Policymakers

Policymakers involved with the Cuban Missile Crisis:

  • George Ball
  • McGeorge Bundy
  • Fyodor Burlatsky
  • Fidel Castro
  • Abram Chayes
  • Charles de Gaulle
  • C. Douglas Dillon
  • Anatoly Dobrynin
  • Raymond Garthoff
  • Robert Kennedy
  • Nikita Khrushchev
  • Harold Macmillan
  • Robert McNamara
  • Sergo Mikoyan
  • Dean Rusk
  • Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, George Ball, Roswell Gilpatric, Theodore Sorensen, and McGeorge Bundy
  • Georgi Shaknazarov
  • Theodore Sorensen
  • Maxwell Taylor
  • The point was that the Soviets had done this thing deceitfully and surreptitiously. This was what we couldn’t accept, not the change in the balance of power.” (p. 25)

Lesson: Crises are sometimes not about power, but about whether states flout international norms.

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  • We didn’t react immediately, of course, and that’s very important. Today, the temptation is always to react immediately. If we had done that then, there’s no doubt in my mind that the crisis would have unfolded differently….Most of us felt that we had no business taking irretrievable action.” (p. 25)

Lesson: Take your time to decide a course of action.

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  • “I would like to emphasize…the importance of not taking irrevocable action. Once you get into a fixed action/reaction dynamic, you can’t predict where it’s going to go.” (p. 103)

Lesson: In crises, avoid irrevocable action. It can send things spiraling out of control.

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  • “I agree with what you said about the crystal-ball effect; it gave us an element of caution that just wouldn’t have been there if we’d been in a non-nuclear world.”  (p. 99)

Lesson: Nuclear weapons provide clear visions of effects of their use; they can inspire caution during crises.

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  • “You ask what would have happened if the crisis had occurred today? I’ll tell you what would have happened. It would have leaked quickly, that’s what. You couldn’t count on the Times to be as responsible today as it was then….Watergate changed the whole relationship between the press and the Administration, and today, with a fiercely competitive environment, the importance of being the first with the story would have overridden any sense of responsibility.” (p. 99)

Lesson: Be wary of leaks during crises. The media environment is much less “responsible” than in 1962.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “I thought then, and still do, that under John Kennedy’s firm leadership we gave a superior performance. We did not move precipitately but argued out all available courses of action in an intellectual interchange that was the most objective I ever witnessed in government – or, for that matter, in the private sector.” (p. 309)

Lesson: Do not rush to act; take time to consider all courses of action.

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  • “At the nuclear level, it was not superiority but the fact of reciprocal mortal peril that was decisive.” (p. 446)

Lesson: Nuclear superiority did not matter during the crisis; the threat of even some degree of nuclear devastation  proved decisive.

The Past Has Another Pattern (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1982).

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  • “Nuclear ambition caused the crisis; a sense of nuclear affront forced the response; an awareness of nuclear danger drove both governments toward rapidity of resolution; but it was conventional superiority on the scene that determined the eventual outcome.” (p. 453)

Lesson: American conventional superiority ensured successful removal of missiles.

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“I think we could have done more than we did to discourage the conclusion that this was a case of wonderfully coordinated and error-free ‘crisis management’… It is also true that we did not ourselves understand at the time how many loose ends there were… I entirely agree with Robert McNamara, who never loses an opportunity to make the point that the only really good way to ‘manage’ such a crisis is to avoid it.” (p. 459)

Lesson: Best way to manage crisis: avoid it.

Danger and Survival (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

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  •  “[T]here is a great deal more time pressure now, but if you[find] a flexible first step which leaves your options open, you can deal with it because you won’t be irreversibly committing yourself right at the outset.” (p. 98)

Lesson: At beginning of any crisis, focus on limited, flexible steps.

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  • “On how much [deterrence] is enough, it is interesting to note that the Missile Crisis did not spread to any of the areas we expected it to. We had a respectable but, as it turns out, wrong fear of a third Berlin crisis….The caution [the Soviets] exhibited was no doubt a function of the crystal ball effect.” (99)

Lesson: Nuclear weapons are major deterrents in any international crisis.

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  • “That impulse to be very cautious is something that is becoming ingrained today. There are still people around in important positions of authority on both sides who have a collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis; sooner or later they will disappear, so it’s very important to keep people afraid. Even a one-in-fifty risk is too much to take, and I think you’re absolutely right, Joe, that a little deterrence goes a long way.” (99)

Lesson: As people die off who experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, remind people of the ever-present danger posed by nuclear weapons.

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  • “The most important part of crisis management is not to have a crisis, because there’s no telling what will happen once you’re in it.” (99)

Lesson: Best way to solve a crisis: avoid it.

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  • “I think putting the odds of nuclear war in the Cuban crisis at one in fifty is too high….But, over the long haul, one in a thousand is too high if you aren’t steadily reducing it as you go. On the other hand, one in fifty is acceptable at one time if running the risk results in a later risk of one in a hundred, then one in a thousand, and so on. I really do think that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a massive risk reducer.” (p. 105)

Lesson: Sometimes you should pursue crises with an unacceptably high risk of nuclear war if and only if the crisis results in a later, lower risk of nuclear war.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • “It is impossible to win a nuclear war, and both sides realized this, maybe for the first time.” (p. 283)

Lesson: No real victory can come from nuclear war.

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  • The question of superiority – you had an advantage that was sixteen or seventeen to one, and despite this fact, you could not use it. This is a very good lesson for both sides.” (p. 283)

Lesson: In a nuclear crisis, no side has an advantage that it can actually use; the question of superiority becomes irrelevant.

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  • Both sides must be prepared for compromise and negotiation, and they must be prepared to ignore such things as national prestige and superpower status. The main interest both sides have is preventing nuclear war.” (p. 283-284)

Lesson: In a nuclear confrontation, both sides must overlook their power and prestige, and be prepared to compromise for the sake of preventing nuclear war and destroying humanity.

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  • “Main problem for humanity today is leaders who are not world leaders.” (p. 284)

Lesson: Political leaders must have a global outlook.

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  • “The new thinking began after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before it, the majority of our party members and our leadership believed the Americans wanted to destroy our system with an atomic war.” (p. 287)

Lesson: The crisis transformed Soviet thinking about the U.S.; prior to it the Soviets were convinced the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to put an end to communism.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • The use of nuclear weapons in a new war would mean the end of humanity…Each and every government in the world has the obligation to respect the right to life of each and every nation…In a nuclear war the “collateral damage” would be all humanity. Let us have the courage to proclaim that all nuclear or conventional weapons, everything that is used to make war, must disappear.

Lesson: Governments have a duty to prevent nuclear war; the only way to do that is by getting rid of all nuclear weapons.

YouTube Video Post, “Against Nuclear War: Calling for World Peace”, October 15, 2010.

