Learning from the Missile Crisis

What Really Happened on Those Thirteen Fateful Days in October

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

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.

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.

Kennedy had arrived at the White House in early 1961 visibly alarmed by Khrushchev’s newest bluster, a promise to give aid and comfort—though not Soviet soldiers—to support “wars of national liberation” in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Then, in April of that year, Kennedy stumbled into the fiasco of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the humiliating failure of a CIA-sponsored invasion aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro. So when Kennedy and the Soviet leader met in Vienna in June 1961, Khrushchev pummeled the American leader with threats to end Western occupation rights in Berlin and then watched with satisfaction when the president acquiesced in the building of the Berlin Wall.

Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev’s taunts was to flex his own missile muscle. During his presidential campaign he had criticized Republicans for tolerating a “missile gap” in Khrushchev’s favor. Now he abandoned that pretense. As both governments knew, the Russians held only 20 or 30 intercontinental missiles, of unreliable design, and were having trouble building more. By contrast, the United States’ missile, bomber and submarine forces could strike 15 times as many Soviet targets. The Kennedy team began to boast not only of this advantage but also to hint that it might, in a crunch, resort to a “first use” of nuclear weapons, leaving Russia unable to strike American targets.

Thus stung in the spring of 1962, Khrushchev came up with a bold idea: plant medium-range missiles in Cuba and thereby put most of the United States under the nuclear gun. Without having to wait a decade for long-range missiles that he could ill afford, the Soviet leader would give Americans a taste of real vulnerability, save money for other things and strengthen his negotiating position.

Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the Soviet defense minister, embraced the idea and helped sell it to dubious Soviet colleagues. Khrushchev’s old chum and American expert Anastas Mikoyan predicted an unpleasant reaction from Washington and a tough sell in Cuba. But Khrushchev thought he could hide the buildup from Kennedy until the missiles were mounted and armed; he hoped to reveal his new poker hand in November during visits to the United Nations and Havana.

The Castro brothers were desperate for Soviet weaponry to protect them from American invaders, but they didn’t want sealed-off bases under alien control. To overcome their resistance, Khrushchev forgave Cuba’s debts, promised more economic aid and insisted his missiles would help defend the island and support Castro’s dream of inspiring other Latin revolutions.

Castro was not fooled. There were easier ways to deter an invasion; Soviet ground troops in Cuba could serve as a trip wire to bring Moscow into any conflict, or Cuba could be included in Soviet defense agreements. Castro knew he was being used, but agreed to the bases to show “solidarity,” as he put it, with the Communist bloc and to win more aid for his people.

In Washington as in Moscow, domestic politics fueled the drive toward confrontation. Through the summer of 1962, the U.S. Navy had tracked a large flotilla of ships from Soviet ports to Cuba, while the CIA heard confusing reports about sightings of military equipment on the island. Heading into a close Congressional election, Republicans saw a chance to repay Kennedy for his past attacks on their Cuba policy by mocking his tolerance for a Soviet buildup just 90 miles from Florida. But the administration’s intelligence teams detected only nonnuclear “defensive” weapons—MIG fighter planes, torpedo boats and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), which had a range of only 25 miles. Having roundly misread each other, Khrushchev and Kennedy brought this diplomatic stew to a boil.

The Making of a Crisis

Hearing the republican alarms about missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev sent his ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to Robert Kennedy with assurances that the Soviets would do nothing provocative before the American election. And when RFK complained that the buildup in Cuba was bad enough, the ambassador insisted—in innocence, it would turn out—that his government would never give another nation control over offensive weapons.

To fend off the Republicans, the Kennedy brothers hurriedly produced a statement saying that if any nation’s forces were to achieve a “significant offensive capability” in Cuba, it would raise the “gravest issues.” In a deceptive riposte, Khrushchev responded that his long-range missiles were so good he had “no need” to send big weapons “to any other country, for instance Cuba.” OK, then, Kennedy countered, if Cuba ever became “an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union,” he would do “whatever must be done” to protect American security.

