50 Years after the Cuban Missile Crisis
The nuclear threat still with us
Irma Arguello, NPSGlobal
October 28, 2012
A Sunday like today, October 28, but 50 years ago, during the Cold War, the concrete possibility of a nuclear holocaust was left behind, after many days of extreme tension. Only the good judgment of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev avoided the disaster that they had helped create. Many in both governmental circles promoted the use of nuclear force as the best alternative to define the conflict. A third actor, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, also pushed the Soviets to carry out a nuclear attack against the United States.
Nevertheless, good judgment prevailed over pressures. Both statesmen were wise but also, they were very lucky…
It is disappointing to say that after 50 years, the nuclear threat is still with us. The expectations of a post Cold War distension in nuclear terms gave way, perhaps too soon, to a hardening of positions, and to more nuclear armed states, from 4 to 9. Moreover, nuclear terrorism, immune to any deterrence and ready to impose its own rules is, appeared in the forefront as perhaps the more dangerous and likely XXI Century threat.
This dossier includes facts, describes positions, and analyzes the crisis management and decision making processes occurred during such period in October 1962 known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis set a remarkable precedent of successful conflict resolution (and cooperation among actors with conflicting interests) , privileging negotiation over use of force.The main purpose is, then, to see in what extent messages emerging form such traumatic days could be useful in today's decision making in order to build a more secure world.
1. The Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis, without any doubt, is regarded as the most serious confrontation during the Cold War and a turning point in international relations. Historically it refers us to the brink of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union because of the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba, in October 1962.
The Missiles Crisis has its closest antecedent in the success in Cuba of Socialism, later Marxism-Leninism, after Fidel Castro's take over, in January 1959. At that time, Castro was seen by Moscow and its allies as the leader who would guide the expansion of pro-Soviet revolutionary movements throughout Latin America.
The Thirteen Days
The most significant events of this period, day by day, were:
October 27 (Black Saturday):
The following day the dismantling began and it was completed in November 9, 1962. There was an exchange of letters between Khrushchev and Castro where the Soviet leader informed the decision to remove the missiles. Castro protested and acted as if had been cheated. He also complained about not being included during negotiation.
1.2 The Core Issue
The main point in the conflict was the secret installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the hemispheric and concrete threat to the United States that it entailed.
In this sense the threat had a concrete shape: the possibility of an effective use of nuclear missiles that could reach any target in the United States. Broadly speaking, the political implications involved the introduction of a highly destabilizing factor in the delicate Soviet-American bilateral relations. Within such context, the core issue to negotiate was, then, the action of a full removal of those missiles. Incentives were offered to the opponent in order to get such action fulfilled. Cuba had a secondary role during the conflict as the field where the strategic dialogue between both superpowers took place.
1.3 Actors and their Interests
A stakeholder analysis from the point of view of interests at different levels: States (and multilateral organizations), Bureaucracies and Decision Groups shows the following findings:
States (and multilateral organizations)
Soviet Union: It tried to uphold and defend the Castro regime to pursue its own interests. In this sense, it acted to deter the U.S. from a second invasion of Cuba. It tried to improve its positioning within the balance of power in the world as well as to establish a psychological balance to compensate existing imbalances in military equipment. The USSR also aimed to give clear signs of power to China, and to expand communism in Latin America and other regions. Finally the Soviet state sought to protect its interests in Berlin and in Eastern Europe and to force the removal of U.S. missiles deployed in Turkey and Italy.
United States: It tried to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Cold-War World. In addition, to keep hemispheric security by avoiding the presence of Soviet weapons, especially nuclear, in the Western Hemisphere, and in particular in the vicinity of the U.S. In order to pursue its strategy worldwide it needed to keep an image of strength, determination, commitment and superiority vis à vis the international community, as well as to protect West Berlin and to prevent the spread of Communism.
Cuba:It tried to set up a more solid defense against brand-new potential offensive actions by the United States. It also sought to expand its revolution to Latin America and to receive all kinds of economic and military aids from the Soviet Union..
U.S. allies: They looked for the U.S. financial support, direct investment, and protection against Communism.
USSR Allies: They looked for economic support, direct investment, and USSR´s protection in order to expand the Soviet-kind Communism.
Other States: Some of them, such as China, with strong interests opposed to both, the USSR and the U.S.
UN/OAS (multilateral organizations): Tried to maintain world peace and regional balance of power. In this regard, the mediating role of the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, was key and rather unknown.
