Cuban missile crisis: how the US played Russian roulette with nuclear war
President Kennedy is often lauded for managing the crisis. The reality is he took stunning risks to impose American hegemony
15 October 2012
The world stood still 50 years ago during the last week of October, from the moment when it learned that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba until the crisis was officially ended -- though, unknown to the public, only officially.
The image of the world standing still is due to Sheldon Stern,  former historian at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library, who published the authoritative version of the tapes of the ExComm meetings where Kennedy, and a close circle of advisers, debated how to respond to the crisis. The meetings were secretly recorded by the president, which might bear on the fact that his stand throughout the recorded sessions is relatively temperate, as compared to other participants who were unaware that they were speaking to history. Stern has just published  an accessible and accurate review of this critically important documentary record, finally declassified in the 1990s. I will keep to that here. "Never before or since," he concludes, "has the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of dangerous deliberations," culminating in the Week the World Stood Still.
There was good reason for the global concern. A nuclear war was all too imminent -- a war that might "destroy the Northern Hemisphere", President Eisenhower had warned. Kennedy's own judgment was that the probability of war might have been as high as 50%.  Estimates became higher as the confrontation reached its peak and the "secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the government was put into effect" in Washington, described by journalist Michael Dobbs in his recent, well-researched bestseller  on the crisis -- though he doesn't explain why there would be much point in doing so, given the likely nature of nuclear war. Dobbs quotes Dino Brugioni, "a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile build-up", who saw no way out except "war and complete destruction" as the clock moved to One Minute to Midnight -- Dobbs' title. Kennedy's close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, described the events as "the most dangerous moment in human history". Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wondered aloud whether he "would live to see another Saturday night", and later recognized that "we lucked out" -- barely.
A closer look at what took place adds grim overtones to these judgments, with reverberations to the present moment.
'The most dangerous moment'
There are several candidates for "the most dangerous moment". One is 27 October, when US destroyers enforcing the quarantine around Cuba were dropping depth-charges on Soviet submarines. According to Soviet accounts, reported by the National Security Archive,  submarine commanders were "rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945".
In one case, a reported decision to assemble a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness was aborted at the last minute by Second Captain Vasili Archipov, who may have saved the world from nuclear disaster. There is little doubt what the US reaction would have been had the torpedo been fired, or how the Russians would have responded as their country was going up in smoke. Kennedy had already declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch (Defcon 2), which authorized "Nato aircraft with Turkish pilots ... [or others] ... to take off, fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb", according to Harvard University strategic analyst Graham Allison,  in Foreign Affairs.
Another candidate is the previous day, 26 October. That day is selected as "the most dangerous moment" by a B-52 pilot, Major Don Clawson, who piloted one of those Nato aircrafts and provides a hair-raising description of details of the Chrome Dome (CD) missions during the crisis, "B-52s on airborne alert" with nuclear weapons "on board and ready to use". 26 October was the day when "the nation was closest to nuclear war," Clawson writes in his "irreverent anecdotes of an Air Force pilot", Is That Something the Crew Should Know? On that day, Clawson himself was in a good position to set off a likely terminal cataclysm. He concludes that:
"We were damned lucky we didn't blow up the world -- and no thanks to the political or military leadership of this country."
The errors, confusions, near-accidents and miscomprehension of the leadership that Clawson reports are startling enough, but not as much as the operative command-and-control rules -- or lack of them. As Clawson recounts his experiences during the 15, 24-hour CD missions he flew -- the maximum possible -- the official commanders "did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue crew or crew-member from arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons", or even from broadcasting a mission that would have sent off "the entire airborne alert force without possibility of recall". Once the crew was airborne, carrying thermonuclear weapons, he writes:
"It would have been possible to arm and drop them all with no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the systems."
About one-third of the total force was in the air, according to General David Burchinal, director of plans on the air staff at Air Force headquarters. The Strategic Air Command, technically in charge, appears to have had little control. And according to Clawson's account, the civilian National Command Authority was kept in the dark by SAC, which means that the ExComm "deciders" pondering the fate of the world knew even less. General Burchinal's oral history is no less hair-raising, and reveals even greater contempt for the civilian command. According to him, Russian capitulation was never in doubt. The CD operations were designed to make it crystal clear to the Russians that they were hardly even competing in the military confrontation, and could quickly have been destroyed.
