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 itself and continues to the present.

We should be wary of hastily dismissing this event as irrelevant to the present; certain crucial factors have not changed since 1962, or have become all the more important because of the changes in the strategic balance: the psychology of crisis decision-making; the importance of small-group politics; and the risks of inadvertent escalation. But we should also be wary of drawing generalizations that ignore important ways in which the world has changed, that cannot be supported by evidence from a single crisis, and that are insensitive to the fact that diplomatic or strategic successes can rarely be repeated in quite the same way. This last consideration was one President Kennedy himself understood well from his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. The German leadership in 1914 had expected a repeat of Russia’s backdown in the Bosnian crisis of 1909. Instead, they found themselves embroiled in the costliest war mankind had yet seen.

A useful treatment of the lessons of the missile crisis must begin, therefore, by resisting the temptations to dismiss it out of hand or to draw detailed lists of "dos" and "don’ts." It must begin by identifying those important dimensions of the Cuban missile crisis that would be present in any future nuclear crisis, and by determining how they would bear on its outcome.


When former policymakers from the Kennedy Administration and scholars of the missile crisis met in Hawk’s Cay, Florida, in March 1987, they looked again at the seven lessons Robert Kennedy drew in his memoir of the crisis, Thirteen Days:

(1) Take time to plan; don’t go with your first impulse.

(2) The president should be exposed to a variety of opinions.

(3) Depend heavily on those with solid knowledge of the Soviet Union.

(4) Retain civilian control and beware of the limited outlook of the military.

(5) Pay close attention to world opinion.

(6) Don’t humiliate your opponent; leave him a way out.

(7) Beware of inadvertence—the Guns of August scenario.

This list reflects a large measure of the common wisdom of classical diplomacy, and the successful resolution of the crisis is prima facie evidence of its validity. But the history of the missile crisis has not given the hawks a chance to vindicate their view that more forceful action would have led to at least as desirable an outcome. Perhaps the United States did hold all the cards and could have acted more forcefully, even with impunity. It may be an accident of history—the fact that the hawks were outvoted in the ExComm and that the president did not share their view—that has led people to accept a list of this kind, rather than another emphasizing the importance of quick and decisive military action. The latter sort of list might have had some validity if the nuclear balance, rather than the quarantine or world opinion, had been primarily responsible for the resolution of the crisis.

No one can resolve the controversy over the importance of the nuclear balance in 1962. History is an imperfect laboratory, and there were too many causes of the outcome of the missile crisis for any single factor to be definitive. But in the explanation of the dispute between hawks and doves lies a series of important lessons for future policymakers and future crisis managers. When we ask why hawks and doves have held such different views of the event and have drawn such different conclusions from it, we can identify clearly several key factors which heavily influenced its conduct and outcome. It is these factors that can reasonably be expected to bear in any future superpower confrontation. We believe they hold unmistakable lessons, that they reaffirm the validity of Robert Kennedy’s list, and that they help us to realize the ways in which the list should be updated.


Nuclear war between the superpowers could break out in a variety of ways—as the result of deliberate action, accident, a third-party conflict, or escalation in a crisis. At the time of the crisis, ExComm members assigned different weights to each risk and tended to favor a particular course of action accordingly. Almost from the outset the array of options facing the members of the ExComm fell into three main categories. Being hawkish in the missile crisis meant supporting an early military action, either an air strike on the missile bases or an invasion of the island or both. Dovish views implied wishing to avoid any use of military force, even a naval quarantine, and a willingness to resolve the crisis by "trading" American Jupiter missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. A third group can be characterized as "owlish." This group tended to prefer the quarantine, a (relatively mild) use of military force; this seemed to its proponents to allow for flexible movement—should conditions require it—toward the hawkish or dovish options. In shorthand, therefore, hawks were invaders and doves were traders; "owls" were persuaders.

