Most striking to me as a young man back then were the words of the chastened and humbled elders who had so narrowly avoided inflicting mass destruction on
the world. They spoke of the dangers of misjudgment, miscalculation, and the unintended consequences of military action. Upon discovery of the missile
sites in Cuba, several of Kennedy's top advisors called for an immediate airstrike and invasion. But, as the world first learned at our meeting, the
Soviets had delivered 100 tactical nuclear weapons that the local Soviet commander could use without additional codes from Moscow. Had we invaded, the
weapons would have killed tens of thousands of U.S. marines -- and may even have struck Miami. As McNamara affirmed, the United States would have responded
with nuclear weapons, triggering a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union that would have killed more than 150 million
people. McNamara had no doubt: "Where would it have ended? In utter disaster for the world."
The veterans of the missile crisis repeatedly pointed to our shared humanity and our shared fallibility. McNamara said: "I think the first lesson, to me as
a participant, was to learn, in a way I have never forgotten, that human beings are fallible .... We are subject to misinformation, miscalculation, and
misjudgment." JFK's special counsel, Ted Sorensen, baldly said: "There is plenty of blame to be shared by all three countries represented here today ... and
there is no such thing as precise calculations of the future of our actions."
Today we see the many unintended consequences of military action -- even with the best intentions -- in the Arab Spring, with the tragic cost to Syrian
children, the sectarian vengeance between the Sunni majority and the ruling minority Alawites. The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi became a lesson to rogue
regimes around the world that they should develop and keep nuclear weapons to ensure their survival (and not negotiate their WMD programs away to the West
as Gaddafi did), or how in the chaos of the civil war in Libya, weapons disappeared from their depots and ended up in the hands of radical Islamists who
now control northern Mali, Libya's neighbor. You cut one head off the mythical Hydra, and the beast grows two more.
A second lesson is that human beings can become extreme, irrational, and suicidal under crisis conditions. Our meetings showed how much more reckless
revolutionary authoritarian regimes can be when cornered, reminding us today of Iran, North Korea, Libya, or Syria. At our meetings, we learned for the
first time of the cable that Fidel Castro sent to Khrushchev calling on him to be the first to fire nuclear missiles, to launch a preemptive strike against
downtown Manhattan and other major American cities with a warhead 60 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. Realizing that events were
spinning out of control, Khrushchev broadcast over open radio his pledge to remove the missiles. We heard from Khrushchev's secret memoirs his inner
thoughts about Castro's cable: "This is insane. Not only is he preparing to die himself, he wants to drag us with him. Only lunatics or suicides, who
themselves want to perish and to destroy the whole world before they die, could do this."
At the table, Castro admitted that he fully supported use of tactical nuclear weapons and firing the missiles if the U.S. took military action.
Fortunately, JFK resisted calls to invade and Khrushchev raced to accept a negotiated end to the crisis. We got a clear view of Castro's mindset, driven by
nationalism and fanaticism, a peculiar product of the Cuban experience, the mythology that the country had created in its struggle as a small nation
against a neighboring goliath. Castro was completely resigned to the fact that they were all going to die if the U.S. invaded. And it would be a heroic
death for a just cause. In the South Pacific in WWII, Kennedy had seen Japanese soldiers and civilians commit suicide rather than surrender. He learned
that overwhelming force does not mean your opponent will capitulate. We saw similar behavior most recently in Libya, where the Gaddafi regime chose to let
the country be devastated and "fight to the last bullet" rather than capitulate to rebels and the demands of the established big powers -- of France, the
U.K. and the United States. It took 10,000 NATO strikes and 30,000 dead. The death toll in Syria has already reached 30,000 and Assad is still presiding
over the destruction of his country.