By Martha Goodings
This October marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when the leaders of the two superpowers, U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In the words of Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov, “nuclear catastrophe was hanging by a thread….and we weren’t counting days or hours, but minutes.”
Civilization’s closest call with nuclear Armageddon makes for gripping history. But it also provides us with some powerful lessons that are still relevant today.
Lesson 1: Restraint in a crisis shows wisdom, not weakness. When it was first confirmed that bases for nuclear missiles were in Cuba, President Kennedy was advised to attack immediately. Instead, he decided to wait, and ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent nuclear weapons from reaching the island. However, unbeknownst to the Americans at the time, 100 fully operational tactical nuclear weapons had already been brought to Cuba and successfully hidden. If Kennedy had agreed with his advisors and attacked rather than shown restraint – the crisis would have probably turned into a nuclear war on day one.
Premier Khrushchev also exercised restraint, preventing his key ships from escalating the Cuban Missile Crisis with an order not to breech the blockade.
But the greatest example of restraint only came to worldwide attention in 2002. On Oct. 27, 1962, the Americans dropped explosives on a nearby Russian submarine to force it to surface so they could identify it. The crew of the submarine, which had a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo on board, thought nuclear war had started. They prepared to follow Russian protocol to fire the torpedo– a decision on which three senior officers had to agree. The captain agreed, the political officer agreed, and it was up to Vassili Arkhipov, the fleet commander, to give the final go-ahead. He refused, saying they should wait, surface, and see if a nuclear war had in fact started. If it had, he would agree to release the weapon; if not, he would not. His restraint is credited with preventing the start of World War Three.
Lesson 2: We need to think deeply about the unconscionable negative effects of a nuclear war: Take a moment to imagine how it would have been if the Crisis had not been resolved peacefully. Eighty to 100 million Americans, and an equal number of Soviet citizens, killed. In addition, there would have been worldwide collateral damage. A major international study done in 1986 found that the fires from even a “small” nuclear war, (i.e. 50 to 100 bombs), would generate enough smoke to block out sunlight and affect temperature. A drop of three to five degrees at the start of the growing season would have wiped out the North American and Soviet grain harvests. Further millions would have starved because of famine. The effect on non-combatant countries with low food and energy supplies would be devastating. Many survivors would have had children and grandchildren suffering serious birth defects. Some certainly would have been as deformed as the “jellyfish babies”, (babies born without bones and transparent skin) born on the Marshall Islands following nuclear testing there in the 1950’s. Are there any circumstances in which a nuclear attack would make sense?
Lesson 3: We cannot count on our leaders to be rational in a crisis. Because nuclear weapons were not used in the Crisis, we like to think they will never be used. No leader, we hope, would ever provoke a nuclear war, knowing his country would be destroyed in retaliation. But both leaders in the Crisis came perilously close to doing just that. And the third leader involved, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, admitted in 1992 that he was so enraged by the threats from the United States that he asked the Soviets to attack with a pre-emptive strike. He did this, he claimed, knowing that the inevitable retaliation would have obliterated Cuba and all who lived there.
Lesson 4: Negotiation, not military superiority, saved us. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, as we know, with a negotiated settlement. Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba, and Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba. This looked like a clear win for Kennedy. We now know Kennedy also agreed to the part of the bargain Khrushchev wanted – removing the obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey – but only on the condition that this part of the deal remained secret. It seems that Kennedy had the courage to offer a genuine compromise, but not the courage to explain it.
In fact, he made sure that an article in the Saturday Evening Post removed any suggestion that he had even considered trading Cuban for Turkish missiles, blaming that “appeasing” idea all on Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the United Nations. So the secret deal stayed secret, leaving the Russians humiliated, and the Americans captive to the dangerous myth that military superiority tied to non-negotiable demands won the day.