Kennedy Administration: They looked for consolidating its internal power and acceptance, both in the Congress and in the U.S. public opinion. They sought to give an image of firmness and determination as well as to regain prestige after the early and spectacular failure in Bay of Pigs. They also wanted to adequately position for the following legislative elections, and to fight communism by consolidating the values of democracy. A longstanding goal was to neutralize the Castro regime.
U.S. Military: They were mostly hawks and had a general adverse position toward the JFK Administration. They wanted to impose the U.S. supremacy, if necessary through the use of force. As elite they had got a tough mindset, for which negotiation was considered as a synonym of weakness. Their view of problems was eminently tactical.
U.S. Congress: Mostly unfavorable to Kennedy, it supported the invasion and other punitive measures against Cuba.
U.S. National Security Council: A mix of hawks, doves, and owls.
U.S. Diplomacy: It generally followed the guidelines of President Kennedy in communication and negotiation.
CIA: Hawks, they showed some significant flaws in data interpretation and prevention. They were passing through recent changes in their management.
Soviet Presidium: They have doubts about the installation of missiles in Cuba but they supported due to the strong Khrushchev´s leadership.
Soviet Diplomacy: They also acted following the strong Khrushchev´s leadership.
USSR Military: Some of them were enthusiastic about the deployment of the missiles, other more realistic, but because of the vertical structure they offered no further opposition to the project.
KGB: Acted under the strong and direct Khrushchev´s leadership.
ExComm: It was an information, analysis, and direct consultation group, chosen by Kennedy on the basis of criteria of ability or prestige. There were diversity positions and the President played a style of leadership open to receive ideas and proposals, but reserving for him the final decision, within the environment of his formal authority.
JFK's inner circle: Their interests were those of the Kennedy administration, in fact they were the core of it. Besides of the potential humanitarian consequences of a nuclear war, they perceived the crisis as a litmus test for their management style. This small group was based on big trust and openness derived from long-standing close relationships.
Khrushchev's inner circle: They acted under the influence of their leader, constantly supporting his thinking. They had low confidence in Fidel Castro and his regime.
Castro's inner circle (Raúl Castro and Che Guevara): They were subordinated only by need to Soviet decisions. They pursue the goal of perpetuation in power. In this sense, they held at that time an absolute power in Cuba, supported by their revolutionary militias. Their agenda was, by circumstance, coincident with Soviet interests.
2. Why the Cuban Missile Problem is Considered a Crisis?
The Cuban missile problem is framed in the category of crisis. The definitions of crisis are varied through literature but all share a number of common attributes.
Indeed, from a descriptive point of view, crises are characterized by two key elements:The emergence of a severe threat to significant values, and a limited time to neutralize that threat. Sometimes the surprise factor is added as a third element. A fourth element, generally present, has to do with an environment of uncertainty and limited information.
Consequently, crises have a rapid development, they are contingent, and they involve high risks of escalation and high probability of losses. Crises are accompanied by extreme stress and they are very likely to evolve into disastrous lose-lose situations.
In this case, all the above described elements were identified: the missiles represented a serious threat to the United States national security and, according to the Cold War logic, to the international security; the time to find a solution was limited; before missiles become operational, and the secrecy of the deployment and the lack of previous detection added the surprise factor. Uncertainty was present all the time within an environment of limited information about the opponent. The limited information, more acute in such time than now reached significant issues such as if Khrushchev was still in charge, and if communications were true or false, etc.
The risk of escalation to the extreme situation of a total nuclear war and the consequent Mutual Assured Destruction, where all players end losing, was always there. In fact, this was the first time in the nuclear history when world leaders became fully aware of the magnitude of such risk.
3. Crisis Management
Once started a crisis, the parties are obliged to do whatever is necessary to protect their own interests or to achieve their most important goals, yet it is clear that the options used should avoid an unwanted and uncontrollable escalation.This is the basic political dilemma of crisis management.
Crisis management with threat of war has specific political and operational requirements, in order to achieve a positive outcome, such as avoiding war.
The political ones are related to the limitation of goals and of means employed; this point has an underlying concept of proportionality, valid while opponents keep themselves far from the brink.
Operational requirements are diverse and they have to do with the need to integrate military and diplomatic measures taken during the crisis, even though the military and diplomatic logic are markedly different.
There are multiple strategies designed to address these types of crises. The offensive ones attempt to change the status quo at the expense of the adversary. The defensive ones seek to defend the status quo against an opponent who tries to change it in their favor.