From the ExComm records, Stern concludes that on 26 October President Kennedy was "leaning towards military action to eliminate the missiles" in Cuba, to be followed by invasion, according to Pentagon plans.  It was evident then that the act might have led to terminal war, a conclusion fortified much later by revelations that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed, and that Russian forces were far greater than US intelligence had reported.
As the ExComm meetings were drawing to a close at 6pm on the 26 October, a letter arrived from Prime Minister Khrushchev, directly to President Kennedy. Khrushchev's "message seemed clear," Stern writes:
"The missiles would be removed if the US promised not to invade Cuba."
The next day, at 10am, the president again turned on the secret tape. He read aloud a wire service report that had just been handed to him:
"Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey."
These were Jupiter missiles with nuclear warheads. The report was soon authenticated. Though received by the committee as an unexpected bolt from the blue, it had actually been anticipated: "We've known this might be coming for a week," Kennedy informed them. To refuse public acquiescence would be difficult, he realized. These were obsolete missiles, already slated for withdrawal, to be replaced by far more lethal and effectively invulnerable Polaris submarines. Kennedy recognized that he would be in an "insupportable position if this becomes [Khrushchev's] proposal", both because the Turkish missiles were useless and were being withdrawn anyway, and because "it's gonna -- to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade."
A serious dilemma
The planners therefore faced a serious dilemma: they had in hand two somewhat different proposals from Khrushchev to end the threat of catastrophic war, and each would seem to any "rational man" to be a fair trade. How then to react?
One possibility would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization could survive, to eagerly accept both offers and to announce that the US would adhere to international law and remove any threat to invade Cuba; and to carry forward the withdrawal of the obsolete missiles in Turkey, proceeding as planned to upgrade the nuclear threat against the Soviet Union to a far greater one, of course, only part of the global encirclement of Russia. But that was unthinkable.
The basic reason why no such thought could be contemplated was spelled out by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard Dean and reputedly the brightest star in the Camelot firmament. The world must come to understand that "the current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba," where missiles are directed against us.  A vastly more powerful US missile force trained on the much weaker and more vulnerable Soviet enemy cannot possibly be regarded as a threat to peace, because we are Good, as a great many people in the western hemisphere and beyond could testify -- among numerous others, the victims of the ongoing terrorist war that the US was then waging against Cuba, or those swept up in the "campaign of hatred" in the Arab world that so puzzled Eisenhower (though not the National Security Council, which explained it clearly).
And, of course, the idea that the US should be restrained by international law was too ridiculous to merit consideration. As explained recently by the respected liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias,  "one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers" -- meaning the US -- so that it is "amazingly naïve", indeed quite "silly", to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless: a frank and welcome exposition of operative assumptions, reflexively taken for granted by the ExComm assemblage.
In subsequent colloquy, the president stressed that we would be "in a bad position" if we chose to set off an international conflagration by rejecting proposals that would seem quite reasonable to survivors, if any cared. This "pragmatic" stance was about as far as moral considerations could reach. In a review of recently-released documents on Kennedy-era terror, Harvard University Latin Americanist Jorge Domínguez observes  that:
"Only once in these nearly thousand pages of documentation did a US official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to US government-sponsored terrorism."
A member of the National Security Council staff suggested that raids that are "haphazard and kill innocents ... might mean a bad press in some friendly countries." The same attitudes prevail throughout the internal discussions during the missile crisis, as when Robert Kennedy warned that a full-scale invasion of Cuba would "kill an awful lot of people, and we're going to take an awful lot of heat on it." And they prevail to the present with only the rarest of exceptions, as easily documented.
Unbeknownst to the public ...
We might have been "in even a worse position" if the world had known more about what the US was doing at the time. It was only recently learned that, six months earlier, the US had secretly deployed in Okinawa missiles virtually identical to those the Russians later sent to Cuba. These were surely aimed at China, at a moment of elevated regional tensions. Okinawa remains a major offensive US military base, over the bitter objections of its inhabitants -- who, right now, are less than enthusiastic about the dispatch of accident-prone V-22 Osprey helicopters  to the Fukenma military base, located at the heart of a heavily-populated urban center.
In the deliberations that followed, the US pledged to withdraw the obsolete missiles from Turkey, but would not do so publicly or in writing: it was important that Khrushchev be seen to capitulate. An interesting reason was offered, and is accepted as reasonable by scholarship and commentary. As Dobbs puts it:
"If it appeared that the United States was dismantling the missile bases unilaterally, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the [Nato] alliance might crack."