The distinguishing feature of the owlish group, which included Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and George Ball, was the weight they assigned to the risks of desperate, irrational Soviet action or to inadvertent escalation—the danger that, for example, a Soviet second lieutenant in Cuba would fire the nuclear missile under his charge rather than allow it to be destroyed in an American air strike, or that a stray U-2 over Siberia on an air sampling mission would be interpreted in the Kremlin as pre-first-strike reconnaissance. These people recognized the glaring American strategic nuclear superiority, but saw in it as much danger as leverage. The fact that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles were "soft" and required considerable time to prepare for launch made them extremely vulnerable to an American first strike, and seemed to shorten the Soviet fuse. Therefore crisis stability and the importance of assuring command and control were sources of concern to the owlish group.

In contrast, hawks discounted these risks. The following exchange between the late General Maxwell Taylor and Richard Neustadt shown on videotape at the Hawk’s Cay conference illustrates this quite starkly:

Neustadt: Was [the final] outcome [of the crisis] unexpected to you?

Taylor: I was so sure we had ‘em over a barrel, I never worried much about the final outcome, but what things might happen in between.

Neustadt: The outcome to which I’m referring is Khrushchev’s acceptance of our . . .

Taylor: Well at some time he had to accept. I never expected it on that particular day.

Neustadt: Okay, you thought it was going to go a while longer . . .

Taylor: Unless he was crazy and full of vodka. But I assumed his colleagues in Moscow would take care of him.

Neustadt: You have written in your retrospective in The Washington Post on October 5, ‘82, as I remember—the 20th year—that you don’t recall any concern about the strategic balance, or any fear of nuclear exchange in this whole period. Now some of the civilians do recall worries about the time of that second Saturday; worries that really run to two or three steps up the ladder of escalation. The Soviets don’t accept our demand; there follows an air strike; the Soviets then feel impelled to strike the missiles in Turkey; the Turks call on NATO for support; we feel we have to do something in Europe; the Soviets then launch a nuclear exchange—something like that was in some of their minds. I take it not in yours?

Taylor: They never expressed it to a military ear, I’ll say that.

Neustadt: That’s interesting.

Taylor: Not at all. It’s the nature of some people [that] if they can’t have a legitimate worry, they create them. Apparently they had some of that in the group you’re speaking of.

Neustadt: In your mind, there was no legitimacy in this worry?

Taylor: Not the slightest.

Neustadt: Because Khrushchev could look up that ladder . . .

Taylor: If he was rational. If he was irrational, I still expected his colleagues to look after him.

What is remarkable about Taylor’s analysis is how wedded it is to the classical "rational actor" model of decision-making. Clearly, Taylor believed that the only risk of nuclear war lay in deliberate action by the Soviet leadership, and this risk was negligible since, even if Khrushchev were irrational, it would be highly unlikely that he would be able to overrule the remaining members of the Politburo and the military, whose rationality Taylor seems never to have questioned. If all participants could be counted on to act rationally and there were no accidents or mistakes, Taylor would probably have been correct about the low level of risk. But he seems to have been completely unconcerned with the risks of accident, inadvertence, miscalculation, desperation or the breakdown of command and control procedures—on either the Soviet or the American side.

Several members of the ExComm, including Taylor, Dean Acheson, Douglas Dillon, John McCone and Paul Nitze, believed from the start of the crisis that military action against the Soviet bases in Cuba carried little risk of retaliation. The United States held all the cards; the only question in their minds was how great was the fall that the Soviets were bound to take. Some still hold this view, and they have been joined over the past quarter-century by like-minded scholars and publicists who argue that with a tougher response Kennedy could have removed Castro as well as the missiles.

Many in this hawkish group believe at the same time that the crisis holds no significant lessons for today. In their view, the reason why the Soviets capitulated, agreeing to withdraw the missiles from Cuba, and the main reason the Soviets would not have retaliated militarily even if the missiles had been removed by an air strike and (if necessary) an invasion of the island, was the overwhelming American superiority at the strategic nuclear level. As strategic superiority is believed to have been fundamental to the outcome of the crisis, and as it has long since been lost, the missile crisis is thought to be no more (or less) relevant to present concerns than, say, the Peloponnesian Wars. For example, Douglas Dillon took a hawkish position in 1962 when he believed there was scant prospect of a Soviet response, but at Hawk’s Cay 25 years later he argued, "It’s a totally different world today, and as far as I can see, the Cuban missile crisis has little relevance in today’s world."

