The other terrifying lesson of the Cuban missile crisis
Historians have focused on how John F. Kennedy’s wisdom narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe. They’ve paid less attention to how little we knew about the Soviets’ true intentions.
George Perkovich, on Politico
If you add two cliches together, can the sum be something more than a cliche? Could it actually be alarmingly insightful? In this case, the first cliche is another Donald Trump tweet—Tuesday’s double entendre about his “Nuclear Button” being “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s. The second cliche is to juxtapose the leaders involved in today’s nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea with those who managed the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
The combination of these two cliches would suggest that the restrained and politically courageous leadership by President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saved the world from nuclear devastation, and the situation today is much more dangerous because President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim are less judicious. Both of these observations may be true, but the more telling lesson of the Cuban crisis is that opposing leaders in a nuclear showdown inevitably lack sufficient information about each other’s military capabilities, intentions and perceptions, and much of what they think they know is probably wrong. And given how little the United States and North Korea understand about one another, that should worry us.
The clock of the Cuban crisis began ticking on October 16, 1962, when Kennedy was notified that U.S. spy planes had detected medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba which could target much of the United States. On October 22, Kennedy announced this discovery on television and said that he would impose a naval “quarantine” of Cuba in two days. He warned that the launch of a single missile from the island would cause “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” This meant a massive United States nuclear attack on the USSR and its Eastern European satellite countries.
Top military, intelligence, diplomatic and White House officials were now working around the clock to prepare options for the president. Kennedy secretly tape-recorded the meetings in the Cabinet Room and the Oval Office. The tapes reveal military leaders pressing Kennedy to authorize an invasion, and Kennedy calmly asking questions and reminding everyone of the consequences of nuclear war.
U.S. Air Force and CIA planes, meanwhile, were flying high and low over Cuba to glean intelligence on the Soviet missile buildup and to prepare plans for attacking key installations and invading the island. On Saturday, October 27, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM). “Well now, this is much of an escalation by them, isn’t it?” Kennedy mused, wondering how to explain why Khrushchev would do this. “I don’t know how to interpret it,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara answered.
That evening, the president dispatched his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to meet secretly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at the Justice Department. Robert Kennedy issued a two-pronged ultimatum. The details would not be publicly known for years.
The first demand was that the Soviets begin removing the missiles within 48 hours, or the United States would attack them. This part was soon publicly known. The second demand, which long remained secret, was that firing on American reconnaissance planes must end immediately. According to Daniel Ellsberg’s notes from the higher-than-top-secret 1964 study he conducted of the crisis for the Department of Defense, the attorney general declared, “If one more plane was shot at, we wouldn’t just attack the site that had fired at it; we would take out all the SAMs and anti-aircraft and probably all the missiles. And that would almost surely be followed by an invasion.”
As Ellsberg recounts in his penetrating new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, American officials assumed that Khrushchev had authorized the anti-air firing on U.S. planes. In fact, however, Cuban personnel were conducting operations under the direction of Fidel Castro. On Saturday morning, the 27th, Castro feared an imminent invasion and ordered his anti-aircraft personnel to fire on American planes. Some Soviet operators were carried away by the example of their Cuban comrades and ignored orders not to fire without the express authorization of the Soviet general in charge in Cuba. This turned out to be the case with the local SAM commander, who ordered the firing that downed the U-2 plane on Saturday, as Ellsberg recounts, drawing on much later scholarly research.
In other words, the Kennedy brothers had issued an ultimatum that other American officials (and the public) did not know about, and which they could not confirm Khrushchev received. The Kennedys did not consider that Castro and his forces were acting independently, and therefore that their immediate ultimatum would not reach this key actor, whether or not he would heed it. Signals were being sent assuming they would be received and acted upon by the right actors, but American leaders did not know that they did not know who the right actors were, or that the messages were being received as intended.
These were not the most dangerous unknown unknowns. For, until 1992, at a conference in Cuba of American, Soviet and Cuban veterans of the crisis, no Americans knew that the Soviets had deployed more than 100 “tactical” nuclear weapons in Cuba. These smaller, battlefield-oriented nuclear weapons were to defend against an expected Marine invasion by the United States. Prior to October 22, local Soviet officers were pre-authorized to use them against an American invasion force. The Kennedy brothers and all their advisers had mistakenly thought that the only nuclear-related forces on Cuba were medium- and intermediate-range missiles; intelligence assets were searching for those missiles’ corresponding nuclear warheads, but had not been able to locate them. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons was unknown, and the delegation to use them utterly unimaginable to American intelligence analysts and leaders.
Had another American plane been hit, the United States probably would have responded first by bombing missile installations. Depending on how Castro and his forces reacted to that, and whether the Soviets would have begun removing the detected missiles, Kennedy and the military planned that the United States would begin an invasion. The military found the idea of invasion desirable, or at least feasible, because as McNamara told Kennedy, there were “about 8 to 10,000” Soviet “personnel, probably military personnel” in Cuba. As it turned out, this was an “unknown known”—a thing American leaders thought they knew but did not. The Soviets actually had far more troops on the island—42,000—which was not revealed until 2008.
