An aerial reconnaissance photograph showing a missile launch site in San Cristobal, Cuba. The discovery of this and other Soviet missile sites in Cuba led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"At 50, the Cuban Missile Crisis as Guide"
Op-Ed, New York Times
June 15, 2012
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. Such a conflict might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.
The main story line of the crisis is familiar. In October 1962, a U.S. spy plane caught the Soviet Union attempting to sneak nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
Kennedy determined at the outset that this could not stand. After a week of secret deliberations with his most trusted advisers, he announced the discovery to the world and imposed a naval blockade on further shipments of armaments to Cuba.
The blockade prevented additional materiel from coming in but did nothing to stop the Soviets from operationalizing the missiles already there. A tense second week followed during which Kennedy and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, stood “eyeball to eyeball,” neither side backing down.
Saturday, Oct. 27, was the day of decision. At the last minute, the crisis was resolved without war, as Khrushchev accepted a final U.S. offer pledging not to invade Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles.
Every president since Kennedy has tried to learn from what happened in that confrontation. Ironically, half a century later, with the Soviet Union itself only a distant memory, the lessons of the crisis for current policy have never been greater.
Today, it can help U.S. policy makers understand what to do — and what not to do — about a range of foreign policy dilemmas, particularly the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.
The current confrontation between the United States and Iran is like a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. Events are moving, seemingly inexorably, toward a showdown in which the U.S. president will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack and acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Those were, in essence, the two options Kennedy’s advisers gave him on the final Saturday: attack or accept Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. But Kennedy rejected both. Instead of choosing between them, he crafted an imaginative alternative with three components: a public deal in which the United States pledged not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles; a private ultimatum threatening to attack Cuba within 24 hours unless Khrushchev accepted that offer; and a secret sweetener that promised the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved.
Looking at the choice between acquiescence and air strikes today, both are unacceptable. An Iranian bomb could trigger a cascade of proliferation, making more likely a devastating conflict in one of the world’s most economically and strategically critical regions. A preventive air strike could delay Iran’s nuclear progress at identified sites but could not erase the knowledge and skills ingrained in many Iranian heads.
The truth is that any outcome that stops short of Iran having a nuclear bomb will still leave it with the ability to acquire one down the road.
The best hope for a Kennedyesque third option today is a combination of agreed-on constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities that would lengthen the fuse on the development of a bomb; transparency measures that would maximize the likelihood of discovering any cheating; unambiguous (perhaps secretly communicated) threats of a regime-changing attack should the agreement be violated; and a pledge not to attack otherwise. Such a combination would keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible for as long as possible.
The Israeli factor makes the Iranian nuclear situation an even more complex challenge for American policy makers than the Cuban missile crisis was. In 1962, only two players were allowed at the main table. Fidel Castro, the Cuban prime minister, sought to become the third, and had he succeeded, the crisis would have become significantly more dangerous. Precisely because the White House recognized that the Cubans could become a wild card, it cut them out of the game. Kennedy informed the Kremlin that it would be held accountable for any attack against the United States emanating from Cuba, however it started.
Today, the threat of an Israeli air strike strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in squeezing Iran to persuade it to make concessions. But the possibility that Israel might actually carry out a unilateral airstrike without U.S. approval must make Washington nervous, since it makes the crisis much harder to manage. Should the domestic situation in Israel reduce the likelihood of an independent Israeli attack, U.S. policy makers will not be unhappy.
It has been said that history does not repeat itself, but it does sometimes rhyme. Five decades later, the Cuban missile crisis stands not just as a pivotal moment in the history of the Cold War but also as a guide for how to make sound decisions about foreign policy.
Graham Allison is director and professor of government at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This is a condensed version of an article that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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