Or, to rephrase a little more accurately, if the US replaced useless missiles with a far more lethal threat, as already planned, in a trade with Russia that any "rational man" would regard as very fair, then the Nato alliance might crack. To be sure, when Russia withdrew Cuba's only deterrent against ongoing US attack with a severe threat to proceed to direct invasion and quietly departed from the scene, the Cubans would be infuriated -- as they were, understandably. But that is an unfair comparison for the standard reasons: we are human beings who matter, while they are merely "unpeople", to borrow Orwell's useful phrase.
Kennedy also made an informal pledge not to invade Cuba, but with conditions: not just withdrawal of the missiles, but also termination, or at least "a great lessening", of any Russian military presence. (Unlike Turkey, on Russia's borders, where nothing of the kind could be contemplated.) When Cuba is no longer an "armed camp", then "we probably wouldn't invade," in the president's words. He added also that if it hoped to be free from the threat of US invasion, Cuba must end its "political subversion" (Stern's phrase) in Latin America.
Political subversion had been a constant theme for years, invoked, for example,  when Eisenhower overthrew the parliamentary government of Guatemala and plunged the tortured country into an abyss from which it has yet to emerge. And the themes remained alive and well right through Reagan's vicious terror wars in Central America in the 1980s. The "political subversion" consisted of support for those resisting the murderous assaults of the US and its client regimes, and sometimes -- horror of horrors -- perhaps even providing arms to the victims.
The problem with Castro
In the case of Cuba, the State Department policy planning council explained:
"The primary danger we face in Castro is ... in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries ... The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half."
The Monroe Doctrine announced the US intention, then unrealizable, of dominating the western hemisphere. An example of great contemporary import is revealed in Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian's important recent study  of the US-UK coup that overthrew the parliamentary regime of Iran in 1953. With scrupulous examination of internal records, he shows convincingly that standard accounts cannot be sustained. The primary causes were not cold war concerns, nor Iranian irrationality that undermined Washington's "benign intentions", nor even access to oil or profits, but rather the demand for "overall controls" with the broader implications for global dominance, threatened by independent nationalism. That is what we discover over and over by investigating particular cases.
Cuba, too, not surprisingly -- though the fanaticism might merit examination in this case. US policy towards Cuba is harshly condemned throughout Latin America, and indeed most of the world, but "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is understood to be meaningless rhetoric intoned mindlessly on 4 July. Ever since polls have been taken on the matter, a considerable majority of the US population has favored normalization of relations with Cuba, but that, too, is insignificant. Dismissal of public opinion is, of course, quite normal. What is interesting in this case is dismissal of powerful sectors of US economic power, which also favor normalization, and are usually highly influential in setting policy: energy, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and others. That suggests that there is a powerful state interest involved in punishing Cubans, as well as the cultural factors revealed in the hysteria of the Camelot intellectuals.
The end ... only officially
The missile crisis officially ended on 28 October. The outcome was not obscure. That evening, in a special CBS News broadcast, Charles Collingwood reported  that the world had come out "from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since the second world war", with a "humiliating defeat for Soviet policy". Dobbs comments that the Russians tried to pretend that the outcome was "yet another triumph for Moscow's peace-loving foreign policy over warmongering imperialists", as "the supremely wise, always reasonable Soviet leadership had saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction." Extricating the basic facts from the fashionable ridicule, Khrushchev's agreement to capitulate "had saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction".
The crisis, however, was not over. On 8 November, the Pentagon announced that all known Soviet missile bases had been dismantled. And on the same day, Stern reports, "a sabotage team carried out an attack on a Cuban factory," though Kennedy's terror campaign, Operation Mongoose, had been formally curtailed at the peak of the crisis. The 8 November terror attack lends support to Bundy's observation that the threat to peace was Cuba, not Turkey -- where the Russians were not continuing a lethal assault. Not, however, what Bundy had in mind, or could have understood.
More details are added by the highly respected scholar Raymond Garthoff, who also had a great deal of experience within the government, in his careful 1987 account of the missile crisis. On 8 November, he writes,  "a Cuban covert action sabotage team dispatched from the United States successfully blew up a Cuban industrial facility," killing 400 workers, according to a Cuban government letter to the UN Secretary General. Garthoff comments that "the Soviets could only see [the attack] as an effort to backpedal on what was, for them, the key question remaining: American assurances not to attack Cuba," particularly since the terrorist attack was launched from the US. These and other "third-party actions" reveal again, he concludes, "that the risk and danger to both sides could have been extreme, and catastrophe not excluded." Garthoff also reviews the murderous and destructive operations of Kennedy's terrorist campaign, which we would certainly regard as more than ample justification for war, if the US or its allies or clients were victims, not perpetrators.
