Arms, allies, and Ahmadinejad: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Robert A. Pastor and Tom Long

Photo by: Bruce Tuten | Creative Commons | Flickr

On its 50th anniversary, the Cuban missile crisis continues to attract attention as a landmark event in U.S. foreign policy.  Unfortunately, the lessons that are often drawn from the crisis are the wrong ones – and they are predicated on a version of the history that is built on more fabrications than facts.  The lesson most often drawn from the crisis is that President John F. Kennedy’s firmness and resolve compelled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev  to withdraw the missiles.  As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it:  “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”  Unlike Chamberlain at Munich, Kennedy confronted Khrushchev and prevailed.

However, the more complete story that we now know – forcefully buttressed by a host of excellent books released to commemorate this anniversary – is very different, and one of the reasons is that we have learned much more about the complicated role of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who initially opposed the Soviet proposal to place Missiles in Cuba, but then felt betrayed when Khruschev decided to withdraw them without consulting.  We also learned that the nuclear warheads and a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons were already stationed in Cuba when the missiles were detected.  If Khrushchev had not withdrawn the missiles, and the U.S. had invaded, which it was about to do, these weapons would have been used, triggering a nuclear holocaust.   More recently, we learned that Castro tried to convince the Soviets to leave the tactical missiles, which the U.S. did not know about, after the denouement of the crisis, but fortunately, Khruschev rejected that proposal.

We cannot be absolutely certain as to why Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, but all the available evidence suggests several factors.   First, Robert F. Kennedy had conveyed a complex proposal to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin:  the U.S. would  not  invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles.  More important, he said that the U.S. would withdraw its missiles from Turkey but only on condition that this information would not be made public.  Because of this deal, Kennedy was able to “spin” the event so that it looked like we won without giving up anything.  Robert Kennedy also said that he feared that the U.S. military might take matters into its own hands if the crises were not resolved soon.  At the same time, Fidel Castro sent a long message to Khrushchev, saying he expected an imminent invasion by the U.S. and recommending that the Soviet Union launch a first strike against the United States.  Coupled with the shoot-down of a U-2 over the island and a straying of another U-2  in Soviet Asia, these various factors led the Soviet leader to fear that both he and Kennedy were losing control of events, and thus, an immediate resolution of the crisis was essential.   That is why he transmitted his decision on radio.

Today’s great U.S. foreign policy fear is that a nuclear Iran will destabilize the Middle East.  Once again, the drama plays out in the middle of a U.S. electoral campaign, as did the Cuban crisis.  Once again, there are calls for threats and “red lines.”  An honest look at the events of 1962 yields useful lessons for today.  First, we should expect our leaders to have the courage to negotiate with adversaries to avoid conflict – and to stand up to domestic voices, including generals and advisors, pressing for war.  The second, more challenging lesson requires a U.S. president to step inside Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes.  The Soviet premier was able to stand up to an ally to avoid being dragged into a war with nuclear ramifications.  If Israel insists on a pre-emptive attack on Iran, will a U.S. president have the courage to restrain his ally, as Khrushchev had in restraining Fidel Castro?

Robert A. Pastor is a professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Latin American and Latinos Studies. He has served as National Security Advisor for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter, and he was a Senior Fellow and director of programs on democracy, Latin America, and China at the Carter Center. Most recently, he is the author of The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future.

Tom Long is a doctoral research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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