The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50

Five Decades later, Lessons are Still Being Learned from the Most Dangerous Days in History

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The State Department report added that Washington would “have to give some assurances, regardless of whether we intended to carry them out, that we would not ourselves undertake to overthrow the regime or support others trying to do so.” A handwritten note scribbled by an NSC official captured the essence of this approach: “Get word to Castro once ships turn back that if he kicks out Sovs we can live w. him.”
Such an approach “would be made to Castro through a Latin American representative in Cuba, probably the Brazilian ambassador,” the State Department recommended. Headed by the populist president João Goulart, Brazil had maintained strong ties to Cuba after the revolution, and a longstanding interest in being a mediator to improve U.S.­–Cuban relations.
At the ExComm meeting on October 26, President Kennedy approved the clandestine back-channel communication. He overruled the objections of CIA director John McCone who insisted on safeguarding the agency’s right to covertly continue its efforts to overthrow Castro. “We ought to concentrate on the missiles now,” Kennedy determined. “It probably won’t get any place,” but “time is running out for us.”
In a top secret/eyes only cable from the Secretary of State to U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon in Rio, Rusk stated that it was time to “discuss with Castro alone RPT alone” a way out of the missile crisis.  He instructed Gordon to meet with Brazil’s foreign minister and ask him to have this message transmitted to Castro as if it was a Brazilian initiative:
The action of the Soviet Union in using Cuban soil as sites for offensive nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the Western Hemisphere has placed the future of the Castro regime and the well-being of the Cuban people in great jeopardy.
The Brazilian intermediary would then offer the carrot of better relations with the U.S. and the rest of Latin America:
Castro might recall that President Kennedy has said publicly that only two issues were nonnegotiable between Castro and the U.S.—the military-political ties to the USSR and the aggressive attitude toward the internal affairs of other Latin American countries. This view will be shared by other members of the Inter-American system. Of course this now means giving up the offensive nuclear capability being established in Cuba and sending home Soviet military personnel, on which help can certainly be given if needed. From such actions many changes in the relations between Cuba and the OAS countries, including the U.S., could flow.
To disguise the origins of this message, according to Hershberg’s research, U.S. embassy officers translated it into Portuguese and typed it onto plain paper; Ambassador Gordon then passed it to Brazil’s foreign minister at a midnight meeting on October 27. Gordon described the message as an “extremely important and sensitive diplomatic initiative…requiring utmost secrecy, with perhaps vital bearing on peace.”
By the time Brazil’s emissary General Albino Silva arrived in Havana on October 29, however, the Soviets had already announced they were withdrawing the missiles; Castro had heard the news on the radio and was furious at Nikita Khrushchev for negotiating a deal to end the crisis without even consulting him. The urgency and relevance of Kennedy’s Brazilian back-channel message had been eclipsed by events.
“I now conclude that however astutely the crisis may have been managed,’’ former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara observed at the 40th anniversary conference in Havana, “luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair’s breadth.’’ For McNamara, the main lesson of the Cuba conflict was that there could be no such thing as successful crisis management in the nuclear age—therefore a global project was needed to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. “The record of the missile crisis is replete with examples of misinformation, misjudgment, miscalculation,” he noted. “Such errors are costly in conventional warfare. When they affect decisions relating to nuclear forces, they can result in the destruction of nations.”
To be sure, 50 years ago the world came closer than ever before to atomic annihilation. But more commitment than luck was involved in the extensive efforts to search for, and find, a diplomatic solution in which both sides got something their leaders needed to save face and evade the horror of nuclear war. As the historical record has expanded, the image of the resolute president has given way to the resolution president, committed to extricating the U.S., the USSR, and Cuba from the danger of war in the dark shadow of the bomb.
Of all the international crises in modern times, the Cuban missile crisis deserves a full understanding, by policy makers and citizens alike. But only when all archives have been opened, and every last page of documentation declassified, in the United States and in Moscow and Havana, will the historical record be complete and that appreciation possible. Maintaining secrecy around the missile crisis is, quite simply, a threat to global security. “Having come so close to the edge,” as Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy observed years later, “we must make it our business not to pass this way again.”
Peter Kornbluh is co-author of The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 and the director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project.
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