American analysts concluded that the president’s strong warnings made it highly unlikely that the Soviets would install a missile base in Cuba. After all, they had never placed nuclear weapons outside their own territory, not even in Communist Europe.

That fixed American mind-set caused Kennedy to dismiss reports from spies in Cuba of missiles much larger than “defensive” antiaircraft SAMs. Then a dumb coincidence delayed photoreconnaissance. Because on September 9 the Chinese shot down a U-2 plane photographing their terrain, the White House ordered U-2 pilots over Cuba to steer clear of areas protected by SAM defenses.

Equally ill timed was the marriage of CIA chief John McCone, a Republican and former businessman who was the only Washington official to have reasoned his way into Khrushchev’s mind. Before embarking on his honeymoon at the end of August, McCone had tried to persuade Kennedy that the SAMs in Cuba could have only one purpose: to prevent U-2 spy planes from observing Khrushchev’s probable next step—the installation of mediumrange missiles capable of striking American cities. McCone’s absence meant his suspicions, and insights, were not heard in Washington for most of September.

Once McCone returned, he learned that an intelligence analyst had indeed spotted, in a photograph, suspicious bulldozer patterns in the terrain in western Cuba—patterns resembling the layout of missile bases in Russia. McCone insisted on more aggressive reconnaissance, and finally, on October 14, in the suspect area near San Cristóbal, U-2 cameras 13 miles up snapped remarkably clear pictures of medium-range missile transporters, erectors and launchpads. It was compelling evidence of imminent deployment of nuclear weapons capable of striking Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Dallas. Khrushchev, deeply committed to defying Kennedy’s warnings, was, in fact, installing at least 24 medium-range ballistic missile launchers (MRBMs), plus 16 intermediate- range missiles (IRBMs) that could reach any point in the continental United States except the northwest corner.

Kennedy, in turn, was just as deeply committed to prohibiting such bases. Upon seeing the U-2 photographs the morning of October 16, he first envisioned an air strike to destroy the missiles before they became operational. His more sober second thought was to keep the news a tight secret until he could take counsel and sift his options. Gauntlets thrown, here began the historic “thirteen days.”

The President’s Men Convene

What appears in retrospect to have been a quickly devised and effective American plan of action was actually the product of chaotic, contentious debate among official and unofficial advisers. They functioned as a rump “executive committee of the National Security Council,” soon jargonized as “ExComm,” and often met without Kennedy, to free up the discussion.

The ranking ExCommers were the president and his brother, the attorney general; Dean Rusk, secretary of state; Robert McNamara, secretary of defense; McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser; Douglas Dillon, secretary of the treasury; Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other chiefs; John McCone of the CIA; and United Nations representative Adlai Stevenson. They all made a show of keeping their public schedules while moving in and out of secret meetings. From Tuesday, October 16, through Sunday, the 21st, they gulped sandwiches for lunch and dinner and kept their own notes in longhand, without secretaries. They shuttled among meeting sites by crowding circus-style into a few cars, to avoid a telltale herd of limousines. They lied to their wives, to subordinates and to the press. For the climactic hours of decision, the president cut short a campaign visit to Chicago, feigning a bad cold and a slight fever.

All this undemocratic secrecy served a policy purpose. The president was afraid that his options could be dangerously reduced if Khrushchev knew he had been found out. Kennedy worried that the Soviet leader might then stake out a preemptive threat to retaliate for any attack on his missiles, either by firing some of them or attacking American forces in Berlin or Turkey. Alerting Congress could have provoked demands for swift military action without allowing time to study the consequences.

The more the ExComm members talked, the less they agreed on a course of action. Every day brought more evidence of Soviet haste. Some of the missiles, the ExComm members speculated, would surely be armed with nuclear warheads within days, and all within weeks.

