Fifty years ago this past week, the world watched transfixed as the United States and Soviet Union edged to the brink of war and what could have been a nuclear Armageddon. The cause was the U.S. discovery on October 16, 1962, of the installation of Soviet missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Yet the two superpowers never stepped over the brink and the crisis was defused after 13 days of high suspense. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, and Kennedy’s reputation soared as a result. He was enjoying stellar ratings when, thirteen months later, he was assassinated. Were the plaudits deserved?
The answer is a mixed one. Inasmuch as the placement of Soviet missiles developed out of the disastrous, Kennedy-authorized Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban dissidents the previous year, assisted covertly — but so clumsily as to fool no-one — by U.S. forces, the “victory” consisted of extricating Kennedy from a self-induced crisis. But the extrication was no simple matter.
Khrushchev had placed the missiles for non-offensive purposes, to secure Cuba from future invasion. But Kennedy could not be sure: the missiles, after all, were aimed at America’s soft underbelly from the south which, the Soviets knew, the U.S. radar system did not cover, doubling Russia’s first-strike capability.
We also now know from a tape recording released in 1990 that Khrushchev spoke of selecting American targets with care and with a view to inflicting maximum damage and spreading terror. And while it later emerged that the missiles had not been fitted with nuclear warheads when the crisis arose, we also know on the authority of Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, that the missiles could have been made operational within hours had Khrushchev given the order.
There was also the Khrushchev enigma to consider. Was he was sufficiently pragmatic to pull back from the brink, or was he a nihilist ideologue, willing to risk incinerating the world? Khrushchev was later to say that, “I’m not a Czarist officer who has to kill himself if I fart at a masked ball. It’s better to back down than to go to war.” But that could be the gloss of hindsight and it is scarcely the impression Kennedy took of Khrushchev from their meeting the previous year in Vienna. “[I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill seventy million people in ten minutes,” Kennedy later said of that meeting, “and he just looked at me as if to say, ‘So what?’ My impression was that he just didn’t give a damn if it came to that.” This too could be a retrospective gloss. Or perhaps Kennedy was overawed by his opposite number. But, given the stakes, Kennedy could not afford to be incautious.
A month before the crisis and, with an eye on the the mid-term congressional elections then two months away, Kennedy had said that he would not tolerate a Soviet offensive military capacity in Cuba. Suddenly, he was facing the prospect of nuclear missiles, and the military service heads, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, were urging air strikes to eliminate them.
It is a myth, popularized widely, including in the film Thirteen Days (2002), that Kennedy was never enamored of this option. To the contrary, the transcripts of ExComm, his swiftly convened crisis cabinet, show him to have assumed the need for strikes in the opening days. But confirmation that the Air Force could not ensure 100% elimination of the missile sites induced caution — and a dilemma. How to honor his pledge that he would never allow Cuba to become a strategic threat, while eliminating the threat that had now actually materialized without precipitating a nuclear exchange?
Kennedy opted for placing a naval “quarantine” on Cuba — the more obvious and accurate term “blockade” was avoided, blockade being an act of war — and the Organization of American States’ agreement to this course of action provided the legal cover required for this device. It worked. Soviet ships turned back rather than invite confrontation with the 63 U.S. naval vessels and 33,000-strong U.S. forces enforcing the quarantine. But this was scarcely the end of the crisis.