With the clouds of war darkening over the Korean Peninsula and an impulsive and untested president in the Oval Office, the threat of nuclear war looms larger than it has in a generation. Many Americans have never felt — genuinely never felt — the apocalyptic fear of nuclear war. Now that such threats and fears have returned, it’s worth revisiting lessons from that moment, 55 years ago, when the world looked into the abyss of Armageddon.
For the better part of two weeks in October 1962, the fate of civilization hung in the balance as a handful of officials — and ultimately just two individuals, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev — held the levers of power that moved the world toward and then away from nuclear war. Throughout the crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba, Kennedy and Khrushchev displayed qualities of rashness and restraint, of energy and empathy, that contributed to the onset and the resolution of the most dangerous moment in the Cold War — indeed, in all of human history.
For Kennedy, Cuba was at root a political matter. Scolding Republicans during the 1960 election for their handling of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, who had cozied up to Moscow after taking power in 1959, Kennedy called for overthrowing the new regime. His campaign rhetoric sharpened the politics of Cold War anticommunism, particularly with respect to Cuba. Combined with questions about his youth, inexperience and mandate for power, such talk narrowed Kennedy’s room to maneuver once he entered the White House.
It did not take long for this rhetoric to have an impact on Cuba. Less than 90 days into his presidency, Kennedy supported — with key modifications, and not much enthusiasm — the CIA operation at the Bay of Pigs. But that debacle, disastrous as it was, had little immediate impact on Kennedy’s public standing. His approval rating soared to over 80 percent, offering political cover as he endured a string of Cold War crises: a testy summit with Khrushchev, the construction of a wall dividing Berlin, a confrontation with Russian tanks at Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie,” and rolling crises in Laos and Vietnam.
Against this backdrop, Kennedy launched a conventional and nuclear arms buildup, and publicly disclosed Washington’s advantage in strategic weapons. He also mounted a covert operation — code-named Mongoose — to drive the Moscow-backed Castro regime from power. Each of these measures sought to shore up Western positions through a “flexible response” to the Communist challenge in both the developing world and in the heart of Europe. No less than the “survival and the success of liberty” was at stake, as Kennedy put it, in this “hour of maximum danger.”
Yet that danger would only increase. To defend Cuba from not just sabotage and harassment but from an anticipated U.S. invasion, Khrushchev deployed Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba. It wasn’t the only reason he did so. But Moscow’s evident dispatch of arms during the summer of 1962 led Kennedy to issue a public statement — for domestic as much as foreign consumption — that drew a red line at the placement of offensive weapons on the island, as opposed to the defensive ones already in transit. It was a statement that was easy to make, because the White House deemed the introduction of such weapons so unlikely.
Photographic intelligence soon revealed otherwise.
Having committed the United States to removing Soviet missiles and the threat they posed, Kennedy initially opted for confrontation. Yet he also created a process that gave his administration, as well as his adversary, time to deliberate and thus delay the final moment of reckoning. For six days, beginning Oct. 16, he and his closest national security aides met in strictest secrecy to think about the unthinkable — the prospect of war, and maybe nuclear war, with the Soviet Union.
Considering and then discarding bombing and invasion scenarios, Kennedy announced to the world on Oct. 22 that the United States would establish a quarantine around Cuba. But that blockade, while targeting the weapons still on their way to the island, could do little about those already in place. So Kennedy continued to mobilize men and materiel. Khrushchev, outgunned in nuclear weaponry and saddled with an ally — Castro — apparently willing to start World War III, folded and removed the missiles on which he gambled so much.
It was this combination of force and flexibility that settled the crisis. In fact, it was Kennedy’s more belligerent posture, and not his willingness to compromise, that moved Khrushchev to begin the process of negotiation. Fear that a U.S. invasion was just days away led the Soviet premier to propose — privately — the outline of what he and Kennedy would ultimately agree to: Moscow’s withdrawal of Soviet missiles in exchange for Washington’s pledge not to invade Cuba.
Yet it was Kennedy’s more measured responses — a televised statement instead of a surprise attack, and a quarantine instead of an invasion, airstrike or both — that gave Khrushchev time to resolve the crisis peacefully.
With a Cuban missile crisis in “slow motion” now playing out in the Pacific, policymakers should reflect on those 13 days in October 1962 and consider some of their more important lessons:
Keep talking. Once hostilities commence, their end point is unknowable. Kennedy refused to order an attack on Cuba even after a U.S. airman was killed at the height of the crisis, pursuing its resolution through less-than-lethal means. His persistent effort to avoid war, despite a manifest casus belli, should inspire policymakers to play for time and continue the conversation.
Open up back channels. That talk should take multiple forms. Although the use of public and private conduits, as well as formal and informal ones, created crosscurrents and confusion during the missile crisis, these channels ultimately helped to communicate intentions too delicate for transmission through traditional means. Kennedy’s tacit acceptance of a Cuban-for-Turkish missile swap, which even some of his own advisers had no knowledge of at the time, reached Khrushchev through such channels and helped to end the crisis peacefully.
Avoid declaring red lines. Kennedy’s campaign and presidential rhetoric heightened expectations of a more muscular policy, creating but also limiting room for maneuvering. Ill-considered speech, which has been rampant in the conflict with North Korea, has the potential to paint the president, his adversary or both into a corner they cannot get out of. The dangers of such a position should be more than apparent.
Combine force with diplomacy. Although the threat of invasion conditioned Khrushchev’s initial and then final offer to remove the missiles, it was Kennedy’s willingness to meet Khrushchev’s terms for a missile swap — perhaps unnecessarily — that allowed both sides to claim a measure of victory. That win-win scenario should offer the Trump administration food for thought. If we are to avoid the cataclysm of war in Korea, in the wider Pacific or even extending toward the continental United States, we’ll need to accept the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, of distasteful horse-trading ahead.
Up to now, the drumbeat for war has been loud and clear, with the prospect of force clearly in the ascendant. Let’s hope that on some level, it’s being combined with energetic and creative diplomacy that would grant both parties some measure of peaceful, if partial, victory.
Now that would be the art of the deal.