Cuban Missile Crisis: The Lessons for Iraq

News Abroad

Mr. Blight is a professor of international relations at Brown University. Mr. Brenner is a professor of international relations at American University. They are the authors of Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle With the Superpowers After the Missile Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield).

The United States government says it has evidence that a much smaller adversary may have acquired nuclear weapons. The evidence, however, is ambiguous. A debate ensues in the press and the Congress -- and even among the allies -- about the appropriate course to take.

Several officials recommend that the president launch a pre-emptive strike, as a hedge against waiting until the West becomes vulnerable to nuclear blackmail, and install a government more sympathetic to American positions and interests. Others propose solutions short of an attack and invasion led by the United States, focusing narrowly on removing the threatening weapons. Everyone feels that time is running out, and decisions will soon have to be made, in spite of the uncertainties involved, including whether an attack and invasion might virtually guarantee a counterattack with weapons of mass destruction against American interests and allies.

Iraq and Saddam Hussein? Of course. But we have been here before, exactly 40 years ago, in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. Historical events are, to a degree, unique, and so historical analogies, like biblical references, often can be used inappropriately. Yet prior experience remains our best guide in anticipating the future. Evidence we recently unearthed about the Cuban mind-set in the missile crisis bears an eerie resemblance to what may be the evolving Iraqi psychology now.

During the 1962 crisis, American and Soviet officials, despite their adversarial relationship, shared a common view about Cuba. Both believed the Cuban leaders were irrational, even suicidally irrational, toward the end of the crisis. In the eyes of Washington and Moscow, Cuba seemed to be thwarting a peaceful resolution of a nuclear confrontation merely to protest small insults to its sovereignty.

Similarly, the Iraqis appear to be hellbent on a military confrontation with the United States in order to acquire weapons of mass destruction. So while conditions, leaders, and geography may change, human psychology may not. Is Iraq "another Cuba," as President Bush suggested this month when he cited the missile crisis in support of his Iraq policy? Return with us briefly to the missile crisis as we consider the lessons it offers for the present day.

How close did the world come to catastrophe 40 years ago? President John F. Kennedy guessed shortly afterward that the chances were as high as one in two. And he was not aware that the Soviets had dozens of tactical nuclear weapons on the island, with warheads that were each half as destructive as that of the Hiroshima bomb.

If the planned vast air campaign and invasion of Cuba had been carried out, as a majority of Kennedy's advisers recommended, it is virtually certain, based on what we now know about Soviet capabilities at the time, that American forces would have been met with nuclear fire, that the United States would have responded in kind, and that the resulting spiral of exchanges could have spread to Europe and Asia -- that is, to a worldwide nuclear holocaust.

Whenever the story about the missiles of October is retold, as it will be this month during the 40th anniversary of the crisis, our natural reaction is one of enormous relief. That was perhaps the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Yet we escaped with only one American death (the pilot of a U-2 surveillance plane, shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile on the day of greatest tension, October 27). And the superpowers acquired a new appreciation of the danger of nuclear weapons, which led to improved communications between them and to arms-control accords. Frightened by their close encounter with nuclear disaster and aware of their good fortune in pulling back from the brink, the superpowers began to take steps to try to prevent a recurrence.

But the superpowers' experience of the missile crisis bore little resemblance to that of the Cubans. Here, for example, is Ernesto (Che) Guevara reflecting on the crisis. In a March 1965 letter to Fidel Castro, Guevara remarked: "I have lived magnificent days and I have felt at your side the pride of belonging to our people in the sad and luminous days of the Caribbean [missile] crisis."

Guevara was far from alone in his characterization of the crisis, one that is at such odds with the received wisdom in the United States and much of the rest of the world. It was shared by virtually all the Cuban leaders, including Castro. But what could possibly be "sad" about the resolution of a confrontation that enabled Cubans (and everyone else) to avoid nuclear oblivion? And what was radiant or "luminous" about going to the brink of Armageddon, in a standoff that most American and Soviet officials recall as terrifying?

One might surmise that Guevara's "sadness" derived from his disappointment that the United States had not been destroyed in the course of the confrontation. An Argentine revolutionary and a central figure in the Cuban leadership at the time, Guevara would be killed in 1967 in Bolivia, on a mission to spark revolution throughout Latin America against United States dominance of the hemisphere. But the real source of sadness, as we recount in our new book on Cuba and the crisis, was that Cuban leaders felt the superpower agreement left them even more vulnerable than before.

The small country had made itself a strategic target by accepting the Soviet missiles. The Cubans then saw the Soviets acquiesce to virtually every American demand for withdrawing weapons without seriously acknowledging Cuba's perception of the threat it faced. Cuban leaders put no stock in the United States pledge not to invade the island, a promise they believed was thoroughly hollow. They fully expected that they would once again need to defend themselves against the United States, especially because American aggression would be encouraged by the Soviet Union's seeming lack of will to defend its Caribbean partner.

Cuba informed the United Nations that it would not permit on-site inspections of the missiles' removal, because that would violate Cuban sovereignty. Castro stipulated that missile inspections could occur only on a reciprocal basis, as might be expected for equally sovereign countries, with the United States permitting a United Nations team to verify the closure of American facilities from which Cuban exiles were still launching terrorist attacks. Thus in mid-November 1962, as the United States and Soviet Union focused intently on the terms for removing the missiles, and ultimately for ending the crisis, Cuba defiantly framed the issues from the perspective of a small power threatened with extinction.

Some analysts assert that the Cuban stance must have been driven by some sort of irrational "death wish." Others attribute it to the Cuban leaders' relative youth and inexperience, which made them irresponsible, trigger-happy, and dangerous. Many have concluded that we should be grateful that the Americans and Soviets found a way to work around the Cubans, by ignoring their demands and excluding them from the negotiations.

