In Washington, crucial facts are commonly observed disappearing down the historical "memory hole." Recollections of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 are in fashion now. Naturally, dim recollections and diverse perceptions cloud the picture, but more than that there appears to be a genial wish on the part of many of the reminiscing original participants in the "Thirteen Days in October" to demonstrate fairness and balanced judgment about the Soviet Union, deferring politely to what Soviet officials are saying in this extraordinary age of selective glasnost.

One thing is clear to me, one of the aging participants who remembers the 1962 crisis pretty clearly. Mikhail Gorbachev's team of official intellectuals is engaged in a program of historical revisionism serving Moscow's interest. Some of the facts being laid out are misleading or simply not true, and the geopolitical thrust of the Soviet interpretation of history is false.

Political jokes in Moscow are very revealing, and one joke of some durability tells us something about this retrospective look at Cuba of 1962. The story goes that Marxist-Leninist states give a clear, simple picture of the future, bound to be bright for communism, but the past is unpredictable since it needs to be changed from time to time.

The past has certainly changed under Gorbachev, who is purging Brezhnev-era cohorts but energetically refurbishing the image of Lenin and that good old economic reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who presided over the Cuban crisis. As Gorbachev's policy interest changes, due to the urgent Soviet need for economic reform and détente, the past is being substantially revised. It is not necessary, however, for Americans to believe everything they are told or to forget what they thought they knew.


The thrust of the Soviet argument at a two-day U.S.-Soviet-Cuban symposium held in Moscow January 27-28, 1989, was that Khrushchev feared an American invasion of Cuba and made the extraordinary strategic move of attempting to place missiles on Cuban soil to defend his protégé, Fidel Castro. Many of the Americans attending the symposium, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, reacted to these reminiscences in the company of Soviet and Cuban speakers by tending to accept that Khrushchev may have acted defensively. They seemed rather to like the romantic idea that the two superpowers were at the very brink of war, as Gorbachev urged them to believe.1 But in my view neither of these propositions is valid. I certainly doubt they are the heart of the matter.

The truth is that both sides were scrupulous in avoiding even the remote chance of an actual nuclear exchange, for the simple reason that, as we all assured President Kennedy, the United States had at least a four-to-one advantage in ICBMs and a much greater superiority in nuclear weapons capability, as well as a much greater number of bomber aircraft of intercontinental range. While it is exciting to speculate on how brilliantly we escaped the nuclear holocaust, none of the informed officials I talked with at the time thought the chances of war were high. I would have said no more than one in a thousand.

Had it been otherwise, the direct threat of nuclear retaliation, which I helped others to draft for the president's October 22 warning, would have been argued at length and probably would have been hedged. Our superiority was so great that only a mad Khrushchev would have fired a nuclear weapon. We knew enough about him to believe he was wily, secretive and deceptive, but not blind to his own and his country's security. Castro might have been tempted, as was suggested at the symposium, but Khrushchev's son has indicated that the Soviet leader kept him on a tight rein.

One fascinating piece of suspect evidence presented in Moscow was the suggestion from Soviet participants that the Cuban missiles were ready to be armed with nuclear warheads, which would have heightened the danger of war. A Soviet military historian, General Dmitri A. Volkogonov, said he had "reviewed archive material on the subject," although he did not present confirming evidence of his deduction that 20 warheads were already in place. Khrushchev's son seemed to agree on the presence of warheads in Cuba, but said they were not "mounted on the missiles."2

My own recollection of the evidence is clear because this exact subject was one Kennedy repeatedly asked me about. The CIA's view, concurred in by the Defense Intelligence Agency as far as I know, was based on two firm pieces of evidence. Our massive photo reconnaissance effort never revealed any evidence of warheads being shipped in or being present. There was firm evidence that the structural elements we knew were designed for nuclear weapons bunkers did arrive and were being assembled at two locations, but that these were not operational. It is also known that nuclear warheads were on the Soviet ship Poltava, which turned back in face of the U.S. naval quarantine.

Raymond Garthoff, a scholarly politico-military analyst in the State Department during the crisis, is now willing to give credence to Soviet assertions that 20 nuclear warheads arrived in Cuba before the blockade, although he insists they were never placed at a missile site.3 Because of his recent researches, Garthoff is the best qualified expert in the world on the crisis. Nevertheless I disagree with his carefully hedged willingness to accept Soviet claims on this point. No Soviet expert active during the crisis gave any concrete evidence to substantiate this new Soviet assertion.

