Washington Looks Back at the Cuban Missile Crisis, Part 1
Soviet R-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (NATO reporting name: SS-4) on parade in Red Square. The CIA used this photo as a reference point when identifying the deployment of this type of missile to Cuba. Photo Credit: CIA/National Security Archive.
Yesterday, October 14, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (To be more precise, yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the U-2 flight that detected the Soviet deployment of missiles on Cuba -- it wasn't until October 15 when U.S. intelligence analysts identified the installation near San Cristóbal where Cuban and Soviet troops were constructing launch sites for SS-4 intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and it wasn't until the morning of October 16 when President John F. Kennedy was informed of the build-up -- hey, this is a history blog, I can be a little pedantic.)
As befitting one of the seminal foreign policy crises in American history -- and certainly the most severe crisis of the Cold War, when President Kennedy himself rated the chance of war as 50/50 -- there's a slew of events scheduled in the Washington, D.C. area to mark the anniversary. (A full list can be found at the Cold War International History Project, which is sponsoring or co-sponsoring many of them.) Since I've relocated from the already-frigid climes of my native Minnesota to Washington, D.C. (probably the biggest reason I haven't written a blog post in a few months!), I'll be blogging about most of the upcoming panels (I'll be out of town for a few of them) as well as the new exhibit at the National Archives, "To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis," which opened on October 12).
The first major event marking the anniversary in D.C., "Is the World More Dangerous 50 Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis?," was held yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson Center, part of the Wilson Center National Conversation series. It featured Michael Dobbs, the author of One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink on Nuclear War and the author of a Foreign Policy blog on the missile crisis (he's also doing real-time tweets as if it were 1962); Graham Allison of Harvard's Kennedy School, considered the doyen of Cuban Missile Crisis scholars and the author of one of the first studies of the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Timothy Naftali, formerly the director of the Richard Nixon Library, current research fellow at the New America Foundation, and the author of an upcoming JFK biography. NPR's Tom Gjelten (who, interestingly enough, is the husband of ABC News's Martha Raddatz -- who says the Beltway media establishment isn't clubby?) moderated the panel, which proved to be quite lively, especially for history nerds (such as myself) and the foreign policy wonks who were in the audience. (Scroll down or click here for the full video, including opening remarks by Wilson Center president, director, and CEO Jane Harman.)
So is the world more dangerous fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis? At first glance, the question may seem to be a little ridiculous -- fifty years ago, two superpowers who collectively possessed enough firepower to annihilate most of the world's population (and within a few years would have enough to annihilate all of the world's population) came within a hair's breadth of war. Graham Allison noted that Kennedy was given estimates of the casualty figures of two potential scenarios -- a U.S. pre-emptive nuclear strike (30 million Americans killed) or a Soviet first strike (90 million killed), which are numbers so outlandish as to be worthy of ridicule were they not a reflection of the horrible destructive power of nuclear weapons. That's 16 to 50 percent of the total U.S. population (by comparison, the Soviet Union, fighting in the single deadliest theater of the single deadliest war in human history, lost 20 million people over four years -- around 14 percent of its prewar population).
Laconically: it would have bad. And Kennedy himself said that war was a 50/50 proposition.
So, in that sense, the world has gotten safer -- Allison, in his keynote remarks, estimated the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack against a major city in the next ten years as somewhere near 5 percent -- still a major concern, but much better than a 50/50 chance of nuclear armaggedon. Potential wars and confrontations -- namely a U.S./Israeli conflict with Iran, and even a possible confrontation between the U.S. and China -- lack the same "end-of-civilization" component that really was a fundamental element of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Unremarked at the Wilson Center panel, but in all likelihood an outcome of a Cuban-sparked war in 1962, would have been the nuclear decimation of Western and Eastern Europe, China, and possibly even Japan as well as the United States and the Soviet Union.)
Both Allison and Dobbs aquitted themselves well, but it was Tim Naftali who really shone in his remarks, offering a provocative and thoughtful take on the missile crisis and its aftermath. "John F. Kennedy drew a red line about missiles in Cuba" in the months before the Soviets introduced them, he said. Kennedy did this, Naftali argued, because he didn't actually believe the Soviets intended to put missiles in Cuba -- they thoroughly deceived him -- and he probably wouldn't have drawn a red line if he thought the Russians were planning on deploying nukes). "His leadership was on the line. ... [the crisis] was a political problem." This has an obvious resonance with the calls of congressional Republicans -- and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- to draw a red line on Iran's nuclear program, which Naftali explictly addressed. "Presidents ought to be very, very careful when drawing red lines," he concluded, "because if you do, that will mean war if the other side does what you've told them you can't do."
Naftali also drew sparks by arguing -- citing David G. Coleman's just published The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Secret White House Tapes -- that the Joint Chiefs of Staff consistently argued for an invasion of Cuba knowing full well that the Soviets had deployed tactical nuclear weapons to the island, and their invasion plans were actively anticipating a nuclear battlefield in and around Cuba. This is a point that's been a matter of contention amongst historians -- Michael Dobbs said (and Graham Allison agreed) that -- while the Soviets had indeed deployed tactical nuclear weapons -- at the beginning of the crisis, Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs didn't know about the tactical nukes in Cuba and only learned of the possibility of a tactical nuclear battlefield at the very end of the crisis.
All in all, an excellent panel, and a worthy kick-off to the next two weeks of missile crisis events in Washington, D.C. and across the country . The next one I'll be blogging about will be this Thursday's book talk on Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis by Max Holland (editor at Washington Decoded and a frequent contributor to HNN, including recntly about the missile crisis) at American University.
One final thought, on something that's been bugging me recently. The very last question posed to the Wilson Center panel during the Q & A was from an older gentleman about a hypothetical Cuban Missile Crisis-style confrontation between Russia and the United States over Syria. Now, I'm not a foreign policy expert, I'm not a Kremlinologist, I appreciate the fact that relations with Russia are presently chilly, and I certainly appreciate the fact the Russians have close relations with the Assad regime in Syria. But it seems like there's a cadre of foreign policy wonks who are determined to "make the bear angry again," if only in their own minds. The tensest confrontation the U.S. has had with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union was the standoff at the Pristina airport in the aftermath of the Kosovo war -- it was bizarre bookend to NATO's first conflict, but hardly the stuff of nuclear nightmare.
I made this point on Twitter during the VP debate, when Paul Ryan started playing the Russian card to bash the Obama administration, and I'm going to make it again here: I don't think anybody under the age of thirty truly understands just how differently young people see Russia today than the older generation did at the height of the Cold War (I know, Ryan's only forty-two, but he would've been around thirteen or fourteen at the peak of the U.S.-Soviet tensions in the '80s -- in pop culture terms, think Red Dawn, Rambo II, and Rocky IV).
Russia today certainly isn't a bosom buddy of the United States, it remains the world's largest nuclear power, and it's proven repeatedly that it will act aggresively in what it perceives to be its "near abroad" of the former Soviet Union but it's no longer the "evil empire," the implacable ideological foe of the United States, and it's tough imagine a scenario where either the U.S. or Russia, to go back to Tim Naftali's major argument, deliberately crosses a critical red line in the way Khrushchev did in 1962.