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?”