Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Phil Anderson

Last week I wrote about accidents, technical failures and communication glitches that almost resulted in the launch of nuclear missiles. There have also been numerous times when deliberate military confrontations and Cold War tensions came close to starting a nuclear war.
The most remembered – and most dangerous – was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
The crisis was a diplomatic and military confrontation about Russia increasing its military presence in Cuba following the failed, U.S.-backed, Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. This included placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.
The U.S response was to demand removal of the missiles, threaten military action if they were not removed and impose a naval blockade of the island. Our nuclear forces went to DEFCON 2 – the 2nd highest level of alert.
Fortunately disaster was avoided when the U.S. accepted the Soviet offer to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba and to remove our nuclear missiles from Turkey (this provision was kept secret from the American people).
The crisis is considered the closest we ever came to a full-scale nuclear war. The usually narrative is that President Kennedy and Secretary Khrushchev wisely stepped back from the brink and negotiated a settlement. But this is not the whole story. Because of government secrecy no one at the time knew how close the world actually came to nuclear Armageddon. Today we know that the world was saved by a decision of one Soviet submarine commander.

Prior the crisis Russia had sent four submarines to help defend Cuba. These were diesel-electrics that had to surface to recharge their batteries. They carried conventional and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. They were still en route when Kennedy imposed the naval blockade. One of the subs was discovered by the U.S. Navy, which began harassing it in an attempt to turn it back. This included dropping small “practice” depth charges to force the sub to surface.

The U.S. did not know the subs carried nuclear torpedoes or that the sub had lost contact with Moscow. The sub commander did not know that the U.S. had informed Russia of the incident and that our intention was to surface the sub and not to kill it.
The sub commander did not know if war had started and thought his ship was under attack. The conditions in the sub were rapidly deteriorating as they ran out of electric power so the commander decided to fight back and ordered the nuclear torpedoes to be loaded.
Fortunately Russian procedure required the sub commander, the 2nd in command, and the fleet commander to approve use of the nuclear torpedoes. Luckily the fleet commander, Vice Admiral Vasili Arkhipov, was on board the sub. Against the objections of the other two, he refused to attack and ordered the sub to surface.

Had nuclear torpedoes been used to attack our ships it is very unlikely Kennedy would have been unable to resist the military and political pressure to strike back with nuclear weapons and to invade Cuba. The result would have been war.
I urge you to watch The Man Who Saved the World, by the PBS series Secrets of the Dead (pbs.org/video/secrets-dead-man-who-saved-world). It is a frightening story.
This little-known incident speaks volumes about why we must abolish nuclear weapons. They are an accident or miscalculation waiting to happen. Too frequently tragedy has been avoided by pure luck and happenstance. Had one man, Vasili Arkhipov, not been on that sub the result could easily have been a nuclear war.

Years later Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, had this to say about the crisis, “...in the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.“

The Cuban Missile Crisis teaches a number of lessons. One is that these awful weapons should not be controlled by even allegedly rational leaders – certainly not by one political leader. The danger and the consequences are too great to entrust a president, a ruling elite or a nation with this much power.

Obviously they should never be in the hands of irrational leaders like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump. The only way to ensure nukes are never used is to abolish them.
Another lesson is that negotiations can work. Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated an end to the crisis. The U.S. and Russia went on to negotiate reductions in their nuclear arsenals and other arms control agreements.
Today both have about 11,800 nukes (down from 68,000 in the 1986). This proves that verifiable reductions and eventual abolition are possible.
This process could have continued. But today our country has withdrawn from several arms control agreements and is engaged a trillion dollar program to “modernize” our nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This is causing a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China.
The world wants to abolish nuclear weapons. In 2017, 122 nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Today 86 nations have signed and 66 have ratified the treaty and are bound by its provisions. The U.S. has consistently opposed the treaty and is not a signatory.
Another lesson is that we frequently fail to see how our our aggressive militarized foreign policies contribute to international confrontations. Our refusal to accept Castro, and our CIA-backed invasion of the island, motivated Russia to send weapons and troops to Cuba. Russia responded to our placing offensive nuclear weapon in Turkey by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. We were not innocent victims of Russian aggression in 1962.

Today our actions in Ukraine show we have not learned these lessons. Expanding NATO and military support of Ukraine (and other countries on Russia’s borders) was a major cause of the war. Today we are being falsely told that negotiations with dictators like Putin won’t work.
The war in Ukraine could easily escalate into a larger war or a nuclear confrontation. Will we negotiate a settlement or will we once again bring the world to the brink of catastrophe?