Cuban missile crisis still a teachable moment

October 22, 2012

There are lessons for our Iran policy to be gleaned from archival documents just released for the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

A major one: Understand your enemy’s real views, especially on nuclear weapons. In October 1962, did anyone in Washington know that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did not believe in “first strike,” the notion that Moscow could unleash a massive nuclear attack and destroy all America’s nuclear forces and thus not face a counterstrike?

Why would that have been important? Because U.S. policymakers spent billions before and after 1962 adding nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic submarines and bombers to the U.S. arsenal. Additional billions were spent — and are still being spent — in an effort to construct an antiballistic missile system. In the Cold War, it was primarily to counter a possible Soviet first strike.

Tehran’s public rhetoric aside, what does Washington know about the real nuclear-weapon beliefs of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who apparently would make the decision to build and perhaps use any nuclear weapon?

Thanks to a document found in Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party archives and released by the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, we can go back to Oct. 30, 1962, and a conversation Khrushchev had in Moscow with then-Czech Communist Party leader Antonin Novotny. Among the Soviets present were Aleksei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev. Both eventually would succeed Khrushchev.

The Cuban crisis had just ended. Khrushchev had agreed two days earlier to take the Soviet bombers, missiles and nuclear weapons out of Cuba; the United States had agreed not to invade Cuba, and secretly President John F. Kennedy, through his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had told the Soviet ambassador in Washington that after time passed, U.S. missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet Union, would be removed. Both sides could declare success.

Novotny prepared a record of Khrushchev’s statements as the Soviet leader discussed details of the Cuban crisis, according to the released Czech document. Khrushchev claimed he had put the nuclear weapons in Cuba to prevent a U.S. invasion. When the United States discovered them, Cuban President Fidel Castro sent Khrushchev a letter saying that “the USA would attack Cuba within 24 hours,” according to the Novotny document.

In the letter, Castro “proposed that we ourselves should be the first to start an atomic war,” Khrushchev said. That led him to say, “Do you know what that would mean? . . . We were completely aghast. Castro clearly has no idea about what thermonuclear war is.”

Khrushchev added: “It is clear that with a first strike one cannot today knock the opponent [the United States] out of the fight. There can always be a counter-strike. . . . There are, after all, missiles in the earth [American ICBMs were based in underground silos], which intelligence does not know about; there are missiles on submarines, which cannot be knocked out of the fight right away, and so on. What would we gain if we ourselves started a war? After all, millions of people would die, in our country too. Can we even contemplate a thing like that?”

But the United States didn’t know Khrushchev’s views. Instead, U.S. analysts saw Moscow’s building of big ICBMs with multiple warheads as an effort to achieve a Soviet first-strike capability. The United States described its own Cold War triad of nuclear ICBMs, strategic submarines and bombers as implementing a policy of “mutual assured destruction,” meaning it could survive a first strike and retaliate with a devastating blow.

Not knowing each other’s real intentions, both sides increased their forces to 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads, levels slowly reduced over 40 years.

What do we know about Iran’s real intentions? U.S. intelligence has repeatedly said Tehran wants a “nuclear weapons capability” through being able to enrich uranium, though so far not to weapons grade. In addition, prior to 2003, Iran was working on elements needed for a weapon, but since that time this activity has apparently been halted.

In February, Khamenei said, “We are not seeking nuclear weapons, because the Islamic republic of Iran considers possession of nuclear weapons a sin . . . and believes that holding such weapons is useless, harmful and dangerous.” Iranians often refer to 2010 when Khamenei said, “We believe that using nuclear weapons is haraam,” or religiously prohibited.

The United States did not believe Khrushchev, so should Khamenei now be trusted? Perhaps the lesson is to follow President Ronald Reagan’s directive, “trust but verify.”

There is also a newly disclosed two-page document, notes from a White House briefing on Oct. 21, 1962, on the hundreds of aircraft missions that would have been needed on the first day to destroy the Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were told, “Even under optimum conditions, it was not likely that all the known missiles would be destroyed.”

Now consider any proposed attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which are located around the country. Any effort would mean more U.S. aircraft over a much larger area for many more days.

The Cuban crisis “introduced a more cautious approach to nuclear diplomacy,” Martin J. Sherwin, a Wilson Center senior scholar and professor at George Mason University writes in his introduction to the new documents.

There is another lesson in his words as we look toward Iran: “The [Cuban] crisis made it clear that it was too easy to slip into a global war while climbing the rungs of an escalation ladder.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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