The Cuban Missile Crisis at 55

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 55

The bullshit, the truth… and Trump.


“The bullshitter…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

—Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Picture this image in your mind’s eye: a thumb and forefinger brought so near to each other that they almost, but don’t quite, touch. As the thumb and forefinger nearly touch, a voice says, “We came that close to nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis.”

In January 1992, top-level decision-makers of the Cuban missile crisis—former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former US defense secretary Robert McNamara—used this image to convey how close the world had been to nuclear annihilation on October 26-27, 1962. As they spoke, the pupils in their eyes dilated, their voices cracked, heavy with barely managed emotion. That was their remembered reality of that moment: a world on the brink of Armageddon. Both would go to their graves haunted by what they learned from each other in the 1992 conference on the crisis that we organized in Havana, almost 30 years after the most dangerous moment in recorded history.

Are we being hyperbolic? Were they? We don’t think so. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, what could in many other contexts be brushed aside as hyperbole is often just unvarnished fact. Consider what McNamara and Castro learned in the course of those epochal exchanges at the 1992 Havana conference.

McNamara had already believed in October 1962 that the crisis was dangerous. In military affairs, McNamara was President John F. Kennedy’s designated principal worrier. He worried about a panicky Russian second lieutenant who might launch a nuke at the United States without authorization. He worried about a Russian move against West Berlin. In these instances, a nuclear response would be required, and after that, probable escalation to all-out nuclear war. Subsequent research by us and by others has shown that he was right to worry about all these possibilities.

But what he learned in January 1992, 30 years later, was far more horrifying to him. He learned that the Russians on the island were ready and willing to nuke any invading US force with tactical nuclear weapons—something McNamara had never dreamed was possible. He also learned later that the Russians were ready and willing, with Cuban logistical assistance, to strike the US base at Guantánamo Bay with tactical nukes that, by October 27, had been moved into battle positions in eastern Cuba—another eventuality that had never appeared on his scope. If either of these scenarios had materialized, a nuclear US counterattack would have followed immediately, killing millions of Cubans and thousands of Russians on the island. Cuba would have been destroyed. And that would have been only the beginning—of the end of the world, as we know it. Again: fact, not hyperbole. Essentially, McNamara learned that he was monumentally wrong about the basic assumptions on which any US attack on Cuba would have been based.

We were sitting next to McNamara in January 1992 when he learned from Russian General Anatoly Gribkov about the possibility of a nuclear attack on an invading US force in Cuba, a force that would not initially have been equipped with nuclear weapons. Normally loquacious, McNamara was rendered temporarily speechless. His face turned pale. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He asked the interpreters to confirm the accuracy of the translation. They did so. He became aware that the greatest danger of Armageddon in the crisis lay in what he and his president had not known, and in fact had never even imagined. His discovery might be summarized this way: In the event of any non-nuclear US air attack and invasion of Cuba, the nuclear war he wanted desperately to avoid would have begun on the beaches of Cuba at the initiation of the Soviets and Cubans. On October 26, 1962, McNamara imagined that such a US attack might be required within 24 hours, never dreaming that such an action would have been the penultimate move toward a catastrophic nuclear war that would begin in Cuba.

What did Castro learn? During the event, he believed for good reason that Cuba’s fate was sealed: The US attack was virtually inevitable, probably imminent, and likely nuclear. Here is what he told McNamara at the 1992 Havana conference:

Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that. If the invasion had taken place in the situation that had been created, nuclear war would have been the result. Everybody here was simply resigned to the fate that we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear.

With this in mind, Castro wrote a now-famous letter on October 26, 1962, requesting that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev order a nuclear attack on the United States if, as expected, the Americans first attacked and invaded Cuba. (Castro declassified and released that letter in November 1990, during the run-up to a preparatory US-Cuban-Russian conference we organized in Antigua in January 1991.) The Cuban leader was worried about what he believed was a regrettable Russian tendency to delay (as Stalin had done in the hours immediately following the Nazi invasion). It may be asked: How could any factual revelations about the Cuban missile crisis have “haunted” a leader who seems to have expected, and to have faced defiantly, the total obliteration of his country?

What haunted Fidel Castro was the knowledge, derived in that document-rich discussion with McNamara and others from the Kennedy administration, that he was dead wrong about his most fundamental and unshakeable assumption: that a decision had been made in the Kennedy White House to destroy the Cuban Revolution, liquidate its leaders, and reestablish Cuba as a quasi-colony of the United States, with a government willing to follow orders from Washington. Every important foreign-policy decision Castro made in the 18 months following the abortive, CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 was based on this assumption: Cuba is toast; Kennedy must destroy us in order to preserve his political life; and any attack by the United States against Cuba will involve the use of US nuclear weapons, because of Kennedy’s desperation to destroy the Cuban regime. As Castro told us in January 1992, he believed “we would disappear.”

But he discovered that he had been wrong. No such decision had been made in Washington, and until the discovery of Soviet missiles on the island, it was highly unlikely that Kennedy would ever have made such a decision. In October 1962, Castro had mistakenly believed that he and Cuba had nothing to lose by acting provocatively, by flinging taunts at Washington, or, in the spring of 1962, by accepting the Russian offer to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. In this way, due to his ignorance of Washington and the absolute certainty with which he held his convictions, Castro’s behavior during the 18 months before the missile crisis raised the odds sky-high of exactly the catastrophe he wrongly assumed was inevitable.

Immediately after the conclusion of the 1992 Havana conference, we were asked to join Castro for a private discussion. He explained to McNamara that he was perplexed by what he found in some of the US documents, and by what he had heard at the conference from McNamara. He seated himself next to McNamara, put his large left hand on the secretary’s bony right shoulder, and asked: “Were you going to invade Cuba, if we hadn’t accepted the Russian missiles?” McNamara, who prided himself on his quick, snappy rejoinders, did not respond right away. He simply stared at his interlocutor. Castro, moreover, did not assist him by filling the silence. After a long pause, McNamara responded, “No, Mr. President. We were absolutely not interested in invading Cuba. I can understand why you believed we were. But we weren’t.” Castro thanked him, said he believed him, and then asked: “What about Kennedy?” McNamara replied: “Kennedy and I were of one mind. A number of his advisers did not share our view. But I believe the president, with my assistance, would have prevailed.” Castro thanked McNamara again for his candor.

Then, suddenly, McNamara stood up as if in a panic, shook Castro’s hand and announced that he had to leave. Castro urged him to stay, saying that he had nothing planned for the next 12 hours, which seemed to raise McNamara’s panic level a notch or two higher. Seconds later, he was gone and the meeting was over.

Soon after the Havana conference, both McNamara and Castro began using the thumb and forefinger image—“that close to nuclear war”—when discussing the Cuban missile crisis. In the metaphorical gap between thumb and forefinger is misunderstanding—a profound lack of empathy between adversaries. By the time of their deaths—McNamara in July 2009, and Castro in November 2016—both men had become full-throated, take-no-prisoners nuclear abolitionists, a view directly traceable to their pivotal exchange in Havana in January 1992.

Now, 55 years after the crisis, both McNamara and Castro are dead, and the significance of their shared epiphanies of January 1992 has become buried under a pile of trivializing kitsch: good guys and bad buys, heroes and cowards; winners and losers, and the sense of abstract unreality that often creeps into our understanding of events that are receding into the unremembered past. Drained of the emotion, confusion, and—in the case of the Cuban missile crisis—the danger, of the moment, they become just dots on some historical timeline, which students are supposed to connect in response to their professors’ assignments.

