The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 Years Later

Professor James Hershberg provides insight in advance of two events this week that commemorate the crisis.

Cuban Missile Crisis
October 23, 2012

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that threatened to turn the Cold War into a nuclear conflict.

To commemorate the crisis, the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs will host “The 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis: Lessons Learned” Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the City View Room at 1957 E Street. And on Friday from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., the school will host an all-day symposium to discuss new evidence on the crisis in the State Room.

GW Professor of History and International Affairs James Hershberg recently provided insight into the crisis, including the events leading up to it and what ultimately averted a nuclear conflict. Dr. Hershberg, also a guest editor of the newly published Cold War International History Project’s Bulletin on the event, is working on a book on the crisis.

Q: What was the Cuban Missile Crisis? How did President Kennedy respond?

A: The Cuban Missile Crisis was about the secret Soviet deployment of medium- and intermediate-range missiles to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the autumn of 1962. The missiles were capable of striking most of the continental United States with nuclear warheads (you were safe from them in Seattle, but that’s about it).

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did this despite President Kennedy’s clear warnings not to send such “offensive” weapons to Cuba, and both types of missiles—about 42, by later U.S. estimates—reached the island with their warheads despite the U.S. “quarantine” Kennedy imposed around the island.

Kennedy first learned of the Soviet missile deployment (through overhead reconnaissance photographs taken by high-altitude U-2 planes) on Oct. 16, and was immediately determined that the missiles must go. Over the ensuing 13 days, he maneuvered at the brink of war; at first in secret, then publicly, after announcing the crisis and quarantine in a grim televised speech on Oct. 22, until Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles on Oct. 28. In exchange, Kennedy publicly vowed not to invade Cuba and privately pledged to withdraw comparable U.S. missiles from Turkey, a NATO ally, as Khrushchev had publicly demanded.

Q: What do you believe was the key component (or components) of Kennedy’s response that ultimately averted the crisis?

A: In the end, after initially taking belligerent positions, both Kennedy and Khrushchev found a common priority in avoiding escalation to nuclear war, even at the cost of making potentially embarrassing political concessions.

For his part, Kennedy, after learning of the Soviet missile deployment on Oct. 16, at first seemed to lean toward a surprise air strike to destroy the missile installations; however, after days of secret deliberation among the hawks and doves of the Excomm—as the ad hoc group of his advisers was dubbed, short for Executive Committee of the National Security Council—he instead came to favor the quarantine, which he announced on Oct. 22. That avoided firing the first shots and killing hundreds or thousands of Soviets, which risked retaliation by the Kremlin in another Cold War hotspot such as Berlin or Turkey where the Soviets had conventional (non-nuclear) superiority comparable to the U.S. military advantage around Cuba.

As for Khrushchev, he initially blasted the quarantine as piracy on the high seas and vowed to defy it; but within less than two days, before it went into effect on Oct. 24, he ordered Soviet naval commanders to turn around rather than confront American ships. Then, as the crisis climaxed, both Kennedy and Khrushchev feared it might be spiraling out of control and acted to end it before that happened.

While publicly preparing to invade Cuba and rebuffing Khrushchev’s demand to swap his Cuban missiles for comparable U.S. missiles in Turkey, Kennedy privately passed the word to Khrushchev that those missiles would in fact be gone if the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy even laid the groundwork to accept such a trade publicly or else tighten the blockade around Cuba rather than actually order an invasion of Cuba and risk uncontrollable escalation.

Khrushchev, meanwhile, was appalled to receive a letter from Castro urging him to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. should it invade Cuba, and disturbed by the unauthorized shoot-down of a U.S. U-2 plane over Cuba. He decided that it was necessary to end the crisis immediately by accepting Kennedy’s deal, even though Khrushchev obviously knew that this risked being viewed as a political set-back, which it was (at least in the short term).

At the apex of tensions, both leaders feared events might get away from them, best efforts at “crisis management” notwithstanding, with disastrous consequences—and acted to forestall that from happening.

Q: What did we learn from the crisis?

A: The most important impact of the crisis was that it scared the heck out of both Kennedy and Khrushchev, and they agreed that it was too dangerous to keep meeting at the brink. 

As for the “lessons” of the crisis, these can be, and are, endlessly debated. As the cliché goes, history never repeats itself precisely, but it can sometimes rhyme. The missile crisis and Kennedy’s handling of it have become iconic symbols, often grasped for and cited in U.S. domestic politics—most recently in Monday’s foreign policy debate between President Obama and Gov. Romney. This can be done selectively, even to back opposing viewpoints—for example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003, both officials in George W. Bush’s administration and Democratic opponents of the invasion (including Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy) cited Kennedy’s conduct in 1962 to support their contradictory positions.

Yet, there are some obvious lessons. Be very careful about drawing “red lines,” for they may obligate you to act (Kennedy later wished he had hedged his warnings to Khrushchev, leaving more room for maneuver). Consult real, informed experts about your adversaries so you can try to understand their motives (Kennedy did this for Khrushchev, to a point, but not for Castro). Consider the stakes and risks carefully in any confrontation that may escalate (both Kennedy and Khrushchev took reckless actions to stumble into the crisis, and almost the ultimate disaster, a thermonuclear war that would have incinerated millions, over an issue, Cuba, that was not truly of the highest national security interest of either side). Beware of setting large military machines into operation, and putting them in immediate proximity of enemy forces--retaining control and avoiding unintended incidents and consequences cannot be guaranteed.

And finally, be clear and firm in communications—but be willing to make reasonable compromises and concessions to avoid the last resort: war. Khrushchev ultimately was willing to do so—and if he hadn’t “blinked” first, Kennedy would probably have done so as well. Fortunately, we never had to find out.