In contrast, we have concluded that the Cubans were not crazed zealots. They had a firm grip on the reality of the situation, as is clear from one of the most remarkable documents of the nuclear age: Castro's urgent cable to Nikita Khrushchev on October 26, 1962, in which the Cuban leader correctly predicted that the United States was planning to attack the island "within the next 24 to 72 hours."

Castro went on to say that the attack would be either a limited air strike, aimed at the missile sites, or an all-out attempt to destroy the Cuban revolution, via extensive air strikes, followed by a land-and-sea invasion and occupation of the island. The limited-air-strike option was more likely, he told Khrushchev, but he warned that if the United States decided on an all-out invasion, then "that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear self-defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other."

Khrushchev interpreted Castro's advice as a call for a nuclear first strike, which reinforced the Soviet leader's judgment that the Cuban was "a young and hotheaded man." But Castro reasoned that the United States knew there were tactical nuclear missiles on the island that were likely to be fired at the invaders, and so it would launch an invasion only if it also was prepared to wage nuclear war.

We know now that Kennedy was not aware that there were tactical nuclear warheads on the island, and he was not even sure the ballistic-missile warheads had arrived. American policy makers were basing their decisions on very limited information. Why, then, would they deny themselves useful information by refusing to talk to the Cubans? Like the Soviets, the Americans did not recognize Cuba as a full-fledged player in the crisis, because it was not a superpower. It did not share the superpower's sense of global responsibility. Worse, Cuba's bravado seemed to be the stance of madmen.

To the Cubans, the superpowers appeared at best arrogant and possibly delusional. Castro could not fathom why the Soviets refused to stand firm on at least one Cuban demand, that the United States agree to negotiate directly with Cuba. He could not imagine that Kennedy would rationally launch an invasion -- and, in effect, a nuclear war -- if he could avoid that outcome simply by talking to his Caribbean neighbor. Cuba did not perceive its own stance to be irrational. Castro expected an American attack not only would kill many Cubans, but also would destroy Cuba as an independent, sovereign nation. The ultimate defense against such an attack would be the Cubans' clear commitment to their cause, and their willingness to sacrifice themselves.

What lessons can we apply 40 years later, by taking a new look at the October 1962 crisis from all sides? Two stand out.

First, recognize that there will be unintended consequences of our actions. If the United States had attacked Cuba in 1962, it would not have expected, nor would it have sought, a nuclear war. But it probably would have started one anyway, according to what is now known. Human beings are fallible, and when they endeavor to manage military operations involving weapons of mass destruction, a mistake can result in utter catastrophe, with little or no chance of "learning" from the mistake.

Second, talk directly to Iraq, in a way that recognizes Saddam Hussein's need to salvage some political honor. It was not Kennedy's vaunted toughness and inflexibility that enabled us to survive the 1962 missile crisis. He sought options that would allow Khrushchev to claim that he had not capitulated totally. But the Soviet Union was a superpower. Our tendency when dealing with a non-superpower state is to disparage its needs and attempt to intimidate it. That is how Kennedy dealt with Cuba in 1962, and that is how the United States is dealing with Iraq today. It was less dangerous to act like that in 1962, because Cuba did not control the missiles. Today, Iraq probably does have access to weapons of mass destruction.

So one lesson we can learn by looking at Cuba's experience during the 1962 missile crisis is that our approach to weaker powers is fraught with danger and is not likely to achieve the results we seek. The United States tends to expect a weaker power will cower when the superpower roars, but in fact American efforts to intimidate are more likely to produce the opposite effect. Intimidation emboldens the small power, and however irrational the resulting behavior may seem to us, a weaker power may resort to unimaginable acts as a last line of defense. The Central Intelligence Agency recently came to the same conclusion in its assessment that Saddam Hussein would become "much less constrained" if faced with an attack led by the United States.

Ultimately, what Cuba demanded from the United States in 1962 is the same attitude that American allies have been furiously urging the United States to adopt in general and toward Iraq in particular: that the lone superpower act like a "normal" country and accord others the same rights to survival and sovereignty that the United States demands for itself. The allies have implored the United States to engage Iraq diplomatically and to rely on the United Nations and established international legal principles, which recognize that all nations -- great and small powers alike -- should be treated equally.

Is Iraq "another Cuba"? Not exactly. There are many differences between the two cases. But we believe a key similarity between them has received too little attention from those advocating pre-emptive action against Baghdad. It is this: The inability (or unwillingness) of the United States to empathize with those who feel the threat of annihilation -- people who may be willing to fight to the last man, woman, and child and even to use unthinkable weapons -- increases the likelihood that such weapons will be used, with all the horror and uncertainty that would follow.

We now know that the hawks advising Kennedy in October 1962 were dead wrong to recommend attacking Cuba with what they (mistakenly) believed would be an "acceptable" cost and risk. Might those advocating a pre-emptive strike on Iraq also be wrong in their assessment of the likely consequences?

Based on our reading of Cuba's mind-set 40 years ago, we believe it is worth considering that the hawks might also be wrong about Saddam Hussein and Iraq today. It just may be that the events of October 1962 constitute, if not a crisis for all seasons, at least a cautionary tale with disturbing relevance to the season that is upon us.


This article was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with permission of the authors.

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devon urroz - 11/20/2003

i do not really understand this artical. Please inform me aon what it means.

Ashley - 9/21/2003

I just like the artical because it gives a view about the Missile Crisis from someonw who was there

Tomye Kelley - 11/7/2002

What can citizens do get the cowboy-in-the-whitehouse to wake up and stop firing from the hip?