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  • Goldberg: At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?”
  • Castro:  “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all… The Iranian capacity to inflict damage is not appreciated. Men think they can control themselves but Obama could overreact and a gradual escalation could become a nuclear war.

Lesson: In an international crisis, try to avoid overreaction that could risk nuclear war.

Quoted in Jeffrey Goldberg, “Castro: ‘No One Has Been Slandered More Than the Jews’”, The Atlantic, Sept. 7, 2010.

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  • We did not know the faintest thing about these rockets, not even their size, where they would have to be installed or where they were shot from, because, frankly, if we had known these things about the rockets and had been approached with the question of camouflaging it all, it would have been so easy for us to make decisions…to have taken steps to camouflage that weaponry. In a country so full of construction projects, with so many chicken farms and things everywhere, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for us to build those emplacements under the guise of something totally different and they would have never been discovered. The amazing thing was that they weren’t discovered earlier…it was a question of carelessness, lack of foresight.” (40-41)

Lesson: In conducting secretive operations, camouflage is very important. Ultimately, lack of information about the missiles led to carelessness about how they were disguised.

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  • “As we began to lose faith in the Soviet policy, we began to change our tactics…We realized how alone we would be in the event of a war; we also realized how stupid it was to withdraw those troops in the face of an enemy that demanded it, and that would, in future years further aggravate our perilous situation.” (60)

Lesson: In international crises, realize that sometimes your allies cannot be trusted i.e. Castro felt the Soviets abandoned Cuba.

“Fidel Castro’s Secret Speech”, January 1968, in James G. Blight and Philip Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002).

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  •  “We talk an awful lot about the American conventional and nuclear superiority and its importance in forcing the outcome. If we’d had that, we could have just invaded and overwhelmed Cuba. Well, why didn’t we? It was because a small, ragtail nuclear deterrent on the other side was a powerful deterrent to us.” (25-26)

Lesson: In a nuclear world, even a small, “ragtag” nuclear deterrent can significantly alter one’s behavior.

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  • We should obviously use our Soviet specialists, but there’s a problem with relying on expertise too heavily, and that is that these people often have a very particular reading of the Soviet Union. Nothing substitutes for a little direct experience of the Soviets, and I think for that reason there is a strong argument for much wider contacts with them. (102)

Lesson: Use experts who have direct experience with the other side e.g. they have visited and lived in the other country.

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  • As far as world opinion is concerned, it would be a mistake to overemphasize this today. In 1962, NATO was less suspicious of the United States, and we had a base of support in the OAS because the Alliance for Progress had worked to some extent….You don’t garner world opinion in the last week of a crisis; you need to have it going in. (p. 102)

Lesson: Before crises, cultivate potential allies. You will need their support going in.

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  • The tendency is for us to compartmentalize the different options. In fact, we used all of the options except for the air strike. We used an orchestrated approach on a wide variety of fronts. The mixture of options is what did the trick, not any one of them. (p. 103)

Lesson: Multiple approaches conducted together will do much more than just one option by itself.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • For the president of the French Republic, the Cuban missile crisis first and foremost marked the end of the postwar era of the Cold War. Having been forced to retreat before American power, in de Gaulle’s view the Soviet Union would be unlikely and unable to risk any such confrontation again for a long time to come. Therefore, for him the crisis opened up a new period of diplomatic opportunity in Europe, the era of détente and cooperation with the Soviet Union that he had regularly sought and that he saw as the only alternative to confrontation. Moreover, for de Gaulle the crisis demonstrated the extreme risk that Europe’s fate could be abruptly determined by a superpower conflict that had nothing whatever to do with Europe itself. He had been loyal to the United States, but when it was all over, the lesson he drew was that Europe must never be put at risk in such a manner again. It therefore must find its own place and role between the superpowers, and France would take the lead with its independent foreign policy backed by its own nuclear deterrent.” (355)

Lesson: Crisis encouraged France to develop foreign policy more independently and rely more on its own nuclear deterrent than on American security guaranty.

Don Cook, Charles de Gaulle: A Biography (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983).

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  • “The French for centuries had lived with threats and menaces, first from the Germans and from the Russians, but he understood the US had not had a comparable experience.”

Lesson: Americans have never had to live with security threats at their borders, like Europeans have. The implication is that Khrushchev did not consider this, which is why he was surprised by the sharpness of the American reaction to the missiles in Cuba.

Cable from Ambassador Bohlen to Secretary of State, No. 1970, October 27, 1962, quoted in Barton J. Bernstein, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey?” Political Science Quarterly 95, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 114.

  • There were real fundamental differences between the views of the hawks, including myself, and the views of those who were reluctant to take strong military actions….They had differing perceptions of the risk involved in the use of force in the nuclear age. I didn’t believe there would be any Soviet military reaction to an airstrike even if accompanied by an invasion of Cuba, because of their awareness of our military superiority. That may well be right, but we (the so-called hawks) didn’t worry about that, because we didn’t think the Russians would start anything anyway. (99-100)

Lesson: Identify the sources of disagreement on your own side during a crisis.

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  • “The importance of expanding our understanding of Soviet thinking…should be an ongoing process.” (101)

Lesson: Cultivate experts on the other side. Ensure they always update their knowledge of the adversary.

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  •  “Don’t use force unless you are prepared to use all you’ve got.” (p. 156)

Lesson: Be wary of a gradual approach when using military force: use “all you’ve got” or do not use it at all.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “Khrushchev’s failure to insist on a public pledge [to swap Turkish for Cuban missiles] by Kennedy cost him dearly. Kennedy was proclaimed the big winner in the crisis because no one knew about the secret deal. Khrushchev had been humiliated into withdrawing our missiles from Cuba with no obvious gain. In fact, the terms of the final settlement were neither a great defeat nor a great victory for Kennedy or Khrushchev. Kennedy accomplished his main purpose: the restoration of the status quo ante in Cuba, although he had to accept the presence of Soviet military personnel there. Khrushchev fell short of shifting the strategic balance more in our favor, but he obtained a pledge from Washington not to invade Cuba, which had been sought by him and Castro, and withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey, which was also in our interest.” (91)

Lesson: Kennedy looked like the big winner in the crisis because Khrushchev did not demand a public missile swap, even though he got what he asked for: an American pledge not to invade Cuba and removal of American missiles from Turkey.

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  • “The Soviet leadership could not forget a blow to its prestige bordering on humiliation when it was forced to admit its weakness before the whole world and withdraw its missiles from Cuba. Our military establishment used this experience to secure for itself a new large-scale program of nuclear arms development.” (93)

Lesson: Many Soviets were humiliated by the way the crisis ended, which led the Soviet military establishment to begin a new large-scale nuclear weapons program to achieve strategic balance with American forces.

