Second Look: Lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Op-Ed, The Boston Globe
October 26, 1987
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis
The 25th anniversary of the Cuban Missile crisis is an appropriate occasion to ask: what lessons should this event teach policy makers in the United States and the Soviet Union today? Distant as it is, the missile crisis still offers the best lens available through which to examine the possibilities of nuclear confrontation, problems of crisis management and opportunities for crisis prevention. It remains the only occasion in the postwar era when the United States and the Soviet Union stood “eyeball to eyeball” contemplating actions that could have led directly to nuclear war. At the time, President Kennedy estimated the risks of war as “between 1 in 3” and even Chairman Khrushchev remarked “ the smell of burning” was in the air.” Whatever the actual risks, analysts generally agree that on no other postwar occasion did the superpowers stand so close to the nuclear precipice. Our understanding of this crucial event thus continues to shape the lessons that should be learned from that critical historical event, four deserve special interest.
- 1.Nuclear war really is possible: Forty-two years after World War II, having enjoyed four decades without nuclear war or any general war, many people are tempted to conclude that war has become obsolete. Indeed, many now believe that peace is the natural condition of mankind. The further we get from those fateful 13 days, the more implausible it becomes that this confrontation could have led to nuclear war. Given the consequences of such a war, the stakes involved simply sis not justify such an outcome. Indeed, given the consequences of a nuclear war today, both President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev can readily agree that “a nuclear war could never be won and therefore must never be fought.”
Is this equivalent to the proposition that a nuclear war is impossible? Decidedly not. No event demonstrates more clearly the fateful gap between “Implausibility” and “impossibility” than the Cuban missile crisis.
- 2.The principal risk of nuclear war arises from the uncontrollable: Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were clear that no sane person would choose nuclear war to the solution to his problem in that crisis. But both leaders showed a fine sense for risks beyond their control. The sources of such risks included accidents: on the final Saturday, a US U-2 flew erroneously over the Soviet Union: rather than shooting it down. Khrushchev ordered Soviet fighters to escort it out of Soviet airspace. A Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down a US U-2 over Cuba on that final Saturday. We learned only this month that this was done without direct authorization from Moscow. President Kennedy overrode prior instructions to delay military retaliation for that shootdown until he could probe further the evidence about Soviet intent.
Misperceptions are a further aspect of the uncontrollable. As we learned at this month’s Harvard conference between Soviet and American scholars and policymakers, the primary impetus for Khrushchev’s decision to send missiles to Cuba was his belief that an American military invasion of Cuba was imminent. In fact, the United States has no such plans or intentions. Khrushchev’s misperceptions of American intentions led him to a fateful adventure. The US government failed to anticipate that the Soviet Union could take an action such as sending missiles to Cuba. Once discovered, President Kennedy and his associates misperceived the Soviets’ purpose. The Soviet Union appeared to the Americans so bold and so threatening that it was incommensurate with any modest objective such as the defense of Cuba. This American response shaped our response, which in turn shocked Khrushchev and his associates even further. Misperceptions are thus a key ingredient fueling the uncontrollable.
One more ingredient is people, who being human are also fallible. Two days before his death. Robert Kennedy told an interviewer “he 14 people involved (in President Kennedy’s advisory group) were very significant- bright, able, dedicated people all of whom had the greatest affection for the United States…. If six of them had been president of the U.S. I think the world might have blown up.” While states dramatically the remark underlines the well known fact that a half dozen, indeed more, members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) strongly preferred a US air strike on the missiles in Cuba. Had that occurred, one of those operational missiles could have been fired in an authorized or unauthorized manner- against an American city. Had such an attack occurred many Russians who were guarding the missiles sites would undoubtedly have been killed. In our recent discussion with the Soviets both Americans and Soviets concluded that a Soviet military response would have been “inevitable.”
A fourth element was time, or lack thereof. In the missile crisis Kennedy and his closest associates had a week for private deliberation. During that week, the President’s initial preference for an immediate air strike on the missiles in Cuba was examined and the risks and likely consequences of such an action probed. As a result, he came to prefer the naval blockade as a first step. Toward the end of the second week, as the Soviet missiles became operational, and after the shootdown of the US U-2. Kennedy felt his time had run out. This led to his final gambit, which fortunately resolved the crisis.
