The Cuban Missile Crisis: Parallels in History

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October always reminds us of the Cuban missile crisis. This is the 41st autumn since the defining moment that ended the first phase of the Cold War. In 2003, the memory of the missile crisis is, we believe, particularly apropos. Americans in general tend to think that everything the country is facing at a particular moment is unprecedented. Americans tend to think in extremes. Everything is either worse or better than ever before. Leaders are more corrupt, more perfect, more brilliant or more stupid than they have ever been. Americans lack nothing more than a sense of proportion. It is therefore interesting to look at what historian Barbara Tuchman called a distant mirror to compare the current situation with circumstances the United States faced in the past. This is not intended to either praise or condemn the current administration or the Kennedy administration. It is meant simply to gain some perspective on the current state of affairs.

The Cuban missile crisis started in a series of intelligence blunders that began under one administration and continued into the next. U.S. intelligence under Dwight Eisenhower misunderstood the nature of Fidel Castro's insurgency and miscalculated the likelihood of his victory. Eisenhower responded by initiating a covert war against Castro that suffered from Eisenhower's desire that it not only work, but that the war be completely deniable.

The result was the Bay of Pigs plan, which had little chance of working in the first place and no chance of working once U.S. President John F. Kennedy tinkered with it. The entire plan was based on a misreading of the mood of the Cuban people. It was based on the assumption that Cubans would welcome an invasion and that, in addition, they would be in a position to rise up against Castro. Whatever the true reason for the failure of the Cubans to rise, U.S. intelligence was wrong: There was no rising.

Intelligence under Kennedy also miscalculated the Soviet Union's intentions toward Cuba. That was an intelligence failure, but it was also a failure on Kennedy's part to appreciate how Soviet leaders viewed him. Kennedy came to power in part over his persistent claim that the Soviets were ahead of the United States in strategic nuclear capability — what was called the missile gap. In fact, the strategic balance heavily favored the United States, and Kennedy knew it. He hammered the issue because it was a strong plank in his electoral platform.

From Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's point of view, however, the victory of a man who did not seem to grasp the realities of the nuclear balance opened up interesting possibilities. Khrushchev's meeting with Kennedy in Vienna left him with the conclusion that Kennedy was inexperienced, poorly informed and timid. The Bay of Pigs fiasco simply confirmed to Khrushchev that Kennedy was out of his league. Indeed, years of hagiography notwithstanding, Kennedy had little grasp of the international reality when he took office or in the following year.

Khrushchev understood what he thought Kennedy did not, which was that the United States, with missiles in Germany and Turkey and a large intercontinental bomber fleet, could devastate the Soviet Union. The Soviets, on the other hand, could hardly touch the United States. Khrushchev's decision to put missiles into Cuba was a desperate attempt to rectify the balance of power. He assumed, based on Kennedy's abysmal performance to date, that U.S. intelligence might miss the missiles until after they were operational and that, even if they were detected, Kennedy would not have the nerve to take decisive action.

Three things led to the Cuban missile crisis:

1. Consistently poor U.S. intelligence.

2. A prior administration that failed to react to the threat in a timely fashion and in essence passed on the Cuban problem to its successor.

3. A new administration whose president struck his adversaries — and allies — as a deer frozen in the headlights.

We will allow our readers to draw the obvious parallels to the current situation.

In spite of these defects, Kennedy recognized that the Soviet move represented a fundamental challenge to U.S. security. He understood that it was much preferable, from the U.S. point of view, for American nuclear weapons to be menacing the Soviet Union rather than have Soviet missiles threatening the United States. While ethically shaky — if we assume that the basis of ethics is equal treatment — the view was practically sound for an American president. Thus, in spite of global criticism that he was threatening nuclear war, Kennedy understood that geopolitically he had no choice.

It is interesting to recall that Kennedy — caught between those who wanted an invasion of Cuba and those who wanted to take no action that might trigger a nuclear war — chose a compromise path in which the United States announced its commitment through a quarantine policy, without unleashing an invasion. It is also interesting to note that there was a tremendous global uproar over Kennedy's actions. Many allied governments, while publicly supportive, were privately appalled by what they saw as an overreaction. Crowds in European cities — not to mention the communist world — demonstrated against U.S. aggression and portrayed Kennedy as a simplistic cowboy, irresponsibly playing with the lives of millions.

