Cuban missile crisis beliefs endure after 50 years

By Peter Orsi

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"As the historical record has expanded, the image of the resolute president has given way to the resolution president," Cuba analyst Peter Kornbluh wrote in an article in the November issue of Cigar Aficionado, an advance copy of which was made available to The Associated Press.

Nevertheless, the brinkmanship myth persists, with President George W. Bush in 2002 citing the missile crisis as a historical lesson in fortitude that justified a preemptive invasion of Iraq.

"The storyline is a lot easier that Kennedy stood steely-resolved, faced Khrushchev down and that's it," said Allison, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former senior defense adviser to several Democratic and Republican administrations. "If you hang tough enough the other guy will eventually yield — that is actually the lesson that became part of the popular mythology."

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Washington won, and Moscow lost.

REALITY: The United States came out a winner, but so did the Soviet Union.

The Jupiter missiles are sometimes described as nearly obsolete, but they had come online just months earlier and were fully capable of striking into the Soviet Union. Their withdrawal, along with Kennedy's assurance he would not invade Cuba, gave Khrushchev enough to feel he had saved face and the following day he announced the imminent dismantling of offensive weapons in Cuba.

Soon after, a U.S.-Soviet presidential hotline was established and the two nations initiated discussions that led to the Limited Test Ban treaty and ultimately the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"The major lesson is the necessity of compromise even when faced with a crisis like that," said Robert Pastor, an international relations professor at American University and former national security adviser for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter.

Pastor said he had many discussions about the missile crisis over the years with his late father-in-law, Robert McNamara, who was Kennedy's defense secretary. Pastor said domestic politics made it tough for both Kennedy and successive presidents to heed that lesson, as evidenced by Kennedy's intense efforts to keep the deal secret.

President Barack Obama, for example, faces considerable pressure to maintain a tough line on Cuba. Among the issues are the U.S. embargo, demands for political change, an American government subcontractor imprisoned in Cuba as an alleged spy and five Cuban intelligence agents serving long sentences in the United States.

"Look at U.S.-Cuban relations right now," Pastor said. "I don't think Obama would consider a compromise, because the pressure on him that 'You gave in to the Cubans' is too great."

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: It was a high-seas showdown.

REALITY: It's true the missile crisis was full of tense moments. On Oct. 27, a U.S. warship dropped depth charges over a nuclear-armed Soviet sub and the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane over Cuba. It was "the darkest, most dangerous day of the crisis," Kornbluh said.

Yet after Kennedy on Oct. 22 announced a U.S. naval quarantine around the island to prevent more military equipment from arriving, Khrushchev recalled ships carrying nuclear equipment the following day, according to the 2008 book "One Minute to Midnight" by Michael Dobbs, which was based on newly examined Soviet documents.

That means that on Oct. 24, when Secretary of State Rusk made his famous "eyeball-to-eyeball" statement reacting to supposedly up-to-the-minute intelligence, the vessels were already hundreds of miles away, steaming home.

"This thing about eyeball-to-eyeball, it never was. That confrontation never took place," said Kornbluh, who is a Cuba analyst at the nongovernment National Security Archive, which has spent decades working to get missile crisis documents declassified.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: It was an intelligence coup for the CIA.

REALITY: Along with being a day late on the turnaround by Soviet ships, the CIA missed several key developments that would have helped Kennedy and his advisers navigate the crisis.

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