From the same source we learn further that on 23 August 1962, the president had issued National Security Memorandum No 181,  "a directive to engineer an internal revolt that would be followed by US military intervention", involving "significant US military plans, maneuvers, and movement of forces and equipment" that were surely known to Cuba and Russia. Also in August, terrorist attacks were intensified, including speedboat strafing attacks on a Cuban seaside hotel "where Soviet military technicians were known to congregate, killing a score of Russians and Cubans"; attacks on British and Cuban cargo ships; contaminating sugar shipments; and other atrocities and sabotage, mostly carried out by Cuban exile organizations permitted to operate freely in Florida. Shortly after came "the most dangerous moment in human history", not exactly out of the blue.
Playing with fire
Kennedy officially renewed the terrorist operations after the crisis ebbed. Ten days before his assassination, he approved a CIA plan for "destruction operations" by US proxy forces "against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbor facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships". A plot to assassinate Castro was apparently initiated on the day of the Kennedy assassination. The terrorist campaign was called off in 1965, but "one of Nixon's first acts in office in 1969 was to direct the CIA to intensify covert operations against Cuba," Garthoff reports.
In the current issue of Political Science Quarterly,  Montague Kern observes that the Cuban missile crisis is one of those "full-bore crises ... in which an ideological enemy (the Soviet Union) is universally perceived to have gone on the attack, leading to a rally-'round-the-flag effect that greatly expands support for a president, increasing his policy options." Kern is right that it is "universally perceived" that way, apart from those who have escaped sufficiently from the ideological shackles to pay some attention to the facts. Kern is, in fact, one of them. Another is Sheldon Stern, who recognizes what has long been known to such deviants. As he writes, we now know that:
"Khrushchev's original explanation for shipping missiles to Cuba had been fundamentally true: the Soviet leader had never intended these weapons as a threat to the security of the United States, but rather considered their deployment a defensive move to protect his Cuban allies from American attacks and as a desperate effort to give the USSR the appearance of equality in the nuclear balance of power."
Dobbs, too, recognizes that:
"Castro and his Soviet patrons had real reasons to fear American attempts at regime change, including, as a last resort, a US invasion of Cuba ... [Khrushchev] was also sincere in his desire to defend the Cuban revolution from the mighty neighbor to the north."
The American attacks are often dismissed in US commentary as silly pranks, CIA shenanigans that got out of hand. That is far from the truth. The best and the brightest had reacted to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion with near hysteria, including the president, who solemnly informed the country that:
"The complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history. Only the strong ... can possibly survive."
And they can only survive, he evidently believed, by massive terror -- though that addendum was kept secret, and is still not known to loyalists who perceive the ideological enemy as having "gone on the attack" -- the near-universal perception, as Kern observes. After the Bay of Pigs defeat, historian Piero Gleijeses writes that JFK launched a crushing embargo to punish the Cubans for defeating a US-run invasion, and "asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare and sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the 'terrors of the earth' on Fidel Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him."
The phrase "terrors of the earth"  is Arthur Schlesinger's, in his quasi-official biography of Robert Kennedy, who was assigned responsibility to conduct the terrorist war, and informed the CIA that the Cuban problem carries "the top priority in the United States Government -- all else is secondary -- no time, no effort, or manpower is to be spared" in the effort to overthrow the Castro regime. The Mongoose operations were run by Edward Lansdale, who had ample experience in "counterinsurgency" -- a standard term for terrorism that we direct. He provided a timetable leading to "open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime" in October 1962.
The "final definition" of the program recognized that "final success will require decisive US military intervention," after terrorism and subversion had laid the basis. The implication is that US military intervention would take place in October 1962 -- when the missile crisis erupted. The events just reviewed help explain why Cuba and Russia had good reason to take such threats seriously.