Khrushchev's perception was quite different. Realizing that he had miscalculated, he sought a line of retreat. Khrushchev realized too late that however unsophisticated Kennedy might have appeared in Vienna and Berlin and during the Cuban missile crisis, there was no escaping the physical threat that Soviet missiles in Cuba posed to the United States. The physical danger to the United States, more than any other factor, focused Kennedy's mind. Kennedy knew that there was room for error on everything but the physical security of the country. He understood that, geopolitics aside, Khrushchev had crossed a threshold when he introduced the threat, and crossing that threshold changed the entire equation. That Europeans thought him a cowboy was immaterial once the direct security of the United States was at stake.

Kennedy's actions were seen as extreme and disproportionate to the threat. He struck many in the world as reckless and incautious. Countries worldwide pointed at the nuclear threat the United States posed to the Soviet Union and argued that the Soviets were simply balancing things. Kennedy didn't want the threat to be balanced. He wanted the Soviets to remain at risk and the Americans to be safe. As he famously said in connection to other matters, "Life is unfair." It wasn't great philosophy, but it made sense to Americans.

The United States threatened overwhelming force but actually used very little. In the end, Kennedy negotiated a settlement with Khrushchev and then lied about it. In a private deal with the Soviets, the United States agreed to exchange its missiles in Turkey for the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy's rationale for this was sound. The missiles were obsolete. However, he also understood that — given his record of weakness in foreign affairs — he needed to appear to win even if he only tied. Therefore, holding open the possibility of invasion and even nuclear war as the threat, he extracted a concession from the Soviets that made the withdrawal of the Turkish missiles a secret part of the agreement, which would be void if it were publicly revealed.

In other words, Kennedy lied about the letter and nature of the agreement. He lied explicitly when he asserted that there had been no quid pro quo over the missiles. He then lied in spirit when he made it appear that the Soviets had capitulated in the face of his resolute courage. In fact, there had been a quid pro quo and — though the United States certainly came out ahead in the immediate deal — Washington had to give up its own missiles and guarantee that it would not support attempts to overthrow Castro. The United States stopped the missiles. The Soviets secured Cuban communism.

It is interesting to see these parallels:

1. Both Kennedy and current U.S. President George W. Bush were widely perceived as inexperienced in foreign affairs. Their foes perceived them both as bunglers.

2. Both focused intensely on anything that physically threatened the United States.

3. The rest of the world regarded both presidents as overreacting and as cowboys, risking world security on minor provocation.

4. Both were casual with the truth when it suited the national — or their political — interests.

It is not clear how much deeper these parallels run.

Kennedy's missile crisis ended in a temporary stalemate. It also triggered a massive Soviet commitment to increase its strategic nuclear capabilities and led to the construction of a massive ICBM force able to threaten the United States from within the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade, the Soviets achieved the strategic nuclear parity they had sought in Cuba. In that sense, Kennedy simply bought a few years — which was not trivial, but not decisive.

However, Kennedy's next decision — to increase the U.S. commitment to Vietnam while supporting the overthrow of the Diem government — proved disastrous. Some claim that Kennedy wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. Perhaps, but we note two facts. No withdrawal took place while he was alive and, more important, it was Kennedy's foreign policy team (including Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy) who engineered the Vietnam War under Lyndon Baines Johnson. Kennedy could have fired them all and built a new team, but we suspect he also would have retained them and followed their advice. They were the winning team in Cuba, after all.

At the decisive moment, Kennedy set the stage for the decline in the second phase of the Cold War. Cuba represented a push. It was a punctuation mark, not a definitive solution to anything. On the contrary, it was an intermediate peak to which the United States would not return until the end of the Cold War. Bush has not yet had his Cuban missile crisis. He has not yet been able to maneuver the war to its decisive moment. He is facing an adversary that is committed to avoiding any decisive moment. However, the danger that a Cuban missile crisis poses is that of an illusory solution.

All of that is intended to be thoughtful and deep. The point of this essay is simpler however. Americans tend to think of each moment as extraordinarily unique and the present leaders as particularly incompetent. Those who opposed President Bill Clinton thought he was particularly venal, and those who oppose Bush think him uniquely incompetent. It is useful to look back on moments like the Cuban missile crisis, which we tend to see through the prism of time as a particular moment of U.S. courage and decisiveness. Like the current circumstance, it was a moment born of failure, ineptitude and dishonesty, and it ultimately gave rise to the things it was intended to prevent. The president that presided over the crisis is revered today. There are few who were alive in September 1962 who would have thought that Kennedy would be remembered for his strategic acumen. And there are many historians who still wonder what the shouting was about.

Bush's critics should take note of this. And Bush should remember that the kind of victory he gains — if he gains one at all — is as important as the victory itself.


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