Cyr: Country should remember lessons of Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred more than a half century ago, but the lessons remain important. Nuclear arms control talks between Moscow and Washington have derailed, and the UN arms embargo of Iran has ended.
Current dangers of fatal military miscalculation may equal the height of the Cold War. In the United States, our military presence in the Mideast fuels fitful debate, but no sustained discussion of serious strategic risks involved.
During Oct. 22-28 1962, the Cuba crisis dominated world attention, as Washington and Moscow sparred on the edge of thermonuclear war. Lessons include difficulty of securing accurate intelligence and the unpredictability of events.
On Oct. 14, 1962, U.S. reconnaissance photos revealed the Soviet Union was placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite contrary assurances. On Oct. 16, after thorough review and analysis, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy
Kennedy and his advisers spent a week debating options. His televised speech on Oct. 22 demanded the missiles be removed and announced initial countermeasures. Until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw them on Oct. 28, Armageddon loomed.
Senior Kennedy administration officials, with the exception of CIA director John McCone, had assumed Moscow would never put long-range missiles into Cuba. They erroneously calculated the Soviets agreed the move would be just too risky.
Earlier the White House curtailed reconnaissance flights over Cuba and resumed them only because McCone aggressively insisted. They provided photographic evidence of the Soviet deception just before the missiles would become operational.
However, there were already indicators, including reports from reliable Cuba agents, that something of this nature was underway. As with the George W. Bush administration regarding Iraq weapons, senior officials chose evidence they preferred.
At the start of the crisis, there was strong sentiment, especially among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a conventional air attack followed by invasion of Cuba. JFK imaginatively decided instead on a naval quarantine as the U.S. first step.
Years after the crisis, surviving policy makers from Cuba, the Soviet Union and the U.S. initiated a series of meetings, which have revealed important new insights. Soviet commanders in Cuba already had shorter-range nuclear-armed missiles, and at least for a time, authority to use them in the event of an American invasion.
Soviet submarine commanders had nuclear-armed torpedoes. One Soviet sub nearly launched one against the harassing U.S. Navy ships.
Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to concur with two other senior officers who favored launching a nuclear torpedo. Single-handedly, he defused the terrifying situation, in a sweltering sub isolated underwater, and prevented nuclear war.
Bundy’s history of the nuclear age, “Danger and Survival,” published a quarter century after the crisis, revealed JFK privately accepted while publicly rejecting a Soviet proposal for a Cuba-Turkey missile trade.
Throughout the crisis, Kennedy demonstrated calm open-minded engagement. He assembled a group that freely debated a wide range of options. When tensions mounted, the president would shrewdly suggest a break.
The initial pressure for military attack dissipated. Kennedy deftly delayed intense pressures for war, while avoiding angry confrontation.
Lessons of the crisis include the importance of disciplined objective intelligence analysis, and communicating with opponents. Then and now, U.S. presidential leadership is essential.
Today, U.S. troops are in the Mideast close to forces from Russia, Iran, Israel, Syria, Turkey and various armed insurgent groups. Yet Americans remain preoccupied with domestic concerns and largely ignore foreign policy.
Cuban Missile Crisis lessons remain important, ignored at great peril.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.