The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

A U-2 photo during the Cuba Missile Crisis.

The Cuban missile crisis has assumed genuinely mythic significance. Dean Rusk called it "the most dangerous crisis the world has ever seen," the only time when the nuclear superpowers came "eyeball to eyeball." Theodore Sorensen called it the "Gettysburg of the Cold War." For Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., it was "the finest hour" of the Kennedy presidency; a moment of maximum nuclear peril traversed without catastrophe. Many people believe that the missile crisis of October 1962 represents the closest point that the world has come to nuclear war. For that reason alone, it is worth continued attention.

Since the Cuban missile crisis remains the only nuclear crisis we have experienced, it remains the great laboratory in which to study the art of crisis management. Yet there is little agreement on the lessons it holds for us today. This disagreement was brought into sharp focus at a recent meeting of scholars and former members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), the group convened by President John F. Kennedy to advise him on the matter of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Much of the disagreement that came to light at that meeting and in a subsequent series of interviews with key participants revolved around two issues: the course of action that the United States should have taken in 1962; and the relevance of that debate 25 years later.

It is remarkable how little the basic parameters of the dispute about the lessons of the missile crisis have changed over the past quarter-century: either there are many lessons, chiefly emphasizing the need for flexibility, managerial precision and caution in the face of great danger; or there are no lessons, because the nuclear danger of 1962 was almost surely imaginary, a function of a failure to comprehend the pivotal significance of a favorable military balance for the United States. Part of the reason for this standoff, we believe, is due to a too-easy characterization of "hawks" and "doves"—a distinction that originated during the missile crisis

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