In analogous circumstances today how long would a president expect to have to decide-before his knowledge of a secret Soviet move became public and he thereby lost the initiative? Having discussed this point with national security advisers of subsequent administrations, I know of no one who believes the probable “ leak date” would be later than 48 hours. The current combination of pervasive press presence, increasingly savvy journalists, the widespread practice of leaking and competitive pressure to be the first to publish-all conspire to shrink the time available for careful deliberation.
Absent time in which to engage competing views that would clarify the issues and the options less well-considered choices imply less well-predicted consequences. In the missile crisis, had JFK believed that the story would leak in 48 hours he would certainly have acted rather than forfeited the iniative. Had that been his window for decision, he most probably would have chosen the air strike. As Robert Kennedy concluded his own memoir of the crisis, the first and most important lesson was that time….was essential. If our deliberations had been publicized, if we had to make a decision in twenty-four hours, I believe the course we ultimately would have taken would have been quite different and filled with far greater risks. “Together these elements-accidents, misperceptions, personal predictions and biases, and unintended consequences-give bite to what former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara one of the participants in the crisis has articulated “McNamara’s Law”: “it is impossible to predict with precision the consequences of a military action.”
- 3.The reality of nuclear interdependence: Technology has created for the United States and Soviet Union an inescapable common interest in avoiding the major nuclear war of which they would be the first victims. Interdependence is an overused term today. One should always ask: Who depends on whom and how much? This concept has not previously been applied, to the best of my knowledge, to the most fundamental and mutual dependence. We Americans can live, and our country survives, at the discretion of the Soviet leadership. At any moment Secretary Gorbachev chooses, he can order a nuclear attack upon the United States that will destroy everything that we hold dear. The Soviet Union faces an identical threat from the United States. From this condition there is no escape today, or in the foreseeable future.
From this central act follows one indisputable implication: America’s security is dependent upon Soviet security and vice versa. Our actions (our extraordinary buildup of strategic offensive forces in the period leading up to the Cuban missile crisis) led the Soviets to fear an American first strike, or an invasion of Cuba. Is provoked their independent actions (putting missiles in Cuba) which brought us to the brink of war. Painful as it is for Americans, as well as for Soviets, our security is affected by their insecurity, and vice versa. This conceptual insight, familiar to Western specialists, has been incorporated by General Secretary Gorbachev in his concept of “mutual security.” If this concept comes to guide Soviet actions, the world will become a safer place.
- 4.The perils of crisis management: The perils of crisis management are clear in the discussion of uncontrollable above. Any one of dozens of accidents, misperceptions, personal fallibilities, or time driven choices by the Soviets or by Americans could have triggered a chain of reactions ending in war. Lesson: crisis must be prevented.
This injunction is much easier said than followed. But the missile crisis offers clues about how to prevent as well as to provoke crises. One is to limit misunderstandings of real interests and real intention. The Kennedy administration failed to communicate clearly its commitment not to allow Cuba to become a base for offensive Soviet threats to United States: it failed to communicate that we had no intention of mounting and American military invasion of Cuba. Second is the importance of the unwritten rules of the game that constrain the US-Soviet competition. Kennedy was shocked by Khrushchev’s lack of appreciation of what he referred to at the time as the “rules of the precarious status quo. Installing missiles in Cuba clearly violated these rules. If the Soviet leader could so badly understand the United States and our interests, so Kennedy reasoned, he might be tempted to do anything, for example in Berlin, Kennedy’s reaction was thus motivated in substantial part by his concern to re-establish and understanding of these constraints on which the peace depended.
Since the missile crisis, both American and Soviet leaders have come to understand better these unwritten rules. Further, discussions among the United States and the Soviet Union, especially about areas of potential dispute hold promise of mush greater appreciation of these rules and their applications. This should lead to better appreciation of the relative importance of parallel interests vs. competing interests in the US-Soviet relationship. Given the inescapable threat both face together, each must reconsider its interests in situations that allow independent iniatives by third parties to engage superpower interests. Regional discussions that distinguish between real primary interests and secondary interests offer promise on this front. Nowhere are such discussions or distinctions more sorely needed than in the Persian Gulf today.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at 617-495-1400.
For Academic Citation: