Stepping Back from the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Lessons for Today
by John Whitehead
We are now 60 years away from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The October 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over Soviet nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba was a moment when the world came perilously close to nuclear war.
This crisis’ anniversary has new significance in 2022, as the world faces a new confrontation between the United States and Russia that poses a similar danger. US President Joseph Biden recently said that for the “first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon[s].”
The current situation gives special importance to remembering the 1962 crisis and learning whatever lessons from it that can be useful in avoiding war today. (I rely here primarily on Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 [New York: Norton, 1997].)
Two Cold War Problems
The Cuban Missile Crisis can be interpreted as arising from two overlapping Cold War problems:
Nuclear Arms Race. The United States, being the first nation to build nuclear weapons, by the early 1960s possessed a larger number of nuclear weapons and more technologically sophisticated weapons than the Soviet Union. The United States also had nuclear weapons stationed outside its borders, in various US-allied countries from which they could reach the Soviet Union relatively quickly.
Given that even a very small number of relatively low-tech nuclear weapons can be devastating in war, such numerical and technological imbalances supposedly shouldn’t matter. However, according to the paranoid logic that nuclear deterrence can encourage, these imbalances can be interpreted as giving one side an advantage. Imbalances raise the question: Could the other side use its superiority to strike first in an effort to destroy our nuclear arsenal before we can retaliate? By this logic, the Soviet Union had a problem.
Cuba. A 1958 revolution overthrew the US-backed dictator of Cuba and brought to power a new, left-wing regime led by Fidel Castro. Cuba’s relationship with the United States deteriorated, and the new regime sought closer ties with the Soviet Union, which provided Castro with military aid.
As the United States pursued covert efforts to undermine Castro’s power, Nikita Khrushchev, the preeminent Soviet leader, made repeated public pledges to defend the island against the United States. In 1960, Khrushchev even implied the Soviets would defend Cuba with nuclear weapons.
US efforts to destroy Castro’s regime culminated early in President John F. Kennedy’s administration. In April 1961, Kennedy supported an attempted invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro forces with the intention of overthrowing Castro. The invasion at the island’s Bay of Pigs ended in disaster, but it underlined for the Soviets the danger their Cuban ally faced. Soviet-Cuban military ties increased after the invasion, while the Kennedy administration continued working against Castro, even plotting his assassination.
US-Soviet relations worsened during 1961-62. Kennedy and Khrushchev had a hostile summit meeting in June 1961. The Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing in 1961, after a years-long moratorium. The United States soon resumed its own nuclear tests.
Amid this tense international situation, Khrushchev decided in early 1962 to station Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. This step could address both problems: being able to quickly strike the United States seemingly evened out the US-Soviet nuclear imbalance, and Castro’s regime would be protected from invasion. To his inner circle, Khrushchev commented, “the only way to save Cuba is to put missiles there” and that just as US weapons stationed close to the Soviet Union “are aimed at us and scare us,” Soviet missiles in Cuba would “give them back some of their own medicine” (Fursenko and Naftali, 182). The Soviet leadership agreed on May 21, 1962 to put missiles in Cuba.
The Soviets carried out their plan over the summer and early fall. By early October, Soviet forces in Cuba had over 30 missiles. Each could be armed with a 1-megaton warhead and each could hit a wide swath of the southeastern United States. The Soviets in Cuba also had 12 tactical nuclear weapons they could use if the United States attacked the island.
The crisis erupted when an American surveillance plane spotted the missiles. Kennedy learned about the missiles on October 16 and for almost a week secretly consulted his advisors on what to do. They considered trying to get rid of the missiles by bombing or invading Cuba. However, some argued the Cuban missiles had no military significance, given US nuclear superiority. Others pointed to the comparable presence of US missiles close to the Soviet Union, in allied countries such as Turkey.
Two crucial restraints helped prevent a US attack on Cuba. One was uncertainty about the missiles’ status: were any ready to launch? Could one be launched before the United States destroyed them? Another restraint was the fear the Soviets would retaliate with military action against West Berlin, a US-aligned outpost deep in Communist East Germany.
Kennedy instead chose an option that he announced in a televised speech on October 22. Calling the missiles “a definite threat to peace,” he urged Khrushchev to remove them. The United States would impose a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further “offensive military equipment” being sent there. Although his tone was confrontational, Kennedy was effectively playing for time, warning the Soviets without yet taking action against the Cuban missiles.
