This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis — those 13 days in October 1962 that were probably the closest the world has come to a major nuclear war. Then-US president John F. Kennedy had publicly warned the Soviet Union not to introduce offensive missiles into Cuba. But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to cross Kennedy’s red line surreptitiously and confront the Americans with a fait accompli. When an American surveillance plane discovered the missiles, the crisis erupted.
Some of Kennedy’s advisers urged an air strike and invasion to destroy the missiles. Kennedy mobilized troops, but also bought time by announcing a naval blockade of Cuba. The crisis subsided when Soviet ships carrying additional missiles turned back, and Khrushchev agreed to remove the existing missiles from the island. As then-US secretary of state Dean Rusk put it: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
At first glance, this was a rational and predictable outcome. The United States had a 17-to-1 advantage in nuclear weaponry. The Soviets were simply outgunned.
And yet the US did not preemptively attack Soviet missile sites, which were relatively vulnerable, because the risk that even one or two of the Soviet missiles would be fired at an American city was enough to deter a first strike. In addition, both Kennedy and Khrushchev feared that rational strategies and careful calculation might spin out of control. Khrushchev offered a vivid metaphor in one of his letters to Kennedy: “We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war.”
In 1987, I was part of a group of scholars that met at Harvard University with Kennedy’s surviving advisers to study the crisis. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s secretary of defense, said he became more cautious as the crisis unfolded. At the time, he thought that the probability of nuclear war resulting from the crisis might have been one in 50 (though he rated the risk much higher after he learned in the 1990s that the Soviets had already delivered nuclear weapons to Cuba).
Douglas Dillon, Kennedy’s treasury secretary, said he thought that the risk of nuclear war had been about zero. He did not see how the situation could possibly have escalated to nuclear war, and thus had been willing to push the Soviets harder and to take more risks than McNamara was. General Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also believed that the risk of nuclear war was low, and he complained that the US let the Soviet Union off too easily. He felt that the Americans should have removed the Castro regime.
However, the risks of losing control of the situation weighed heavily on Kennedy, too, which is why he took a more prudent position than some of his advisers would have liked. The moral of the story is that a little nuclear deterrence goes a long way.
Nonetheless, there are still ambiguities about the missile crisis that make it difficult to attribute the outcome entirely to the nuclear component. The public consensus was that the US won. However, how much the US won, and why it won, is hard to determine.
There are at least two possible explanations of the outcome, in addition to Soviet acquiescence to the US’s superior nuclear firepower. One focuses on the importance of the two superpowers’ relative stakes in the crisis: the US not only had a greater stake in neighboring Cuba than the Soviets did, but could also bring conventional forces to bear. The naval blockade and the possibility of a US invasion strengthened the credibility of US deterrence, placing the psychological burden on the Soviets.
The other explanation questions the very premise that the Cuban missile crisis was an outright US victory. The Americans had three options: a “shoot-out” (bomb the missile sites); a “squeeze out” (blockade Cuba to convince the Soviets to withdraw the missiles); and a “buyout” (give the Soviets something they want).
For a long time, the participants said little about the buyout aspects of the solution. But subsequent evidence suggests that a quiet US promise to remove its obsolete missiles from Turkey and Italy was probably more important than was thought at the time (the US also gave a public assurance that it would not invade Cuba).
We can conclude that nuclear deterrence mattered in the crisis, and that the nuclear dimension certainly figured in Kennedy’s thinking. However, it was not the ratio of nuclear weapons that mattered so much as the fear that even a few nuclear weapons would wreak intolerable devastation.
How real were these risks? On Oct. 27, 1962, just after Soviet forces in Cuba shot down a US surveillance plane (killing the pilot), a similar plane taking routine air samples near Alaska inadvertently violated Soviet air space in Siberia. Fortunately, it was not shot down. But, even more serious, unbeknownst to the Americans, Soviet forces in Cuba had been instructed to repel a US invasion, and had been authorized to use their tactical nuclear weapons to do so.
It is hard to imagine that such a nuclear attack would have remained merely tactical. Kenneth Waltz, a US scholar, recently published an article entitled Why Iran Should Get the Bomb. In a rational, predictable world, such an outcome might produce stability. In the real world, the Cuban missile crisis suggests that it might not. As McNamara put it, “We lucked out.”
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
South China Sea exercises in July by two United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers reminds that Taiwan’s history since mid-1950, and as a free nation, is intertwined with that of the aircraft carrier. Eventually Taiwan will host aircraft carriers, either those built under its democratic government or those imposed on its territory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). By September 1944, a lack of sufficient carrier airpower and land-based airpower persuaded US Army and Navy leaders to forgo an invasion to wrest Taiwan from Japanese control, thereby sparing Taiwanese considerable wartime destruction. But two
This year, India and Taiwan can look back on 25 years of so-called unofficial ties. This provides an occasion to ponder over how they can deepen collaboration and strengthen their relations. This reflection must be free from excitement and agitation caused by the ongoing China-US great power jostling as well as China’s aggressive actions against many of its neighbors, including India. It must be based on long-term trends in bilateral engagement. To begin with, India and Taiwan, thus far, have had relations constituted by various activities, but what needs to be thought about now is whether they can transform their ties
On Thursday last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a barnstorming speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future.” The speech set out in no uncertain terms the insoluble ideological divide between a totalitarian, communist China and the democratic, free-market values of the US. It was also a full-throated call to arms for all nations of the free world to rally behind the US and defeat China. Pompeo elaborated on a clear distinction between China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in an attempt to recalibrate the
As Taiwan is engulfed in worries about Chinese infiltration, news reports have revealed that power inverters made by China’s Huawei Technologies Co are used in the solar panels on the top of the Legislative Yuan’s Zhenjiang House (鎮江會館) on Zhenjiang Street in Taipei. However, what is even more worrying is that Taiwan’s new national electronic identification card (eID) has been subcontracted to the French security firm and eID maker Idemia, which has not only cooperated with the Chinese Public Security Bureau to manufacture eIDs in China, but also makes the new identification cards being issued in Hong Kong. There might be more