Perhaps the fates (or the laws of probability) are having a bit of fun at our expense, or maybe this is their way of providing yet another warning, but the possibility of nuclear war is once again in the air, as it was 60 years ago this month during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Trying to understand today’s problems through the lens of history and historical example is always fraught. Circumstances change with the times; today is not yesterday. Still, human beings are more or less the same. The biases, impulses, and hubris that influenced decision-making in 1962 are alive and well despite the species’ best efforts.
So what can the Cuban Missile Crisis tell us about today’s nuclear dangers? First, it reveals lessons that were obvious then and that have stood the passage of time. But it can also tell us something today that could not have been understood in the moment or even years later.
Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis
You don’t know what you don’t know, and those assumptions you’re making could lead to an extinction event.
When the Soviet Union decided to place nuclear weapons in Cuba, it did not anticipate that the United States would react so strongly (what specialists refer to as “freaking out”) or that the national security team would actually recommend a military strike and invasion of the country.
The Soviet leadership could tell itself that it was simply reacting to US nuclear deployments in Italy and Turkey, and that like any other global power, it was reassuring an ally that had been subject to a failed military attack (the Bay of Pigs). And Washington surely knew that Moscow had no intention of initiating at nuclear attack. Right?
For their part, Kennedy’s advisers were recommending military action on the assumption that they could prevent Cuba from getting Soviet nuclear weapons. What they did not know was that the USSR had already transferred tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons to the island. Had the United States invaded, Soviet forces would have used them.
Washington was also unaware that Soviet submarines off the coast of Cuba were armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and that the subs had instructions to use them if they came under attack. Oblivious to the risk, the American navy hunted Soviet submarines and with the hope of making them surface. In at least one instance, the Americans dropped practice depth charges to try to force the issue.
Both sides made risky assumptions about the situation, and how the enemy would perceive their actions and intentions. And both sides were wildly uninformed on some of the most basic and consequential facts.
Crises that seem worth the risk of Armageddon may make not make a lot of sense a little later.
One might rightly question what, exactly, is worth Armageddon? But the essence of nuclear deterrence is the willingness to put at risk all life on earth. That’s the bargain.
Nevertheless, the CMC reminds us that stakes that can seem — in the moment — worthy of global suicide, the ultimate hill to die on, may not look so compelling after the fact. In 1963, land-based missiles with their attendant vulnerabilities were still the platform of choice for maintaining nuclear deterrence. Very soon, however, the nuclear powered submarine, armed with nuclear weapons, would set the gold standard for deterrence. Would Soviet missiles in Cuba still matter given the invulnerability of Soviet (and US) submarines? Sure, at least politically, and the deployment of land-based missiles was an issue again in the 1980s. But worthy of risking the destruction of the planet? Doubtful.
We almost fought a nuclear war over something that, in hindsight, was going to be rendered largely irrelevant by changing technology.
Diplomacy, not threats, saved the day.
It is a reflection of our times, that one has to state forthrightly something so obvious. But here we are. For more than a decade, America’s foreign policy has been obsessed with threats and coercion. Like an invasive species that strangles the other parts of the eco-system, sanctions and associated instruments of pressure dominate the day.
But threats and bravado did not prevent the missiles of October from being fired. Posturing did not cause the nuclear adversary to melt into capitulation. Nor was the use of military force the hero. No, it was plain, old, boring diplomacy. “If you will do this, I will do that, and we can both walk away safer.”
The generals don’t know much about nuclear war.
Kennedy’s national security team, and especially his military advisers, failed him and the American people at a moment of peril never seen before or since. And if there is a new nuclear crisis, once again the generals will surely get their say, on TV if nowhere else.
But the truth is the military has no better an understanding of the peculiar, upside-down world of nuclear weapons than anybody else. To begin with, no one in any military in the world today has fought or had any direct experience with nuclear war. Zero. Indeed, the US military is fundamentally built around conventional war. Promotion comes from success on the conventional battlefield fighting conventional wars.
And in their defense, how could it otherwise be? As a nation, we expect to fight conventional wars, not nuclear wars, so of course, that will be the priority. Measured by prestige, money, or most any metric, nuclear weapons are a secondary concern inside the Pentagon. Add to that the fact that officials are rotated to a new job roughly every three years, and you have a system with little core knowledge about the most destructive weapons in human history. Those in charge are reading the talking points from their predecessors and waiting to move on to a more exciting or rewarding assignment.
