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 The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, and Kennedy’s reputation soared as a result.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.
Kennedy soon came into receipt of two missives from Khrushchev. The first, on October 26, was personal and earnest and indicated a desire to strike a deal to defuse the crisis: Khrushchev proposed removal of the missiles from Cuba in return for a public American pledge never to invade Cuba. The second, on October 27, was impersonal and rigid — and suspected of being a Politburo production, not Khrushchev’s — and more belligerent, insisting also on the removal of the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
To make matters worse, the same day, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down and its pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, killed. A second U-2 strayed into Soviet airspace and nearly shared the same fate. It has been said that neither side would have permitted war on such chance missteps, but that remains unclear: ExComm had previously decided that a downed U-2 called for eliminating the offending SAM anti-aircraft missile site. ExComm had further determined that all SAM sites in Cuba were to be destroyed if a second U-2 was downed. Matters could have swiftly degenerated into war. Kennedy wisely chose not to order retaliation for the first U-2 and to remain silent about the second. He also ordered U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey defused so they could not be fired without his authorization.
Even without these possible triggers, the risk of war was high. On October 22, the U.S. moved to Defcon-2, the highest state of alert reached at any time in the Cold War. All U.S. missile crews were placed on maximum alert, over 1,400 bombers were armed and poised for immediate action, including 90 B-52s airborne carrying multi-megaton bombs, and over 160 nuclear warheads were made active. Whatever else might be said about the crisis, it cannot be claimed that the two superpowers were not poised near the brink.
Through back channels, agreement was reached along the lines of Khrushchev’s second letter, though the removal of the Jupiter missiles was a secret component of the deal, never avowed in public. On October 28, the deal was concluded and the world — for once not a hyperbolic image — breathed a sigh of relief. Kennedy basked in the glow of victory. A nuclear exchange had been averted and the Democrats picked up four Senate seats in the midterm elections that followed.
In short, Kennedy’s wretched judgment on the Bay of Pigs had spurred the Soviets to shore up their Cuban ally to the point of installing nuclear missiles. Yet with the stakes so high, Soviet determination untested, and the room for maneuver small, Kennedy carefully extricated the U.S. from the ignominious prospect of Soviet missiles positioned permanently ninety miles from mainland United States. He thus extricated the world from a nuclear exchange precipitated by this development.
There remain critics. Some thought the deal weak, that a more seasoned, sure-footed president would have insisted on the restoration of the status quo ante and the complete demilitarization of Cuba. “So long as we had the thumbscrew on Khrushchev, we should have given it a turn every day,” had been the judgement of Dean Acheson, former secretary of State under Harry S. Truman, whom Kennedy had called in to advise during the crisis. Should Kennedy have demanded demilitarization? Would the Soviets, being able to achieve the securing of Cuba from American invasion and the removal of the Jupiter missiles besides, have balked at withdrawing their advisers from Havana? The answer may never be known. Given the stakes, one is inclined to give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt for not attempting to find out.
Yet no accounting of the deal can omit its costs. The 42,000 Soviet advisers in Cuba remained, training Castro’s forces to develop what was to become the leading communist mercenary army, which would assist subversion in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for the next two decades. Cuban exiles had to forfeit any hope of dismantling communism in their homeland until at least after the Cold War and, indeed, up to the present day. They paid the heaviest price for sparing the world the horrors that might have been unleashed half a century ago.