50 Years Later: The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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A U-2 spy photo shows Soviet missile activity on Cuba 50 years ago.

Hard to believe for those of us who lived through it – or even if you merely witnessed it by watching 2000’s Thirteen Days – but the Cuban Missile Crisis turned 50 last week. That was the one time when the point of one nuclear-tipped spear toyed with the point of another nuclear-tipped spear – and even those of us who were 9 years old at the time could sense the strain on our parents’ faces.

So what did we learn? Bruce Allyn, former director of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Crisis Prevention, is one of the foremost scholars on the topic. He has just published The Edge of Armageddon: Lessons from the Brink. He conducted this email chat with Battleland over the weekend:

Why did you write The Edge of Armageddon: Lessons from the Brink?

Looking back, I saw how extraordinary it was that I sat at the table with the key living participants in the 1962 missile crisis: Bob McNamara, the most influential U.S. defense secretary of the twentieth century; former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the legendary “Mr. Nyet,” and El Comandante Fidel Castro himself, when they met for the first time.

It was electric — to see McNamara’s face when he learned something the CIA had never been able to confirm — that the Soviets had delivered to Cuba nuclear warheads capable of striking downtown Manhattan with 60 times more destructive power than the Hiroshima bomb.

(PHOTOS: Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: 50 Years from the Brink of Armageddon)

The Soviets revealed that they had 98 smaller tactical nuclear weapons ready to obliterate tens of thousands of U.S. troops, had JFK authorized an invasion, which many were pushing him to do. It was shocking. I needed to tell this story of how we went “back to the brink.”

Also, enough time has passed for me to reveal behind-the-scenes stories—for example, a detailed account of the KGB’s effort to try to recruit me to spy for the Soviet Union. I am not aware that any such account has been published.

You have written about the events of the Cuban missile crisis before…what’s new?

Our meetings showed the full extent of the danger of misjudgment, miscalculation, escalation and unintended consequences in modern warfare.

We learned that the Soviet commander in Cuba could have used the 98 tactical nuclear weapons without further codes from Moscow, triggering a full-scale nuclear war that would have killed over 150 million people and led to a global radioactive “nuclear winter.”

I was the first Westerner to receive a copy of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s secret memoirs revealing Castro’s call for a preemptive nuclear strike, which was slipped to me in Moscow.

Since our meetings, there have been a number of new and important revelations, including the fact that a U.S. destroyer off the island of Cuba attacked a Soviet nuclear submarine equipped with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Two of the three Soviet commanding officers on board wanted to respond with a nuclear torpedo.

(MORE: The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: America and Cuba Still Frozen in 1962)

There has also been more data about the “second” Cuban Missile Crisis, the effort of Soviet Politburo Member Anastas Mikoyan to get Castro to agree to give up the 98 tactical warheads (remember, the U.S. knew nothing about them).

And there are some important new elements that have been revealed this year, most significantly in the newly released papers of Robert Kennedy, detailing JFK’s secret overtures to Castro during the missile crisis.

We must remember, too, that the entire event is “new” to the younger generation. My informal poll shows that, for the average teenager, the Cuban Missile Crisis might as well be the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (I also find many cannot answer whether in 1941 the U.S. was fighting Stalin, Hitler or Napoleon).

The missile crisis holds lessons for today — for how to handle crises in Iran, Syria or North Korea.

So it is Important to make serious efforts to ensure that the history and lessons of this iconic event do not pass out of American cultural memory.

Caroline Kennedy has done a great service in her new book Listening In, which gives highlights from the taped conversations in her father’s Oval office. My colleagues Jim Blight and Janet Lang have made the detailed story of the missile crisis accessible with short insightful films, in the Armageddon Letters project (

The Harvard JFK School and Foreign Policy invited high school students to submit the best essay on the most important lesson of the crisis to win a free iPad. That got their attention.

There has been some historical revisionism, by Michael Dobbs among others, that the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t an eyeball-to-eyeball showdown. He recently wrote in the New York Times that the lead Soviet ship, the Kimovsk, was actually 750 miles from the blockade line and headed back home when the so-called showdown occurred. He blames the inflation of the Cuban missile crisis into a nuclear showdown for “some of our most disastrous foreign policy decisions, from the escalation of the Vietnam War under Johnson to the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.” Does he have a point?

