The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

Why It Matters Who Blinked

Map showing the full range of the nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba, used during the secret meetings on the Cuban crisis. (The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

DIPLOMACY, NOT DERRING-DO
James A. Nathan

Graham Allison ("The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50," July/August 2012) seems to believe that U.S. President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis was an unalloyed success. He also contends that the Kennedy administration's response to the crisis forms a template for the kind of steadfast resolve that U.S. policymakers should adopt today, specifically with regard to Iran and North Korea. But the Cuban missile crisis was hardly a triumph of presidential fortitude. At the core of Kennedy's strategy was a deal: the United States pledged to remove its missiles from Turkey within six months in exchange for the Soviet Union's withdrawal of its nuclear forces from Cuba.

The Soviet side of the bargain was public, but the central U.S. concession was kept secret. The Kennedy administration feared that it would appear weak if its agreement on the missiles in Turkey came to light. But the missile swap was hardly a mere "sweetener," as Allison claims; it was the main reason the Cuban missile crisis ended peacefully.

The facts of the compromise were long veiled. It was not until 1989 that Kennedy's former speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, confessed that he had edited out the details of the missile swap from the published version of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's diary. It is now clear that President Kennedy engaged in two sets of negotiations: one with Moscow and the other with his ad hoc team of high-ranking advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm). And in his negotiations with the latter, Kennedy made sure that only his few most trusted advisers were privy to the crucial missile concession.

The ExComm barely contemplated a diplomatic solution to the Cuban missile crisis, putting forward a series of military plans ranging from a blockade to a preemptive strike. Unbeknownst to many other members of the ExComm, however, the president, Robert Kennedy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk were striving for a deal involving the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. The president even authorized Rusk to announce the missile swap at the United Nations if the Soviets would not accept a secret agreement. To Kennedy's relief, Moscow agreed to keep the understanding secret.

Without full knowledge of how the crisis was settled, U.S. policymakers exalted in an apparently unqualified victory. In this view, it was the Kennedy administration's gumption, not its deft diplomacy, that had compelled the Soviets to stand down. "We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked," said Rusk of the crisis' resolution. This false characterization had unfortunate consequences-"resolve" became the watchword of Washington's Cold War policy, and a succession of administrations discarded the classic repertoire of diplomacy: international law, a respect for negotiation, and a prudent definition of the national interest.

Allison's narrative underscores the utility of threats, as long as they are credible. But straining to appear more determined, genuine, and fearsome can lead to miscalculation and heighten danger. Moreover, as Allison correctly notes, threats that are not carried out-even ones that initially appear credible-can seriously undermine policy. Each successive idle threat invites an adversary to test boundaries even more than the last time, and so the consequences of bluffing grow increasingly perilous. Allison is wrong, however, to conclude that it is necessary to risk war to achieve lasting peace.

The real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is not that the measured use of threats is the key to defusing crises; it is that the essential challenge of crisis resolution is crafting an acceptable compromise to silence the drumbeat of war. This challenge is particularly critical in cases such as Cuba in 1962 and Iran today, when the price of failure is a potentially catastrophic confrontation.

Kennedy well understood this lesson. In nearly every international crisis of his presidency, he opted for diplomacy and dealmaking over force. In June 1961, he reached an agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that maintained Laos' neutrality rather than risk the military action the Joint Chiefs of Staff had advocated. Later, in July 1961, Kennedy signaled to the Soviets that Washington would accept a divided Berlin, thus unwinding a confrontation that was just as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis. And after the Cuban crisis was resolved, Kennedy began a public campaign to temper the arms race. Yet Allison's account of the crisis as a case study of presidential resolve emphasizes the calculated use of threats over the more fundamental task of structuring a bargain.

Based on his reading of the Cuban missile crisis, Allison suggests that parts of an eventual U.S.-Iranian deal might also have to be kept secret. But surely, it would have been better for the Kennedy administration to reveal the truth about the settlement that ended the crisis; instead, Rusk and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara repeatedly lied to Congress. The long mischaracterization of how the Cuban missile crisis really ended not only taught a generation of U.S. policymakers a faulty lesson about the importance of threats but also damaged the American people's trust in official foreign policy narratives. A public deal to end the United States' protracted confrontation with Iran would be better than a secret one.