To grasp what actually happened in the crisis—and what actually would have happened if a way out had not been found at the last minute—requires us to confront two of the event’s most powerful myths. First: that talk about “the end of the world as we know it” was and is just hyperbole. Many share the view that since “almost nothing” happened (i.e., there was no war, not even a battle, let alone a nuclear war), we need pay little attention to it—or at least there is no need to dwell on it, anniversary after anniversary, to keep reminding everyone that it was “damned dangerous,” as McNamara told Kennedy during the crisis. Second, when Castro and McNamara claimed, as we do, that Armageddon might have happened, indeed was about to happen—that the Book of Revelation had actually become the world’s playbook in late October 1962—the claim seems to many to be too outlandish, too ridiculous, to be the truth. It seems just too bizarrely irrational. Really, they ask: How can it be that otherwise rational leaders, with inquiring minds about the connections between causes and effects in the real world, were about to initiate a nuclear war that would have brought on nuclear Armageddon? Such an outcome is in no one’s interest. So the leaders would not have done it, which is why they didn’t do it. Some (notably and infamously, the political scientist Kenneth Waltz) have actually said this and written this. Others who deny the danger of the crisis simply feel a lack of urgency about the nuclear threat then, and now. Many academics have aided and abetted this unfortunate evolution of our misunderstanding of the crisis. To many professors, the crisis is best understood as a game, like some combination of chess and American football—an interesting game, but in the end only a game, with no great relevance to us in the 21st century.

Alas, this view is, in the technical sense identified by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, bullshit. As we point out in our new book, Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst, the view is bullshit, rather than just a pack of lies, because the exercise that produced this received pseudo-wisdom derives principally from the need to exclaim that “we won”—that the crisis was essentially a game in which Washington emerged the winner. Sentiments like these are meant to bring us to our feet and cheer for the good guys’ victory over the bad guys—the Americans over the Russians in this Super Bowl of the Cold War. Such views not just manifestly untrue: Still worse, they are bullshit because the assertions have nothing to do with the real Cuban missile crisis. The narrative is driven by a need that is totally irrelevant to the historical event. It is hardly accidental that many young people today first encounter something called the Cuban missile crisis via popular culture: in board games, TV shows, and in movie fantasies like the 2011 film, X-Men: First Class or the 2010 video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops.

Here, compacted into one paragraph, is our 260-word variant of the bullshit many people who have heard of the event believe about the Cuban missile crisis:

In October 1962, unprovoked and out of the blue, the Soviet Union (the bad guys, the aggressors) precipitated a crisis with the United States (the good guys, the victims) by attempting to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, (a “parking lot” for the missiles), 90 miles from the shores of the United States. Luckily, US intelligence discovered this provocative plan before its completion—in fact, before any nuclear warheads had arrived in Cuba, rendering their delivery vehicles (missiles, planes, and boats) useless. And so, with fearless, finely calibrated coercion, President John F. Kennedy compelled Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove the missiles. Kennedy stood strong; he stood tall; he did not compromise; and in just 13 days, he secured an unequivocal victory for the United States over the Soviet Union. Since Kennedy’s forces had overwhelming local military superiority in the Western hemisphere, and global superiority in deliverable nuclear warheads all over the world, the crisis was not as dangerous as some made it out to be. Khrushchev had no choice. He had to capitulate or risk being destroyed and he knew it, which is why he “blinked” and Kennedy didn’t. Kennedy and Khrushchev rightly ignored the ranting of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, since his views were irrelevant to both the deployment and removal of the missiles. October 1962 was Kennedy’s finest hour, Khrushchev’s worst humiliation, and Castro’s introduction into the high-stakes game that was the Cold War, as played by the Big Boys from Washington and Moscow—a game in which a small country like Cuba was merely a bit player.

Now you’ve met the enemy.

Our research on the crisis over the past 30 years proves beyond a doubt that everything in that paragraph is dead wrong! It never happened.

