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Opinion: 60 years later, we can still learn from the Cuban missile crisis

Americans remain preoccupied domestically, and largely ignore foreign policy. This puts our nation in peril.

SHARE Opinion: 60 years later, we can still learn from the Cuban missile crisis
President John F. Kennedy makes a nationwide TV speech in 1962.

In this Oct. 22, 1962, file photo, President John F. Kennedy makes a national television speech from Washington concerning the Cuban missile crisis.

Associated Press

October is the scary month, and not just because of Halloween. Nearly six decades ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. During Oct. 22-28 1962, Washington and Moscow sparred on the edge of thermonuclear war.

The lessons remain of fundamental importance. They include difficulty of securing accurate intelligence, and the unpredictability of events.

On Oct. 14, 1962, U.S. reconnaissance photos revealed the Soviet Union placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite contrary assurances. On Oct. 16, after thorough review, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy informed President John F. Kennedy.

Senior Kennedy administration officials, with the exception of CIA director John McCone, had assumed Moscow would never put long-range missiles into Cuba. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s motivations included the U.S. missile buildup and secret efforts to kill Cuba leader Fidel Castro.

Earlier, the White House curtailed Cuba reconnaissance flights, resuming only because McCone insisted. Photographic evidence of the missiles arrived just before they would become operational.

However, there were already indicators, including from reliable Cuba agents, that something of this nature was underway. As with the George W. Bush administration regarding Iraq weapons, senior officials chose evidence they preferred.

Kennedy and his advisers spent a week debating options. At the start of the crisis, there was strong sentiment, especially among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a conventional air attack followed by invasion of Cuba.

JFK imaginatively decided instead on a naval quarantine as the U.S. first step. His televised speech on Oct. 22 demanded removal of the missiles and laid out initial moves. Until Khrushchev on Oct. 28 agreed to the withdrawal of the missiles, Armageddon loomed.

Years after the crisis, surviving policymakers from Cuba, the Soviet Union and the U.S. initiated a series of meetings, which have revealed important new information. Soviet commanders in Cuba already had shorter-range nuclear-armed missiles, and, at least for a time, authority to use them in the event of an American invasion.

Soviet submarine commanders had nuclear-armed torpedoes. One Soviet sub nearly launched against the harassing U.S. Navy ships.

Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to concur with two other senior officers who favored launching a nuclear torpedo. Almost single-handedly, he defused the terrifying situation, in a sweltering submerged sub, and prevented nuclear war.

Bundy’s history of the nuclear age, “Danger and Survival,” published a quarter century after the crisis, revealed JFK privately accepted, while publicly rejecting, a Soviet proposal for a Cuba-Turkey missile trade.

Throughout the crisis, Kennedy demonstrated calm open-minded engagement. He assembled a group that freely debated a wide range of options. When tensions mounted, the president shrewdly suggested breaks.

The initial pressure for military attack dissipated. Kennedy deftly delayed intense pressures for war, while keeping discussion going.

Positive consequences resulted from the crisis. A direct communications “hotline” between the Kremlin and the Pentagon greatly improved communication. The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. Senate, ended nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

Further lessons of the crisis include the importance of disciplined open-minded intelligence work and communicating with opponents. Then and now, U.S. presidential leadership is essential.

Today, U.S. troops are in the Mideast close to forces from Russia, Iran, Israel, Syria, Turkey and armed insurgent groups. Yet, Americans remain preoccupied domestically, and largely ignore foreign policy. This puts our nation in peril.

In 2017, the Boston-based Future of Life Institute posthumously honored Vasili Arkhipov. Remember him.

Arthur I. Cyr is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.