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Remembered as perhaps the most intense episode of the Cold War due to its nuclear threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been analyzed extensively by historians hoping to construct an accurate picture of its cause and development. The tight control exercised by both Soviet and American government agencies, however, has limited access to relevant documents, and thus inhibited any objective study of the crisis. Until only a few years ago, most of the world would have agreed with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.s’ description of the event as a “brilliantly controlled”1 American victory- a paragon of US dedication, morale, and diplomatic skill. But as the National Security Archive has gradually opened access to key accounts, it has become apparent that what seemed so finely orchestrated was in fact wrought with “misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment.”
2 At the time, tensions were already running high due to the fierce military and psychological rivalry between superpowers, and problems within the Eastern and Western blocs themselves made it even easier to misinterpret political signals. Failures in intelligence and a general lack of central control further complicated the situation, fuelling the fires of mistrust that were already burning with the increased urgency that accompanies the prospect of nuclear war. From these revelations, we can conclude that initial assessments of the episode as a thirteen day affair are incorrect, that it was rather the result of long-term misunderstanding. And while deliberate deception did play a significant role in the development of the crisis, we must acknowledge that it was, for the most part, perpetuated by a combination of basic mistrust and political and military mishaps. It is with this knowledge in mind, then, that we proceed to examine the complex set of factors that brought the world to the brink of a cataclysmic war.
The years leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis had seen a number of significant changes in the Cold War conflict. Things were very unstable, as new faces became prominent, new nations were born, and the rivalry between superpowers reached previously unvisited levels, both high and low, as Soviet and American governments experimented with foreign policy. While these factors had a significant influence on the status quo in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres, their effect was particularly marked within Khrushchev’s domain, as he sought to assert his individuality by introducing anti-Stalinist mechanisms.
His advocation of “peaceful co-existence,”3 and military disarmament, as well as his insistence on publicly denouncing Stalin, met with fiery opposition from within the Kremlin, and, by 1957, it had become apparent that he was losing control of the formerly centralized Communist world. With rebellions springing up across Eastern Europe, then, and China beginning to pursue a course independent of Khrushchev’s support, it had become clear that a firm reinstatement of Soviet authority was needed, and soon.
The pressure that this goal put on Khrushchev, and the conflicts between him and his advisers caused Soviet foreign policy to fluctuate drastically. After pursuing what seemed what seemed like rapprochement at Camp David, and making an amiable visit to the United States, the Soviet leader suddenly reverted to hostile tactics, refusing to negotiate over Berlin, and assuming a suspicious attitude about US actions in Europe. This dramatic change of approach was best displayed in the fact that, after years of silence on offensive American overflights, he unexpectedly ordered a U2 plane that was photographing Soviet territory shot down. Khrushchev went on to cite this incident as the cause for his failure to attend the Paris Summit Conference in May, 1960.
Obviously, such inconsistency sent mixed messages to the American administration, increasing their distrust. Suspicion of the Soviets escalated to a new high, as many key officials sided with former Secretary of State John Dulles in describing the period of peace as “a tactical ploy to lure the West into a false sense of security, while (they) pursued…aggressive goals in disguise.”4 The Soviet desire to reassert its strength and control caused even further problems when it extended past attempts to preserve Russia’s hegemony in Eastern Europe to actions intended to undermine the American public image. Ultimately, it became apparent over the next year or so that Soviet movements were double-edged, designed to consolidate, certainly, but also to probe US defenses, to determine the actual extent of its interest and loyalty to its allies in Europe.
Their efforts in Berlin constituted one such probe, as the construction of the Berlin Wall was intended both to plug “a hole in the iron curtain,”5 and, at the same time, to break down the relationship between the United States and West Germany. The Soviets felt that if the Americans failed to intervene despite the West Berliners’ cries for help, this would weaken Germany’s confidence in their US allies, and make a statement to the rest of NATO confirming their fear that the US was unable or unwilling to offer substantial resistance to Eastern strategies. This sentiment had arisen with the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, a statement of its progress in the nuclear arms race.
