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Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President emeritus, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 22, 2012

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On October 22, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy told the nation that the Soviet Union had secretly installed nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and demanded that the Russians pull the nuclear weapons out, beginning a standoff that many experts consider to be the closest to nuclear war the world has ever come. CFR president emeritus Leslie H. Gelb says the situation illustrated for the first time how it felt "to live in the nuclear age, when the leaders in Moscow and Washington still had not fully comprehended the destructive power of the weapons that were then at their disposal." For Gelb, the successful resolution to the Cuban missile crisis provides a teachable moment for contemporary policymakers. "The real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis for getting out of Afghanistan or negotiating with Iran is that we do have to look for compromises consistent with our national interests," he says.

Looking back on the Cuban missile crisis, which occurred fifty years ago, what do you remember about the mood of the country then?

There's been nothing like the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 before or since. For the first time, Americans, Russians, others as well, felt what it was really like to live in the nuclear age when the leaders in Moscow and Washington still had not fully comprehended the destructive power of the weapons that were then at their disposal. But the essence of it, once the crisis was joined, was that everyone was really afraid of nuclear annihilation. I've never seen such fear.

As a result of the publication of some of the secret meetings that took place during that crisis, we now know that the U.S. military initially wanted to launch a full-scale war on Cuba.

The military did. They proposed both an invasion of Cuba and taking out the nuclear missiles, at least those that the United States knew about. Some military were planning much more than that, because they anticipated if we did that to Cuba, then a Soviet ally, there would be a risk of a direct nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. And it wasn't just the military talking about it. One of the striking things that you get from the Kennedy tapes is how virtually every Kennedy adviser was a hardliner as well.

The real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis for getting out of Afghanistan or negotiating with Iran is that we do have to look for compromises consistent with our national interests.

There were messages back and forth, and I guess from the Soviet point of view, Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev blinked first when he said he would take his missiles out of Cuba if we promised not to invade.

Well his first message was what you just said, but the following day he added that the United States should take its nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles out of Turkey as well. Kennedy decided to respond to the first message, and to ignore publicly the Jupiter request. But in fact, Kennedy didn't ignore the Jupiter demand. He had his brother Robert, the attorney general, secretly tell the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that we would take the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey, but that the Soviets weren't supposed to tell anybody about it. In fact, what he didn't say was that we weren't going to tell anybody about it, either.

When the Jupiter missiles were pulled out, didn't people just make the conclusion that that was part of the deal?

The myth of the Cuban missile crisis was that the Soviets gave up everything, Kennedy gave up nothing, and this was a great triumph of American military superiority and willpower.

Some people did draw that conclusion, and many wrote about it. People understood the fact, but not the significance. They didn't add it all up, and as people like you and I, who lived through this, know the myth of the Cuban missile crisis was that the Soviets gave up everything, Kennedy gave up nothing, and this was a great triumph of American military superiority and willpower.

In the end, you have to give credit to Anastas Mikoyan, who went to Cuba and persuaded Castro to give up all these nuclear missiles.

Yes, it would've been hard for the Soviets to just drag those missiles out of the country unless Castro agreed. Because these missiles all evaporated after the crisis, Castro felt that the Soviets had abandoned Cuba. And that's when the whole Soviet military and economic aid program to Castro began.

What struck me is that a year after the Cuban missile crisis, we were negotiating the first real nuclear agreement with the Russians, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

The Cuban missile crisis scared some leaders on both sides. And they realized they had to begin doing something to avoid another Cuban missile crisis somewhere else in the world, say, over divided Berlin.

That's right. The Cuban missile crisis scared some leaders on both sides. And they realized they had to begin doing something to avoid another Cuban missile crisis somewhere else in the world, say, over divided Berlin. And they knew they had to begin doing things that would calm the people on both sides who still thought you could settle differences between the two superpowers by nuclear war. I've spent a good deal of my time in government and out talking about how you fight limited nuclear wars. Those were all hot issues at that time.

When did the thinking really begin to change that nuclear war was unacceptable?

I think it changed for a lot of the Kennedy people and a lot of the traditional realists right after the Cuban missile crisis, because they all realized just how close we had come to nuclear war. And it wasn't as if President Kennedy or Khrushchev were the only ones who could've made decisions at that time. There was a lot going on that they could not control, and it was quite possible that a Soviet submarine or a U.S. missile officer would start the nuclear war without the president's permission or that of the Soviet premier.

Does the Cuban missile crisis really give us a basis for negotiating a deal with Iran, as you and people like Graham Allison contend?

[The fact is] this crisis was settled by a diplomatic compromise, [which has been] overwhelmed by the myth of Kennedy making the Soviets back down [and] the typical Washington indisposition toward making compromises with enemies. So to me, the real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis for getting out of Afghanistan or negotiating with Iran is that we do have to look for compromises consistent with our national interests. And it's not as if it's impossible to do it, it's that the political pressures are against trying.

Iran wants to be able to enrich uranium. And our current formal position is we're not going to allow them to enrich any uranium. The Iranians say, "The North Koreans, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Israelis, all have nuclear weapons. And other countries enrich uranium. We're not going to abandon that right; we believe we have that right under the nonproliferation treaty of which we are a signatory." So you need a compromise. And there is powerful pressure against that compromise. Just like there's powerful pressure against any kind of compromise with the Taliban, even though were getting out of Afghanistan and the Taliban will be part of the political reality in Afghanistan.

And I do think, having lived through this, that the myth about exactly how we won the Cuban missile crisis just made it more difficult for presidents to do what common sense dictated [then].

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