The Soviets come clean on Cuba

TWENTY-FIVE years after the superpowers spent 13 days on the nuclear brink, the Soviets have for the first time begun to tell their side of the Cuban missile crisis. Old adversaries who faced off eyeball to eyeball a generation ago over Soviet missiles in Cuba gathered at Harvard University in early October to reexamine the historic standoff in the Caribbean. The American delegation uniformly found the meeting to be of rare value. To the surprise of the American contingent, the Soviet side came prepared to offer an apparently honest accounting of Soviet thinking leading up to and during the showdown. In sharp contrast with accounts thus far published in the Soviet Union, they painted a picture of an ``adventurist'' Khrushchev, a poorly informed and badly managed foreign policy apparatus, and a Kremlin elite with a dangerous and flawed view of the United States.

Why have the Soviets suddenly decided to come clean on Cuba? While the proceedings have provided an unusual insight into the formulation and execution of Soviet policy during one important crisis, the current glasnost over Cuba must be viewed in the context of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's brave new diplomacy. The recent Soviet revelations on the Cuban missile crisis are very much in tune with Mr. Gorbachev's overall foreign-policy message.

Perhaps the most forceful remark delivered by the Soviets amounted to a rejection of the adventurist and aggressive policies followed by Soviet party boss Nikita Khrushchev and his close associates. This is very much in keeping with Gorbachev's stated intention of forsaking foreign adventures in favor of domestic perestroika (restructuring). This stance also serves subtly to set Gorbachev apart from Khrushchev's legacy. Given that there are similarities between the domestic agendas of the two leaders, it is wise for Gorbachev to accentuate the difference in their foreign policies, particularly given Khrushchev's fate.

Another important item that featured in the Soviet oral history on Cuba was the role that misperception played throughout the crisis. For instance, Soviet participants reported that the Kremlin was convinced that the US was on the verge of a massive invasion of Cuba. The Soviets cited as evidence the stepped-up American covert activities at the time.

They looked surprised when an American reported that such actions were a sign of US frustration, not preparation. A prominent theme in Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' on foreign policy is that dangerous misperceptions between the superpowers have threatened relations in the past and persist today.

Running concurrently is a concern that misunderstandings over regional events can have global consequences. Further, the Soviet depiction of the garbled communication between Washington and Moscow underlines their stress on crisis prevention rather than what they see as the dangerous US concept of ``crisis management.''

The Soviet decision to shed light on their motives and maneuvers during the Cuban missile crisis is a further indication that Gorbachev is determined to preside over the rendering of a more accurate record of the Soviet experience. The only important Soviet history of the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, presents the fiction that the standoff was the sole result of American provocation.

Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union is now in the midst of a major reappraisal of the official history of the Communist Party, and the Soviet leader himself has proclaimed that ``to ensure correct policy for the future we must have a true understanding of the past.'' Others have suggested that if this policy continues and intensifies, it will make the current version of Soviet history ``invalid and obsolete.'' Gorbachev is reported to realize that contemporary Soviet planners must have access to an honest accounting of history in order to learn from the past and shape future policies. The recent Soviet disclosures on Cuba indicate that glasnost is finally beginning to extend to foreign policy as well.

Thus, by focusing on the adventurism that drove Khrushchev, the misperceptions that clouded the Soviet decisionmaking calculus, and the need for an accurate understanding of what took place on the Soviet side, Gorbachev managed to shift attention away from the humiliation associated with the Cuban crisis. In place of the perception that the Soviets blinked is a new sense that the USSR is ready to apply the lessons from Cuba in its current dealings with the US to avoid future nuclear showdowns.

It will take some time to fully appreciate what the Soviets have said over Cuba. Yet this process must not stop here, 90 miles from Florida. Academics and government groups in the US should test the new mood and explore with the Soviets the nature of other crises, both nuclear and nonnuclear.

It is perhaps too soon to hope for a candid Soviet response to a request for information concerning ongoing operations (Afghanistan) or recent close calls (Poland), but the postwar history is filled with examples of superpower standoffs: the Berlin crisis and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, to name two.

A mutual effort to explore the roots and realities of these and other confrontations might well help us to better understand the driving forces behind Soviet actions. We should not only applaud the Soviets' decision to bare their socialist soul over Cuba but also move quickly to take full advantage of this rare window of opportunity. Indeed, who knows how long this light on the Soviet past will last?

Kurt M. Campbell is lecturer and assistant director at the Center for Science and International Affairs, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Joseph S. Nye is director of the center.

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