In the case of the Crisis of October 1962 the previous status quo refers to the "balance of power and geographical spread of the two superpowers, and the fact that the Western Hemisphere was free of Soviet nuclear weapons."
3.1. Soviet strategy of "faits accomplis"
We have already examined the scheme of Soviet interests underlying the conflict, but in recognizing the strategy used in the initiation and handling of the crisis, we see that they chose a clearly offensive one, of the type called of faits accomplis.
This strategy seeks to produce a change in status quo through unilateral and surprising actions, and it is based on the belief that the opponents are either not committed to defending the previous status quo, or they are too weak to do so or perhaps they will not do it because the transformation is fast enough to puzzle them, or, in the case of nuclear threats, they are reasonable enough to not to do so because of the consequences.
The missiles were installed in Cuba in absolute secrecy -the fait accompli- and they were put into operation throughout the entire crisis, in parallel with different events and moments of negotiation. In this respect, Khrushchev initially overestimated the likeliness of keeping the project in secrecy, ignored warnings from his advisers about the degree of tension that the move would generate. He let him be carried away by the belief in Kennedy´s rationality to avoid escalation towards a nuclear war. One of the worst mistakes of the leaders is to assume the rationality of their opponents.
3.2. United States' choice of "coercive diplomacy"
In order to avoid war, Kennedy employed a defensive strategy, the coercive diplomacy. This strategy seeks to persuade the perpetrator to undo what has done, for example, to stop provocation.
Instead of the initial direct use of force it is sought to threaten with the use of force in an exemplary manner in case of failure, (it is based on the degree of credibility of the defender, and, in all cases the level of support got from third parties).
A driver to success is to offer the perpetrator positive incentives for compliance. It implies that an ongoing negotiation process should be developed in parallel.
Kennedy proposed an initial stage in which he avoided presenting Khrushchev a deadline to remove the missiles, but a blockade or quarantine of Cuba was actually implemented, in deliberate steps. In that way, he drew with international support, a dividing line, a physical one, but mostly of events, that intended to bring light to the opponent´s actions.
He resisted internal pressures of the toughest wings of his administration and of public opinion, the hawks, but at the same time he started tuning up the military factor as he foresaw a possible beginning of hostilities.
With such strategy he prevented the escalation, as he proposed limited goals, nothing further than the removal of Cuban missiles and limited coercion means were used, the blockade (or defensive quarantine) that did not involve the immediate use of force.
At a second stage, when the crisis began to overheat, on October 27 (the Black Saturday) specifically, he turned to a tougher position, by issuing a sort of ultimatum, with an imminent start of hostilities two days later. This calmed the spirits and pressures on the home front, while painted a picture of determination from outside. However, at the same time, he offered, through various channels of negotiation and symbolic communication, incentives to the USSR in order to close an honorable deal.
Based on the expressed, the basic operating principles of the crisis management were followed here, and an absolute leadership of operations was kept, showing the opponent concrete signs of strength, but also a preference for a peaceful resolution.
All this was done, through the direct and symbolic languages. In addition, the process was slowed down in the most critical moments, to give more time to decision making. On the Soviet side, these basic principles were also taken into account.
3.3. The Negotiation
Within the crisis management strategies employed by both sides, permanent communication and negotiation at different levels turned out a key. In fact, communication between the parties was profuse through multiple pathways. On the contrary, communication to the public was relatively restricted.
The negotiation with the opponent was developed primarily at a private informal level, although there were also confirmatory actions of public and official type. There was also direct diplomatic negotiation of the parties, within the United Nations, the OAS and with third countries, to seek support.
Soviet negotiations with the Castro regime were intense before, during, and after the crisis. There was also a tireless negotiation and implementation of methods of influence, focused on the inner front. With military chiefs or within the ExComm, to achieve consensus with congressional representatives, with the media, with pilots in order to minimize attacks on reconnaissance flights, etc.
It is assumed that a similar process but with less intensity took place on the Soviet side because of the characteristics of the regime.
Stages/ moments /actors / strategies
From the external negotiation point of view, opponents tried energetically to avoid a lose-lose outcome. It led them to reach a win-win outcome, as all parties won when they avoided the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.
With a bigger detail, this negotiation represented a positive turning point in the development of the Cold War. JFK's negotiation strategy paced his way to manage the crisis. In the bargain, it showed willingness to arrive at a peaceful solution but also firmness, taking only the opponent's more favorable aspects to reach a solution.