There is an ideological motive for featuring this assertion about the nose cones, whether true or not. It is obviously very much part of the Soviet agenda to persuade American participants that the two nations were on the brink of nuclear war and that Khrushchev's reasonable flexibility narrowly averted the destruction of civilization. The thought that nuclear warheads were actually present makes this danger much more palpable. Of course CIA and military planners, as a matter of prudence, were obliged to assume that nuclear nose cones might be there, but the photo experts who briefed me found no particle of evidence that they were. The vast number of overflights in that hectic 13 days makes me believe some inkling of the arrival of nose cones would have been found among the thousands and thousands of frames of film, had they actually been on the spot.

Since Gorbachev is now engaged in selling everyone on the values of a nuclear-free world, the theme presented at the Moscow symposium makes sense for the Soviet Union. No doubt a healthy fear of nuclear weapons' destructiveness was a key factor in avoiding war between the Soviet Union and the United States during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps later. It is instructive to note that Khrushchev stood down all proposals for military moves by Soviet forces during the week of October 22, 1962, never seeking to pose any intercontinental threat once Kennedy took a strong stand on withdrawing the missiles from Cuba.

It is also revealing that Soviet officials, notably Vice Foreign Minister Kuznetzov, vowed after the crisis was defused that the Soviet Union would never again be in such a comparatively weak position of military power. In fact Soviet leaders promptly began the costly massive buildup of an astonishing array of missiles that finally brought Moscow to a position of strategic parity with Washington.

It is true that never again after about 1970 would an American president be able to make Soviet leaders worry much about escalation to nuclear war. The risks became just too great.

Now that Gorbachev recognizes that his predecessors starved the Soviet economy to pay for the nuclear weapons that Leonid Brezhnev bought in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S.S.R. wants us all to believe that nuclear weapons keep the superpowers perilously close to war. Gorbachev insists that removing these weapons will guarantee peace rather than facilitate conventional arms conflicts, and that Soviet gestures at détente eliminate the need for modern American defense forces at any substantial level.

None of these propositions are proven, and in my view they are probably wrong. The superpowers still are fundamentally different societies, geopolitically and geographically confronting one another across the gulf of the deep difference between a totally state-owned economy under a one-party dictatorship and a pluralist democratic market economy. The systemic conflict and geopolitical proximity are the reason the military weapons exist, not vice versa. If the inherent contradictions between cultures embedded in centralized autocracy and democratic respect for individual and minority rights are sometimes blinked at, the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square should sober up those whose attention wanders.


My reservations about the symposium in Moscow go even deeper than specific questions of the presence of nuclear warheads in Cuba. The most dubious proposition advanced in these discussions was that protecting Castro's socialist state as a symbol of Soviet political power in the Caribbean was Khrushchev's primary motive, and that he was forced into it by Kennedy's intention to mount a military invasion of Cuba.

Undoubtedly Moscow has gained many advantages from Cuba in intelligence collection and power projection in Latin America, and it is clear that Khrushchev decided to give a lot of military help to Castro when they met during the U.N. General Assembly session in New York in 1960. Nobody qualified to judge has ever suggested, however, that any incumbent group of Soviet party leaders would expose the homeland of the Soviet Union to a serious risk of extensive nuclear damage in order to save an asset in a distant part of the world. Even to this day Moscow has never included Cuba in the Warsaw Pact or any formal military alliance, despite repeated requests from Castro to be admitted to the inner club. Leninism as taught in the party schools cries out against any suggestion that the Soviet motherland should suffer to protect a client state, preferring to retreat from danger so as to live to fight another day in better circumstances. History repeatedly reveals that Moscow follows this principle, sacrificing political dependencies as necessary, most recently in the retreat from Afghanistan. Gorbachev still emulates Lenin and is undoubtedly even now following this policy of prudent withdrawals aimed at strengthening the centralized control system.

I am convinced that Khrushchev had a broader strategic goal in mind in 1962, with the endgame focusing on Berlin. Khrushchev knew the deployment would cause a worldwide political storm, but evidently thought Kennedy would simply be obliged to get used to the idea of having missiles in substantial numbers pointed at the United States.4 Unlike Bundy and McNamara, I agree with what I understand to be the views of Garthoff and Paul Nitze, a perennial sage on Soviet behavior, that the aim was not to defend Castro but to alter the psychological and political perceptions of the balance of power, particularly in Washington. I am sure the impact on American thinking would have been shattering if we had not detected the missiles before they were deployed and recognized how deliberately Khrushchev had tried to deceive Kennedy with his misleading statements about offensive weapons in the summer of 1962.

In any case Khrushchev was not crazy enough to fire the missiles, although he was a great braggart about the destructiveness of his military weapons. He surely meant to shock world opinion into thinking he had got the whip hand over the United States by his unprecedented and menacing deployment of missiles to Cuba. After all, 42 missiles, the number actually delivered to Cuba, would have doubled the total first-strike capability available to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1962.