Years later, Robert McNamara recognized that Cuba was justified in fearing an attack. "If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so, too," he observed at a major conference on the missile crisis on the 40th anniversary. As for Russia's "desperate effort to give the USSR the appearance of equality", to which Stern refers, recall that Kennedy's very narrow victory in the 1960 election relied heavily on a fabricated "missile gap" concocted to terrify the country and to condemn the Eisenhower administration as soft on national security. There was indeed a "missile gap", but strongly in favor of the US. The first "public, unequivocal administration statement" on the true facts, according to strategic analyst Desmond Ball  in his authoritative study of the Kennedy missile program, was in October 1961, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric informed the Business Council that "the US would have a larger nuclear delivery system left after a surprise attack than the nuclear force which the Soviet Union could employ in its first strike."
The Russians, of course, were well aware of their relative weakness and vulnerability. They were also aware of Kennedy's reaction when Khrushchev offered to sharply reduce offensive military capacity and proceeded to do so unilaterally when Kennedy failed to respond: namely, Kennedy undertook a huge armaments program.
The two most crucial questions about the missile crisis are how it began, and how it ended. It began with Kennedy's terrorist attack against Cuba, with a threat of invasion in October 1962. It ended with the president's rejection of Russian offers that would seem fair to a rational person, but were unthinkable because they would undermine the fundamental principle that the US has the unilateral right to deploy nuclear missiles anywhere, aimed at China or Russia or anyone else, and right on their borders; and the accompanying principle that Cuba had no right to have missiles for defense against what appeared to be an imminent US invasion. To establish these principles firmly, it was entirely proper to face a high risk of war of unimaginable destruction, and to reject simple, and admittedly fair, ways to end the threat.
Garthoff observes that "in the United States, there was almost universal approbation for President Kennedy's handling of the crisis." Dobbs writes that "the relentlessly upbeat tone was established by the court historian, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, who wrote that Kennedy had 'dazzled the world' through a 'combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated'." Rather more soberly, Stern partially agrees, noting that Kennedy repeatedly rejected the militant advice of his advisers and associates who called for military force and dismissal of peaceful options.
The events of October 1962 are widely hailed as Kennedy's finest hour. Graham Allison joins many others in presenting  them as "a guide for how to defuse conflicts, manage great-power relationships, and make sound decisions about foreign policy in general". In a very narrow sense, that judgment seems reasonable. The ExComm tapes reveal that the president stood apart from others, sometimes almost all others, in rejecting premature violence.
There is, however, a further question: how should JFK's relative moderation in management of the crisis be evaluated against the background of the broader considerations just reviewed? But that question does not arise in a disciplined intellectual and moral culture, which accepts without question the basic principle that the US effectively owns the world by right, and is, by definition, a force for good despite occasional errors and misunderstandings, so that it is plainly entirely proper for the US to deploy massive offensive force all over the world, while it is an outrage for others (allies and clients apart) to make even the slightest gesture in that direction, or even to think of deterring the threatened use of violence by the benign global hegemon.
That doctrine is the primary official charge against Iran today: it might pose a deterrent to US and Israeli force. It was a consideration during the missile crisis as well. In internal discussion, the Kennedy brothers expressed their fears that Cuban missiles might deter a US invasion of Venezuela then under consideration. So "the Bay of Pigs was really right," JFK concluded.
The principles still contribute to the constant risk of nuclear war. There has been no shortage of severe dangers since the missile crisis. Ten years later, during the 1973 Israel-Arab war, Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert (Defcon 3) to warn the Russians to keep hands off while he was secretly authorizing Israel to violate the ceasefire  imposed by the US and Russia. When Reagan came into office a few years later, the US launched operations probing Russian defenses and simulating air and naval attacks, while placing Pershing missiles in Germany with a five-minute flight time to Russian targets, providing what the CIA called a "super-sudden first strike" capability.
Naturally, this caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the US, has repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. There have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first strike minutes before launch, after automated systems gave false alarms. We don't have Russian records, but there's no doubt that their systems are far more accident-prone.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several times, and the sources of the conflict remain. Both have refused  to sign the non-proliferation treaty, along with Israel, and have received US support for development of their nuclear weapons programs -- until today, in the case of India, now a US ally. War threats in the Middle East, which might become reality very soon, once again escalate the dangers.
In 1962, war was avoided by Khrushchev's willingness to accept Kennedy's hegemonic demands. But we can hardly count on such sanity forever. It's a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided. There is more reason than ever to attend to the warning of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein,  almost 60 years ago, that we must face a choice that is "stark and dreadful and inescapable":
Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?