To Taylor and his hawkish colleagues, any American risks in the missile crisis would have derived almost entirely from military inaction rather than, as others believed, from a decisive action such as an air strike. All were deeply concerned to avoid setting a precedent whereby the Soviets believed they might deceive the United States and then escape unpunished when caught in the lie. Dean Acheson seems to have believed this political risk was central. If the United States failed to stand up to Khrushchev in such a blatant case of deception, what gamble would he try next? Others seem to have been concerned more with what they regarded as the quite real and substantial military significance of the Soviet SS-4s and SS-5s being installed in Cuba. Paul Nitze and Douglas Dillon recall believing that McNamara was profoundly mistaken in his contention that, as he often put it, the Soviets, with their 40 or so missiles in Cuba, had merely moved from an unfavorable balance of 5,000 to 300 in nuclear missiles to one of 5,000 to 340.

The correct interpretation of the significance of the missiles, according to the hawks, was that whereas previously the Soviets in a preemptive strike could have expected to destroy only a tiny fraction of the U.S. strategic forces, they could with the addition of the Cuban missiles plan to destroy perhaps as much as 40 percent of the Strategic Air Command bomber force. Finally, the hawks were very concerned about the risks involved in what they regarded as the foot-dragging aspects of a quarantine. The missiles were discovered before they became operational and ought to be destroyed before they were made ready to fire. Moreover, if the advantage of surprise were lost, a land invasion—costly and potentially a political disaster—would almost certainly be necessary. For all these reasons, in addition to their belief that American conventional and strategic superiority would nullify any Soviet response, the hawks favored an immediate air strike aimed at taking out the Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

In the ExComm’s deliberations, the hawks’ view did not prevail. President Kennedy and most of his inner circle seem to have had a more expansive view of the risks involved. But more than that, they seem to have felt a fear of inadvertent nuclear war that was not shared by Taylor and the other hawks. McGeorge Bundy recently described it as "the fear of the officer in command who, having given his orders, begins to fear that he may be leading his charges into disaster." Robert McNamara voices his dread the following way:

[T]he possibility of what I call "blundering into disaster" preoccupied me during the missile crisis, not the alleged probability of this or that event. What the missile crisis impressed upon me was that, yes, we could stumble into a nuclear war; that such an event, however "limited," was totally unacceptable; and thus that it must be avoided.

It would have been perfectly natural for the hawks not to feel this apprehension if they did not take the risks of inadvertence seriously. But it is also interesting to note that those who felt the fear of inadvertent nuclear war most keenly approached the crisis not merely as advisers offering their judgments and opinions, but as people who felt that they shared the president’s responsibility to get the missiles out of Cuba without humiliation or catastrophe. This sense of responsibility, the resulting heightened sensitivity to the risks of inadvertence, and the associated fear seem to have reinforced each other and to have had a powerful cautionary effect on the ExComm’s choices of action throughout the crisis. Together, these considerations go a long way toward explaining the way in which the crisis was eventually resolved.

With pressure building, the president sent his brother Robert to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin with what the Soviets seem to have interpreted as the final American offer to resolve the crisis peacefully. The sequence of events leading directly to the meeting between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin early in the evening of October 27, 1962, seems to have been as follows:

—4:00 p.m.: ExComm meeting. General Taylor arrived with news that an American U-2 had been shot down over Cuba. Hawks’ and doves’ positions hardened. The meeting became polarized and rancorous.

—Approximately 6:00 p.m.: Meeting with the president, including Robert Kennedy, Sorensen, Rusk, McNamara, Bundy and Llewellyn Thompson. According to Robert Kennedy, "At first, there was almost unanimous agreement that we had to attack early the next morning with bombers and fighters and destroy the SAM sites. But again the president pulled everyone back. ‘It isn’t the first step that concerns me,’ he said, ‘but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step—and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so.’ " It was then suggested that the United States respond to Khrushchev’s offer of October 26, to trade Cuban missiles for a guarantee that the United States would not invade Cuba. Accounts differ as to who originally proposed this tactic.