What did happen? Here, also in one paragraph, is the truth about what made the Cuban missile crisis the most dangerous crisis in recorded history:

The crisis did not come out of the blue and last 13 days; US blindness toward Cuba only made it seem that way. The crisis began 18 months earlier, after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba, fearing an imminent full-scale US invasion, asked Russia for defensive weapons. Russia began providing nuclear weapons, and the superpower-sleepwalk toward Armageddon began. The United States was not a victim of the deployment; its threats to Cuba were an important cause of it. US intelligence assessments were atrocious: They did not predict the deployment; they did not even confirm it until the missiles in Cuba were almost ready to fire; and their conclusion that warheads for the weapons probably never reached Cuba was dead wrong. In all, 162 nuclear warheads were shipped, delivered, stored, and made ready to fire by Soviet technicians in Cuba. While Kennedy courageously and ingeniously resisted the many hawks in his administration urging him toward war, he had no plan when the missiles were discovered and was shocked at the deployment. Nobody won. Nobody lost. Nobody “blinked.” Once Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they were losing control of the crisis, they worked feverishly, collaboratively, and effectively to terminate it. But Moscow’s and Washington’s dismissal of the Cuban perspective, leading to Cuban outrage and provocative behavior, sent the crisis to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Far from being a bit player, Cuba became the hinge of the world. Believing they were irrevocably doomed by an imminent US nuclear attack on the island, Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev urging him to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the United States ASAP, once the Americans began invading the island. The Cubans, and their Russian comrades in Cuba, prepared to nuke the US Guantánamo Bay naval base, and to use their short-range nuclear weapons against the invading US forces. Had these actions been carried out, a US nuclear response would likely have followed, and Armageddon would have commenced then and there.

Every claim in this summary statement is backed by voluminous and authoritative declassified documentation, oral testimony from top-ranking leaders during the crisis, and by the careful analyses of scholars from many disciplines! What it says happened, happened!

Fidel Castro and the Cubans were far from insane and far from suicidal. They were rational, given that they had concluded that Cuba’s destruction was inevitable (an impression that the Americans were trying to convey, but without sufficiently thinking through the implications of such a strategy). If Castro had been crazy, the only lesson would be the common-sense injunction—easy to state, less easy to implement—to try to keep crazy people from becoming leaders of countries. But in October 1962, rational leaders, making decisions each believed were in his country’s interests, unwittingly went sleepwalking together toward the nuclear abyss, dragging the whole world with them. The Cuban missile crisis is scary and relevant today not because Castro was crazy, but because he wasn’t! Something like it could happen again, in our 21st-century world, with its nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. That’s the truth. You are here today because three leaders, and the rest of the human race, got lucky in October 1962. Ask yourself how it feels to consider that the planet you inhabit today was saved from total destruction in October 1962 principally by luck. Let the idea sink in. Will you bet we’ll get that lucky next time?

Don’t. For more than half a century, we’ve been told that the crisis was a great victory because the Russians blinked and the Americans didn’t (while the Cubans didn’t matter at all). We avoided Armageddon in October 1962, and we’ll avoid it next time. Both parts of that proposition are bullshit. The next time the world finds itself staring into the nuclear abyss, and war breaks out, the lucky ones will likely be those who die quickly. The living will envy the dead. In part three of Dark Beyond Darkness, we show how the detonation of perhaps less than 2 percent of the world’s roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons could lead to global nuclear winter and the eventual end of civilization as we currently experience it. Millions in the blast zones will die quickly. Billions, however, will feel the impact, as the world gets cold, crops fail, starvation is rampant, and the infrastructure of civilized life unravels. This is the message from contemporary climatologists and physicians: A nuclear war anywhere will disrupt—and possibly destroy—civilized life everywhere.