So what? the president asked provocatively at one point. He had once said a missile was a missile, whether fired from 5,000 or 5 miles away. And Defense Secretary McNamara held throughout the discussion that 40 or 50 more missiles pointed at U.S. targets, while perhaps quadrupling the Soviets’ strike capacity, did nothing to alter our huge strategic advantage. The Joint Chiefs disagreed, insisting that by dramatically increasing America’s sense of vulnerability, the Soviet weapons would greatly limit our choices in any future exchange of threats or fire.

Everyone soon acknowledged that Soviet bases in Cuba were, at the very least, psychologically and politically intolerable. They would embolden Khrushchev’s diplomacy, especially when it came to his designs in Berlin. They would also enhance Castro’s prestige in Latin America and erode Kennedy’s stature at home and abroad. As if the missiles themselves were not challenge enough, Khrushchev’s deception was seen as undermining U.S.-Soviet negotiations.

The president kept posing the issue starkly, insisting there were only two ways to remove the missiles: bargain them out or bomb them out.

Bargaining might entail painful concessions in Berlin or the withdrawal of American missiles from NATO bases in Turkey; though the weapons were technically obsolete, they represented commitment to an ally. Bombing Cuba would surely kill Russians and risk Soviet counterattack against American bases in Florida or Europe. (Our southern coast lacked radar defenses; as General Taylor observed prophetically at the time, “We have everything, except [the capability] to deal with a simple aircraft coming in low.”) In any case, a strike at Cuba was bound to miss some missiles and require a follow-up invasion to seize the island.

Small wonder the advisers changed opinions as often as they changed clothes. For every possible “if,” they conjectured a discouraging “then.” If we withdrew our missiles from Turkey, then the Turks would shout to the world that American guarantees are worthless. If we sent a Polaris missile submarine into Turkish waters to replace the missiles, the Turks would say we always slither out of harm’s way.

What if we warn Khrushchev of a coming air strike? Then he’ll commit to a violent response. And if we don’t warn him? Then he’ll suffer a surprise attack, seize the moral high ground and announce that the United States would rather risk world war than live with the vulnerability that all Europeans have long endured.

Round and round they went. What about a U.S. naval blockade of Soviet weapons coming into Cuba? Well, it would not remove missiles already in place or prevent deliveries by air. A total blockade? That would offend friendly ships but not hurt Cuba for months.

Time grew short. Many Soviet missiles were installed, and the scent of crisis was in the air. At the New York Times, we heard of canceled speeches by the Joint Chiefs and saw officials being summoned away from their own birthday parties. Lights at the Pentagon and State Department blazed at midnight. We clamored for enlightenment, and officials mumbled about trouble in Berlin. Kennedy heard us approaching and asked our bureau chief, James “Scotty” Reston, to call him before we printed anything.

Thursday, October 18, was the day for a double bluff when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko paid a scheduled visit to the White House. He sparred with the president over Berlin but held tightly to his written-out claim that only “defensive” weapons were going to Cuba. Though angry, Kennedy and Rusk pretended to be fooled.

The president had told ExComm earlier that morning that he discounted the threat of a nuclear attack from Cuba—“unless they’re going to be using them from every place.” He most feared nonnuclear retaliation in Europe, probably in Berlin. But as McNamara put it to the group, firm action was essential to preserve the president’s credibility, to hold the alliance together, to tame Khrushchev for future diplomacy—and by no means least—to protect the administration in domestic American politics.

Most important, ExComm had the benefit of the considered views of Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson, Jr., the just returned ambassador to Moscow who knew Khrushchev better and longer than any Western diplomat. He thought the Soviet leader intended for his missiles to be discovered—to invigorate his campaign against the West. Thompson felt that Khrushchev might well respect a U.S. weapons blockade and was unlikely to risk a fight in faraway Cuba. While he might strike impetuously at Berlin, that was a gamble he had been reluctant to take for four years.

Returning Saturday from Chicago with his “cold,” Kennedy seemed to buy Thompson’s assessment. He was ready to risk a Berlin crisis because, as he had told the Ex-Comm, “if we do nothing, we’re going to have the problem of Berlin anyway.” A blockade would buy time. They could always ratchet up tougher action if Khrushchev didn’t back down.

