Myths about the Cuban missile crisis

Starting October 16, we are currently going through the 50th anniversary of the 13 days in 1962 during which Cuban missile crisis grabbed the attention of the world and seemed to bring us to the brink of a nuclear war.

Peter Orsi of the Associated Press has a good article on five items of conventional wisdom that have taken hold about that crisis.

  • The crisis was a triumph of U.S. brinkmanship.
  • Washington won, and Moscow lost.
  • It was a high-seas showdown.
  • It was an intelligence coup for the CIA.
  • The crisis lasted just 13 days.

What Orsi shows is that the crisis was averted due to the success of good old-fashioned diplomacy with the leaders of the two sides trying to find ways to take their nations back from a war that neither wanted, and realizing that each side had to give up something in order to do so. That is how things are peacefully resolved in the real world with long negotiations involving some give-and-take. But that important lesson was lost in the desire to make it appear that the US had ‘won’ by being inflexible and standing tough.

In a rebroadcast last week on the radio program On the Media of an excellent interview on the crisis that was first aired in 2002 on its 40th anniversary, Fred Kaplan confirms the major elements of Orsi’s account.

Kaplan says that almost right at the beginning, on the third day, Kennedy suggested that they propose a compromise with the USSR that the US would remove their missiles from Turkey if the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba. But his suggestion was ignored by his close circle of key advisors. They wanted him to take much stronger action such as bombing the missile sites in Cuba or imposing a blockade, both actions that would have triggered some sort of retaliation and likely led to war.

When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered a similar deal later in the crisis, Kennedy wanted to accept it, saying that the world would see it as a fair offer and that to reject it and go to war against a tiny Caribbean nation would make the US look bad. But again he was opposed by almost all his advisors, who said that this would make the US look weak, disappoint their allies in Europe, and destabilize NATO. They again insisted on bombing Cuba, with over 500 sorties per day.

But Kennedy finally overrode them, sending a secret emissary to Khrushchev offering to remove the missiles from Turkey but only after six months had elapsed so that the quid-pro-quo would not be readily apparent, and telling Khrushchev that this secrecy was part of the deal. The Soviet leader agreed and thus the crisis was averted.

After Kennedy’s death the next year, all the others involved in these negotiations made a pact that they would never reveal this deal, and so they all consistently lied to the media and the public about how the crisis had been resolved. The facts emerged when it turned out that Kennedy had been secretly recording the deliberations and the recordings were released in 1982. But as is often the case, the long-standing myths, which appealed to the macho sensibilities of the nation, were too strong to overcome.

So what the public has been fed is a steady diet of myths straight out of Western films, the crisis being portrayed as a high noon showdown in which the US stood strong and the Soviet Union ‘blinked’. It feeds into the Manichaean mind-set of good vs. evil and that the good side has to be strong and inflexible to achieve results. That rhetoric reverberates to this day and contributes directly to needless tensions and hostility between the US and other nations.

In another interview on the same program, Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations explains how that false view bedeviled future attempts to peacefully settle conflicts elsewhere because of the need to have the US appear strong and unyielding.

Even now we see that US presidents have to tread gingerly when the issue of talks with countries like North Korea or Iran come up. The idea that one should have talks that lead to some sort of compromise is enough to invoke comparisons to Neville Chamberlain or even as borderline treasonous. The president is expected to lay down ultimatums and it is only after the other side has complied that talks can take place about how to comply with the ultimatums, which is absurd. As Orsi says,

Another modern standoff is over Iran, which the West accuses of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In a recent U.N. speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb to illustrate that a nuclear Tehran would not be tolerated.

“Take Iran, which I have called a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion,” said Graham Allison, author of the groundbreaking study of governmental decision-making “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“This same process is looming on the current trajectory, inexorably, toward a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state,” Allison said.

“Kennedy’s idea would be, `Don’t let this reach the point of confrontation,'” he added. “The risks of catastrophe are too great.”

Kaplan says that the Cuban missile crisis shows that the frequently cited perception (a view that even I have subscribed to) that it does not really matter that much if the president is a weak or even negligible figure because his advisors would rein him in and prevent him from doing something crazy, is a mistake. In this case, the ‘best and the brightest’ (journalist David Halberstam’s ironic title for the advisors around Kennedy) were all urging Kennedy to be belligerent and intransigent with the Soviet Union and in effect, go to war. He was practically the sole holdout at the final stage and overruled all of them and averted the crisis. It is not often that the secretly recorded tapes of a president show him in a positive light but this is one of them.