At a first stage the diplomatic channel was primarily used, it latter gave way to secret informal negotiations, that eventually led to close the final deal. The heads of State communicated through letters in order to formalize the steps.
The key moments in this process were:
The internal negotiation was also very hard, due to the positions between hawks and doves in the various groups and bureaucracies involved.
3.4. Decision-Making Process
The steps of a typical decision-making process in a crisis like that of October 1962 can be summarized as:
a. Gathering of useful information from intelligence, diplomatic corps, media, armed forces, and all other available sources.
b. Analysis of such information followed by identification of alternatives together with their pros and cons, a search of consensus, and a recommendation.
c. Decision making by the leader.
d. Implementation of the decision by different actors with different roles. Among them were the diplomacy, armed forces, negotiators, and other formal and informal actors.
e. Monitoring of decision and feedback, including data collection and decision maker's own perceptions.
f. New decision, either corrective or affirmative, as appropriate.
In this sense, the decision chain related to coercive diplomacy applied by the United States was heavily dependent on the context, and on the information that gathered in previous steps. It was, therefore, more complex than the Soviet's of faits accomplis , which simply went ahead until it stopped.
In this case, there was a fairly long period of data collection and analysis, till October 20, which was coincident with the ExComm´s consolidation as a think-tank and direct advisory group to the President.
However, beyond that, parallel decisions chains existed, converging or diverging on JFK. Among the first, the secret negotiations with the Soviet ambassador were very relevant. Among the latter, the decisions of military commanders under their rules of engagement to rise the readiness to DEFCON 2, without presidential authorization, or the untimely American nuclear test in the Pacific, whose decision depended on a decentralized atomic energy entity.
On the Soviet side it is assumed that the decision-making process was actually much more concentrated on the hands of Nikita Khrushchev, as was the decision to deploy Soviet missiles in Cuba under the most absolute secret. His circle of confidence acted with the syndrome of "group think" by which the group is unable to offer the leader a different vision of a problem, so that the entire decision making process is greatly downgraded.
4. Preliminary Conclusions
Some preliminary conclusions immediately emerged from the analysis:
In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, solution timely came because of leaders’ pragmatism when they got a clear perception of the likeliness of a lose-lose scenario and adequate incentives were employed.
On the contrary, little or nothing was done by both parts on prevention of the crisis, moreover, both leaders behave provocative on the previous stages, such as Bay of Pigs incident, Mongoose Operation or the missiles secret deployment, without clearly measuring potential consequences.
5. A Few Messages for the Present and the Future
With the passage of time, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been analyzed from many different angles. An interesting approach is to understand the relevant impact of those days on the United States’ further foreign policy decisions and their global implications. Some argue that if messages from this crisis would have been properly understood, decisions on Vietnam and Iraq had been pondered in a different way.
Now it is time to find key elements in this experience which could serve leaders as inspiration for future decision making in the sense of a more secure world. We touch here three topics of maximum interest:
Preservation and continuous improvement of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Russia as a key for an increasing global security.
Trust and cooperative relation between both powers, not only including their progressive nuclear disarmament, but also on other key security issues, is a must for international balance.
In other words, the quality of the U.S.-Russia relationship matters the entire global community.
It is therefore worrisome, that the mentioned Nunn-Lugar framework agreement, for example, could be cancelled after its expiration in June 2013. The Russian government has expressed its reluctance to renew it. If concreted, it would be a serious step backward on the path for a more secure world.
To renew the agreement, as a way to further enhance cooperation between Russia and the United States on strategies for nuclear threats reduction, should not be any obstacle for Russians to recover all their potentiality as a state. It is necessary to recall that both countries together own the 95% of nuclear weapons in the world, so that, it is clear that they have still much joint work ahead on nuclear weapons dismantlement and on securing dangerous fissile materials.
Should Cuban Missile Crisis’ messages were listened and understood, prevention of a further deterioration in the bilateral relationship would be a clear priority for both governments. Common interests should be identified, in order to go on with the cooperative work.
Need to achieve a deeper consensus among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P5, on key ways to prevent further proliferation and to accomplish their nuclear disarmament responsibilities.
In the past, behind every case of proliferation there has been a P5 acting as “protector”, a P5 thinking more of strategic balances among peers than of final effects of proliferation. The game of opposing interests and lack of a common view among them together with a failure in fulfilling their own commitments ended weakening the whole disarmament and nonproliferation regime. It should stop.
