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During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet warheads on Cuban soil could have attacked many major U.S. cities. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

The sun shone bright in Washington Sunday morning, October 28, as Radio Moscow read out Khrushchev’s response to Kennedy’s offer. He said he had wanted only to protect the Cuban revolution, that work at the bases on the island had now stopped, and that he had issued orders to dismantle, crate and bring back “the weapons which you describe as offensive.”

Castro, bypassed in all the negotiations, threw a fit and refused to admit U.N. inspectors sent to the island to verify the de-armament, forcing homebound Soviet ships to uncover their missile cargoes for aerial inspection at sea. For a month, Castro even refused to let the Russians pack up their “gift” to him of several old Ilyushin bombers, which Kennedy also wanted removed.

President Kennedy, sensing Khrushchev’s discomfort in retreat, immediately warned his jubilant aides against gloating. He had now earned his spurs as a Cold Warrior and the political freedom to reach other deals with the Soviets, starting with a crisis “hot line,” a ban on aboveground nuclear tests and a live-and-let-live calm in Berlin. Thirteen months later he would be killed in Dallas—by a psychotic admirer of Fidel Castro.

Khrushchev emerged from the crisis with grudging respect for Kennedy and tried to share in the credit for moving toward a better relationship. But his generals and fellow oligarchs vowed never again to suffer such humiliation. Two years later, denouncing Khrushchev’s many “harebrained schemes,” they overthrew him, going on to spend themselves poor to achieve strategic weapons parity with the United States.

The Soviet Union and the United States never again stumbled into a comparable confrontation. Both nations acquired many more nuclear weapons than they would ever need, but they kept in close touch and learned to watch each other from orbiting satellites, to guard against surprise and miscalculation.

Condemned to Repeat?

The Cuban crisis had profound historical implications. The arms race burdened both superpowers and contributed to the eventual implosion of the Soviet empire. Other nations reached for the diplomatic prowess that nuclear weapons seemed to confer. And the ExCommers wrongly assumed that they could again use escalating military pressure to pursue a negotiated deal—in Vietnam. They failed because none of them could read Ho Chi Minh the way Tommy Thompson had read Khrushchev.

The philosopher George Santayana was obviously right to warn that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This past, however, acquired a rational, ordered form in our memories that ill prepared us for new and incoherent dangers. In our moments of greatest vulnerability—40 years ago and again last year—it was our inability to imagine the future that condemned us to suffer the shock of it.

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