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The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Five Decades later, Lessons are Still Being Learned from the Most Dangerous Days in History
Peter Kornbluh
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012

In October of 2002, as President George W. Bush openly prepared for the invasion of Iraq, an elite group of former Kennedy White House aides gathered in Havana to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. “There are lessons to be learned,’’ observed Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a top Kennedy advisor and renowned historian, at the international conference hosted by Fidel Castro. “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.’’

For Bush, the key lesson of the missile crisis was that a preemptive strike was warranted to take out Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction. “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” he declared in an October 7 speech, citing John F. Kennedy’s words during the missile crisis—“we no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril”—to justify the forthcoming attack on Iraq.

From Cuba, Kennedy’s aides quickly challenged the President’s misappropriation of the past.  Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter who had drafted the very words Bush cited, clarified that they were “not intended to justify a preemptive strike, because JFK had specifically ruled out a preemptive strike.” Kennedy’s strategy in 1962 “was not preemption. It was the reverse of preemption,” stated former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. If President Bush was his student, Schlesinger told the Washington Post, “I would flunk him in history.”

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war its dramatic history continues to hold lessons for the present. A decade ago the sabers of war were rattling over Iraq; today the United States and Israel are openly debating a preemptive strike against Iran. Sadly, Schlesinger, Sorensen and McNamara are no longer here to point out the implications of the crisis for current day conflicts. The search for a full appreciation of the lessons of the crisis, nevertheless, continues.

Incredibly, despite the current global importance for a complete accounting of the missile crisis, significant parts of the historical record remain secret and sealed. Even so, in the decade since the conference in Havana, which brought together surviving officials from Cuba, the former USSR and the U.S. along with newly declassified documentation from all three nations, the narrative of the conflict has evolved, allowing analysts and historians to revisit and revise the events of October 1962. A recent book by the intrepid investigative reporter Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, for example, has revealed that besides the ballistic missiles, the Soviets secretly brought dozens of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Cuba, and, at the height of the crisis, positioned those weapons near the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in anticipation of a U.S. invasion.

Another book published this fall, The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Missiles of November, by Sergo Mikoyan and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, draws on never-before-seen Soviet documents that record the struggle between Moscow and Havana over withdrawing those cruise missiles, and other  battlefield nuclear weapon systems that the CIA never detected in Cuba.

These new revelations remind us of how terrifyingly close the world came to atomic Armageddon. But the declassified record has also revealed major new details on how committed both Kennedy and Khrushchev were to using creative diplomacy to stop the forces of a final Cold War confrontation that they themselves had inadvertently unleashed.


The genesis of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s offer of a nuclear deterrent to Cuba, and Castro’s decision to deploy the missiles on Cuban soil, dates back to the April 1961 CIA-led paramilitary assault at the Bay of Pigs, and the subsequent covert program known as “Operation Mongoose” which was intended to lead to another U.S. invasion of Cuba. But the official starting point of the missile crisis came on October 14, 1962, when a U-2 spy plane snapped hundreds of reconnaissance photos of a series of newly constructed installations and camps in the Cuban countryside. The next day, analysts at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center spotted hard evidence—images of launchers, missiles, trailers and special transport trucks—that proved the existence of medium­-range ballistic missile [MRBM] sites on the island. Additional photo intelligence soon revealed bases for intermediate-range missiles capable of striking targets over 2,800 miles away in the United States. The CIA estimated the missiles would become “fully operational within two weeks.”

On October 16, Kennedy gathered a select group of advisors—an executive committee officially known as the “ExComm”—to discuss a strategic response. His Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presented him with three basic options: l) a political option of “approaching Castro,” and “approaching Khrushchev”; 2) a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba; and 3) “military action directed against Cuba, starting with an air attack against the missiles.” The ExComm’s initial discussions focused on a massive U.S. military assault on the nuclear installations and other bases in Cuba, and whether the Soviets would counterattack in Berlin or elsewhere.

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