Cuban Missile Crisis: Lesson for Today on Nuclear Diplomacy

On the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis we need again to focus on what lessons we can learn from those events regarding nuclear crises and emerging major conflicts of strategic importance. The usefulness of learning from history only works if we understand the challenges we face today.

In my opinion, we do face critical nuclear and other serious conflicts which can determine the stability of the global landscape and specifically U.S. vital interests and security.

But they are not the same as in 1962. Our dangers are far less in terms of the “Cold War” era of “MAD” (Massive Assured Destruction), nuclear standoff between two super powers of the 1950s, and (until 1991) the fall of the Soviet Union.

First, to gain an insight into a reflection of these times there is a series of quotes from former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara who lived through this crisis.

The quote below is from an article by him later in life

The world is facing another potential war in Iraq. We have a host of potential conflicts ahead of us in the next 50 or 100 years. We should learn from the Cuban missile crisis and the mistakes that many of us made to determine how to reduce the risk of such wars in the future.”

“For many years, I considered the Cuban missile crisis to be the best-managed foreign policy crisis of the last half-century. I still believe that President Kennedy’s actions during decisive moments of the crisis helped to prevent a nuclear war. But I now conclude that, however astutely the crisis may have been managed, by the end of those extraordinary 13 days—October 16-October 28, 1962—luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair’s dilemma.
We were lucky, but not only lucky. I believe we would not have survived those 13 days had not the president shaped and directed the ways in which his senior advisers confronted the crisis. This began within minutes of the moment on Tuesday morning, October 16th.”

Another key judgment that McNamara made in reflection to his experience during the Cuban missile crisis was:

We must learn as much as we can about nuclear crisis in October 1962—about the factors that led to it; about the reasons we escaped the ultimate consequences in the events; about what might have happened but thankfully did not; and about whether, or how, the lessons learned from the missile crisis might assist those of us who are interested in reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe in the 21st century.”

There are two levels of efforts which are needed to lessen the chances of another such crisis. The first what I will call macro’ policies and institutions that both America and the international community need to improve or build which can mitigate possible crises or act to prevent their occurrence. They include:

Strengthening treaties and institutions working against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These include the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT treaty), the coming into force the of Comprehensive Test Band Treaty which we have singed but not yet ratified. The other institution is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna which is the group that does the inspections and other key activities to make sure non-nuclear nations party to the NPT do not build nuclear weapons. There are other treaties and institutions which are also useful such as the New START treaty with Russia negotiated by the Obama administration which continues inspections and verification regimes between the two countries. Promote and fund the UN institutions of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and reconciliation.

Nunn-Lugar program and with the formal ending of this program next year, which aimed to make safe nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union space and  the continued development of this effort via other means if possible.

            Promoting strong bilateral cooperation with others to advance such goals as nuclear free areas or to gain agreement on reductions of such weapons between antagonists and getting them off “hair-trigger.”

Strengthening the education of our citizens about the issues of nuclear weapons and the type of policies which will act against another Cuban missile crisis.

Gaining support for polices institutions, and domestic modalities which will increase our leverage and capacity to act to prevent in advance the development of conditions which would cause a major conflict or destruction.

What McNamara pointed out in later years suggests the need to learn an important lesson: seek to understand the adversary and how the situation looks to that country’s leadership. That may require a level of empathy and a reduction in self-righteousness. It also requires on our part a long-term strategic view and understanding future trends and opportunities.

Here is a short list of 7 Lessons from the Missile Crisis that pertain to the nuclear and WMD and MAD challenges we face today and in a larger sense dealing with conflicts and strategic dilemmas generally:

(1) Know the intentions and capabilities and interests of your opponent and others with an interest in the issue at hand. Some say it’s “know your adversary” which requires intensive on the ground “diplomacy” first; not boots on the ground if possible, which can destroy sometimes the needed interpersonal understanding and effective peaceful outcomes. I call this “preventive diplomacy.”