I wonder if the people of the Soviet Union were fed the mirror image of that view of the Cuban missile crisis, that it was the Soviet Union that stood strong and the US that blinked.


  1. Henry Gale says

    PBS has a special on the Cuban Missile Crisis a few nights ago.

    The focus of the program was a Commander (I think that is the correct rank) of the submarine fleet who refused to launch weapons against the U.S. even though the Captain of the sub had gave the order.

    IIRC, in that show which focused a lot on interviews of Russian submariners, the officers who did not launch their nukes against the U.S. were looked down at when they returned to Russia. (As a note – the Captains were given permission to launch prior to leaving Russia – they did not need direct orders from Moscow.)

  2. slc1 says

    he fact is that the folks in the Politburo didn’t see it that way. Khrushchev was ousted from power 2 years later, in part for what Brezhnev and company considered his dangerous adventurousness relative to placing nuclear weapons in the first place. They considered that placing the missiles in Cuba and then removing them under pressure was a sign of weakness, not strength.

    The liquid fueled missiles that were based in Turkey actually contributed nothing to deterrence as, in the event of a nuclear exchange, they would be eliminated before they could be fueled and launched. The real concession made by Kennedy was a promise not to repeat the Bay of Pigs invasion, a promise that has been adhered to ever since.

  3. maudell says

    Good article, but I’m not convinced of the part about diplomacy from both leaders. It seems to me that Kennedy is overpraised for his actions, but this is the time that Krushchev started to lose it. After the crisis, he started to make toilet analogies about everything and became really weird. If you read the correspondence between Krushchev and Kennedy during the crisis, he writes long, emotional ramblings while Kennedy answers short, firm but courteous messages. I think that was a huge Soviet failure of diplomacy. Krushchev did succeed in getting the American missiles out of Turkey though.
    I think Krushchev was a better leader than people tend to assume (still a tyrant). But by 1961 he clearly changed, that’s how the coup was possible two years later, but it had failed a few years earlier with Molotov. Interestingly, I just read this fact a few weeks ago, Krushchev was the first Russian leader to get out of power alive. (Some people think tsar Alexander faked his death and became a monk, but that’s conspiracy theory level history…)

  4. maudell says

    It’s true the Turkey missiles were not important to the US, but they seriously bothered the Soviets. I think it’s meaningful in this regard.
    By the time of the crisis, Cuba wasn’t a strong ally of the Soviets, particularly not on the ideological front. Krushchev cared little about whether there would be another Bay of Pigs. In my opinion, he thing here is the symbolic meaning of the actions. The Soviets knew that it was a huge concession from the US. (that is just the way I understand the dynamics)

  5. says

    It’s true the Turkey missiles were not important to the US, but they seriously bothered the Soviets.

    Correct. They were positioned there to threaten the USSR with a quick decapitating strike in the event the US decided to attack first (which, for most of the cold war, the USSR’s leadership were pretty sure was our plan) they were a serious threat because USSR’s command/control systems were nowhere near as sophisticated as ours and a decapitating strike would have actually been practical. The eventual response was the Perimetr system. 🙁 Madness piled on madness, all in the name of making the world better.

  6. slc1 says

    The Soviet Politburo didn’t consider it a huge concession, else they would not have used the crisis as an excuse to oust Khrushchev from power.

  7. says

    BTW – the Jupiter missiles that were in Turkey supposedly took about 20 minutes to fuel and launch. Given the turn-around times in intellegence-collection at that time (no real-time satellite imagery) that was, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous. If the Jupiters were to be used for a decapitation strike the USSR would have had no warning. That’s exactly why the Soviet leadership was concerned about them!

    The missiles were a serious threat. Probably not a deliberate provocation; I think our leaders were too stupid for that. Just the thoughtlessness of the privileged and powerful who use us all as score-keeping chips in a very fucked up game they play.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    Have contemporary records (that can be authenticated) appeared from the Sojuz that show how the missile crisis looked from the other side? Orsi did not mention any, unless I missed it.

  9. weaver says

    It’s also important to note that the “showdown at sea” never occurred – that Soviet naval forces turned away while still more than 750 miles from the US blockade.

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