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