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The Cuban Missile Misunderstanding: How cultural misreadings almost led to global annihilation

Secretary General Robert F. Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy confer during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Associated Press)
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Fifty years ago Tuesday, U.S. national security adviser McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy that a U-2 spy plane flight over Cuba two days earlier had revealed medium-range, nuclear-capable missiles installed by the Soviet Union. The story of the next 12 days is well known, but the world’s understanding of why the Cuban Missile Crisis began -- why Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had decided to send the missiles to Cuba -- has a history of its own.

Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 had emphasized closing the “missile gap” of offensive nuclear weapons. At the time, Americans believed that the Soviet Union had far more, which had become a major domestic political issue. But, after Kennedy took office, U.S. intelligence discovered that Khrushchev’s arsenal was far smaller than he’d claimed -- far smaller than the U.S. arsenal. Kennedy announced this publicly, disgracing Khrushchev.

So, when the Cuban Missile Crisis began, the Americans concluded that the Soviet leader was attempting to compensate. The “missile gap” issue had permeated Washington, so it was only natural that the capital’s inhabitants continued to view the Cold War through this lens. And, because part of the American response to its perceived shortage in the missile gap had included installing missiles in Turkey within range of Moscow, it was easy to apply this same logic to Khrushchev’s similar-seeming effort in Cuba.

It wasn’t until 1987 that the world learned that Kennedy and his team had been wrong. At a Soviet-American conference on the crisis’s 25th anniversary, Soviet officials released never-before-seen documents from what they called the “Caribbean crisis” of 1962. They immediately disproved the Western consensus that Khrushchev had been seeking to fix the imbalance in offensive nuclear weapons. As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis puts it in his book "The Cold War: A New History," it is clear now, though, that this was not Khrushchev’s principal reason for acting as he did.”

The Soviet leader, a committed Marxist-Leninist ideologue who had clawed his way to the top in the post-Stalin Kremlin, believed two things, both of them wrong: that the United States was planning an imminent, full-scale military invasion of Cuba; and that, without American meddling, Cuban-style communism would spread naturally throughout Latin America. He wished to protect Cuba and deter the aggression he saw as so innate to American foreign policy.

Khrushchev and his Moscow advisers, Gaddis writes, “had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe.” Khrushchev believed that the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which U.S.-backed exiles attempted to topple Castro, “would surely be repeated, the next time with much greater force.”

As the leader of a recently-totalitarian dictatorship, how could Khrushchev have possibly understood the degree to which domestic political backlash to the Bay of Pigs disaster had chastened Kennedy? American Democracy and its internal mechanisms were foreign to the Soviet premier, who believed Washington was in large part motivated by ideology, as he was.

Though Khrushchev’s private notes revealed on their release in 1987 that he intended the missiles as a “deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean,” Gaddis writes that Kennedy saw something very different: “the most dangerous in a long sequence of provocations,” an act of aggression against the United States rather than an act of defense on behalf of an ideological ally.

“The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis,” Gaddis concludes. But strategy-obsessed Washington could not possibly fathom that the Soviet Union would edge onto the brink of global nuclear war because of the emotional obsessions of one man.

The crisis ended, famously, when Kennedy privately pledged both to remove America’s missiles from Turkey and to not invade Cuba. In the American understanding of the crisis, which persisted until 1987, the removal of Turkish missiles was the decisive concession, granting Khrushchev greater balance in strategic nuclear weapons. But, ironically, it may have been Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba that was both the easiest for him to make and the most persuasive in convincing Khrushchev to stand down. Even in ending the near-catastrophic crisis, both Kennedy and Khrushchev seem to have misread one another’s strategic priorities and personal motivations, ascribing their own worldview to the other.

The world is lucky that Kennedy and Khrushchev’s priorities lined up in the end. But the shock that Americans had when they learned the real reasons for the crisis, 25 years later, are a powerful reminder of how captive nations and leaders are to their respective worldviews, and how dangerous those misunderstandings of one another can become.