—7:45 p.m.: Robert Kennedy told Dobrynin that the United States would pledge publicly not to invade Cuba if the Soviets would pledge publicly to begin withdrawing the missiles immediately. He also said privately that U.S. missiles were going to come out of Turkey, in any event. He said that if the Soviets did not give a commitment in 24 hours that the bases would be removed, "we would remove them." "I was not giving them an ultimatum," he wrote later, "but a statement of fact." Robert Kennedy returned to the White House "not optimistic." "The expectation was a military confrontation by Tuesday and possibly tomorrow."

There can be little doubt that Khrushchev interpreted this message as a last-ditch chance to avoid war. He took to the airwaves to accept it immediately after receiving the offer.

There remains a great deal of disagreement among the former members of the ExComm on whether Robert Kennedy "traded" the missiles in Turkey, on whether he had given the Soviets an ultimatum and on what the president’s next move would have been had the Soviets rejected his terms. Rusk, for example, insists that the sweetener for the Soviets in the arrangement involved only a "piece of information" that was passed along to them to use as they wished—i.e., that the United States had plans already in place for dismantling the Turkish missiles. McNamara resists the idea that Robert Kennedy actually threatened the Soviets with an air strike and an invasion; Dillon, Nitze and Taylor have all expressed confidence in interviews that President Kennedy would have ordered the air strike and invasion within 48 hours of the deadline his brother had imposed on the Soviets; McNamara and Bundy are both convinced that the president would have continued American efforts at persuading the Soviets by "cranking up the quarantine," adding more to the list of prohibited items and perhaps also by intensifying search procedures.

Dean Rusk provided new information to the Hawk’s Cay conference indicating that the president had not yet abandoned the option of a public trade of American missiles in Turkey for Soviet missiles in Cuba. By the evening of October 27, according to Rusk:

It was clear to me that President Kennedy would not let the Jupiters in Turkey become an obstacle to the removal of the missile sites in Cuba because the Jupiters were coming out in any event. He instructed me to telephone the late Andrew Cordier, then at Columbia University, and dictate to him a statement which would be made by U Thant, the Secretary General of the United Nations, proposing the removal of both the Jupiters and the missiles in Cuba. Mr. Cordier was to put that statement in the hands of U Thant only after a further signal from us. That step was never taken and the statement I furnished to Mr. Cordier has never seen the light of day. So far as I know, President Kennedy, Andrew Cordier and I were the only ones who knew of this particular step.

As McGeorge Bundy pointed out to the meeting at Hawk’s Cay, this step does not necessarily mean that a policy of trading missiles would have resulted. But it may show that the president was sufficiently fearful of inadvertent nuclear war that he would eventually have been willing, in the phrase of former State Department Counsel Abram Chayes, to "buy the missiles out"—to trade publicly, even at the risk of having to pay a heavy political price, both domestically and within NATO.

We will never know for certain what President Kennedy would have done had Khrushchev not responded favorably to his last proposal. But the fact that he laid the groundwork for a public trade indicates the degree to which he was concerned about the possible unintended consequences of extending the crisis, or of an imminent air strike and invasion. It is striking how little the hawks were concerned with these risks, and it is important to note that each group’s exposure to the other’s views led to polarization and discord rather than convergence and consensus. As the owlish option of the quarantine began to look like a failure, and as the hawkish and dovish options began to look like the only viable alternatives, debate in the ExComm became bitter, tempers flared and positions hardened. But the owls were ultimately vindicated, and the risks of the hawkish and dovish options were successfully avoided. The trade was made, though privately, and the invasion, though threatened, never occurred. The flexibility of the quarantine ultimately paid off.