The Americans, meanwhile, were aware that their failure to follow through on some of their ideas for NATO, including the goal to “increase…troop strength to fifty divisions,”6 was giving the impression that US support was all talk. Further problems with the French over the establishment of the European Defense Committee threatened the cohesion of the Western bloc and engendered a need to reinforce US interest in Europe, a need which so paralleled the Soviet goals that it set the two superpowers up for an almost inevitable collision. In addition, the new president John F. Kennedy was experiencing similar problems to those faced by Khrushchev. Confronted with a hawkist faction within his body of advisers, Kennedy was constantly under pressure to be more aggressive, to abandon containment and start to “roll back Communism.” Just as disagreements within the Kremlin had caused confusion and misinterpretations of political moves, conflict inside the White House allowed American foreign policy to appear fragmented and thus unpredictable. These things ensured that an already precarious situation was complicated by factors that masked the true intentions of each side.
Cuba may seem an unlikely place for this clash between superpowers to occur, but since 1959 it has been a key symbol of resistance to US ‘imperialism’ both in Latin America, and, on a grander scale, in the entire western hemisphere. In 1947, a “Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance” had been signed by the US and a number of South and Central American countries, apparently an alliance of similar design to NATO. It had been the source of much trouble, however, as the Latin Americans had envisioned the pact as a mechanism for their own economic development and security, not as a means by which the US could prevent Soviet expansion in this part of the globe.
When ten years passed with little tangible aid, but plenty of American interference in the political system, the civilians grew dissatisfied, a sentiment which intensified as the US threatened leftist Colonel Arbenz of Guatemala with military opposition if he did not step down as premier. The Cubans especially resented this, and, when similar threats were raised against their Communist leader Fidel Castro, they turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. By the end of 1959, Cuba had become a Russian client state, and a useful foothold for the Soviets in the western hemisphere.
Despite the intense antagonism that existed between the Russians and the Americans, the US administration did not view the close relationship between Castro and Khrushchev with any real alarm. This was because they felt that while the Soviets wanted to undermine the American public image, they were not willing to take action that could precipitate nuclear war. Thus, Kennedy was reasonably sure that his warning to the Soviets not to deploy missiles in Cuba would be obeyed in the interests of the common goal of nuclear non-proliferation.
It came as a shock, then, when U2 planes flying over Cuban territory showed that several missile sites were under construction. This greatly increased the American mistrust of the Soviets, and, as correspondence began to flow between Moscow and Washington, it became apparent that there was an inherent difference in the way that the two superpowers defined the Cuban problem. For instance, the Americans felt that they had a right to know what was happening in their part of the world, complaining that the Kremlin had given “repeated assurances of what (you were) not doing”7- in effect, that it had lied to them. The Soviets, on the other hand, asserted that they were “under no obligation to inform the U.S of any activities (they were) carrying on in a third country.”8 This statement was probably only made to promote a sense of strength and independence, but it was, to the Americans, a sign that even the prospect of nuclear war could not deter the Soviets from their campaign of domination and expansion.
It is clear from similar incidents that a need to appear strong led each superpower to use a certain degree of deception in its dealings with the other. This did not essentially cause the conflict, however; as already stated, the missile crisis had been set up by intensifications in the East-West rivalry long before Soviet ships carrying nuclear arms set sail. It would be more accurate to say, then, that the bluffing that went on only served to delay the resolution of the problem. In addition, it was effective in that it gave the world a false understanding that, particularly on the American front, could be manipulated by government officials in order to create a more favorable public impression.
The United States especially made a significant effort to present the Soviet action as “a dangerous attempt to change the world-wide status-quo,”9 ridiculing their qualms about a possible invasion of Cuba. Recent studies have shown, however, that these concerns were not so unfounded as has been previously supposed. According to the US Archives, a plan for an operation against the Castro regime had been in existence since April 1960, entailing “sabotage, infiltration, and psychological warfare, activities with military exercises…for a possible invasion.”10 It is also clear that President Kennedy was well aware of this throughout the crisis negotiations, having endorsed the scheme with the comment that its “final success” would require “decisive military intervention”11. We can only conclude that the Americans assumed the stance they did to protect their public image- seeking to mask the traces of imperialism in their attitude towards Cuba, and, at the same time, to undermine the Soviet position by presenting them as ‘bad liars’ to the rest of the world.
