiter missiles were “the same” as the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Rusk, in discussing the Soviet motivation for sending missiles to Cuba, cited CIA Director John McCone’s view that Khrushchev “knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority … He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours. Also, we have nuclear weapons nearby, in Turkey.” The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, had already acknowledged that the Soviets’ primary purpose in installing missiles in Cuba was “to supplement their rather defective ICBM system.”

The Soviets were entirely justified in their belief that Kennedy wanted to destroy the Castro regime.

Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.” America’s European allies, Kennedy continued, “will argue that taken at its worst the presence of these missiles really doesn’t change” the nuclear balance.

That the missiles were close to the United States was, as the president conceded, immaterial: the negligible difference in flight times between Soviet Union–based ICBMs and Cuba-based missiles wouldn’t change the consequences when the missiles hit their targets, and in any event, the flight times of Soviet SLBMs were already as short as or shorter than the flight times of the missiles in Cuba would be, because those weapons already lurked in submarines off the American coast (as of course did American SLBMs off the Soviet coast). Moreover, unlike Soviet ICBMs, the missiles in Cuba required several hours to be prepared for launch. Given the effectiveness of America’s aerial and satellite reconnaissance (amply demonstrated by the images of missiles in the U.S.S.R. and Cuba that they yielded), the U.S. almost certainly would have had far more time to detect and respond to an imminent Soviet missile strike from Cuba than to attacks from Soviet bombers, ICBMs, or SLBMs.

“A missile is a missile,” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asserted. “It makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.” On that first day of the ExComm meetings, Bundy asked directly, “What is the strategic impact on the position of the United States of MRBMs in Cuba? How gravely does this change the strategic balance?” McNamara answered, “Not at all”—a verdict that Bundy then said he fully supported. The following day, Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen summarized the views of the ExComm in a memorandum to Kennedy. “It is generally agreed,” he noted, “that these missiles, even when fully operational, do not significantly alter the balance of power—i.e., they do not significantly increase the potential megatonnage capable of being unleashed on American soil, even after a surprise American nuclear strike.”

Sorensen’s comment about a surprise attack reminds us that while the missiles in Cuba did not add appreciably to the nuclear menace, they could have somewhat complicated America’s planning for a successful first strike—which may well have been part of Khrushchev’s rationale for deploying them. If so, the missiles paradoxically could have enhanced deterrence between the superpowers, and thereby reduced the risk of nuclear war.

Yet, although the missiles’ military significance was negligible, the Kennedy administration advanced on a perilous course to force their removal. The president issued an ultimatum to a nuclear power—an astonishingly provocative move, which immediately created a crisis that could have led to catastrophe. He ordered a blockade on Cuba, an act of war that we now know brought the superpowers within a hair’s breadth of nuclear confrontation. The beleaguered Cubans willingly accepted their ally’s weapons, so the Soviet’s deployment of the missiles was fully in accord with international law. But the blockade, even if the administration euphemistically called it a “quarantine,” was, the ExComm members acknowledged, illegal. As the State Department’s legal adviser recalled, “Our legal problem was that their action wasn’t illegal.” Kennedy and his lieutenants intently contemplated an invasion of Cuba and an aerial assault on the Soviet missiles there—acts extremely likely to have provoked a nuclear war. In light of the extreme measures they executed or earnestly entertained to resolve a crisis they had largely created, the American reaction to the missiles requires, in retrospect, as much explanation as the Soviet decision to deploy them—or more.

The Soviets suspected that the U.S. viewed a nuclear first strike as an attractive option. They were right to be suspicious.

On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.”

In his presidential bid, Kennedy had red-baited the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, charging that its policies had “helped make Communism’s first Caribbean base.” Given that he had defined a tough stance toward Cuba as an important election issue, and given the humiliation he had suffered with the Bay of Pigs debacle, the missiles posed a great political hazard to Kennedy. As the State Department’s director of intelligence and research, Roger Hilsman, later put it, “The United States might not be in mortal danger, but … the administration most certainly was.” Kennedy’s friend John Kenneth Galbraith, the ambassador to India, later said: “Once [the missiles] were there, the political needs of the Kennedy administration urged it to take almost any risk to get them out.”

But even weightier than the domestic political catastrophe likely to befall the administration if it appeared to be soft on Cuba was what Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Martin called “the psychological factor” that we “sat back and let ’em do it to us.” He asserted that this was “more important than the direct threat,” and Kennedy and his other advisers energetically concurred. Even as Sorensen, in his memorandum to the president, noted the ExComm’s consensus that the Cuban missiles didn’t alter the nuclear balance, he also observed that the ExComm nevertheless believed that “the United States cannot tolerate the known presence” of missiles in Cuba “if our courage and commitments are ever to be believed by either allies or adversaries” (emphasis added). America’s European allies (not to mention the Soviets) insisted that Washington should ignore these intangible concerns, but Sorensen was dismissive. Appealing to psychology rather than to the hard calculations of statecraft, he asserted that such arguments “carried some logic but little weight.”

Indeed, Washington’s self-regard for its credibility was almost certainly the main reason it risked nuclear war over a negligible threat to national security. At the same meeting in which Kennedy and his aides were contemplating military action against Cuba and the U.S.S.R.—action they knew could bring about an apocalyptic war—the president stated, “Last month I said we weren’t going to [permit Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba] and last month I should have said … we don’t care. But when we said we’re not going to, and [the Soviets] go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then … I would think that our … risks increase.”

The risks of such a cave-in, Kennedy and his advisers held, were distinct but related. The first was that America’s foes would see Washington as pusillanimous; the known presence of the missiles, Kennedy said, “makes them look like they’re coequal with us and that”—here Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon interrupted: “We’re scared of the Cubans.” The second risk was that America’s friends would suddenly doubt that a country given to appeasement could be relied on to fulfill its obligations.

In fact, America’s allies, as Bundy acknowledged, were aghast that the U.S. was threatening nuclear war over a strategically insignificant condition—the presence of intermediate-range missiles in a neighboring country—that those allies (and, for that matter, the Soviets) had been living with for years. In the tense days of October 1962, being allied with the United States potentially amounted to, as Charles de Gaulle had warned, “annihilation without representation.” It seems never to have occurred to Kennedy and the ExComm that whatever Washington gained by demonstrating the steadfastness of its commitments, it lost in an erosion of confidence in its judgment.

This approach to foreign policy was guided—and remains guided—by an elaborate theorizing rooted in a school-playground view of world politics rather than the cool appraisal of strategic realities. It put—and still puts—America in the curious position of having to go to war to uphold the very credibility that is supposed to obviate war in the first place.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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