It is important to recognize that the strategy adopted by the American government for removing the missiles from Cuba was, from beginning to end, owlish to the core. The prevailing opinion in the ExComm was that there were dangerous risks in relative inaction and also in direct and decisive military action. The dovish position, exemplified first by Adlai Stevenson, held that military action was just too risky because of the danger of provoking a superpower war, perhaps even a nuclear holocaust. Hawks, as we have illustrated, saw dangers, political and military, only in the continued presence of the missiles in Cuba. The naval quarantine represented an owlish attempt to reconcile the partial truths contained in the options favored by hawks and doves. If one assumes that there were indeed risks in both action and inaction, in decisiveness and caution, then the resolution of the crisis must be seen as a masterpiece of owlish diplomacy.

What the president decided to do on October 27 was to suggest a stick more awesome than some hawks were comfortable with (because of the possibility that it might require a massive land invasion of Cuba) and a carrot no less attractive than that first suggested by Stevenson, yet—and this is the remarkable part of it—all the while reserving the option to simply continue tightening the naval quarantine. Why is this "owlish"? Because this approach recognizes a wide variety of risks; because it provides a safety net right up until the end; and because it is our judgment that, if forced, the president would have chosen to run the political risk of a trade rather than the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war. In short, we believe that President Kennedy had decided he was not going to initiate war over the missiles in Cuba, but that he would do his utmost to get them removed with the least political cost.


Before, during and at the conclusion of the missile crisis, the American leadership was perplexed by the question of Soviet intentions. The professed confusion added measurably to their fearfulness as the crisis wore on. Of all the ExComm members, none in the president’s inner circle had predicted the emplacement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Once the quarantine line was in place on October 24, most of the members of the inner circle expected a dramatic Soviet countermaneuver, probably around Berlin. But the Soviets did nothing in Berlin, nor anywhere else. On October 26 and 27, the bewilderment over Soviet thinking intensified with the arrival first of the emotional and rambling, but still hopeful letter, obviously from Khrushchev himself, followed by a second letter which seemed to be a Soviet committee document taking a harder line.

Some, like Dean Rusk, reacted to the first letter with fear that Khrushchev had "lost his cool," and thus might begin to think irrationally and act impulsively in ways that would deepen the crisis. Others, like George Ball, recall reacting to the second letter with dismay because they feared Khrushchev might no longer be in charge and that the Soviet military or hardliners in the Politburo had assumed command. Finally, when the ExComm broke up on the evening of October 27, few of those who knew of Robert Kennedy’s message to Dobrynin expected that the Soviets would agree to the American offer. Yet not only did the Soviets agree to the American terms, they did so immediately, enthusiastically and without reservation. From the discovery of the missiles to the agreement securing their removal, President Kennedy and his closest advisers found the Soviets almost entirely inscrutable.

Understanding one’s adversary is crucial to managing a conflict, as every stage of the Cuban missile crisis illustrates. Consider its genesis. There might not have been a crisis at all—or at least, events might have unfolded very differently—if the Administration had anticipated the Soviet deployment. President Kennedy’s public warnings to the Soviets not to deploy offensive weapons in Cuba virtually committed the two countries to a showdown once such missiles were discovered. But Theodore Sorensen offered the following interesting observation:

Let me say here that the line between offensive and defensive weapons was drawn in September, and it was not drawn in a way which was intended to leave the Soviets any ambiguity to play with. I believe the president drew the line precisely where he thought the Soviets were not and would not be; that is to say, if we had known that the Soviets were putting 40 missiles in Cuba, we might under this hypothesis have drawn the line at 100, and said with great fanfare that we would absolutely not tolerate the presence of more than 100 missiles in Cuba. I say that believing very strongly that that would have been an act of prudence, not weakness. But I am suggesting that one reason the line was drawn at zero was because we simply thought the Soviets weren’t going to deploy any there anyway.

Of course, Kennedy’s warnings were too late; the Soviet decision to deploy had been made months before, and the relevant machinery had been set in gear. Perhaps the president would not have tolerated any Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba in any case; but if the Administration had had some reason to believe the Soviets might deploy—or if they had even given sustained thought to the possibility—then both public diplomacy and private deliberations about American responses might have led to a satisfactory outcome that avoided the atmosphere and the risks of a superpower showdown.

