The most important lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Let’s hope Putin and Biden both understand how not to give way to passions.

It’s been 60 years since our last brush with nuclear suicide. Humanity barely survived that encounter in 1962, known to history as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Never since then has nuclear apocalypse been as close as it is today. Take it from President Biden.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Biden told a California audience a few days ago. His aides, The New York Times reported, have been studying the secret deal that averted catastrophe 60 years ago and “debating whether there might be an analogous understanding” to end the Ukraine war. The central lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis provides our only extant guide to defusing a nuclear crisis.

A generation of American politicians and strategic thinkers misunderstood this lesson. They may be forgiven, because our government covered up the real story for years. Americans were told that the missile crisis taught one lesson. Later we discovered that it taught the exact opposite.

The missile crisis seized the world’s attention in October 1962. President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba “capable of striking Washington.” He demanded that the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, remove them. That led to the most crucial long-distance negotiation in human history.

All of Kennedy’s military advisers urged him to order massive bombing of Cuba. “The operation is fairly simple, it could be accomplished in a few minutes,” General Curtis LeMay assured him. “We see no problem with this.”

Kennedy did. He worried that subduing Cuba would require not just bombing but a full-fledged invasion, to which Moscow might respond with devastating force. His speech to the nation on Oct. 22, 1962, was delicately balanced. He repeated his demand that the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba but said the United States would act with “patience and restraint” and not “prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth.”

Khrushchev was under equivalent pressure frm his own generals. They wanted him to insist that Soviet missiles were in Cuba to stay and that nothing Kennedy could say or do would change that.

“When I asked the military advisers if they could assure me that holding fast would not result in the death of 500 million human beings, they looked at me as though I was out of my mind, or what was worse, a traitor,” Khrushchev wrote afterward. “The biggest tragedy, as they saw it, was not that our country might be devastated and everything lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians might accuse us of appeasement or weakness. So I said to myself, ‘To hell with these maniacs. . . . What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact?’”

During the 13 intense days of crisis, which began when Kennedy was shown aerial photographs of the missile installations on Oct. 16, he and Khrushchev exchanged 10 letters. Both emphasized the need to compromise. “Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied,” Khrushchev wrote. Kennedy replied that he “welcomed the statement of your desire to seek a prompt solution to the problem.”

With both sides open to compromise, a deal was made. Only part of it was announced. Officially, the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles in exchange for nothing more than an American pledge not to invade Cuba. Americans were jubilant over what seemed like total victory. They believed they had shown the world that bullies back down when faced with the threat of massive force. This was the false lesson that Secretary of State Dean Rusk sought to propagate when he summed up the result by saying, “We were eyeball-to-eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.”

The carefully concealed truth did not emerge for more than a decade. Kennedy, it turns out, had made a secret deal with Khrushchev. He promised to remove US nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet removal of missiles from Cuba. So the crisis was ended not by threats of force, as Rusk suggested, but by the precise opposite: diplomatic compromise. That is the urgent message Washington and Moscow must heed as we careen toward another nuclear crisis in Ukraine.

Kennedy and Khrushchev gave each other a face-saving way out of a crisis that could easily have erupted into nuclear war. It was an elegant solution — but the key was secrecy. Kennedy insisted that he could not be publicly seen to have made the missile-swap deal. Khrushchev agreed to keep it secret. Given today’s all-penetrating media, that would probably be impossible now.

Nonetheless President Biden has evidently understood the fundamenal lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is that opponents in a game of nuclear chicken should talk and deal, not bluster and threaten. “We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp?” he mused this month. “Where does he find a way out?”

With luck, both leaders will act according to a principle that Khrushchev enunciated in one of his letters to Kennedy 60 years ago: “One cannot give way to passions. It is necessary to control them.”

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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