What the Cuban Missile Crisis Tells Us About Facing Down Enemies Today

For one, don't try to corner them.


President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office. (Wikimedia Commons)

Few people today know that Robert McNamara, the man who had President John F. Kennedy's ear as U.S. defense secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis, met Fidel Castro face-to-face years later in Cuba to reflect on the slip to the edge of nuclear armageddon. Or that, at the same gathering, former CIA Deputy Director Ray Cline -- who led countless plots to kill Castro in addition to the operation that discovered the Cuban missile sites -- cordially thanked the Cuban leader for the visa to attend the conference. Castro feigned a look of shock, and said, "Why, Mr. Cline, it is our pleasure. Allow me to say how grateful we are that -- this time -- you asked for one."

In 1989 and 1992, I worked to convene meetings in Moscow and Havana with the key players in 1962's harrowing "Thirteen Days in October," bringing together former enemies to talk about the events that led to the brink of the abyss. I sat at the table with former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the legendary "Mr. Nyet"; former Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin; Sergei Khrushchev, editor of the secret memoirs of his father, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; Robert McNamara; Fidel Castro; former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and others. As director of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Crisis Prevention, I was fortunate to participate in these unprecedented candid conversations that revealed how close we had come that autumn to a radioactive nuclear winter.

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.

Another lesson has to do with the "red lines" and the nuclear crisis with Iran. In 1962, JFK never did use the term "red line." His actions provide no basis for the "lesson" that George W. Bush proffered to justify preemptive action in Iraq, nor is there a direct parallel with Iran. Kennedy did announce that the missiles were unacceptable and demanded that Khrushchev remove them. JFK was willing to risk war to reduce the chance of war. But Kennedy's military blockade of Cuba to prevent further offensive weapon components from reaching the island was first and foremost a way to buy time to negotiate and find a way out of the crisis. (In fact, as revealed in our meetings, the Soviets had already delivered the nuclear warheads for the missiles, something the CIA had never been able to confirm. Trucks loaded with warheads were in fact parked next to the missiles on their launch pads).

JFK's position was "Never negotiate from fear, but never fear to negotiate." He took all measures to avoid pushing his opponent into a situation where the choice was between humiliating defeat or a devastating war -- a lesson that can help us defuse conflicts and create a more peaceful world now.