The Soviets responded in kind. Khrushchev sent messages to Kennedy defying the blockade, while the Soviet military raised its level of preparedness. Alongside these threatening signals, though, the Soviet leadership decided first to curtail and then stop any further military shipments to Cuba, so as not to violate the US blockade.
Behind the scenes, Americans and Soviets looked for a diplomatic resolution that would allow both sides to back down without losing. As early as October 17, Kennedy had been considering withdrawing US nuclear missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Cuban missiles’ withdrawal. Following Kennedy’s October 22 speech, US policymakers sent various messages, via a private channel, to the Soviets proposing this swap.
Khrushchev and his inner circle agreed to propose their own deal: they would withdraw the missiles if the US guaranteed not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev sent this proposal to Kennedy October 26. Khrushchev later added the Cuba-Turkey missile swap to his proposed deal.
Despite the mutual search for a peaceful resolution, the situation remained quite dangerous. Some US policymakers still advocated attacking Cuba. Had the United States done so, Soviet forces might have used their tactical nuclear weapons in response.
People lower down the chain of the command also could shape events. The Soviets had submarines armed with nuclear weapons near Cuba; on October 27, one such submarine got into a confrontation with US blockade ships. The submarine commander apparently reacted to American depth charges (intended as warnings) by considering use of a nuclear missile. He was overruled by another officer.
Probably the crisis’ most dangerous moment occurred because of unauthorized action far removed from the top policymakers. The morning of October 27, two Soviet officers in Cuba learned of an American surveillance plane overhead. They feared the plane was gathering information for an imminent US invasion, and they could not reach their commander to get instructions. They opted to shoot the plane down, killing its pilot, Rudolf Anderson. When he learned of the incident, though, Kennedy crucially decided not to retaliate.
A meeting between the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin finalized the terms of a diplomatic deal. The Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba, while the United States promised not to invade Cuba and would withdraw its missiles from Turkey (the Turkish missiles part of the deal would be a secret, though). The Soviets accepted the deal on October 28.
By year’s end, all Soviet nuclear weapons were removed from Cuba. By early 1963, the US missiles left Turkey. That same year, the two nations reached an agreement to limit nuclear testing.
Despite their justifiable mutual suspicions, fears, and hostility, policymakers on both sides were ultimately able to defuse a confrontation that could have spiraled into nuclear war. I will suggest a few lessons from the episode that are applicable today, including to current US-Russian relations.
Show caution. War could have broken out had either side acted recklessly or tried to force a showdown. The US decision not to attack Cuba and the Soviet decision to avoid violation of the blockade helped prevent such consequences.
Communicate. US-Soviet communications, both official and private, were essential to a resolution. Private communication was especially important in reaching agreements that couldn’t be discussed publicly. Recognition of communication’s importance led to the US and Soviet Union, in 1963, establishing a special “hotline” for 24-hour communication.
Leave an exit. Resolving the crisis required that each nation get something that allowed its leaders to claim a victory. As Kennedy later said, “nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
Beware uncontrollable situations. As the killing of Major Anderson showed, events can overtake policymakers. Large-scale, high-tension military confrontations raise the probability of violence breaking out because of minor incidents that escalate. This probability is a reason such confrontations should be avoided and quickly cooled down if they do occur. As Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev after the crisis, “I think that you and I, with our heavy responsibilities for the maintenance of peace, were aware that developments were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable” (quoted in Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power [New York: Touchstone, 1993], 425).
All these principles are worth bearing in mind in future international relations. And I will add one more, the most important:
As long as nuclear weapons exist, humanity is in grave danger. The destructive power of nuclear weapons means international conflicts, even ones that start relatively small, could kill billions and devastate our world. A confrontation over Cuba had the potential to end civilization, just as the present confrontation over Ukraine does.
This last lesson should give us fresh motivation to try to end the nuclear danger, or at least try to reduce it to the lowest level possible. We won’t always have the good luck we had in 1962.
For more of John Whitehead’s posts on nuclear dangers, see:
A Hidden Cost of the Ukraine War: How Russia’s Invasion Encourages the Spread of Nuclear Weapons