The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. While we are consumed in the moment with the cacophony of the political season, 50 years ago this week, the world was as close as it ever came to nuclear war.
In early September 1962, U-2 spy planes discovered that the Soviet Union was installing medium and intermediate range ballistic missile launch sites in Cuba. The Cubans also had surface-to-air missiles that allowed them the capability to shoot down high-altitude, U-2 spy planes used by the U.S.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's decision to place missiles in Cuba was based on three overriding factors.
The Soviet Union was behind the United States in the arms race. A missile deployment in Cuba would provide a deterrent to a potential U.S. attack against Cuba. This served also as a convenient obfuscation for Khrushchev's main geopolitical concern, which was Berlin.
Moreover, Khrushchev read President John F. Kennedy as weak based on the young president's first year as commander in chief.
To understand any miscalculations on Khrushchev's part in 1962 requires that one also factor events in 1961. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, an unsuccessful CIA-sponsored action to invade Cuba, along with Khrushchev's ability to push Kennedy around at their summit in Vienna, led the Soviet premiere to believe Kennedy was soft.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely considered to be Kennedy's finest hour. Against the advice offered by many who led him to support the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's public choice of a naval blockade struck the right course of a strong response that allowed Khrushchev a way out.
Moreover, the secret negotiations between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin removing the nuclear arms in Cuba was another face-saving measure for Khrushchev.
Though Kennedy is rightly portrayed as providing a steady hand in the center of crisis, it does not tell the entire story. But with 50 years of hindsight we now see the crisis that rose to the dicey level of DEFCON 2, was averted not by Kennedy's leadership alone, but also that of Khrushchev.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro sent an "Armageddon Letter" on Oct. 27 to Khrushchev, advocating that nuclear weapons be fired should American forces invade Cuba. This was undoubtedly the most dangerous day in world history.
But whatever thoughts Khrushchev may have harbored about Kennedy's weakness as a leader, it did not include using nuclear weapons.
On Oct. 30, two days after the official conclusion of the crisis, Khrushchev offered his feelings on Castro's letter.
In a recently published document by the Cold War International History Project, Khrushchev wrote the following:
"In a letter Fidel Castro proposed that we ourselves should be the first to start an atomic war. Do you know what that would mean? That probably cannot even be expressed at all, we were completely aghast. Castro clearly has no idea about what thermonuclear war is. After all, if a war started it would primarily be Cuba that would vanish from the face of the Earth."
Khrushchev goes on to say, "Only a person who has no idea what nuclear war means or who has been so blinded, for instance, like Castro, by revolutionary passion could talk like that. We did not of course take up that proposal, especially because we had a chance to avert war."
So as we listen to our presidential candidates trade barbs in public debate, let us be mindful that were it not for the leadership of Kennedy and Khrushchev 50 years ago, such matters might very well be moot today.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.