Kennedy was plainly haunted, however, by the Bay of Pigs and by his reputation for timidity. So he ended the week’s deliberation by again cross-examining the Joint Chiefs. Would an air strike destroy all the missiles and bombers? Well, 90 percent. And would Russian troops be killed? Yes, for sure. And couldn’t Khrushchev just send more missiles? Yes, we’d have to invade. And wouldn’t invasion provoke countermoves in Europe?

The president decided to avoid violent measures for as long as possible. But he did not want to reveal the tactical reasons for preferring a blockade. He insisted his aides use “the Pearl Harbor explanation” for rejecting an air strike—that Americans do not engage in preemptive surprise attacks—a disingenuous rationale that Robert Kennedy piously planted in histories of the crisis.

Story of a Lifetime

When I learned from his butler that the west German ambassador was fast asleep before midnight Friday, I became certain that the agitation in Washington did not concern Berlin, and so my Times colleagues and I focused on Cuba. And if it was Cuba, given all the recent alarms, that had to mean the discovery of “offensive” missiles. On Sunday, October 21, as promised, Scotty Reston called the White House. When Kennedy came on the line, Scotty asked me to listen on an extension.

“So you know?” Kennedy asked Reston, as I recall it. “And do you know what I’m going to do about it?”

“No, sir, we don’t,” Reston answered, “except we know you promised to act, and we hear you’ve asked for television time tomorrow night.”

“That’s right. I’m going to order a blockade.”

I was tasting a great story when Kennedy dropped the other shoe. If he lost the element of surprise, he went on, Khrushchev could take steps that would deepen the crisis. Would we suppress the news in the national interest?

Reston called a meeting. For reasons patriotic or selfish, I at first resisted granting the president’s request. A blockade is an act of war. Did we have the right to suppress news of a superpower war before Congress or the public had even an inkling of danger?

Reston phoned the president again and explained our concern. Did Kennedy want secrecy until after the shooting had begun?

“Scotty,” the president said, “we’ve taken a whole week to plan our response. I’m going to order a blockade. It’s the least I can do. But we will not immediately attack. You have my word of honor: there will be no bloodshed before I explain this very serious situation to the American people.”

Given the president’s word of honor, I believe to this day that we were right to defer publication by 24 hours. Kennedy’s reasons were persuasive: our disclosure could have led the Soviets to threaten a violent response against the blockade and thus provoke a violent conflict. But I took my name off the fudged story I wrote for Monday’s paper: “Capital’s Crisis Air Hints at Development on Cuba,” which, without mentioning missiles or a blockade, said the president would deliver news of a crisis. Like the Washington Post, which had been similarly importuned by the president, we held back most of what we knew.

Kennedy’s speech that Monday evening, October 22, was the most menacing of any presidential address during the entire Cold War. Although the senate leaders whom he had just briefed deplored his reluctance to attack, Kennedy stressed the danger implicit in the moment:

“[T]his secret, swift, and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles . . . in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy . . . is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country if our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again by either friend or foe. . . . Should these offensive military preparations continue . . . further action will be justified. . . . It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

Americans certainly did not underrate the gravity of events; families drew close, planned emergency escapes, hoarded food, and hung on every news bulletin. Friendly governments supported the president, but many of their people feared his belligerence, and some marched in protest. In a private letter to Khrushchev, Kennedy vowed to stand firm in Berlin, warning him not to misjudge the “minimum” action the president had taken so far.

The Kremlin’s response encouraged both ExComm and diplomatic observers. While denouncing America’s “piracy” at sea and instructing Soviet agents abroad to fan the fear of war, the Kremlin obviously had no ready plan for counteraction. Berlin was calm; so were our bases in Turkey. Moscow’s government-controlled press pretended that Kennedy had challenged little Cuba rather than the Soviet Union. Khrushchev assented at once when the U.N. Secretary General, U Thant, tried to broker a pause for negotiation, but Kennedy decided to balk. In fact, Washington prepared a blunt notice about how the United States planned to challenge Soviet ships and fire dummy depth charges to force submarines to surface at the blockade line.