Subsequent scholarship has had no difficulty offering plausible explanations of why the Soviets deployed missiles in Cuba; the problem has been one of choosing among them. The move in retrospect seems overdetermined. It is, of course, difficult to say whether such an uncharacteristically risky venture could have been easily foreseen; but it is striking nonetheless that few outside the intelligence community and none in President Kennedy’s inner circle seem to have given any serious thought as to why the Soviets might deploy until after the missiles had been discovered.

Perhaps the most important dimension of knowing one’s enemy is knowing his view of a crisis and what is at stake, for this largely determines which strategies are appropriate and effective, and which are not. If the adversary sees it as a zero-sum game for which he is willing to take great risks to avoid a loss, then the interaction needs to be handled differently than would be the case if he saw it as a predicament stumbled into by mistake or through stupidity, from which both sides must extricate themselves through cooperative action, avoiding either’s humiliation. In these two cases, the same strategies would elicit very different responses and would carry with them very different risks. To make matters even more problematic, the "adversary" may be a contentious group whose internal balance shifts over the course of the crisis.

The quarantine option, and the owlish approach to the Cuban missile crisis in general, was successful largely because it provided the flexibility that enabled the Administration to "learn" about its adversary as the crisis progressed. McGeorge Bundy recalls that as the missile crisis wore on, President Kennedy expressed increasing curiosity about Khrushchev, and about the ways this man’s personality might interact with the Soviet system and with the deep crisis they both were in to produce various Soviet actions. In asking their questions, the president and the other perplexed members of the ExComm turned most often to Llewellyn ("Tommy") Thompson, a former ambassador to Moscow, who was nearly always the only person present at the ExComm meetings who had extensive knowledge of the Soviet Union, the only one who knew in depth its language, history and culture. "Tommy Thompson," Dean Rusk recalls, "was our in-house Russian during the missile crisis." In fact, one of the few interpretations of the missile crisis that all former ExComm members support enthusiastically is Robert McNamara’s claim that "Tommy Thompson was the unsung hero." Other experts consulted directly or indirectly included, inter alia, Foy Kohler, Ray Cline, Raymond Garthoff and Averell Harriman. Perhaps in no other two-week period has any American administration learned so much about the Soviet Union and its leaders as Kennedy’s did during the Cuban missile crisis.

It is difficult to discover precisely what Thompson did or said to warrant the apparently unanimous verdict that his contribution was heroic. He was certainly not a member of the president’s inner circle; he seems to have spoken relatively infrequently at ExComm meetings; and former ExComm members whom we have questioned about Thompson’s role have few concrete recollections of anything in particular he said or did during the crisis. It seems clear that whatever Thompson’s role may actually have been, the consistent portrayal of him as an almost infallible index of the "Russian soul" must be related in some considerable degree to the feeling among most of the other ExComm members that, in this most tense and dangerous confrontation, they themselves knew next to nothing that would allow them to comprehend and predict Soviet actions accurately. They felt they had to depend heavily upon Thompson, which they did. And now, with the crisis long since having been resolved successfully, they give Thompson a large share of the credit.

What seems indisputable is that all through the crisis President Kennedy and his closest associates found themselves almost continuously mystified by the Soviets, so much so that in retrospect the single member of the group who claimed familiarity with the Soviet Union is given credit for being the hero, the absolutely indispensible man during the crisis.

Some degree of mystery about the Soviet side is likely to be a feature of any superpower crisis. The next nuclear crisis is also likely to catch us by surprise, since both the United States and the Soviet Union seek to avoid the kinds of shocking, mutual miscalculations that created this one. The next time, if there is one, we ought to expect the American president and his closest advisers to question in the most fundamental way whether they understand Soviet behavior, and to seek informed, cautious and realistic advice from those whose business it is to know the adversary.