Having immobilized Kennedy from resort to nuclear retaliation as a result of this sudden jump to missile parity, Khrushchev then would have tried to cash in his chips in Berlin. He probably hoped to whipsaw the NATO powers into negotiating a strategic retreat rather than face the uncertain consequences of a conventional military conflict in Europe. Against the backdrop of a sudden nuclear scare, it might have worked, especially as there were divergences among the European allies about the price to be paid for Berlin.

Even before the Cuban crisis, there was substantial evidence already reported of Soviet diplomatic maneuvering and actual forward deployments of Soviet military units in Germany. All of this stopped dead on October 23, 1962. Plainly Khrushchev's game was strategic blackmail, using Cuba to alter what Soviet theorists call the "correlation of forces"-by which they mean a complex psychological, political and military assessment. In this way he could regain strategic momentum in Berlin, where Moscow had enormous advantages in mounting threats and conducting military operations. If Kennedy and his NATO partners had capitulated on Berlin, as some might have wished, the course of superpower relations in the 1960s and later decades would have been entirely different.

Khrushchev's mind worked in just such devious and conspiratorial ways. The best evidence that he had in mind a scheme larger than simply protecting his Caribbean investment is presented in a book recounting Soviet President Anastas Mikoyan's post-crisis visit to Washington. Janos Radvanyi, a Hungarian counselor of embassy in Washington and later a defector to the United States, reports that Mikoyan said at a Soviet embassy briefing for diplomats from communist countries on November 30, 1962, that the missile deployment in Cuba was intended not just to defend Castro but was also aimed at "achieving a definite shift in the power relationship between the socialist and the capitalist worlds."5 In this ideological context, something would have to happen in Europe to be of so great a benefit.

The final point worth making is that Khrushchev was under heavy pressure at this time to do something to restore his prestige, in particular to fulfill his boasts and threats about changing the ground rules for Berlin. Kennedy had countered his threatening advances in Germany with firm statements and gestures of determination to defend Berlin. The United States also had revealed the CIA's findings from remote-sensing satellite imagery that the Soviet Union had only a few ICBMs, rather than the superior force Khrushchev had deceptively implied and the U.S. intelligence community had accepted until overhead imagery became available in 1962. Since his overblown claims of missile superiority had been exploded, Khrushchev badly needed a triumph in international affairs. The wisdom about this situation has been captured by Walt Rostow, then chief of the State Department Planning Group-including a reference to Cuba and, by chance, to me. Concerning the summer of 1962, Rostow wrote:

The planning group over which I presided, representing the best minds in the second level of government . . . had the advantage of time to reflect at length on the meaning of the sharpening Soviet position on Berlin since the spring. . . . We had canvassed the possibilities of a convulsive effort by Khrushchev to retrieve his waning position. . . . As I recall, Ray Cline of the CIA was the most perceptive among us. I closed the meeting on August 21 by observing we might be about to see the greatest act of risk-taking since the war. Cline said: "Maybe we are seeing it right now in Cuba."6

On this note I rest my case on the real meaning of the Cuban crisis. Khrushchev did indeed take the gigantic risk of deploying missiles to Cuba in order to destabilize Germany and NATO, hoping thereby to alter perceptions of the relative strength of the two superpowers. We did not hear much of that in Moscow in January 1989. We ought to press Soviet officials to open up their archives as the United States has done, and not simply accept the simplistic Soviet message about Khrushchev defending Cuba against American military attack.

Washington had no plans to attack, as the approval of the strictly limited covert operations Mongoose plan plainly established.7 In my position at the CIA at the time I was well informed about this operation. I can state with confidence that there was no basis in American policy for a Soviet fear of an American invasion of Cuba when Khrushchev was making his decision to base missiles there. Claims that these fears motivated Khrushchev represent a blatant case of historical revisionism to justify Khrushchev's dangerous gamble. He was ebullient, not frightened, in heading into the Cuban adventure.

The message from the Moscow symposium of 1989 has too much topspin of glasnost to be convincing. What we understood in 1962 ought to be part of our strategic thinking until conclusive evidence to the contrary is put on the table for scholarly historical evaluation.

3 Ibid., p. 42.

5 Hungary and the Superpowers: The 1956 Revolution and Realpolitik, Stanford (Calif.): Hoover Institution Press, 1972, p. 137.

6 The Diffusion of Power: An Essay in Recent History, New York: Macmillan, 1972, p. 259.

7 Garthoff, op. cit., p.8.

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  • Ray S. Cline is Chairman of the United States Global Strategy Council and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University; from 1962-66 he was CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence.
  • More By Ray S. Cline