Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis

MASSIVE new deployments of American force in the Persian Gulf create a new level of risk and raise the question of whether we can learn from other flash-point situations that faced this country. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is an example. It helps to remember that US participants in that crisis had information not available to the informed public but still lacked conclusive data on Soviet and Cuban actions. At the same time, the public was unaware of the Kennedy administration's secret efforts to resolve the crisis without the use of military force. Finally, both Soviets and Americans made judgment errors in trying to analyze the intentions and behavior of the other side. All these factors should give us some pause in examining the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The Problem of Incomplete Information: It was unknown whether the Soviets had actually deployed nuclear warheads to the island before the US blockade was in effect. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the nuclear nose cones were not in Cuba at the time, but 25 years later we learned that some warheads had arrived, none had been mated to missiles, and Khrushchev had not ordered the firing of the missiles even if attacked. We also learned only recently that the US U-2 reconnaissance aircraft that was downed at the peak of the crisis was shot down by a Soviet antiaircraft missile fired by authority of local Soviet commanders and not the overall Soviet commander in Cuba, against the orders of Defense Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky who had given instructions to fire only if attacked.

This raises questions about Iraqi capabilities in view of their secret nuclear and chemical programs but, more important, their willingness to use any weapons system in their battle against Iran. It also raises issues about Iraqi command and control on the front lines and the possibility of accidental launch.

JFK's Use of Diplomacy: President Kennedy presented a tough image to the American public, but privately he took a series of conciliatory steps to avoid the use of force. When Khrushchev belatedly sought during the crisis to trade Soviet missiles in Cuba for obsolescent US missiles in Turkey as a way out, Kennedy's advisers told him that acceptance of such a proposal would have meant a major diplomatic and political defeat for the administration. Kennedy ostensibly agreed with them, but ordered Secretary of State Dean Rusk that, if Khrushchev went public with his offer, the United Nations Secretary-General, U Thant, should ``spontaneously'' make a similar appeal that the US would accept.

This, too, raises questions about private US use of channels of mediation either through the UN, which has played such a vital role in conflict resolution in Angola and Cambodia over the past several years, or through the Soviet Union, which continues to have credibility in Baghdad and has played a major behind-the-scenes role in resolving crises.

The Problem of Misperceptions: Both Kennedy and Khrushchev made serious errors in judgment during the crisis and subsequently realized the importance of creating strategic stability between the superpowers. In making the decision to deploy medium-range missiles to Cuba, Khrushchev clearly underestimated Kennedy's resolve. Kennedy overestimated Soviet military power and underestimated Khrushchev's political power at the outset of the crisis but wisely decided to give the Soviet leader room to maneuver his way out. Kennedy was careful never to address his opponent in confrontational terms. Both understood the need to try to get the ``nuclear genie back in the bottle'' as a result of the crisis, and it is no accident of history that in the following year the two sides signed the Partial Test Ban and Hot Line agreements. Soviet political commentator Fyodor Burlatsky remarked that the Cuban missile crisis was a ``bad thing with a very good result ... the first step toward new thinking about each other.''

The Lessons: It is seductive to try to draw lessons from history. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, we can see that it is possible to negotiate and reach agreements even in times of greatest peril. Like Khrushchev, President Saddam Hussein is a confident and mercurial political figure who, having made the wrong decision to use force in Kuwait, could decide to reverse himself - as he did vis-`a-vis Iran. Like Kennedy, President George Bush should use more careful rhetoric in addressing his opponent and always leave room for bargaining. Neither president can be certain that he is getting all the information or intelligence he needs, nor should the opportunity for diplomatic interaction ever be ignored. The blockade did not remove the missiles from Cuba, but negotiations did; the buildup in Saudi Arabia will not necessarily lead to Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, but diplomacy might.

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