CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS: MORE THAN JUST HISTORY
PART I: THE US SIDE
As you drive east of Havana along the road to the beaches , just as
you pass the medieval fortresses overlooking the sea (left there
centuries ago by the Spanish conquistadores), you come upon a tall,
white missile jutting its nose into the clear blue sky.
This one is inactive, a monument to what almost happened thirty years
ago. In 1962, on the heels of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and
the threat of a new one,the Soviet Union installed ballistic missiles
in Cuba. The Pentagon learned of their presence, issued an ultimatum
-- and the world held its breath.
The stand-off over these missiles brought the world even closer to
the brink of nuclear disaster than most people realized.
Today, little boys in shorts and t-shirts fly kites along the rocky
strip of beach, ignoring the missile and the cars filled with
strangers coming to stand around it, give speeches and take pictures.
The persistent efforts of some university professors, especially
James Blight of Brown and Phil Brenner of American, brought the top
US, Soviet and Cuban players in that old drama together to rehash what
went on -- and what almost happened -- in October 1962. A reliving of
But is the Cuban Missile Crisis really only an event of the past, of
interest primarily to historians? The very intensity of the debate,
the determination to ascertain exactly what each side THOUGHT was
happening as well as the objective facts, seemed to imply much more.
What we are learning here may very well help us prevent a similar
crisis in the future, according to former US Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara -- a man whom many say is trying to spend the rest of his
life expiating the guilt he felt for the role he played in the 1960s
in some of America's less-than-honorable foreign adventures, such as
McNamara's point was simple -- and he repeated it over and over. In
crisis situations, such as occurred in 1962, the likelihood of
governmental decisions being affected by misjudgment, misinformation
and miscalculation make it impossible to predict with confidence the
consequences of military actions. In an age of hi-tech weaponry,
"crisis management" is uncertain and risky, at best. Therefore, all
nations should strive for "crisis avoidance" instead.
To the former Defense Secretary, "crisis avoidance" begins with an
understanding of each other's actions and the motivations behind them.
McNamara cited numerous examples of how this failed before, during and
after the missile crisis.
Four of these stand out.
1. Before the missile crisis, the Soviet Union and Cuba believed the
United States intended to invade the island to overthrow President
Castro and remove his government. McNamara denied that this was US
intention at the time, but he agreed that it certainly must have
looked that way to the Soviets and Cubans.
2. The US believed that the Soviets would not take the unprecedented
step of moving nuclear warheads of out the SOviet Union, but in fact
there were twenty soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba by October 24, 1962.
Their missiles were to be targeted on cities in the US.
3. The Soviets believed they could introduce those missiles into Cuba
without detection, and that once the US discovered their presence it
would not respond. McNamara contends the Soviets were mistaken to
4. Equally mistaken was the US belief that the Soviets would not
react to a US air attack to "take out" the missiles, as the warhawks
were then urging President Kennedy. The likely scenario would have
followed up the air strikes with a sea and land invasion, causing at
least 100,000 casualties -- to which the US believed the Soviets would
In Moscow, at a previous conference, the Soviets "expressed disbelief
we could have thought that," insisting that they would have felt
compelled to take some miitary action, somewhere.
In light of this, McNamara insisted, it is imperative that parties in
conflict "take great care to try to understand how their actions will
be interpreted by the other party."
McNamara --who went on to head the world bank after he stepped down
as Defense Secretary -- reiterated the logic behind the Cuban and
Soviet assumption that the US was preparing another invasion of Cuba
after the failed Bay of Pigs attack. "If I had been a Cuban leader, I
think I might have expected a US invasion," he stated candidly. "We had
authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion...We did not support it
military...but in any event we had assisted in carrying it out. And
after the debacle, there were many voiced in the US that said the
error was not in approving the Bayt of Pigs operation [but] in the
failure to support it with military force -- the implicationb eing
that at some point in the future, force would be applied."
In addition to this, CIA covert actions against Cuba were continuing,
and important voices in the US House and Senate were calling for an
invasion. "Contingency plans" had in fact been drawn up for just such
Nevertheless, the Kennedy-administration official insisted that his
administration never intended to carry out an invasion-- something he
will have to forgive the Cubans for being skeptical about, considering
that McNamara also insists today that the US poses no threat to the
McNamara outlined four basic concerns which he said that every US
administration since Eisenhower has had regarding Cuba. THree of
these, he says, no longer apply.
First, that Cuba was viewed as an agent of the Soviet Union in
pursuit of its COld War aims and therefore a direct military threat to
Second, the US was concerned over Cuba's support for armed groups
"whose goal was to overthrow many, if not all, of the governments in
Latin America and the Caribbean (most of which, he sometimes
acknowledges, were repressive military dictatorships).
A third annoyance was Cuba's "constant, hostile rhetoric directed at
the United States" and other governments in the hemisphere. Although
the former Defense Secretary acknowledged that the US "also engaged --
and still does -- in considerable propaganda directed at CUba" he
dismissed that by saying "rightly or wrongly, we vbiewed our efforts
as reacting to, not precipitating, Cuba's."
The fourth "concern" -- which is the one McNamara insists is an
ongoing one -- was that the US saw the Cuban revolution as "a violator
of accepted norms of international behavior, particularly in the
fields of political freedom and civil rights."
In this last, McNamara is on shaky ground when he argues that US
actions have resulted from the fact "that the Cuban government
betrayed its promises of a free election and began to establish a
dictatorship that violated the civil and political liberties of the
In a gross understatement, McNamara admitted that "US support for
democracy in the Hemisphere has not always been consistent," but he
insisted that this "does not make the defense of democracy by the US
hypocritical or insincere." It is hard to understand why not, given
that to this date, the US has shown itself willing to accept and
defend mostly brutally repressive dictatorships anywhere in the world,
as long as US economic interests were protected in those countries.