More good news came on Wednesday, October 24. The president kept some of his nuclear bombers airborne for the Russians to notice. And suddenly word arrived that Khrushchev had ordered his most vulnerable Cuba-bound ships to stop or turn tail. Recalling a childhood game in his native Georgia, Dean Rusk remarked, “We’re eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Washington also soon learned that the Soviets had instructed the Cubans not to fire antiaircraft guns except in self-defense, giving American reconnaissance unhindered access. Kennedy now stressed that he, too, wanted no shots fired. He also wanted the Pentagon generals eager to enforce the blockade (officially designated a “quarantine”) to know that although it was a military action, it was intended only to communicate a political message.

Public tension, however, persisted Thursday because work on the missile sites continued. But Kennedy let a Soviet oil tanker pass through the blockade after it identified itself and its cargo. And Friday morning, October 26, a Soviet ship allowed Americans to inspect what they knew would be innocent cargo. At the prospect of negotiation, however, Kennedy still could not decide what price he was willing to pay for a Soviet withdrawal of the missiles. ExComm (and the press) debated removing the U.S. missiles in Turkey, but the Turks would not cooperate.

The most unsettling hours were the next 24, which brought a maddening mix of good and bad news that once again rattled nerves in both Washington and Moscow. Three separate unofficial sources reported a Soviet inclination to withdraw from Cuba if the United States promised publicly to prevent another invasion of the island. And Friday night, in a rambling, highly emotional private message that he had obviously composed without the help of his advisers, Khrushchev implored Kennedy “not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war.” He said his weapons in Cuba were always intended to be “defensive,” and if Cuba’s safety were guaranteed, “the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.”

“I think we’d have to do that because we weren’t going to invade them anyway,” Kennedy told ExComm. But early Saturday, Moscow broadcast a colder message asking as well for an American withdrawal from Turkey. The Turks publicly protested and urged American officials not to capitulate.

The Russians seemed to be upping the ante, and Kennedy feared that he would lose world support and sympathy if he held out against the reasonable-sounding proposal to trade off reciprocal missile bases. Then came the shocking news that an American U-2 pilot had been shot down over Cuba and killed, presumably by a Soviet SAM, and another U-2 was chased out of Soviet Siberia, where it had accidentally strayed. Were accidents and miscalculations propelling the United States and the Soviet Union toward war after all?

In another Kennedy-Reston conversation that night that I was invited to listen in on, the president expressed his greatest fear that diplomacy might not resolve the crisis after all. He said the reconnaissance simply had to continue, and if his planes were again molested, he might be forced to attack antiaircraft installations.

With the Pentagon pressing for just such an attack, the president made doubly sure that no one assumed he had already decided to strike. He told ExComm that unless more planes were shot down, he envisioned the slowest possible escalation of pressure on the Soviets—starting with a blockade of oil shipments to Cuba, then of other vital supplies—taking great care to avoid the nuclear conflagration that the American public so obviously feared. Eventually, perhaps, he would take a Russian ship in tow. And if he had to shoot, he thought it was wiser to sink a ship than to attack the missile sites.

Plainly neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev was anywhere near risking anything like a nuclear shoot-out.

Still, without much hope for negotiations, Kennedy yielded to advice from several ExComm members that he accept Khrushchev’s no-invasion bargain and ignore the bid for a missile swap in Turkey. The president signaled his readiness to guarantee that the United States would not attack Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn, but simultaneously sent his brother to tell Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that the time for diplomacy was running out, that work on the missiles had to stop at once.

In delivering this ultimatum, however, Robert Kennedy also offered Khrushchev a sweetener: an oral promise to withdraw the missiles from Turkey within a few months, provided that this part of the deal was not disclosed. Only a half dozen Americans knew of this promise, and they, as well as the Russians, kept the secret for more than a decade.

A Collective Sigh of Relief

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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