What the Cuban Missile Crisis Should Teach Us
Fifty years later, this famous moment of Cold War history remains strangely misunderstood.
Khrushchev really did believe that the United States might launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. The notion wasn’t so far-fetched. During the Berlin crisis, Kennedy had ordered the Pentagon to conduct a study of whether such a strike was possible. The top secret study—a detailed, 36-page attack plan—concluded that it was very feasible. It’s unknown how much Khrushchev knew about this plan, but the Joint Chiefs wrote follow-up assessments, Kennedy himself read them and held at least one meeting in the Oval Office to discuss the issue. (I got these documents declassified for a story about the first-strike plan that I wrote for the October 2001 issue of the Atlantic.)
The Soviet premier had not given up on grabbing West Berlin, but he knew he had no leverage. If the United States did launch a nuclear strike, he wasn’t even sure that any of his missiles or bombers would be capable of retaliating.
Khrushchev did have a fair number of medium-range missiles, so he shipped them to Cuba, to put them within firing range of the United States. If he could install them without notice, then announce another gambit on Berlin (as he was planning to do in November 1962), those missiles would give him something to bargain with.
But the American U-2s spotted the missiles. And once Kennedy announced that they had, Khrushchev knew he would have to pull them out. The question was how to do so without suffering another humiliation.
As it happened, Kennedy was thinking along the same lines. The secret tapes reveal that on Oct. 18, just the third day of the crisis, Kennedy wondered aloud why Khrushchev had put the missiles in Cuba. He figured they must have been part of a bargaining gambit and that, to get them out, he might have to give Khrushchev “some out,” a way to save face. One way, he mused, might be to say, “If you pull them out, we’ll take ours out of Turkey.”
None of JFK’s advisers paid any attention to his remark. On the final day, Oct. 25, when Khrushchev proposed just such a trade, Kennedy pounced on it eagerly. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” the president is heard saying on the tapes. “Most people think that if you’re allowed an even trade, you ought to take advantage of it.” If we go to war, mounting air strikes and then an invasion on Cuba, and if the Soviets respond by grabbing Berlin, he added, “everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, this Khrushchev offer was a pretty good proposition.’”
Everybody around the table fiercely opposed the trade, saying it would destroy NATO, weaken our standing in the world, trigger all kinds of disasters. Toward the very end of the discussion, the only adviser agreeing with JFK was George Ball, an undersecretary of state who would later be the Johnson administration’s sole dissident on escalation in Vietnam. Kennedy ignored the overwhelming majority of his aides and instructed his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy (who also opposed it), to go tell the Soviet ambassador that he would take the deal—but only if it was kept secret. And it was, for the next 25 years, until the tapes were about to come out and a few of JFK’s advisers decided to reveal the truth pre-emptively—though even then, they didn’t say that they opposed the trade.
The resolution of the Cuban crisis may hold some lessons for crises today.
First, antagonists should stay in touch with each other. There was no telephone contact between Kennedy and Khrushchev in October 1962. But they did send telegrams back and forth, and Kennedy maintained a back channel through the Soviet embassy—even as ships and submarines confronted one another, troops were mobilized, and, in one particularly tense moment, a U-2 spy plane was shot down. Without those communiqués, the crisis might easily have escalated into war.
Second, at some point, one side might clearly have the upper hand, in which case it should seek ways to give the other side a way out. This doesn’t necessarily mean surrendering the interests at stake. The Jupiter missiles that JFK traded weren’t much good anyway. The United States was about to station new Polaris submarines in the Mediterranean; each sub carried 16 nuclear missiles and was less vulnerable to attack. The United States, in other words, gave up nothing in military capability.
Third, there is no contradiction between striking a deal and maintaining vigilance; compromise is not the same as appeasement. According to a cleverly titled new book by David Coleman, The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, disputes continued for months after the Turkish deal was struck, and tensions occasionally flared, over the terms and timing of the withdrawal of Soviet weapons from Cuba. Kennedy held his ground. But neither side stormed off or retriggered the crisis.
Fourth, there should be no illusions that the resolution of one crisis will spawn an era of peace. The Turkish trade didn’t save Khrushchev’s face quite enough in the end. Two years later, he was ousted by Kremlin hard-liners, who then proceeded to fund a massive ICBM build-up to match what the United States had already started to do. The Cold War was matched, and fueled, by a nuclear arms race for another 30 years. Still, never again was there an armed confrontation over Berlin or Cuba.
The current standoff with Iran over the state of its nuclear program is hardly as intense as the Cuban crisis, but it bears some of the same patterns. Under tremendous pressure, in this case financial, Iran’s leaders are offering compromises to ease the crisis. Their terms to date are unacceptable—they’d require the West to call off the sanctions before Iran stopped enriching uranium—but that doesn’t mean the door to talks should be closed. We don’t know the Iranians’ precise motives or how they assess the balance of forces. They might simply be trying to keep us dangling, but they might genuinely be looking for “some out,” as Kennedy put it. Unless we want war (and some do), it’s worth extending and paying close attention to any feelers. The Cuban missile crisis—the reality, not the myth—offers some pointers on how to do that.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.