Tag Archives: Soviet Union

The Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, 1960, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet missile crew. The crisis began two week earlier, when CIA flights located and identified Soviet missile installations on the island. By October 27, the options had been considered, the blockade/quarantine had been imposed, and secret negotiations were underway.

On October 27, however, the CIA reported that at least five separate missile sites appeared to be fully operational. With tensions running high, both sides were on the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Indeed, “Black Saturday” as it came to be known, marked the closest both sides would get to a full-scale nuclear exchange during the Cold War. On several occasions on that day, we were a whisker hair away. For example:

After the first U2 plane was shot down, the US sent another. It was decided at the time that the second flight was ordered that because antiaircraft missile batteries in Cuba were under direct Soviet control, a second downed plane would represent an escalation on the part of the Soviets, and the US would respond with a full-scale attack against Cuba. This would have necessitated a Soviet response, likely by invading US allies in Europe. Fortunately, according to McNamara’s recollection, Soviet Premier Khrushchev had reached a similar conclusion and ordered the Soviet commander in Cuba to refrain from responding to US over flights of the island.

In an effort to dissuade Soviet submarines from reaching Cuba, the US Navy was

Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov

dropping “signaling depth charges” on the Soviet Foxtrot-class B-59 diesel-electric submarine. Unknown to the US Navy at the time, the B-59 was equipped with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and had orders to launch them if the submarine’s hull was breached. The decision to launch the nuclear torpedoes required the concurrence of the three ranking officers. While two concurred, the third, Vasili Arkhipov, refused, and the torpedoes were never launched.

Another U2 spy plane accidently made an unauthorized ninety-minute flight over the far eastern coast of the Soviet Union. This prompted the Soviets to launch interceptors from their bases in the region. The US similarly scrambled American fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea. The U2 spy plane was recalled, and there was no engagement between the fighters.

The same day, Khrushchev received a letter written by Cuban President Fidel Castro in which Castro urged the Soviet Union to use its nuclear force to defend Cuba in the event of an attack. In the letter, dubbed “the Armageddon Letters,” Castro writes, “I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” The US had active plans to launch an invasion of Cuba, and had already warned its NATO allies in Europe that, “the situation is growing shorter… the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary.”

The crisis itself was averted the morning of October 28, when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to deescalate the crisis. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba. In exchange, the United States agreed to issue a speech at the United Nations in which it promised to recognize the inviolability of Cuba’s borders, its sovereignty, and to refrain from interfering in its internal affairs. The United States also secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Italy and Turkey.

In a recent analysis of the crisis published in Foreign Affairs , noted political scientist Graham Alison wrote,

Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

So why were we able to avoid the devastation to which Alison refers? Realists and liberals offer competing explanations.

For realists, American military superiority made the Soviets less likely to follow through on their threats. At the time, the United States had a 17 to 1 advantage in nuclear capability. Assuming rationality, Khrushchev could not stand up to the United States nor force them to back down. Left with no other choice, Khrushchev backed down.

But what about personal motivation? Both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood that neither side could win a nuclear exchange. Both were afraid that once conflict started, it would escalate beyond control. Clear lines of communication (and thus empathy) between Kennedy and Khrushchev would allow them to recognize and overcome the no-win situation. Indeed, after the crisis was resolved, a red phone system was set up to facilitate direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin.

What do you think? Is the realist or the liberal explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis more compelling? Or does another approach offer a richer understanding. Take the poll and let us know what you think.

Internet Freedom in China: The Perils of “Glasnost”

People using the internet at a coffee shop in Beijing.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that China’s government, after a period of liberalization in popular culture, has decided to clamp down on media and internet freedoms once again, imposing “some of the most restrictive measures in years.”  These new restrictions target 34 major satellite television stations (whose entertainment programming and use of audience voting must be curtailed) and the Twitter-like “microblogs” that have become increasingly popular over the past two years.  Sources inside the private companies that manage the microblogs are quoted as saying that “party officials are pressing for increasingly strict and swift censorship of unapproved opinions.”