The Soviets were less successful, but just as determined, in their attempts to use deception to work the situation to their advantage. They, in turn, lied to the Americans in stating that “no missiles will be placed in Cuba…which would (be)…capable of reaching the United States,”12 and again, later, in their claim that the deployment of missiles to Cuba was a purely deterrent move carried out to save Castro. While it is clear that there may have been something in the concerns about invasion, the writings of Khrushchev himself show that the strategy was also invented as a means of “equalizing what the West likes to call balance of power.”
13 The double-edged nature of this Soviet probe became even more obvious in the correspondence that took place between the Kremlin and the White House, as Khrushchev requested two separate concessions in return for removing the missiles- a no invasion pledge, and a promise that threatening nuclear bases in Turkey be dismantled. These missile bases may have actually triggered the Soviet action in Cuba, as they provided the US with an unanswered first-strike capability, and, incidentally, had become operational just a few weeks before ships began to cross from Russia to the Cuban coast.
Known as the Jupiter missiles, these nuclear bases were an important part of a US statement intended to counter general lack of confidence in American support. They were also, however, essentially “provocative,”14 capable, as the Cuban crisis had shown, of precipitating a nuclear war. As the Americans weighed up these two factors, their concerns about their public image again caused them to revert to deceptive measures.
Their inconsistency did not exactly impress the Russians, who were one day confronted with the announcement that the missiles in Turkey were “NATO’s decision,”15 and the next, told that they would be removed if the Soviets kept the news of this concession from the American allies. In the end, however, the US administration judged correctly when it assumed that Khrushchev would happily forget about publicizing the agreement if he were given what he had asked for. The missiles in Turkey continued to be a central issue, though, as ongoing denial of any explicit Turkey-Cuba deal created the impression that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a great American victory.
To further confound a situation that was already complicated by long term misunderstanding and deliberate deception, a number of military and political mishaps occurred. For instance, the fact that an American plane was shot down over Cuba almost triggered a U.S. air strike because it was interpreted as a Kremlin initiated action. Evidence has shown, however, that this was a purely local effort on the part of the Cubans to assert their independence. Similar problems occurred in the US administration, as CIA officials undertook unauthorized operations that gave the Cubans even more reason to anticipate an American invasion. This lack of central control made communication “vital…for the whole world,”16 as the White House at least, recognized. In a conflict involving nuclear weapons, Kennedy said, even if these are only valuable for their psychological effect, every precaution must be taken to prevent an accidental outbreak of war.
It is clear, then, that the Cuban Missile Crisis was born out of mutual but conflicting desires to appear strong in the context of an intense ideological war. During the years leading up to the event, a number of factors, the most important of these being the threat of nuclear war, combined to escalate existing tensions to dangerously high levels. In addition, the fact that neither side was willing to acknowledge that relations were deteriorating meant that the situation was further complicated by diplomatic exchange.
When the conflict broke out in 1962, both Khrushchev and Kennedy stumbled through negotiations as they weighed up various concerns: how to protect their public image at home, and yet, at the same time, undermine the enemy’s position; how to keep up in the arms race while avoiding nuclear war. These things, and may others ensured that any resolution of the crisis would have to offer a military quid pro quo which would diffuse the nuclear conflict without causing either superpower to lose face. The fact that Soviet and American officials still disagree about the details of the eventual agreement, however, shows that it was more the “(nuclear) restraint that was practiced and expected”17 that prevented the outbreak of war than any diplomatic feat.
1 Jonathan K. Reece “Revising the History of the Missile Crisis,” pg. 34.
2 Robert McNamara as quoted in Jonathan K. Reece’s “Revising the History of the Missile Crisis, pg. 34.
3 William R. Keych “The 20th Century World” pg. 304
4 William R. Keych “The 20th Century World” pg. 304
5 William R. Keych, op cit., pg. 316
6 William R. Keych, op cit. pg. 297
7 Letter from John F. Kennedy to N.S. Khrushchev of Nov. 6, 1962.
8 Soviet Ambassador Kusnetsov as quoted in letter from John F. Kennedy to N.S. Khrushchev of Nov. 6, 1962.
9 The President’s Address, October 22,nd, 1962.
10 “Top Secret” document released to the US National Security Archives in January 1989.
12 Letter from John F. Kennedy to N.S. Khrushchev of Nov. 6, 1962
14 Eisenhower as quoted by Jonathan K. Reece, op cit. page 46.
16 Letter from John F. Kennedy, op cit.