Against the backdrop of increasingly stiff U.S. and European sanctions on Iran and an incipient civil war in Syria, the Islamic Republic's sole ally in the Middle East, a diplomatic agreement could still end the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program. It would be folly for Washington to allow misplaced analogies to shape a decision that could lead to a third open-ended war in this still-young century.

JAMES A. NATHAN is Khaled bin Sultan Eminent Scholar in Political Science and International Policy at Auburn University at Montgomery.

ALLISON REPLIES

James Nathan disputes my interpretation of the central lessons of the Cuban missile crisis. Unfortunately, Nathan misreads my argument. He asserts that I consider presidential resolve and threats to be the essence of successful crisis management, arguing instead for compromise and restraint. In fact, my article contends that all these components are required for success.

President John F. Kennedy's resolution of the 1962 crisis involved a subtle mix of threat and compromise, candor and ambiguity, coercion and inducement. If Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had not accepted Kennedy's demand that he announce the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba within 24 hours, would Kennedy have ordered the air strike he threatened? The answer will never be known, but what seems certain is that Khrushchev would not have removed the missiles without the threat of force.

Resolving today's slow-motion confrontation over Iran's nuclear program will demand a similarly subtle mix. First, the United States needs to accept the irreversible realities of the situation: Tehran already knows how to build centrifuges and enrich uranium, and no U.S. policy is going to change that. Washington should work to place constraints on these activities so as to keep Iran as far from the development of a nuclear weapon as feasible, implement verification and transparency measures that maximize the likelihood that cheating will be discovered, and, finally, unambiguously threaten Tehran with a regime-ending attack in the event that it moves to construct nuclear weapons. Although Nathan may disagree, in my view, unless Iran's leadership believes that the costs of building nuclear weapons will be greater than the benefits those weapons would provide, the Islamic Republic will become a nuclear-armed state.   

Ironically, U.S. actions in the Middle East over the past decade have taught regimes in the region both the value of nuclear weapons programs and the dangers of giving them up. Former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who ended his country's nuclear program under U.S. pressure, wound up on the wrong side of U.S. air strikes last year; former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who didn't even have a nuclear weapons program in 2003, faced a full-scale invasion. As Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, summarized in an address to his people: "Qaddafi gathered up all his nuclear facilities and gave them to the West. And now, you can see the conditions our nation is living in versus their conditions." Given recent examples, Tehran has no reason not to want nuclear weapons if it could acquire them without triggering an attack.

Nathan correctly notes that the Kennedy administration embraced-indeed, exaggerated-news headlines emphasizing the president's steely resolve in forcing Khrushchev to back down. And no one in the administration said anything for many years to cast doubt on Secretary of State Dean Rusk's oft-quoted line, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked." But in fact, Kennedy knew better. After a celebratory victory lap, the president identified what he believed was the central lesson of the Cuban missile crisis: "Nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war."

In other words, having peered over the nuclear precipice, Kennedy took away a simple lesson: Never again. He used the crisis as a learning experience to clarify what he called the "rules of the precarious status quo." After October 1962, neither superpower dared surprise the other with provocative actions that might risk nuclear war. Together with the Berlin crisis of 1961, then, the Cuban missile crisis became a turning point in the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of these events, Washington and Moscow established a hot line for direct communications, signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty to stop nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, and began negotiations that culminated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which limited the spread of nuclear weapons.

If these were the lessons that Kennedy drew, then why did he keep his concession on the missiles in Turkey a secret? Too many students of foreign policy imagine countries as moving pieces on the chessboard of international politics alone. Rarely do they remember former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's adage, "All politics is local." Applied to international affairs, O'Neill's maxim can serve as a reminder that U.S. presidents have to play three-dimensional chess. Every move on the horizontal board against an international adversary simultaneously moves a piece on the vertical board of domestic politics. While mistakes on the international chessboard can have major consequences for the world, blunders on the domestic chessboard can remove the leader in question from both games entirely. Kennedy kept the missile concession a secret, as many shrewd politicians would, to protect his seat at the domestic chessboard.

Revisiting the most dangerous moment in recorded history, Nathan is right to stir up debate over the secret nature of the deal to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey. But he is wrong to attribute Kennedy's success purely to concessions made to Moscow, just as he is wrong to mischaracterize my work as attributing the world's escape from nuclear catastrophe in 1962 simply to threats and presidential resolve.

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}