Lessons from the Cuban Missile crisis can be applied here to mutually encourage negotiation processes where global priorities and common points of consensus in favor of an increasing global security could be identified. It should be understood and put into practice something that it is constantly declared: the policy of seeking geopolitical balances through nuclear weapons has led humankind to extremely big strategic mistakes.
Messages from the October crisis could inspire political will in the line of traversal cooperative work to neutralize the regional endemic crisis in the Middle East.
In a recent speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referring to the Iran's potential nuclear weapons program said that: "President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve peace for decades." He added that: "The red line should be drawn at the Iranian enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we definitely see and credibly target. I believe that faced with a red line Iran will back down."
The leader of Israel assumes that before the "red line", Iran will turn back on the continuity of its program. But have the consequences been rightly assessed if this back down does not happen?
However, the meaning of the "red line" in the case of Iran's conflict has not been fully explained. If we stick to an accurate reading of the messages derived from the October crisis, the "red line" implied a warning of potential use of force, but not the use of force itself.
Kennedy searched parallel negotiation tracks when possible, but there is a clear difference in profiles between those key actors and the ones related to Middle East conflict. The difference has mostly to do with fanaticism.
To set an analogy, to negotiate with the government of Iran today and try to reach win-win terms could become as difficult as having performed the negotiation with Fidel Castro, rather than with Khrushchev during the crisis.
Both leaders, Castro and Khrushchev, in some ways represented concurrent national interests; the clear difference was the ability to anticipate the final consequences of their actions or maybe, if anticipated, how much potential negative outcomes could matter to them in order to turn back.
Sanctions by the UNSC and other relevant international actors have traced previous "red lines" in front of Iran, with unsuccessful results. This poses a concern about how to draw a new red line in this conflict avoiding the use of force.
On the other hand, the final document of the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT, called to carry out a Conference on the Middle East during 2012 with the participation of all states in the region, so as to move forward with the 1995 proposal to shape a WMD Free Zone. The government of Finland is acting as facilitator for the Conference, although Israel said from the beginning that it will not participate.
The fact that Israel has never declared itself a nuclear weapons state and never participated in any of control regimes related to Weapons of Mass Destruction, brings to the Middle East conflict another disruptive element, as well as provides easy arguments to other regional proliferators, like Iran, to go ahead with their plans.
A new political will and new strategies of negotiation and cooperative work, including shifts to more flexible positions and confidence building should be considered by the most reliable states in the region, in order to strengthen security and to prevent regional escalation of the conflict and proliferation. It necessarily implies to break the old logic and beliefs through an increase of transparency, and transversal negotiations including Israel.
6. Final Thoughts
Often associated with toughness, entrenched positions, and unilateral victory, the real lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis have more to do with a paradigm of flexibility and search of a positive outcome, in which all parties win. But the questions are: does such paradigm work with fanatic opponents? Does such paradigm work with opponents unable to be deterred?
It is necessary further analysis to assess in what extent these messages are applicable to negotiations with actors different from states, whose logic and behavioral models are completely different. How much of these messages are useful to deal with governing elites in states which sponsor terrorism or with terrorism fundamentalist itself?
Even so, it is clear that the logic underlying the Cuban Missile Crisis related to a win-win successful outcome can be applied to bring states to work in cooperation to reduce their security vulnerabilities, to more successfully face threats immune to deterrence.
In this sense, a realistic assessment of win-win and win-lose scenarios, a clear acceptance of other parties’ interests, as well as an appropriate incentives management can bring states, even with diverse interests, to work together for a common goal.
In fact, it is necessary to understand that prevention of crisis is even most important than the best crisis management. Preventing crises is based on an ongoing negotiation made of small steps, and a cooperative resolution of differences.
50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world is even more uncertain and complex. Should these lessons be understood and help open new paths to cooperatively reduce global nuclear dangers.
(1) Some key members of the ExComm were: Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice-President, Bob Kennedy, Attorney General, Theodore Sorensen, Special Advisor to the President, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, John McCone, CIA Director; Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Ken O'Donnell, special Assistant to the President, Adlai Stevenson, U.S. ambassador to the UN and others.
(2) Some of the hawks were: McGeorge Bundy, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, John McCone, Gen. Curtis LeMay of the Air Force and Acehson Dean, former Secretary of State and foreign policy adviser.
(3) Some of the doves were: Bob Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, Adlai Stevenson y Ken O’Donnell.
(4) Most prominent owls were: J.F.Kennedy, Robert McNamara y Dean Rusk.
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