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  • “I cannot overemphasize the vast significance of the Cuban crisis for the subsequent development of Soviet-American relations. Those days revealed the mortal danger of direct armed confrontation of the two great powers, a confrontation headed off on the brink of war thanks to both sides’ timely and agonizing realization of the disastrous consequences. It was this insight that made the political settlement possible, and a substantial role was played by a direct confidential channel between the leaders of the two countries. Even now that so many years have passed, the political and diplomatic solution at which the two states jointly arrived may be regarded as a model of successfully controlling a crisis. It showed that a third world war can be avoided.” (93)

Lesson: The crisis had a dramatic influence on subsequent Soviet-American relations. The threat of mortal danger faced by the great powers opened a path to a political settlement through confidential channels that controlled the crisis and showed that a third world war can be avoided.

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  • Those days revealed the mortal danger of a direct armed confrontation of the two great powers, a confrontation headed off on the brink of war thanks to both sides’ timely and agonizing realization of the disastrous consequences. It was this insight that made the political settlement possible, and a substantial role was played by a direct confidential channel between the leaders of the two countries. Even now that so many years have passed, the political and diplomatic solution at which the two states jointly arrived may be regarded as a model of successfully controlling a crisis. It showed that a third world war can be avoided.” (96)

Lesson: If both sides recognize a war’s disastrous consequences, they can avoid war.

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  • Both sides also were left keenly conscious of the need to ease tension.  In 1963 Moscow and Washington signed a series of agreements, including a limited test ban treaty and an agreement on establishing a ‘hot line’ to communicate high-level messages directly and instantaneously between the two capitals.” (96)

Lesson: Easing tension between two adversaries with good faith agreements is crucial to avoid war.

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  • The importance of the confidential channel was proven as well.  I cannot tell how the Cuban crisis would have ended if these contacts had not been there, and if it had ended badly, the consequences could have been truly disastrous.  The whole experience also provided guidelines for my future diplomatic activity, which I followed for the remainder of my quarter-century as an ambassador.  I tried to be an active participant in the constantly functioning confidential channel at the highest level, in order to ensure possibilities for a candid if not always present dialogue between the leaders of both countries.  I venture to think that at times this appeared to be the only way of preventing the Cold War from turning into a hot one.” (96)

Lesson: Keeping a confidential channel of communication open between two powers plays a huge role in ensuring conflicts do not escalate.

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  • “I find this incident has a moral for more exalted politicians: you will never agree on anything if you are already tuned in to a specific notion and cannot or will not hear the other side.  This was one important lesson from the Cuban crisis.” (96)

Lesson: Compromises and open-mindedness are necessary to avoid conflict.

Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presdients (1962–1986) (New York: Random House, 1995).

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  • “I agree with Bob McNamara’s main conclusion that it’s more important to avoid crises than to plan to deal with them. I agree that it’s important to try to emphasize Soviet thinking, and to try to understand it as far as you can.” (p. 101)

Lesson: Avoid crises and try to understand adversary’s thinking.

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  • “We have overstated the cautionary effect of nuclear weapons, I think, because the historical records shows that when we warn them against doing something, sometimes they back off and sometimes they do not. I didn’t believe that a Soviet move against Berlin was likely even if we had taken stronger action, partly because, despite the fact that there were the symmetries we have been talking about, we had a treaty commitment to Europe and they didn’t have a treaty commitment to Cuba.” (p. 102)

Lesson: The cautionary effect of nuclear weapons is overstated. Look at other factors that may influence an adversary’s behavior.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • The time that was available to the President and his advisers to work secretly, quietly, privately, developing a course of action and recommendations for the President, was essential.” (p. 89)

Lesson: Take time to plan; don’t go with your first impulse.

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  • I believe our deliberations proved conclusively how important it is that the President have the recommendations and opinions of more than one individual.” (p. 89)

Lesson: The president should be exposed to a variety of opinions.

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  • “During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President not only received information from all the significant departments, but went to considerable lengths to ensure that he was not insulated from individuals or points of view because of rank or position.” (p. 94)

Lesson: Crises requires people with solid knowledge of situation and adversary, regardless of “rank or position.”

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  • “[JFK] was distressed that the representatives with whom he met…seemed to give so little consideration to the implications of steps they suggested. They seemed always to assume that if the Russians and the Cubans would not respond or, if they did, that a war was in our national interest….President Kennedy was disturbed by this inability to look beyond the military field.” (p. 97)

Lesson: Retain civilian control of politico-military decisions and beware of the limited outlook of the military.

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  • It also showed how important it was to be respected around the world, how vital it was to have allies and friends….It was the vote of the Organization of American States that gave legal basis for the quarantine.” (p. 98-99)

Lesson: Pay close attention to world opinion; ensure strong support of your allies and friends in crisis.

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  • President Kennedy dedicated himself to making it clear to Khrushchev by word and deed…that the U.S. had no interest in…adversely affecting the national security of the Soviet Union or…humiliating her.” (p. 104)

Lesson: Don’t humiliate your opponent- leave them a way out.

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  • There was always the chance of error, of mistake, miscalculation, or misunderstanding…President Kennedy was committed to doing everything possible to lessen that chance on our side.” (p. 105)

Lesson: Beware of inadvertence—the Guns of August scenario.

Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1969).

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  • “The Americans knew that if Russian blood were shed in Cuba, American blood would surely be shed in Germany.  The American government was anxious to avoid such a development.  It had been, to say the least, an interesting and challenging situation.  The two most powerful nations of the world had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button.  You’d have thought that war was inevitable.  But both sides showed that if the desire to avoid war is strong enough, even the most pressing dispute can be solved by compromise.  And a compromise over Cuba was indeed found.  The episode ended in a triumph of common sense.  I’ll always remember the late President with deep respect because, in the final analysis, he showed himself to be sober-minded and determined to avoid war.  He didn’t let himself become frightened, nor did he become reckless.  He didn’t overestimate America’s might, and he left himself a way out of the crisis.  He showed real wisdom and statesmanship when he turned his back on right wing forces in the United States who were trying to goad him into taking military action against Cuba.  It was a great victory for us though, that we had been able to extract from Kennedy a promise that neither America nor any of her allies would invade Cuba.” (500)

Lesson: If countries desire to avoid war enough, they can find a compromise to avoid it.

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  • “We behaved with dignity and forced the US to demobilize and to recognize Cuba – not de jure, but de factoCuba still exists today as a result of the correct policy conducted by the Soviet Union when it rebuffed the United States.” (512)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis was worth it because it prevented the US from invading Cuba.

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  • The experience of the Caribbean crisis also convinced us that we were right to concentrate on the manufacture of nuclear missiles rather than on the expansion of our surface navy, as Kuznetsov had recommended and which he admitted would have cost billions and taken at least ten years… When we created missiles which America and the whole world knew could deliver a crushing blow anywhere on the globe – that represented a triumph in the battle of wits over how best to expend the resources of our people in defending the security of our homeland.” (512-513)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates that nuclear capabilities are more important than conventional capabilities.

