Cuban Missile Crisis, After 30 Years

Anniversary evokes memories of President Kennedy's actions in a famous cold war episode

SUNDAY, Oct. 14, 1962. A lone United States U-2 reconnaissance plane slices through the clear morning skies over Cuba. Its mission: to photograph surface-to-air missiles recently installed in Cuba by the Soviet Union.

Overnight, technicians analyzing the U-2 film make an astonishing discovery. Early Tuesday, Oct. 16, after carefully verifying it, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy takes it to the White House. He tells a bathrobed President John Kennedy that the unthinkable has happened: The Soviets have installed medium-range missiles in Cuba capable of raining nuclear warheads on the US mainland.

The impact of the news and the drama of the two weeks that followed still stand out as the most vivid episode of the cold war, a brief, anxious moment when the world was perched closer to the edge of Armageddon than ever before or since.

"We were just inches away from a nuclear holocaust," says James Blight, a Brown University scholar who organized a series of five recent discussions between some of the main Soviet, Cuban, and American actors in the crisis.

But 30 years later, the Cuban missile crisis is also remembered as a moment when US policymakers, conscious of the mistakes that had led to past wars and determined not to repeat them, etched one of the cardinal rules of crisis management into the history books.

"If you are trying to avoid escalation, never back your adversary into a corner where he has no choice but humiliation or escalation," explains Theodore Sorensen, then White House counsel to President Kennedy and a key player in the deliberations of the 14-man Executive Committee (Ex Comm) of the National Security Council that framed policy options for Kennedy.

On Monday, Oct. 22, six days after Mr. Bundy's fateful visit to the White House, the Cuban missile crisis broke into public view. After quietly lining up diplomatic support, placing US forces on nuclear alert, and mobilizing an armada in the Caribbean for a possible invasion of Cuba, Kennedy delivered a nationally televised address. He demanded that the Soviet Union remove missiles already in Cuba and announced a naval quarantine to keep more missiles from reaching the island.

For 48 hours the world waited in suspense as Soviet ships steamed toward the blockade perimeter. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the tension was abated when 14 ships stopped or turned back. "For a moment, the world had stood still," Kennedy's brother and chief adviser, Robert, later wrote in his posthumously published account of the 13-day crisis.

But the crisis was not over. Intelligence photos showed that Soviet teams were within days of making the missiles in Cuba operational, placing millions of Americans at risk. Under mounting pressure to launch air strikes and a ground invasion to destroy them, Kennedy, on Saturday, issued what amounted to a 24-hour ultimatum to Khrushchev.

If Khruschev failed to respond, he worried privately, the consequences could be apocalyptic: "We must ... accept the possibility that when military hostilities first begin, those missiles will be fired," Kennedy said. After another night of anxious waiting, the crisis broke. Swayed by the threat of conflict, Khrushchev agreed to Kennedy's bargain: a withdrawal of Soviet missiles in return for a US pledge never to invade Cuba. As a sweetener, Kennedy promised, but not publicly, to remove aging US Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

The nation and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Secretary of State Dean Rusk later summarized one of the most dramatic two weeks in history: "We looked into the mouth of the cannon; the Russians flinched."

After 30 years of discussing and dissecting, historians and participants have solved at least a few of the riddles that have surrounded the Cuban missile crisis.

They now largely discount the notion that Khrushchev planned to use Cuba as a base from which to launch missiles against the US, though what he did hope to achieve is still a matter of debate.

Former Khrushchev aides say the missiles were deployed mainly to deter an expected US invasion of the island to dislodge Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"The Soviets remembered how many times the US had invaded Cuba directly in the past," Mr. Blight says. "There was something about saving the Cuban revolution that inspired them."

BUT more was involved than defending Cuba, say Blight and other experts on the crisis. They say Khrushchev's main goal was to gain military parity with the US by installing forward-based missiles off the US coast, just as US missiles flanked the Soviet frontier in Europe and Asia.

As Kennedy explained in an interview shortly after the crisis, a highly publicized deployment "would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality."

The deployment is also seen as part of a three-pronged strategy, including threats to West Berlin and the resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere, that was designed, as historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, to force detente through intimidation.

As to Khrushchev's huge miscalculation of the US response, says Mr. Sorensen, it can be attributed to the Soviet leader's mistaken assessment of Kennedy at their only summit, in Vienna in 1961. "Khrushchev thought Kennedy would respond with a diplomatic note of warning and a protest at the UN," says Sorensen, who is now an attorney in New York. "He thought by installing the missiles quickly and surreptitiously he could present the US with a fait accompli, at which time Kennedy's ability to bargain or thr eaten would be minimum."

Kennedy did threaten. But he applied pressure judiciously to avoid provocation. Sorensen writes that Kennedy had been impressed as a Harvard undergraduate by a course on the origins of World War I. "The Guns of August," Barbara Tuchman's later account of the miscalculations that led to the war, convinced him that restraint was as important as strength in keeping the peace.

Against the recommendations of nearly all his military advisers, he thus opted for an embargo instead of an invasion, cautioned restraint after a U-2 reconnaissance flight was downed over Cuba at a critical moment in the crisis, and urged the Navy not to pick a fight with Soviet ships in the Caribbean - all to give Khrushchev the maximum time to reconsider his position and to weigh the sober consequences of the war that would almost certainly have resulted if he had refused to back down.

"If anybody is around to write after this," Kennedy told his brother while awaiting Khrushchev's response to his ultimatum, "they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move. I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary."

New information suggests that military action of any kind would almost certainly have led to a general conflict. Soviet sources say 43,000 Soviet troops were based in Cuba, not 10,000 as the US thought at the time. All were clustered around the missile sites and would have been casualties of any US air strikes. "No Russian believes Khrushchev could have taken a hit like that and done nothing," Blight says. The US was also unaware at the time that the Soviets had also dispatched short-range nuclear weapon s to Cuba that Soviet commanders on the ground were authorized to use to repel a US invasion. In this case, it was Kennedy who would have been forced to retaliate.

The results of the missile crisis were not all positive. It marked the beginning of the end for the sometimes conciliatory but now discredited Khrushchev. Determined never to be humiliated again, later Soviet leaders embarked on the massive arms buildup that lasted until the end of the cold war.

It was nevertheless a moment of personal and political redemption for a president whose first year in office had been blemished by the Bay of Pigs crisis - the very event, paradoxically, that led to the introduction of Soviet missiles in the first place.

"This was one of the most masterfully organized and managed military crises, maybe in history," says Gary McCabe, then a young White House naval aide who witnessed the Ex Comm's deliberations. "And the key to the thing was the personality, skills, and management of the president himself. He was a model of self-control, clear thinking, and determination. It seemed as if he had spent his whole life preparing for this moment."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.