What the Cuban Missile Crisis Should Teach Us
Fifty years later, this famous moment of Cold War history remains strangely misunderstood.
AP/Wide World Photo/U.S. Department of State.
The Cuban missile crisis broke out 50 years ago this month, and its lessons on weakness, strength, and compromise have been recited ever since by politicians, pundits, and historians. The problem—which has plagued U.S. foreign policy time and again—is that these lessons are myths, based on sheer lies about how the crisis began and how it ended.
One of these myths has been thoroughly exploded (though many eminences seem not to know it). This is the notion that President John F. Kennedy got Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove his nuclear missiles from Cuba entirely through the threat of force. In fact, as revealed by JFK’s secret tape recordings of his meetings with senior advisers (evidence that’s been available at the Kennedy Library for 25 years now), the two leaders brokered a deal: Khrushchev would take his missiles out of Cuba; Kennedy would take his very similar missiles out of Turkey.
But the other myth, no less pernicious in its impact (and no less false), still endures. This is the legend that Kennedy cowered before Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna in the spring of 1961 and that, as a result, the crafty Communist aggressively deployed missiles in Cuba thinking the young president was too weak to respond.
In fact, however, the evidence—much of it declassified a decade ago from the Kremlin archives, and recounted in Khrushchev’s Cold War, a superb book by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali—reveals that it was Khrushchev who shipped the missiles out of weakness and insecurity.
Khrushchev did exploit what he saw as Kennedy’s weakness, but he made his move at a different time, about a different place: Berlin in the summer of 1961. And the abject failure of that ploy, the determined resistance of JFK, so riled Khrushchev that he sent missiles to Cuba a year later as a desperate effort to compensate for what he now saw as American superiority.
Let’s back up. At the end of World War II, Soviet troops occupied eastern Germany; the U.S., British, and French armies occupied sectors of the west. With the onset of the Cold War, the borders hardened into two separate countries. Berlin was an anomaly: a city 100 miles inside East German territory, itself divided in two—East Berlin and West Berlin, the latter a Western enclave and a prosperous contrast to the surrounding poverty.
In 1948, Stalin mounted a blockade to isolate and ultimately take over West Berlin, but the U.S. Air Force kept moving in supplies. Unable to block the airlift, Stalin called off the blockade. In 1959, Khrushchev mounted an effort to take over all of Berlin, but President Dwight Eisenhower resisted, and the two reached a provisional truce at Camp David.
In 1961, after the Vienna meeting with Kennedy, Khrushchev renewed his assault, announcing that if the West didn’t sign a treaty turning over all Berlin to East Germany, there would be war. Kennedy resisted, too, and in fact the Berlin crisis of August 1961 was nearly as tense as the Cuban crisis of October ’62. At one point, U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other, within firing range, across a checkpoint for 25 hours. Finally, Khrushchev backed down.
Around this time, thanks to new photoreconnaissance satellites, the CIA and the Pentagon began to realize that—contrary to the fears of a few years earlier (fears that JFK had exploited in his 1960 presidential campaign)—there was no “missile gap.” Or, rather, there was a missile gap, but America was way ahead of the Soviet Union, not the other way around.
Kennedy wanted to reveal this fact, both to the American public and to the world. So, on Oct. 2, 1961, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric gave a speech in Hot Springs, Va., proclaiming great “confidence in our ability to deter Communist action or resist Communist blackmail,” owing to “a sober appreciation of the relative military power of the two sides.” The U.S. arsenal, with its “tens of thousands” of nuclear weapons, was so lethal, Gilpatric said, that “an enemy move which brought it into play would be an act of self-destruction.”
For years, Khrushchev had boasted that his factories were cranking out ICBMs “like sausages.” In fact, though, he had nothing; the missile program was in total disarray. And now the Americans were calling his bluff.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was about to hold its annual congress. Khrushchev was already coming under attack for backing down in Berlin, both from the Kremlin’s hard-liners and from China’s more radical Communist Party, which was competing with the Soviets for Third World allies. The balance of forces with rivals, to the east and west, was palpably shifting against him.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.