These microblogs have emerged as a powerful medium for “whistle-blowing” to keep Communist party bureaucrats honest:  “Microbloggers, some of whom have attracted millions of followers, have been exposing scandals and official malfeasance, including an attempted cover-up of a recent high-speed rail accident, with astonishing speed and popularity.”     Despite the social benefits of such activity, the Communist Party clearly recognizes that giving Chinese citizens the freedom to criticize the government and potentially organize opposition movements could threaten their continued rule.

All of this is highly reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s flirtation with Glasnost (“openness”) during the 1980s in the former Soviet Union.  Gorbachev never intended to destroy Communism; rather, his goal was to strengthen and reinvigorate what had become a stagnant and corrupt system, holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire by allowing the public to criticize inefficiencies and malfeasance.  However, once the Soviet people had a taste of (limited) freedom, the floodgates opened and their demands could no longer be denied.

Can China escape the fate of the Soviet Union?  (The USSR collapsed in 1991, not long after Gorbachev sought to open up the Soviet system).  Will China’s booming economy–in stark contrast to the USSR’s economic stagnation–allow its leaders to maintain power and contain unrest?  (China’s GDP growth has slowed somewhat, but it still remains over 9%, a very robust figure).  In other words, can economic rewards compensate for a lack of political freedom, and for how long?  Or in an era of rapid globalization, social networking, and the Arab Spring, is any regime’s efforts at centralized control and censorship of ideas doomed to failure?

Five Most Significant Political Moments in Olympic History

Political debates over the Olympic Games have swirled around Beijing.  The Olympic torch relay—a tradition started by Hitler in the 1936 Games—was marred by protest.  Nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for boycotts of the Games to protest China’s Tibet policy.  But the intersection of the Games and politics is nothing new.  Today, I give you the top five moments in Olympic political history:

5.  Dueling Boycotts.  The 1980 Olympic Games were hosted in Moscow.  Less than a year earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, sparking an international standoff between American-backed Taliban militias and the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan.  In protest of the Soviet move, the United States led a 62-nation boycott of the Moscow Olympics.  Four years later, the Soviets turned the table, with a tit-for-tat boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

4.  Blood in the Water Match.  In 1956, a Hungarian nationalist uprising threatened to move Hungary from the Soviet bloc.  The Soviet Union sent more than 200,000 soldiers across the border to put down the uprising, leading to violent conflicts in the street.  The Hungarian water polo team, the world’s defending champions, were forced to flee the country during the uprising, and made their way to the Melbourne Olympics without knowing the outcome of the invasion.  When they faced off against Soviet water polo team, the match was violent.  Thousands of spectators cheered the Hungarian team and jeered the Soviets.  Both teams were trading blows in the pool.  Leading 4-0 with just a few minutes to go, the referees were forced to stop the match after Soviet Valentin Prokopov struck Hungarian star Ervin Zadov above the left eye, causing blood to stream down his face and into the pool.

3.  Munich Massacre.  The 1972 Munich Olympics were the first Games held in Germany since Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games.  The West German government used the motto “The Happy Games” and hoped to use the tournament to present to the world the democratic and optimistic West Germany.  Instead, the Games were marred by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.  After a one-day suspension, the Games continued.  After the Games concluded, the Israeli government launched Operation Wrath of God and Operation Spring of Youth to track down and kill those responsible for the massacre.

2.  Tommie Smith and John Carols’ Black Power Salute.  The 1968 Olympic Games were hosted in Mexico City.  But in the United States, the civil rights movement was in full swing.  African Americans were fighting racial discrimination.  After winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters, Smith and Carlos received their medals on the podium shoeless but wearing black socks to symbolize black poverty, black scarves to symbolize black pride, and a single black glove on a hand raised in salute.  Both men received death threats after the act and were ostracized by the US sporting establishment.

1. Jesse Owens’ Four Gold Medals.  Hosted by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the 1936 were intended to demonstrate to the world both the power of the Third Reich and the supremacy of Nazi ideology.  When the African American Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set two world records and two Olympic records in the process—a feat not repeated until Carl Lewis performance in the 1984 Olympic games—Hitler’s propaganda mission suffered a serious blow.