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
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.