The JFK Library's Frightening Alternate History of the Cuban Missile Crisis [Sponsored Video]
Historians, as a general rule of thumb, don't like playing the what-if game. This partly reflects the often-fantastical nature of “what-if” novels (what if aliens invaded Earth in the middle of World War II?), but it's mostly due to the natural and laudable tendency of historians to stick to the facts and avoid wild conjectures. “What if Hitler had never been born?” The world would be different -- beyond that, it's pure guesswork to say what might or might not have happened. Even military historians, who deal most directly with issues of historical contingency (what if the weather had cleared after the Battle of Brooklyn? Would the Continental Army have been destroyed instead of escaping to fight another day?) tend to shy away from counterfactuals.
But there's one notable exception: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reasons are simple: the world came within a hair's breadth of a nuclear war (there were any number of points at which the crisis could have -- and logically probably should have -- erupted into full conflict); even after the end of the Cold War, we still remain morbidly fascinated as a culture with apocalyptic scenarios (be it in books, movies, TV shows, or video games); and, unlike with most counterfactual scenarios, we have a pretty good idea of what would have happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis turned hot: nigh-Armageddon.
The JFK Library's interactive documentary website “Clouds Over Cuba” weaves together narrative documentary, talking heads commentary from historians and political scientists. It's extremely well-done -- and it includes an alternative history scenario that's both chillingly presented (right down to aged veterans of the "Cuban War" recounting their experiences) and frightfully believable.
Due to bad weather, the U-2 overflights which historically detected the Soviet R-12 intermediate-range missiles on October 14 are delayed, and the Soviet missiles are not detected until after they are operational.* The U.S. is subsequently forced to invade -- remember, historically the preference of virtually everyone on the ExComm on October 16 (including Bobby Kennedy) was to invade, but as the missiles were not yet operational JFK had more room to maneuver with the quarantine. Cuban and Soviet forces respond by using tactical nuclear weapons on the beachheads -- the U.S. retaliates by bombing Cuba (presumably with nuclear weapons, though this isn't explicitly stated), but a nuclear-equipped Soviet Il-28 bomber evades the American counterstrike and destroys New Orleans with its payload. Kennedy then gives the order for a massive retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union.
The truly frightening aspect of this scenario is that Kennedy acts perfectly in character. The Soviets use tactical nukes on the invading Americans -- which Kennedy and his military advisers knew was a strong possibility -- but instead of a massive retaliatory response on Russia (which had been standard operating procedure under Eisenhower for how to fight a nuclear war), he decides to limit the U.S. response to attacking targets in Cuba. Only after a major American city is destroyed does Kennedy press the button to attack the Soviet Union directly. He's already clearly lost control of the situation, but he's still desperately trying to impose his will and prevent an all-out nuclear exchange -- unsuccessfully.
* * * * *
*It was a close-run thing the missiles were detected at all. A National Intelligence Community estimate from mid-September predicted the Soviet Union would not introduce nuclear weapons to Cuba, and, as Max Holland and David Barrett describe in their book Blind Over Cuba, U-2 overflights were suspended after September 5 due to fears that newly-installed SA-2 missile sites (the same kind of missile that shot down Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in 1960) would bring down another U-2 and spark another major international incident. Flights over western Cuba were only resumed October 14, leaving, as Holland and Barrett put it, a 39-day “photo gap.”
This post is sponsored by the JFK Library