Should John Kennedy and his principal advisers have taken a tougher stance 25 years ago? Might they have toppled Castro and deterred the subsequent expansion of Soviet influence? Kennedy is reported to have believed at the time that the odds of fighting between U.S. and Soviet forces were between one out of three and fifty-fifty. With hindsight the odds seem much lower. The Americans had strategic and conventional superiority in the region. Moreover, they were defending a recognized interest, and Khrushchev had to bear the risk of escalation. The Soviets should have been amply deterred. Perhaps more could have been accomplished by a tougher stance, barring unforeseen complications.

Some of the participants at Hawk’s Cay felt in retrospect that the chances of a war that could escalate into a nuclear exchange were more like one in fifty. But some felt that even one chance in a thousand of nuclear war would be too high. One Soviet warhead exploding over one American city might have killed five million people, or roughly the same proportion of the population as was killed in the Civil War, Though some believed in 1962 that Khrushchev had chosen a poor location for a crisis and had set himself up for a major fall, the view from the presidential hot seat was psychologically very different from that on the sidelines or with 25-year hindsight.

We recognize that under the circumstances at that time, it is plausible to imagine that all three courses of action—invading, trading and persuading—might have led to satisfactory conclusions, though clearly some carried greater risks and costs than others. Likewise, since the proof is primarily in the pudding, we find little reason to fault the course of action taken by President Kennedy and his advisers. Even Maxwell Taylor remarked, "I never wavered [from favoring the air strike] until my Commander-in-Chief took another decision. And I add, I’m glad he did, because it proved to be enough." But the world of 1987 does differ in crucial respects from the world of 1962. As Douglas Dillon pointed out, "if the Cuban missile crisis happened today, I’d react in much the same way as Bob McNamara, and I would like to make that absolutely clear."

Whatever one’s view of the past, the next crisis is not likely to be as "easy" as the Cuban missile crisis. At the nuclear level, we no longer have superiority (whatever difference that may have made) and there is little prospect that the Soviets will allow us to regain it. Our international political standing and our ability to win the backing of the United Nations, the Organization of American States and NATO have diminished. Domestic politics and the role of the press have also changed. After Vietnam and Watergate there seems slight prospect of preserving secrecy for a week of careful consideration of the options, as Kennedy was able to do. Moreover, the system of nuclear deterrence has become much more complex. In some ways the weapons are better protected than they were in 1962, but the numbers have grown and so has the complexity of command and control systems. Finally, the Soviet Union is changing, but we will never be sure what that means in a crisis. In retrospect, it seems that Khrushchev was taking a higher risk than is normal for Soviet behavior; but what will be a "normal" level of risk in the future? And how will it vary in the Caribbean, the Persian Gulf or Eastern Europe?

Given these considerations, Robert Kennedy’s list of lessons looks even more perceptive than it appeared at the time. Nonetheless, hindsight enables us to supplement it. Perhaps the first lesson of an updated list would be the importance of avoiding superpower nuclear crises. Attempts to replay the Cuban missile crisis could lead to fatal mistakes. A corollary is the importance of developing measures and channels of communication that help to avert crises. In short, the most important lesson of the missile crisis a quarter-century later may be to be wary of reading from it simple lessons on crisis management. At the same time, the avoidance of crises is not our choice alone. Crises may be forced upon us as we try to defend important values.

The second lesson concerns the importance of the views of the top leaders who are elected and appointed. Each member of the ExComm brought to the Cuban missile crisis a coherent world view which determined his perceptions of the risks and of Soviet intentions. Each camp had and still has a fully specified and internally consistent account of every aspect of the crisis, ranging from an explanation of why the Soviets deployed missiles in the first place, to what the optimal course of action was, to what (if any) the lessons of the crisis are. While the episode illustrates the extent to which some decision-makers are able to learn new information quickly, it equally clearly illustrates the importance and the dangers of rigidly preconceived world views and the effect they can have on the processing of new information.

