October is the scary month, and not just because of Halloween. Fifty-five years ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis during Oct. 22-28, 1962, dominated global attention as Washington and Moscow sparred right on the edge of thermonuclear war.
Despite the passage of time, this distinctively terrifying crisis holds extremely important lessons for current foreign policy. They include the exceptional difficulty of securing accurate intelligence, the uncertainty of events in a crisis and the vital importance of strength at the top.
Slowly and fitfully improving relations between Cuba and the United States are welcome. At the same time, the ongoing war in Syria holds real danger of direct confrontation — and combat — between Russia and the U.S.
After U.S. U-2 aircraft reconnaissance photos revealed the Soviet Union was placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite contrary assurances, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers spent a week debating options. On Oct. 22, 1962, he addressed the nation and stated the missiles must be removed. Until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles on Oct. 28, Armageddon was only a misstep away.
Senior Kennedy administration officials, with the exception of independent CIA director John McCone, had assumed Moscow would never put long-range missiles into Cuba. They erroneously thought Khrushchev and associates calculated the move would be just too risky.
Earlier, reconnaissance flights over Cuba had been severely curtailed to avoid antagonizing Moscow and were resumed only because McCone aggressively, adamantly pressed the matter. Hard photographic evidence of the Soviet deception was received just before the missiles were to become operational.
However, there was already growing circumstantial evidence, including reports from reliable agents in Cuba, that something of this nature was underway. As with the Bush administration on invading Iraq, senior officials chose the evidence they preferred to believe.
At the start of the crisis, there was strong sentiment among Kennedy advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an overwhelming conventional air attack followed by an invasion of Cuba. JFK imaginatively decided instead on a naval quarantine as the U.S. first step in response to the Soviet move.
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 dimensions and insights. Soviet commanders already had shorter-range nuclear armed missiles in Cuba and at least for a time had authority to use them in the event of an American invasion of the island.
Soviet submarine commanders had nuclear-armed torpedoes. The important book by Michael Dobbs, “One Minute to Midnight,” documents an occasion in which the commanding officer of a Soviet sub nearly launched one against the harassing U.S. Navy ships.
National security adviser McGeorge 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 open-minded engagement. He assembled an informal group that freely debated a wide range of options. When tensions mounted, the president would shrewdly suggest taking a break. The initial strong support for immediate military attack dissipated.
In 1961, an inexperienced JFK signed off on a flawed Cuba invasion plan strongly endorsed by the CIA and military then mishandled developments. The Bay of Pigs disaster was a total failure.
Khrushchev concluded Kennedy was weak — a mistake. Then and now, strong U.S. presidential leadership is essential. Our contemporary national self-indulgence is not reassuring.