Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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It was a lovely autumn day 40 years ago this month, a day not unlike September 11, 2001, when Americans realized that the oceans no longer protected us from enemy attack. Those old enough that October 22, 1962 to know the name John F. Kennedy will never forget the fear that swept through homes and cities when the president appeared on television, grave and gray, to proclaim a crisis. Reading a stern ultimatum to the Russians that called them nuclear cheats and liars for placing offensive missiles in Cuba, he also left the impression that his counteractions might any minute provoke a rain of Soviet missiles. The news terrified the public for six days and nights (though less for those of us trained to parse the bellicose words and signals flying urgently between Moscow and Washington). And as Hollywood has demonstrated time and again, the drama of the Cuban missile crisis has the power to instruct, beguile and entertain Americans in every decade.

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The 2000 film version, with Kevin Costner playing an absurdly fictionalized role as Kennedy’s aide Kenneth O’Donnell, was called Thirteen Days, referring to the period of public alarm plus the period of frantic, secret debate that preceded it as Kennedy planned a response to the discovery of the nuclear rockets in Cuba. If the moviemakers had bothered with the Soviet and Cuban sides of the crisis, they could have made a vastly better film, reasonably called Thirteen Weeks. And had they examined the calamitous miscalculations on all sides, it might have been titled Thirteen Months.

Most accounts of the crisis concentrate only on the Washington players, led by the glamorous, nervous president and his shrewd younger brother, Robert. A view of Havana would feature the humbling of Fidel Castro, Cuba’s bearded Robin Hood, and his scheming younger brother, Raúl. In Moscow a bombastic Nikita Khrushchev was drowning in sweat as his boldest Cold War maneuver collapsed into retreat. This is a tale about a fateful triangle.

Like the attacks of 9/11, the missile crisis had deep political roots that were unwittingly nourished by our own conduct. Also like 9/11, our failure to imagine the threat beforehand caused us to ignore the few available warnings. Yet the 1962 showdown left us ill prepared for an Osama bin Laden, because our Soviet foes 40 years ago—though we demonized them as evil aggressors—were rational rivals who valued life. We played nuclear poker against them but shared a common interest in the casino’s survival.

As a reporter in Washington I covered the Cuban drama for the New York Times and have studied it faithfully since. Over the years, our knowledge of it has been enhanced by autobiographies written by many participants, by a great deal of scholarship and by nostalgic, on-the-record gatherings of Soviet, American and Cuban officials. We also have had credible reports on the contents of Soviet files and, most recently, verbatim records of crisis deliberations in the Kennedy White House.

In hindsight, I think two common views need correction. It is clear now that Nikita Khrushchev provoked America not from a position of strength, as Kennedy first feared, but from a chronic sense of weakness and frustration. And it is also clear from the historical record that the two superpowers were never as close to nuclear war as they urgently insisted in public.

Calamitous Miscalculations

Khrushchev, the soviet leader, was a gambler who had expected great returns from his radical economic reforms, denunciation of Stalin, release of political prisoners and gradual engagement with the rest of the world. He had visited the United States preaching coexistence and vowing to compete peacefully. But he was under tremendous pressure. The Soviet hold on Eastern Europe, a vital zone of defense against hated Germany, remained tenuous; Khrushchev’s generals were clamoring for more expensive weaponry; his people were rioting to protest food shortages; and China’s Chairman Mao was openly condemning Khrushchev for undermining Communist doctrine and betraying revolutionaries everywhere.

After the launch of Sputnik in 1957 revealed the sophistication of Soviet rockets, Khrushchev acquired the habit of rattling thegim at his most stubborn problems. Thanks to his missiles, which cost far less than conventional forces, he was hoping to shift money from military budgets into the USSR’s backward food and consumer industries. By aiming medium-range missiles at West Germany, France and Britain, he hoped to force NATO to acknowledge Soviet domination over Eastern Europe. Toward that end, he kept threatening to declare Germany permanently divided and to expel Western garrisons from Berlin, which lay vulnerable in Communist East Germany. By also rattling longrange missiles at the United States, Khrushchev expected finally to be dealt with as an equal superpower.

Although President Eisenhower had not directly challenged the Soviets’ sway over Eastern Europe, he had not yielded to any of Khrushchev’s other ambitions. A new and inexperienced President Kennedy, therefore, struck the Soviet leader as a brighter prospect for intimidation.


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