No, the generals will not save you. They have no special knowledge or expertise when it comes the ultimate threat to national security. If anything, their conventional war bias inhibits their ability to understand the very different world of nuclear threats.
Lessons that are only now evident
The CMC marked the beginning of the most successful effort in human history to turn back nuclear dangers.
It was hard to see in 1962, in the moment. The Cuban Crisis took place in October and left both Kennedy and Khrushchev badly shaken. In June of the following year, Kennedy gave a speech at American University on nuclear weapons that called for a nuclear test ban and disarmament. The speech is considered by many to be the most important speech on national security given by a modern American president. A few months later, in October of 1963, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first nuclear arms control treaty in history, came into force.
A month later, Kennedy was dead. The man who had stood on the edge of global nuclear annihilation and pulled the world back was felled by a bullet.
What was not seen then and can only be seen today, is that the missile crisis, in combination with other factors in play at the time, led directly to the Test Ban Treaty. The Test Ban Treaty, in turn, marked the beginning of a number of successful efforts to turn back the nuclear danger. It was followed by the Outer Space Treaty (1967), Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970), Open Skies Treaty (1972), Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (1972) and U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations that produced the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and its successors.
Over the course of the next 25 years or so, the world dramatically cut the number of nuclear tests, the size of the world’s nuclear arsenals, and even the rate of nuclear proliferation. It was a stunning success that no one had predicted, and that few appreciated as it played out one diplomatic agreement at a time.
In 1962, people believed they had to act to prevent nuclear annihilation. Today people think that’s the government’s job.
As we go about our daily lives, there are ideas in our heads that we believe to be true, in part, because they seem reasonable, everyone else believes them, and frankly, because they aren’t a real focus of attention.
Today, for example, I suspect that most people think the nuclear danger is “proliferation.” Moreover, they believe that proliferation is a problem best left to governments to solve. “What can I do,” they might reasonably ask, “about North Korea or Iran?”
It is a curious view. Many of these same people would say they have little faith in governments, or worse, that they mistrust them. And yet they expect governments in general, and the governments that own nuclear weapons, in particular, to take care of the problem.
Still, the most striking aspect of this largely post-Cold War attitude is how differently some people viewed it in an earlier moment in history. Everyone understood in 1963 that the danger was not proliferation, the risk that some new country might get the bomb. No, the danger was nuclear weapons: all nuclear weapons, and especially American nuclear weapons. American nuclear weapons were on the table, because if there was going to be a planet-ending atomic war, U.S. weapons would be front and center, even as other countries could only watch from the sidelines.
And since all nuclear weapons were implicated, some citizens saw it as their responsibility to address the danger before it was too late. It was a belief implicit in much of the debate over nuclear weapons and nuclear war during the Cold War but was especially pronounced in the late 1950s and again in the 1980s, when the danger of nuclear weapons seemed especially “real.”
But then, just like that, the Soviet Union collapsed, the danger disappeared, or so we told ourselves, and the world put the problem of nuclear weapons in a box and moved on. Post-Cold War, the nuclear danger was reframed as “proliferation,” which conveniently excludes all the countries that already possess nuclear arsenals. The proliferation frame also neatly cut out the pesky citizen who had pressed slow-moving governments to act.
Our post-Cold War lack of attention has, in turn, been rewarded with retrenchment. We now see bigger nuclear arsenals, threats of use, and the collapse of agreements. The whole set of institutions built to protect us from nuclear war appears to be teetering.
Citizens and leaders in 1962 believed they could do something about the nuclear weapons danger, and they acted. Citizens in 2022 are blind to that success, have forsaken the power they once used to great effect, and have instead passed the problem to governments they believe to be incompetent and untrustworthy.
And so, the Cuban Missile Crisis should remind us that these ideas in our heads are not true, or in any case, do not have to be true. We can look the danger in the eye and address it as our forebearers did, or we can ignore it and eventually succumb to it, condemning all generations past and future.
And if the Cuban Missile Crisis is insufficient to the task of reminding us what is at stake, perhaps Mr. Putin is up to it.
So hope the fates, I think.