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  • “In some situations, one cannot be afraid of conflict, but at the same time one must keep one’s wits and not allow the conflict to turn into war. In other words, one must have an intelligent, sober-minded counterpart with whom to deal. At that point in my political career, my partner was Kennedy, the head of the mightiest capitalist country in the world.  I believe he was a man who understood the situation correctly and who genuinely did not want war.  He realized that the time had passed when such disputes could be decided by force… Kennedy was also someone we could trust.  When he gave us public assurances that the US would not organize an invasion of Cuba, either on its own or through its allies, we trusted him.” (513-514)

Lesson: To resolve a crisis, both leaders must be sober-minded and trustworthy.

Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament. Trans. Strobe Talbott (Boston: Brown and Little, 1974).

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  • “I repeat that it was a correct move on our part. We did the right thing by installing missiles, and then again we did the right thing by not falling into a trap when the crisis came to head and our ‘friends’ [the Maoist Chinese] began to denounce us as cowards for withdrawing our missiles….The United States and we would have mutually exterminated each other and destroyed our economies.” (p. 349)

Lesson: Even rational world leaders can destroy each other in nuclear war.

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  • “We also made an agreement with Kennedy to establish direct telephone communication, so that there would be a “hot line” in the event that an emergency situation arose and personal talks between the president and the head of the Soviet government were necessary….This detail gave us some reassurance that at a critical movement there could be direct talks, direct talks that wouldn’t have to go through the diplomatic labyrinth.

Lesson: Direct communication between adversaries is necessary during a crisis.

Memoirs: Statesman, 1953-1964, edited by Sergey Khrushchev (University Park: Penn State University, 2007).

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  • “Could we avoid withdrawing? Yes, we could, but, comrades, let me put it the following way: 'A player should play, but he should never chase losses.’ It is best shown in The “Queen of Ace” opera where officer Hermann dies not because he is a gambler, but because he wanted to chase losses.”

Lesson: Having lost in a nuclear stand-off, do not try to recoup your losses: you may end losing even more.

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  • “If we had not conceded, would America have conceded more? Maybe so. But it could be like a fairy tale when the two met a goat on the bar over an abyss. Both display goats' 'wisdom' (by refusing to give way) and end up falling into the abyss....‘What worm would have to inhibit a man and in what part of his body to make him say that it is time for Soviet Union to unleash a nuclear war?’”

Lesson: In international crises, both sides need to concede to resolve a crisis, especially if alternative is a destructive, nuclear war.

Nikita Khrushchev's speech at the November 1962 Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (November 23, 1962), RGANI, fond 2, Opis 1, Delo 603. L. 149-165. Cited in “Ya vam ekspromtom dolozhil (I reported to you offhand),” Ogonyok, Issue No 42, October 22, 2012.

 

  • What are the strategic lessons?  May they not be that, under the cover of terrible nuclear war, which nobody dares start, you can get away with anything you can do by conventional means.  You can take Cuba.  The enemy can only repay by all-out nuclear war.  But this also applies to Berlin.  The Russians can take Berlin by conventional means.  The allies cannot defend or recapture it by any conventional means. (The conclusion to be drawn is rather sinister).” (517)

Lesson: Nuclear deterrence between two nations allows for both nations to conduct conventional war against one another without fear of nuclear escalation.

Peter Catterall, ed., The MacMillan Diaries: Prime Minister and After, 1957-1966 (London: Macmillan Limited, 2011).

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  • “The major lesson of the Cuban Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.

Lesson: Nuclear weapons will destroy nations.

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  • Rationality will not save us. I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

Lesson: We “lucked out” during Cuban Missile Crisis. Even rational individuals can stumble into nuclear war.

The Fog of War, directed by Errol Morris (2003; Sony Picture Classics, 2004), DVD.

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  •  “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of nuclear catastrophe. There is no way to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, other than to first eliminate the hair-trigger alert policy and later to eliminate or nearly eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States should move immediately to institute these actions, in cooperation with Russia. That is the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Lesson: Only way to avoid nuclear catastrophe is to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.

“Apocalypse Soon,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2005.

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  • The quarantine had only begun to do its work. There was a lot we could have done with it, if necessary.” (p. 37)

Lesson: Cuban Missile Crisis was far from over: U.S. could have turned up pressure on Cuba.

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  • “In their mind, they were taking countermeasures to forestall a possible American preemption. What they were really after was an improvement in crisis stability.” (p. 37)

Lesson: Crises often have roots in misperception i.e. Soviet belief U.S. wanted to invade Cuba.

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  • “On the question of world opinion, our concerns that we expressed then were not limited to what the UN might think of what we did, or what the man in the street might think; we were talking about the long-term stature of the U.S. in the world and how our actions would affect that.” (p. 98)

Lesson: In crises, consider all the consequences of your actions, especially long-term.

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  • “On your claim that “a little deterrence goes a long way”- that was certainly true as far as our group was concerned, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily true for all groups. Some of our military people, for example, weren’t deterred in the least by what the Soviets had at the time, and it may be that people in future administrations will or will not be deterred by different things.” (p. 98)

Lesson: In nuclear crises, know the groups you are working with. What deters one person may not deter another.

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  • “First, you should begin dealing with a crisis with a course of action that is limited, flexible, and reversible….Second, keep open your channels of communication with the other side, and keep the dialogue going. When you stop talking, things can begin to go seriously wrong. Third, make damn you elect the right President of the United States.” (p. 98)

Lesson: Begin crises with limited and flexible actions. Lesson 2: Communicate with the other side in crisis. Lesson 3: Make sure you have the right person at the top.

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  • “I don’t think the Cuban Missile Crisis was unique. The Bay of Pigs, Berlin in ’61, later events in the Middle East, in Libya, and so on-all exhibit the truth of what I’ll call “McNamara’s law,” which states: It is impossible to predict with a high degree of confidence what the effects of the use of military force will be because of the risks of accident, miscalculation, misperception, and inadvertence.” (p. 100)

Lesson: You cannot predict the effects of military force.

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  • “Managing” crises is the wrong term; you don’t “manage” them because you can’t “manage them”….And that holds whether or not you’re talking about a nuclear crisis.”(p. 100)

Lesson: You can never truly “manage” a crisis. 

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  • “I really think it is vitally important to have people in top Administration positions who have some prior expertise in national-security matters, and it’s at least as important to have people who understand the Soviets available when you need them.” (p. 101)

Lesson 1: Have people experienced in national security running U.S. national security policy.

Lesson 2: Have experts of the other side readily available.

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  • “Each administration, early in its term, should get all the relevant people together to draw preliminary guidelines for the use and non-use of nuclear weapons, first, in retaliation to one’s opponents’ use of nuclear weapons, and second, in all other cases. That would at least help reduce some of the risks of inadvertence.” (p. 101)

Lesson: Each U.S. administration should adapt planning for nuclear weapons to new circumstances of their term.

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  • “The risk of inadvertent nuclear war should lead to extreme caution in determining actions that affect that risk or may increase it.” (p. 188-189)

Lesson: Be wary of risks of inadvertent nuclear war.