(2) Keep your active engagement with “problem states” and potential adversaries rather than either an unneeded policy of public antagonism, hostility, or withdrawal of contact. Keep the diplomatic doors open. Indeed the wise choice is to strengthen them.

(3) In a crisis, if possible, keep or create enough time to think through the crisis and fully understand all aspects of the crisis and see it from all sides. Develop a process of communication that does not escalate the crisis but reduces it or slows it down so that both sides have time to think of the consequences and the avenues to avoid a “show down” leading to open conflict.

(4) Get advice from a wide circle of experts and “wise people” who have experience and specialized knowledge that are not only of weapons, but of the people and culture of potential adversaries and their perspective. When the decision in the war in Vietnam was made to escalate that conflict, there was no true expert in the room on Vietnam and its society nor its historical relationship with China. The same is true of the Iraq war according to written documents.

(5) Consult with allies and countries in the region or those directly impacted if the situation permits about best options on how to solve the crisis. See if others can act to help decrease the tension and open doors of communication. Explore “third tract diplomacy” options by those who have entry to and confidence of the leaders of our adversaries.

(6) Question both the intelligence given to you and those who urge immediate military action without also examining the cost of such action and ignore the efficacy of other options. Bring in those who have new ideas and alternative approaches to see if these ideas might work and how.

(7) Find solutions which have a “win-win” outcome for all sides whenever possible including compromises when necessary. Seek, if required, “under the table” or not public solutions when they are justified by the peaceful resolution of a nuclear related crisis or other serious situation. Do not think the best option is a “Zero Sum Game” outcome for either side. To maintain agreement and willingness to accept long term an outcome means the other side can live with it and gain some benefit.

These rules apply today to such situations as Cuba where my colleague Wayne Smith is the preeminent expert. He is also the preeminent expert today to North Korea, Iran, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia – all countries with nuclear weapons or possibly building nuclear weapons or have capability.

But it also applies to “problem” or “rogue states” such as in the Middle East and Arab world, North Korea, and in places in Africa where upheavals are rampant and instability endemic. It applies strongly to the Afghanistan/Pakistan/India conundrum and danger zone.

Finally, I need to illustrate the imperative to learn lessons via another conversation between McNamara and Leonov of the KGB Cuba Desk during the Cuban crisis that took place at a conference in 1992 in Cuba:


Leonov: It is terrible even to think of what would have happened. Under such conditions an entire group of Soviet forces in Cuba wouldve perished, along with perhaps millions of Cubans. Therefore, if what you describe happened, no Soviet leader would have been able to keep his post without taking some dramatic action in response. The closest target, of course, was in West Berlin. I think we would have seized West Berlin.


McNamara: And we would have responded with nuclear weapons…


Leonov: Yes. I remember vividly October 27, the most dangerous day. Khrushchev, as we know, received a cable from Fidel on the 27th in Moscow (the 26th in Havana), saying that an American attack was imminent within 24-72 hours. Of course, this was shocking. But also arriving at that time was a cable from [Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Aleksander] Alekseev to the head of the KGB which had this phrase: Fidel said that the probability of attack and invasion is at least 95 percent; and if the Americans attack and invade, you [Khrushchev] should attack the U.S. and wipe them off the face of the earth!” Obviously, things were spinning out of control. Such unprecedented messages, at such a time, meant that we had to find an exit, whatever it may be. And we found it just in time.

McNamara: I conclude from this discussion that were damn lucky to be here. We were so close to a nuclear catastrophe.

Leonov: One mistake at the wrong time in October 1962, and all could have been lost. I can hardly believe we are here today, talking about this. It is almost as if some potential intervention occurred to help us save ourselves, but with this proviso: we must never get that close again. Next time, we would not be so lucky, as you put it.

Almost all of us who were born before 1962 and most of those who were born after that momentous date would not be here unless we found, by diplomacy and wise judgment, a peaceful path from nuclear destruction. We all need the smartest, judicious and questioning leaders we can find here in the US and abroad.

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