Yes, it is absolutely right to debunk the myth that the crisis was the personal victory of John Kennedy’s steel will over Nikita Khrushchev, who had to back down. JFK made every effort, and was successful, in achieving a negotiated end to the crisis. The military blockade was in fact first and foremost a way to buy time and explore options to avoid war.

Unfortunately, the George W. Bush Administration used its own “lesson” from the missile crisis to argue for a preemptive attack in Iraq. It is completely misleading to suggest that JFK would have supported the 2003 Iraq invasion—even if Saddam Hussein had actually possessed WMD. JFK would have worked with allies and would have been cautious about the unintended consequences of such a move—as were Colin Powell and other key figures during the first Iraq War.

JFK’s resolution of the missile crisis was a negotiated outcome which even offered a “secret sweetener”—a U.S. pledge to remove its missiles in Turkey, which sat right on the Soviet border and were analogous to the missiles Khrushchev wanted in Cuba. It is true that JFK kept this secret even from most members of his inner circle. He was managing public perception and did not want to give an opening for political opponents to exploit the event to portray him as too soft or weak.

Rather than a story of JFK “staring down” Khrushchev, the missile crisis is more a story of Khrushchev running from the horrors of a nuclear crisis escalating completely out of his control. The decisive moment was when Khrushchev received the cable from Castro calling on him to fire the nuclear missiles at American cities, unleashing global holocaust. Khrushchev was mortified. He raced to announce over open radio that he would remove the missiles.

Castro’s behavior gives us insight into revolutionary authoritarian regimes today. The Gaddafi regime chose to let the country be devastated and “fight to the last bullet” rather than capitulate to rebels and the demands of the established big powers — of France, the U.K. and the U.S. It took 10,000 NATO strikes and 30,000 dead. The death toll in Syria has already reached 30,000 and Assad is still presiding over the destruction of his country.

A final lesson is that revolutionary fanatics often change their views—if they live long enough. In 2010, Fidel Castro admitted he was wrong to call on Khrushchev to fire the missiles and obliterate the U.S. “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen,” he told a journalist, “and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”

Who, in your mind, was the hero of the Cuban missile crisis?

I do not think it is propagating any myth to say that the hero was JFK. It was ultimately a joint victory, and Khrushchev worked to find a way out. But Khrushchev took a great risk, and then agreed to remove the missiles due to loss of control.

JFK resisted invasion and saved humanity from disaster. We have to realize that the history of Western civilization almost ended. Perhaps a new civilization would have arisen in Australia or Africa.

Of course, we know that had JFK been forced to make a decision within the first 48 hours, he would have supported an invasion. This was avoided due to his caution, his unwillingness to react immediately with military force, and his willingness to explore alternate options. This was heroic.

Who, to your mind, was the fool?

In this case, we had in Fidel Castro not a fool but a fanatic.

What is the most important lesson of the Cuban missile crisis? Did we learn it?
The most important lesson about crisis management, one that we continue to fail to follow, is “never fear to negotiate.”

JFK’s position was: “Never negotiate from fear; and never fear to negotiate.” A skillful negotiator can engage in dialogue without making any concessions on fact or with regard to his or her interests.

It is not weakness to offer your opponent the minimum respect of listening. You can use backchannels. This does not mean you accept their position and it is an opportunity to educate them about the facts and challenge their views.

In my view, there is one lesson more important: the need to institutionalize the process of learning after such critical historical events. Since the missile crisis, scholars, foundations and government officials have collaborated in an unprecedented way to bring together its veterans for dialogues to distill the lessons and wisdom that can only be conveyed by those who actually bore responsibility for making decisions in the crisis.

This learning process was rare and extraordinary. On the first day of our Moscow meeting, Mikhail Gorbachev welcomed the veterans of the crisis and he repeatedly cited the lessons of 1962 in his effort to end the confrontation and mutual demonization of the Cold War.

We need to keep alive insights bequeathed to us by those who lived through critical points in history, to commemorate those human beings who took intelligent and courageous action to defuse conflict for the sake of the future. And to record those who have admitted the error of their ways, as Castro has now done.

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