A conference at Harvard University marking the 25th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 concluded that the most dangerous confrontation of the nuclear age was triggered by highly personal and thoughtless judgments by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and that Soviet leaders were shocked and frightened by the strong American resonse. The consensus that emerged between the Soviet and American participants at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government here was that even competent crisis management is an inadequate guarantee of peace; that the unpredictable factors of misjudgment, miscalculation, and misinformation are likely to undercut rational calculations; and that the only true solution lies in sweeping arms reductions.
The key Soviet participants were Fyodor Burlatsky, editor of the prominent Soviet intellectual journal Literaturnaya gazeta and formerly a speech writer for Khrushchev, and Sergei Mikoyan, a Soviet specialist on Latin America who accompanied his father, Anastas Mikoyan, on a conciliatory mission to Fidel Castro in the aftermath of the crisis.
The American participants included McGeorge Bundy, national-security adviser to President Kennedy; Robert McNamara, then secretary of defense; and Theodore Sorensen, a speech writer and adviser to the President.
There were very frank and full discussions - first in private and then publicly - regarding the diametrically opposed interpretations held in Moscow and Washington of the motivations and goals of the other side. After approval by all the participants, the conference record will be published next spring.
Long-held historical assumptions about the crisis can then be expected to change. The Soviet participants openly critized both the decisionmaking process under Khrushchev, and his assumption that placing missiles so close to the United States would prompt a merely diplomatic response. They also described the shock - and anxiety - at high levels in Moscow when the threat of war developed.
Mr. Burlatsky points out that Khrushchev, who tended to consult only his supporters, was likely to issue marching orders to which conformity was expected. The armed forces, showing the expected ``can do'' spirit, swung into line on the decision to send both missiles and troops to Cuba.
Mr. Mikoyan stated that behind this action lay a deeply-felt Soviet conviction that - especially after the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 - a full-scale American invasion of Cuba was likely. He said he only now ``had begun to believe that this was not so.''
The American participants, insisting that an invasion was absolutely unthinkable, asserted that it was precisely to puncture such dangerous myths that Soviet-American scholarly interchanges were vital - and now, with the spirit of glasnost visible at many levels, very much possible.