A third lesson is closely related to the second: rational models of deterrence are not enough. Deterrence is not a game played by two players seated at a chess or poker table. It is played by small groups of people embedded in enormous complex organizations whose outlines they barely discern and whose detailed operations they scarcely control. Communication in a crisis begins to resemble trying to shake hands with boxing gloves. Robert McNamara was acutely aware of the need for civilian control and the need to manage the details so that the wrong signals were not communicated in the crisis. But he could not prevent a U-2 from overflying Soviet territory at the height of the crisis, and he was not aware until 25 years later that his orders to alert our forces were transmitted in the clear (where the Soviets could easily read them) rather than in code, as per standard procedure. Nor was he aware that the FBI possessed information on the second weekend of the crisis that the Soviet mission in New York was preparing to burn its files. In McNamara’s words:

I don’t think the Cuban missile crisis was unique. The Bay of Pigs, Berlin in ’61, Cuba, later events in the Middle East, in Libya, and so on—all exhibit the truth of what I’ll call "McNamara’s Law," which states: "It is impossible to predict with a high degree of confidence what the effects of the use of military force will be because of the risks of accident, miscalculation, misperception and inadvertence." In my opinion, this law ought to be inscribed above all the doorways in the White House and the Pentagon, and it is the overwhelming lesson of the Cuban missile crisis.

A fourth lesson follows from the third. It is critical for high-level officials to prepare themselves to deal with crises ahead of time. Our country places in high office lawyers, politicians, academics and businessmen who have no experience with nuclear systems, yet they are expected to handle a nuclear crisis if one occurs. The briefings on nuclear operations that top officials receive from the professional military at the beginning of an administration’s term have been described as analogous to being given a drink from a firehose. Furthermore, the briefings come at a time when a new administration is preoccupied with the politics of transition. We need to find ways through briefings and simulations to ensure that top officials have a better grasp of the complexity of the nuclear systems they direct before a crisis occurs. On-the-job learning during a crisis is unacceptably risky.

Finally, in a world where the leaders of the two superpowers discussed the possibility of ridding the world of nuclear weapons at a summit conference, if only in sketchy and confused terms, the Cuban missile crisis may hold some lessons on the limits of current debates about nuclear deterrence. On the one hand, the Cuban missile crisis shows that a little nuclear deterrence went a long way. At least for the group of American leaders at that time, superiority did not remove the prudence that was engendered by even a low probability of a few Soviet warheads exploding over our cities.

Perhaps Soviet leaders might have reacted differently had positions been reversed; but it seems clear that nuclear deterrence had a good deal to do with the fact that Khrushchev did not respond with a Berlin blockade or pressure on Turkey, as some of the participants expected. The specter of nuclear catastrophe lurking at the end of a chain of events had a powerful cautionary effect on both sides. It fostered a caution that, as George Ball noted, would not have been present to the same degree if only conventional forces had been involved. And that is the other side of the same lesson. If a little nuclear deterrence goes a long way, some may be necessary. Talk of stable conventional deterrence may miss this important lesson of the missile crisis—at least as long as intense political competition exists between the United States and the Soviet Union.

As long as that political competition persists, the horror of nuclear weapons will have the ironic effect of producing both fear and caution. The Cuban missile crisis would appear to have had the desirable effect of reinforcing these responses, and the result has been, in the past 25 years, that we have weathered arms races, third-party wars at various global flash points, and a renewal of cold-war rhetoric without a superpower confrontation of comparable magnitude or intensity. But we cannot rely on fear and caution exclusively; the next superpower crisis will almost certainly be accidental and unexpected. We will have to learn to manage the U.S.-Soviet competition to reduce the risks we have thus far dodged. This will involve learning to avoid crises by strengthening the rules of the road until U.S.-Soviet hostility fades. But it will also involve learning to manage crises more effectively while we strive to improve the relationship over the long run. In the meantime, we will be drawn back repeatedly to the Cuban missile crisis and the effort to understand the lessons it can teach us. Though the world of 1962 is becoming increasingly remote, some of its lessons seem timeless.

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  • James G. Blight, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and David A. Welch are, respectively, Executive Director, Director, and Research Fellow of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Mr. Nye is the author of Nuclear Ethics. Messrs. Blight and Welch are currently working on a book on the Cuban missile crisis. The authors wish to express their thanks to the Carnegie Corporation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
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