If Kennedy had assented to his generals’ constant pressure to invade Cuba, the higher-than-known Soviet troop numbers likely would have made the landing and ground war much more difficult to win. This, in turn, would have created even greater pressure on Kennedy to escalate in order to avoid a politically devastating defeat. Such escalation would have then probably driven the Cubans/Soviets to use some of these nuclear weapons against invading forces. American officials would have assumed that Khrushchev had authorized this use of nuclear weapons. Therefore nuclear war was underway at Khrushchev’s instigation. The United States’ nuclear plans then called for unleashing most of the more than 18,000 nuclear weapons the U.S. military deployed in 1962, against the Soviet bloc and China.
When McNamara learned about the Soviet deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba 30 years after the fact, in 1992, he declared: “We don’t need to speculate what would have happened. It would have been an absolute disaster for the world … No one should believe that a U.S. force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.”
Similar harrowing developments were also occurring at sea, even in the days after the crisis seemingly had ended. In brief, Soviet submarines patrolling around Cuba were equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes, unbeknownst to U.S. officials. When American vessels dropped “practice” depth charges intended to signal the submarines to surface, the submarines’ commanders thought they were under attack. Two of the crews prepared to launch their nuclear-armed torpedoes against American ships, but for different reasons ultimately withheld firing. These crews, when they later returned to Russia after the crisis, were reprimanded for not heroically violating orders and firing. Again, none of this was known by Americans until decades after the crisis.
In the 55 years since these unseen nuclear bullets were dodged in the Cuban missile crisis, the United States’ technical capabilities to gather intelligence have improved breathtakingly. Still, it is extremely difficult to know how foreign adversaries perceive their situation and calculate their moves, especially when key targets of intelligence do not reveal their inner thoughts in phone calls, texts and emails that can be intercepted. (The experience with Iraq in 2003 shows the limits of both types of intelligence. The U.S. government wrongly “knew” that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and did not know that Saddam Hussein welcomed this misperception because it made him look stronger to his own population and regional rivals.)
The United States and other governments know that North Korea has nuclear weapons that work. The number is uncertain. Estimates run from 15 to 60. North Korea has tested a variety of missiles whose ranges extend from 50 to 8,000 miles. (Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is 120 miles from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Washington, D.C., is about 6,750 miles from Pyongyang.) The numbers and reliabilities of the various types, again, are uncertain. Outsiders and Kim Jong Un do not know whether nuclear warheads mounted on longer-range missiles would detonate as planned.
Nor can the U.S. be certain that its ballistic missile defenses, which have never been tested in wartime conditions, can knock out North Korea’s long-range missiles. Last October, Trump boasted to Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.” Experts swiftly debunked that claim, and the Pentagon did not defend it. But if the president really believes it, or the North Koreans believe he believes it, then the risk of nuclear conflict could be greater than it should otherwise be. The president could be emboldened to strike North Korea, believing that missile defenses would limit its ability to retaliate. Kim could back down for the same reason, or, just as likely, he could be motivated to expand his nuclear arsenal and seek other means of delivery, for example, via cargo ships in South Korean, Japanese or American ports, so that he would have more confidence in being able to retaliate against Trump.
Intelligence on the perceptions, thinking and behavioral tendencies of North Korea’s leadership is even cloudier than regarding its military capabilities. Senior U.S. military officials privately acknowledge that they have very little insight into how Kim and his inner circle would react to various U.S. military actions or diplomatic negotiating positions. Indeed, senior officials in the current administration and its predecessors say that less is known about North Korea than any other adversary. Meanwhile, North Koreans struggle to predict what Trump will do, according to recent interlocutors with North Korean officials.
Against this backdrop, the Trump administration is contemplating and preparing for strikes against North Korean military facilities and capabilities if North Korea conducts another test of an intercontinental ballistic missile or a nuclear weapon. The idea, according to credible reports, is not to undertake or signal a war to remove the North Korean regime, but rather to demonstrate the United States’ seriousness and to compel Kim to stop such provocations.
Given the stakes involved, it behooves leaders in the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, the White House and Congress to learn from pertinent history and ask what could go wrong if North Korea has more or different weaponry than U.S. intelligence assumes, and if North Korean officers and crews will behave differently than is assumed when they are attacked. Similar out-of the-box thinking should be applied to how South Korean officials, military crews and society will act if conflict begins.
American officials cannot control whether their North Korean counterparts conduct similar analyses of their own assessments of U.S. capabilities, intentions and likely behaviors. Maybe they will conclude that the wisest course is to avoid a conflict they cannot win, or maybe they will not. As scholars such as James Blight and Janet Lang have documented, the young and deeply ideological Fidel Castro in 1962 urged Khrushchev to initiate nuclear war with the United States in Cuba, preferring national suicide to an American invasion and overthrow of his government. It will be left for historians in 50 years to determine whether the antagonists were lucky or unlucky, wise or unwise.
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