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  • On the American conventional and nuclear superiority solving the Cuban Missile Crisis: “I think that’s absolute hogwash.” (p. 192)

Lesson: Military superiority, even with nuclear weapons, may not solve all crises.

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  • “When there’s even a small risk of total disaster, I’m significantly deterred and very anxious to avoid any risk in that direction if I can.” (p. 193)

Lesson: In any international crisis, avoid escalating risk of total nuclear war. Even a small risk is too much.

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  • “The nuclear weapons we have, and the Soviets have, are useless militarily. Everything flows from that simple enduring truth.” (p. 196)

Lesson: Militarily, nuclear weapons have no value. Military use of nuclear bomb only ensures total worldwide destruction.

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  • “I don’t think we want people in office who either think they know everything or who in fact don’t know anything.” (p. 197)

Lesson: Beware of people in power who are either ignorant or closed to new knowledge.

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  • “Mistakes happen. The likelihood of accident and error is very high in a crisis situation, and we must take account of that fact.” (p. 272)

Lesson: Beware of accidents. They can happen very easily in crisis situations and can change things dramatically.

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  • “Crisis management is a very uncertain and very difficult thing to do, and therefore, you’ve just got to avoid the crises in the first place. How do you do that? Three things. First, be clear on what your interests are and state them clearly….Second, never leave your adversary in any uncertainty about these interests….Third, over time, we must attack the basic source of friction between our countries: mistrust.” (p. 281)

Lesson: To avoid crises, do three things: (1) be clear on your interests and state them clearly; (2) never leave your adversary uncertainty about your interests; and (3) be open with your adversary in order to lessen mistrust.

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  • “We have to recognize that even very small risk of nuclear war must be avoided.” (p. 281)

Lesson: In any international crisis, avoid escalating risk of total nuclear war. Even a small risk is too much.

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  • “To improve crisis management, we should first recognize that human beings are fallible, and that we are prone to misjudgment, misinformation, miscalculation, and emotion.” (p. 281)

Lesson: In crises, recognize that everyone is human and has limits. Errors can and will happen.

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  • “The responsible official must think in advance of how to deal with crises, especially when they involve even a remote possibility of a nuclear response.” (p. 281-282)

Lesson: Plan ahead for crises.

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  • “Provide the president with knowledgeable associates. Draw on the experience of informed people….The real unsung heroes of the Cuban Missile Crisis…were the people who were real students of the Soviet Union.” (p. 282)

Lesson: In crisis, make sure you have people who know the other side well.

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  • “Look at the problem from the adversary’s point of view.” (p. 282)

Lesson: Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes.

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  • “Don’t force the adversary into a corner- don’t force him into taking some kind of desperate action. Always leave him a way out.” (p. 283)

Lesson: Leave the other side in a crisis room to maneuver and retreat, if necessary.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “Adventurism is a dangerous thing. It is difficult to get away with it without drastic results. I believe the main lesson is for big countries not to be adventurist.” (p. 284)

Lesson: Major powers should avoid dangerous foreign policy adventures.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “There is that saving thought that when people look down the cannon’s mouth of nuclear war, they cannot like what they see. We’ve now put behind us forty-one years since a nuclear weapon has been fired in anger, and those who really understand nuclear weapons understand that nuclear war is simply that war which must not be fought, because it not only eliminates all the answers, it eliminates all the questions….The idea of a limited nuclear war is nonsense. The idea of a prolonged nuclear war from which one side can emerge with some sort of advantage is nonsense. And some of this nonsense is drawn into official discussion.” (p. 180-181)

Lesson: Nuclear war should not be fought, and cannot be won; the idea of a limited nuclear war is nonsense.

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  • Moral and ethical considerations play a very important part, even though people don’t wear these things on their shirtsleeves….At the end of the day you find that you’re dealing with human beings, and human beings act in relation to their basic moral concepts.” (p. 182)

Lesson: During international crises, consider the moral implications of your choices.

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  • “One must always remember that element of human fallibility.” (p. 183)

Lesson: Remember that the participants in the crisis are human beings limited by their own mortality and errors.

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  • I learned something during the Cuban Missile Crisis that has to do with the emergency plan for moving the top government to the hills in West Virginia. I’m sure that those plans are psychologically impossible. One has to have an alternative government in place made up of people who had nothing to do with the events which unfold. In the first place, people in the government are not going to abandon all their colleagues and their families to get in a helicopter and go charging out to West Virginia. They just aren’t going to do it. In the second place, the first band of shivering survivors who get their hand on the President and the Secretary of State following such a situation will hang them to the nearest tree.” (p. 184)

Lesson: Once a nuclear crisis is over, don’t expect a “golden parachute.” Emergency plans to evacuate top officials and reconstitute the government with people involved in the crisis are unrealistic.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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Joint statement on 20th anniversary

  • The crisis could and should have been avoided.
  • When the importance of accurate information for a crucial policy decision is high enough, risks not otherwise acceptable in collecting intelligence can become profoundly prudent.
  • “The president wisely took his time in choosing a course of action…Americans should always respect the need for a period of confidential and careful deliberation in dealing with a major international crisis.
  • “The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates not the significance but the insignificance of nuclear superiority in the face of survivable thermonuclear retaliatory forces. It also shows the crucial role of rapidly available conventional strength.
  • “If the crisis itself showed the cost of mutual incomprehension, its resolution showed the value of serious and sustained communication…Effective communication is never more important than when there is a military confrontation.
  • There are times when a display of hard evidence is more valuable than protection of intelligence techniques.
  • “In the successful resolution of the crisis, restraint was as important as strength… It is wrong, in relations between the superpowers, for either side to leave the other with no way out but war or humiliation.
  • When it will help your own country for your adversary to know your settled intentions, you should find effective ways of making sure that he does [both publically and privately]. This [secret] assurance [to remove missiles from Turkey] was kept secret because the few who knew about it at the time were in unanimous agreement that any other course would have had explosive and destructive effects on the security of the U.S. and its allies.”
  • A secret assurance is justified when a) you can keep your word, and b) no other course can avoid grave damage to your country’s legitimate interests.
  • In any crisis involving the superpowers, firm control by the heads of both governments is essential to the avoidance of an unpredictably escalating conflict.
  • “The successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was fundamentally the achievement of two men, John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev.
  • N.B. Essay does not mention that the authors all opposed trade of Jupiter missiles in Turkey for Cuban missiles.

“The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis”, Time, September 27, 1982, Vol. 120, Issue 13.

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  •  “In the nuclear age it is impossible not to be honest and moral, because both sides are interested in survival.” (p. 258)

Lesson: Fear can drive both sides to moral action in the nuclear age.

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  • “We have to establish more general levels of contacts. After the crisis, we established the hot line.” (p. 260)

Lesson: Good channels of communication are critical, especially during crises.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • We had won by enabling Khrushchev to avoid complete humiliation.” (p. 717)

Lesson: During crises, provide your opponent with a way out.

Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

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  •  “You heard the President [from video of Kennedy’s 1963 “American University” speech] say that we must not force an adversary into a choice between a humiliating retreat and nuclear war, and that is a description of why he chose the blockade, put the ball in Khrushchev’s court instead of bombing him and giving him no real choice… [JFK] had seen enough of war, and he was determined not to have another one.”

Lesson: Provide a way out for adversary in crises.

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  • [JFK] not only reached out to the United Nations, he reached out to our allies and sent high-level statesmen to brief the British Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the most obstinate of all, the president of France Charles de Gaulle, and… we were sharing the evidence…”

Lesson: Important to have allied support in crises; necessary to share evidence and intelligence.

“45th Anniversary of Cuban Missile Crisis” (presentation, JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, MA, October 17, 2007).

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  • “There are several misconceptions about what occurred, and the wrong lessons have been drawn as a result. I don’t believe, for example, that we were ever set for an immediate air strike or invasion.” (p. 25)

Lesson: Cuban Missile Crisis was far from over: U.S. could have turned up pressure on Cuba.

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  • “Getting the right men at the top of our government is key, and in our country it has clearly been proven that getting the right man is extremely difficult.” (p. 285)

Lesson: Make sure you have competent and/or experienced individuals leading your government.

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  • “The first lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the importance of avoiding crises in the first place.” (p. 285)

Lesson: Best way to solve crises: avoid them.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • Every new administration should beware of its special vulnerability during at least the first year of its tenure, retain at the start a few apolitical experts from the preceding administration to tide over its inexperience and try to avoid all crises as long as possible.”

Lesson: Be knowledgeable of your inexperience; maintain institutional knowledge by maintaining some officials during transition.

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  • The president must inevitably be the manager of any crisis at the level of the National Security Council.

Lesson: In national security, the buck stops with the president.

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  • Important factor contributing to success…was the secrecy maintained during the planning phase and the surprise effect on Khrushchev of the president’s Oct. 22 speech….The loss of surprise…might have forced [Kennedy] into ill-prepared or unwise actions adversely affecting the outcome.”

Lesson: Secrecy and surprise are necessary during crisis negotiations.

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  • “Our great superiority in nuclear weapons contributed little to the outcome of the Cuba crisis. In this situation the stakes involved were far too small for either party to risk a resort to nuclear weapons….Nuclear superiority is of little use in coping with an adversary similarly armed, whereas conventional superiority at the right place and time is likely to carry the day.

Lesson: Conventional, not nuclear, superiority guaranteed American success in Cuban Missile Crisis. Superpowers were not willing to go as far as nuclear war. [N.B. subsequent statements by Soviet and American officials indicate that each side was willing to use nuclear weapons during the crisis.]

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  • “Having underestimated [Kennedy] in the course of their Vienna meeting in June 1961, Khrushchev felt such confidence in his risky plan as to make no provision for any escape hatch in case that things went badly. Things did go badly, and he paid the price for ignoring Murphy’s Law.

Lesson: Plan ahead for the possibility of failure.

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  • “Even more disastrous was Khrushchev’s error in picking a fight far from home in his adversary’s front yard. In doing so, he ignored a wise saying dating from Roman times: “A cock has great influence on his own dunghill.

Lesson: Never pick fights far from home.

“Reflections on a Grim October,” Washington Post, October 5, 1982.

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Other Policymakers:

  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Richard Holbrooke
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Andrei Kokoshin
  • Colin Powell
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Arthur Schlesinger
  • Brent Scowcroft
  • Tibor Tóth
  • Viktor Yesin
  •  “[F]orty years ago almost to the day an important Presidential emissary was sent abroad by a beleaguered President of the United States.  The United States was facing the prospect of nuclear war.  These were the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Several emissaries went to our principal allies.  One of them was…Dean Acheson whose mission was to brief President de Gaulle and to solicit French support in what could be a nuclear war involving not just the United States and the Soviet Union but the entire NATO Alliance and the Warsaw Pact.  The former Secretary of State briefed the French President and then said to him at the end of the briefing, I would now like to show you the evidence, the photographs that we have of Soviet missiles armed with nuclear weapons.  The French President responded by saying, I do not wish to see the photographs.  The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me….Would any foreign leader today react the same way to an American emissary who would go abroad and say that country X is armed with weapons of mass destruction which threaten the United States?

Lesson: Allied support and trust are critical in international crises. Do not shut out allies from evidence or intelligence during crisis management.

“Address to the New American Strategies Conference” (speech at “New American Strategies for Security and Peace” conference at Wardman Park Marriott Hotel, Washington, District of Columbia, October 28, 2003).

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  •  “Even in the one instance in which the United States acted like a great power—the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962—it failed to harvest the fruits of its effort.  The United States did not exploit the success either to press the Soviet Union to withdraw from the Caribbean through an arrangement for the full neutralization of Cuba or to structure a more stable and more cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union in the area of strategic arms competition.  Instead, we deluded ourselves with the comfortable belief—expressed explicitly in official statements in the mid-1960s—that the Soviet Union had accommodated itself indefinitely to strategic inferiority.  In fact, the Soviet Union was already two years into what became a massive strategic buildup designed to erase the U.S. strategic advantage—the very advantage that had given our policymakers in the Cuban Missile Crisis the confidence to apply conventional pressure on Soviet forces.” (p. 13)

Lesson: (1) Take advantage of successful resolution of a crisis to push forward on national goals. (2) Nuclear superiority was a key to success of U.S. during Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Keynote Address” (speech at Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, Massachusetts, June, 19, 1983), published in In quest of national security, edited by Marin Stmecki, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988).

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  •  “The Soviet leaders were forced, because of the energetic response by the United States, to the conclusion that their apocalyptic power [nuclear deterrent power] was insufficient to make the Soviet Union a global power.  Faced with a showdown, the Soviet Union didn’t dare to respond even in an area of its regional predominance—in Berlin….It had no military capacity to fight in Cuba, or in Vietnam, or to protect its interests in the Congo.” (p. 272-73)

Lesson: Conventional and nuclear superiority were keys to American success during Cuban Missile Crisis.

“The Implications of Change for United States Foreign Policy,” Department of State Bulletin, LVII, July 3, 1967, 19-23, as cited in James A. Nathan, “The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now,” World Politics, 27:2 (January 1975).

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  •  “We no longer live in an age in which the president`s word is trusted internationally the way Kennedy`s was during the Cuban missile crisis. So that is a loss. The appeal of America has gone down. In more and more countries around the world, America is viewed as a menace, and in the world of Islam, as an enemy.”

Lesson: Missile crisis may have represented height of American political influence abroad; since then, US appeal abroad has declined.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, interview with Charlie Rose, 12/16/06.

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  • “It was not until the late 1950s, and perhaps not even until the Cuban Missile Crisis, that America was jarred into recognition that modern technology had made invulnerability a thing of the past. The 1960s saw a surge in national anxiety over the ‘missile gap’ (with Soviet leaders deliberately claiming a greater capability for, and greater numbers of, their missiles they actually had), demonstrated by growing fears that nuclear deterrence was inherently unstable, by a preoccupation among strategists over the possibility of a disarming Soviet nuclear strike as well as over the growing risks of an accidental nuclear discharge, and eventually even by an effort to develop new forms of technologically advanced space-based defensive systems such as anti-ballistic missiles. The intense national debate on these issues eventually led to a consensus that a relationship of stable deterrence with the Soviet Union was attainable only through mutual restraint.” (p. 9)

Lesson: US no longer invincible from the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It must instead pursue mutual nuclear restraint in order to ensure stable nuclear order.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

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  • Speaking to the House Appropriations Subcommittee: “We are engaged in very intensive diplomacyMy reading of what happened with President Kennedy is that it’s exactly what he did. It was high-stakes diplomacy. It was pushing hard to get the world community to understand, going to the UN, making a presentation, getting international opinion against the placement of Russian weapons in Cuba, making a deal eventually with the Russians that led to the removal of the weapons. That is the kind of high-stakes diplomacy that I’m engaged in, that other members of this administration are, because we take very seriously the potential threat from Iran.”

Lesson: (1) The situation in Iran is similar to Cuban Missile Crisis, (2) it is necessary to negotiate with your adversary during a crisis, and to (3) involve all influential individuals in trying to find a solution.

“Clinton compares Iran showdown to Cuban Missile Crisis,” Agence France Presse, February 25, 2010.

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  •  “One can only conclude that our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962. Like all presidents, he made his share of mistakes, but when the stakes were the highest imaginable, he rose to the occasion like no other president in the last 60 years — defining his goal clearly and then, against the demands of hawks within his administration, searching skillfully for a peaceful way to achieve it.

Lesson: (1) Define your goals clearly to your adversary and your allies during a crisis. (2) Find ways to peacefully resolve crisis.

“Real W.M.D.’s,” New York Times, June 22, 2008.

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  • “Up Front”, (NYT, 6/22/08): “Against the backdrop of Kennedy’s direct negotiations with Khrushchev, the [Bush] administration’s position on talks with Iran — that they will talk only through European Union intermediaries until the Iranians stop their nuclear program — is particularly strange… Kennedy knew (and for that matter, so did Reagan, Eisenhower and the senior President Bush) that direct contacts with adversaries, if handled with firmness, enhance the negotiating value of American power.”

Lesson: Have direct contact with adversaries during a crisis.
“Up Front,” New York Times, June 22, 2008.

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  • The Berlin crisis-together with its culmination in the Cuban Missile Crisis-marked a turning point in the Cold War, though it was not perceived as such at the time. Had the democracies not become so consumed by their internal disputes, they might have interpreted the Berlin crisis for what it was-a demonstration of latent Soviet weakness. In the end, Khrushchev was obliged to continue to live with a Western outpost deep within Soviet territory, having failed to achieve any of the goals he had trumpeted when he launched the crisis.” (p. 593)

Lesson: American success during Missile Crisis demonstrated Soviet weakness; becoming a turning point in the Cold War.

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  • Trying to achieve in one stroke the breakthrough [on Berlin] which had eluded him for the past three years, Khrushchev had obviously calculated that, if he succeeded in that adventure, his bargaining position in an eventual Berlin negotiation would be overwhelming.” (p. 591)

Lesson: Had Khrushchev completed installation of missiles in Cuba, Soviets could have forced West Berlin to join East Germany.

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  • “[Kennedy’s] bold and skillful handling of the crisis not only forced Khrushchev to withdraw the Soviet missiles but, in the process, stripped [Khrushchev’s] Berlin diplomacy of whatever credibility still remained to it.” (p. 591)

Lesson: American success over Cuba ensured Soviets could not force West Berlin to join East Germany.

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  • “The cumulative result of the failure of Khrushchev’s Berlin and Cuban initiatives was that the Soviet Union did not again risk posing a direct challenge to the United States, except during a brief flare-up at the end of the 1973 Middle East War….Instead, Soviet military pressure veered off in the direction of supporting so-called wars of national liberation….” (p. 593)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis was the last time the Soviets posed a direct threat to United States (other than threats during 1973’s Yom Kippur War).

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  • “[The United Nations] was irrelevant in the Cuban Missile Crisis until the two superpowers agreed to settle.” (p. 249)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis came down to successful negotiations by superpowers, not third-parties.

Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).

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  • “Our reaction to the building of the Berlin Wall may have indicated a propensity to accept just about any fait accompli.  All this may have led the Soviet leaders to the conviction that given a  face-saving formula, the United States would choose retreat rather than a head-on confrontation….They failed to understand that it is highly unlikely for any man to be nominated or elected President who does not have a strong will to prevail…No President could have avoided taking action in the face of such a challenge, and the public would not have tolerated acquiescence….Perhaps the most fundamental mistake was in assessing the reason for their earlier successes….They had generally confronted the United States [in Eurasia] with ambiguous challenges whose threat to U.S. security seemed vague and remote….In Cuba, however, the Soviets chose to challenge us in the most direct and brutal fashion.  Here the threat was not  remote or the issue confused….The crisis could not have ended so quickly and decisively but for the fact that the United States can win a general war if it strikes first and can inflict intolerable damage on the Soviet Union even if is the victim of a surprise attack….for this crisis at least, the credibility of our deterrent was greater than theirs….The dilemma of any statesman is that he can never be certain about the probable course of  events….[Assessing nature of Soviet buildup] is above all a question of the criteria of certainty by which a government operates.  We shall not be able to wait everywhere for ‘hard’ intelligence about Soviet intentions.”) (p. 22-24.)

Lesson 1: Do not challenge your adversary on their vital interests. Lesson 2: Nuclear and conventional superiority were key to success in Cuban Missile Crisis. Lesson 3: Dilemma of crises is that you must sometimes act in face of uncertainty without “hard,” or definite, intelligence.

“Reflections on Cuba,” Reporter, 27:9 (November 22, 1962).

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  • Crisis highlighted the need to provide “political-diplomatic support” for strategic military deployments, something that the Soviet leadership did not do. (May 2012).

Lesson: Include individuals with different perspectives in decision-making process during crisis.

Cited in Yevgeny Podzorov, “What does the Caribbean Crisis Teach Us,” Red Star, May 18, 2012.

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  • “The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is highly instructive in regards to the demands made on the system of strategic command and control at all levels, whether a supreme commander, a pilot of a reconnaissance plane, or a ship’s commander. During a nuclear conflict, the following elements are necessary: (1) firm leadership by the highest state officials without delegating, in any significant measure, their authority to lower-level officials; (2) a mechanism for crisis management, preferably developed beforehand with the participation of the top state officials, members of intelligence agencies, members of the diplomatic corps, and with the inclusion of the chain of command of the armed forces from the strategic to the tactical level; (3) the political and psychological stability of both the military leadership and those managing the crisis, which should include both hawks and doves; (4) control of the actions of the armed forces, especially those related to nuclear weapons, by reliable persons from the circle close to the highest leadership; and (5) knowledge of the decision making mechanism and patterns guiding the actions of the opposing side.” (4-5)

Lessons: (1) Necessity for firm leadership during crisis, with minimum delegation to lower-level officials; (2) Develop crisis management mechanism before a crisis occurs; (3) Need politically and psychologically stable leaders; (4) Must have control over the military; (5) Know your adversary’s decision making process.

Andrei A. Kokoshin, “Nuclear Conflict in the Twenty-first Century”, BCSIA Discussion Paper 2007-03, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, April 2007.

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  • Powell: “President Kennedy didn’t negotiate out of the Cuban Missile Crisis simply because he and Khrushchev got along well.  Khrushchev didn’t have the cards.  And President Kennedy had the power and had made it clear that he was not going to tolerate this.”

Lesson: Negotiate from a position of strength.

James Dao, “Threats and Responses: Congress; Powell Urges Strong Stand, Fast, for Move Against Iraq” New York Times, September 20, 2002.

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  • “Referring to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as an example, [Rice] pointed out that the most successful preemptive actions in recent history did not involve military strikes. Referring to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as an example, she pointed out that military advice to launch a direct attack on the Soviet missile sites had been rejected. ‘[Kennedy and EXCOMM] settled on a strategy that actually was preemptive, but didn’t use military force to do it, and thereby preserved the possibility for the Soviets to back down.’” (p. 64)

Lesson 1: Preemptive action does not always mean using military force. Lesson 2: Leave your adversary with a way out.

David Sanger, “Bush to Formalize a Defense Policy of Hitting First,” New York Times, June 17, 2002, as cited in Stephen M. Duncan, A War of a Different Kind”: Military Force and America’s Search for Homeland Security (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004).

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  • [O]ne of my most vivid childhood memories is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. We were glued to the set every evening during the thirteen-day standoff. It was a very scary time. We’d never bothered with a bomb shelter in the house, even at the height of the Cold War. But some of our friends did have them, fully stocked with provisions to survive a nuclear exchange. In school, we went through duck-and-cover drills….But the standoff in Cuba was no drill. Because the missiles were deployed just ninety miles from the Florida coast, the newscasters reported, probably incorrectly, that Birmingham was in range. They showed big arrows pointing right at us. I could tell that my father was worried, and I realized this was something my parents couldn’t save me from. It was the first time I remember feeling truly vulnerable. Daddy explained our country had never last a war, and he was sure we weren’t going to lose this one. He was nevertheless visibly relieved when the Soviet ships turned around, ending the crisis. The whole episode had a surprisingly strong impact on me. I once told an audience of Cuban Americans that Fidel Castro had put the United States at risk in allowing those missiles to be deployed. ‘He should pay for it until he dies’, I said. Even I was surprised by the rawness of that comment.” (p. 38-39)

Lesson: The U.S. can be made vulnerable by rash actions of hostile actors.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (New York: Random House, 2010).

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  •  “The great concern of Kennedy and the great concern probably of Khrushchev, too, was the issue of command and control – that somewhere down the line, someone might act on his own. The issue of command and control was so desperately important, and Kennedy understood this and took every precaution to make sure that nothing would go wrong down the line.”

Lesson: To minimize errors, ensure complete command and control of decision-making apparatus during a crisis.

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  • We were very lucky to have leaders in the United States and the Soviet Union of wisdom and restraint.

Lesson: We lucked out- avoid crises like this in the future.

“On the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis” (speech at JFK Library and Foundation, Boston, MA, October 20, 2002).

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  • “Historians have scrutinized the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 far more deeply than they have the Berlin crisis that preceded it by a year.  For all the attention given Cuba, however, what happened in Berlin was even more decisive in shaping the era between the end of World War II in 1945 and German unification and Soviet dissolution in 1990 and 1991.  It was the Berlin Wall’s rise in August 1961 that anchored the Cold War in the mutual hostility that would last for another three decades, locking us into habits, procedures, and suspicions that would fall only with the same wall on November 9, 1989.” (p. xi)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis was ultimately of less consequence than the situation in Berlin in terms of impact on the Cold War.

Foreword to Fred Kempe, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (New York: Penguin Group, 2011)

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  • “What Kennedy did not realize was that more than 100 nuclear warheads had already been deployed on Cuban soil. It was unknown to him that Soviet commanders were delegated the authority to use these missiles on their own judgment. Also unknown to him was that the three commanding officers on one Soviet submarine were split two-to-one over whether to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo against the United States. Today these unknowns are known. But what is still unacknowledged is that if sheer luck had not prevailed during this moment of truth, the statesmanship of President Kennedy would not have been enough to save the world.

Lesson: The world got lucky during the Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s statesmanship worked because a few lucky events prevented an accidental start to World War III.

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  • "As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, the two nations agreed to add a softer, more cooperative option to the toolbox. Up to that moment in late October '62, it had contained only hard-hitting tools: a series of Cold War confrontations, hundreds of nuclear-weapon tests and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. These tools were not part of the solution; they were part of the problem."

Lesson: States must engage diplomatically with each other. Other means of engagement, such as geopolitical brinksmanship, only exacerbate tensions.

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  • "Fifty years and 1,500 tests later, with three times more nuclear warheads and three times more nuclear-armed states, the world is still waiting to close the door on nuclear testing through the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. It is still waiting for China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United States to legally enact the CTBT….We simply cannot afford to rely on luck to rescue the world. We must utilize all of the cooperative tools at our disposal to avoid conflict and achieve nuclear disarmament. And that includes bringing the CTBT into force."

Lesson: In order to avoid further nuclear confrontations, we must engage in nuclear diplomacy. Excellent step in this direction: enacting the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Source: Tibor Tóth, “A nuclear world,” Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2012.

  • For the first time the United States found itself in a position of 'equal danger' with USSR in what made the American ruling elite conclude that their country's enormous nuclear potential, that guaranteed defeat of any hostile country, cannot protect US citizens. American experts predicted that 80 million Americans would die in a U.S. nuclear exchange with Russia. Having assessed such damage as unacceptable, the U.S. leadership had to make a compromise in resolution of the crisis. A parity of fear took shape, in which neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could consider themselves entitled to a victory in nuclear war. And that became one of the main tenets on which the strategy of nuclear deterrence is based. Washington and Moscow continue to follow that strategy even though the military-political situation has changed dramatically, and the United States and Russia, as it has often declared by their leaders, are no longer enemies.”

Lesson: Mutual nuclear deterrence – that took shape during the Cuban missile crisis – turned out to be a very stable concept that transcended even the Cold War itself.

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