If you don’t believe nuclear abolition is an urgent issue, you need to stop and consider the wager you are implicitly making. Are you willing to bet the fate of this planet that Pakistan, feeling that India has pushed its back against the wall over Kashmir, will never go nuclear? Are you confident that North Korea will never yield to the temptation to launch its warheads at South Korea, the United States, or US territory in the Pacific? Are you absolutely certain that Israel will never feel so threatened by an Islamic neighbor (or neighbors) that it will launch a preemptive nuclear attack? Are you sure that India will never feel so apprehensive about China along the nations’ shared 2,170-mile border that it resorts to its large and growing nuclear arsenal? Are you quite sure that at this moment of renewed tension between Russia and the West, a Cuban-missile-crisis-like event will not occur, somewhere, sometime—an event reminiscent of October 1962, which no one sees coming and which spirals out of control?

In addition to these potentially hellish mixtures of historical enmity, mistrust, and nuclear capability, we must now insert a perverse circumstance that is unique in the history of the nuclear age: Since January 20, 2017, a superpower has been led by someone whose uninformed, often-unhinged riffs not only contain bullshit about the size of his crowds or bodily organs, but also contain either threats or bluffs involving nuclear weapons. In July, Donald Trump told his advisers he wanted 10 times as many nuclear weapons as are currently in the US arsenal. If he had his way, the size of the US arsenal alone would be roughly equal to the size of the US and Soviet arsenals combined during the height of the Cold War. In August, he announced that if North Korea continued to threaten the United States, he would order the destruction of the Hermit Kingdom, with “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” And a couple of weeks ago, he refused to recertify that Iran is in compliance with the breakthrough July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed to by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. (Iran is in compliance!) He apparently hopes that Congress will ultimately kill it. Is Trump bluffing about wanting a ginormous nuclear arsenal, or about nuking North Korea, or about pulling down the temple around the landmark Iran nuclear deal? Probably. But what we now know about the Cuban missile crisis demonstrates emphatically that “probably” is not good enough in matters of nuclear risk.

We need to understand Trump’s nuclear riffs in the context of the truth about the Cuban missile crisis. Why was it so dangerous? Because one of the involved actors, Cuba, believed it was doomed—that nothing it could do short of preemptive, unconditional surrender would permit it to survive. The Cubans were mistaken in the belief that they were doomed, but they had their reasons. The Cubans then asked their Russian ally to take revenge on the United States in the event of an attack, which they regarded as inevitable and, by October 27, 1962, imminent. The United States didn’t attack, and the Russians were horrified by the Cuban request. From the Cuban perspective, Khrushchev was a spineless bluffer. He was not prepared to go “to the last day” with the Cubans, as Che Guevara put it mockingly to Soviet negotiator Anastas Mikoyan in November 1962. Kennedy, too, was bluffing, in that his threats to Cuba were, in his mind, designed only to make the Russians remove the missiles, not to threaten the viability of the Cuban regime. But the Cubans were not bluffing. Small, independent countries that feel cornered by big powers cannot afford to bluff. The relevant fact is this: If the Cubans had possessed the ability to use the nuclear weapons stationed on their island by the Russians, they would have: They would have fought the United States, nuke for nuke, unless and until the Americans surrendered or the world had become a smoking, radiating ruin.

Donald Trump—like Khrushchev with his missiles, like Kennedy with his naval blockade—may be bluffing. Trump had a reputation as a bluffer when he was a real-estate developer. Many readers of this magazine may, like us, believe Trump is bluffing most, or even all, of the time. Many believe, perhaps correctly, that the current occupant of the White House is best described as America’s bullshitter in chief, who appears on TV, in rallies, and in his tweets like the Peanuts character Pig Pen gone rogue: an orange chimera immersed in a dark cloud (of bullshit).

But if you are Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin, or Hassan Rouhani, or any other leader of a nuclear nation, what are you to think of Trump’s nuclear expostulations? Will you bet that Trump is bluffing? How will you convince your hard-liners that he is? And if you don’t believe he is bluffing, or you can’t convince your relevant constituents that he is, then what? What if you and/or your associates conclude that you cannot afford to bet that he is bluffing? The Cuban missile crisis strongly suggests that you will prepare for nuclear war, and that every preparation you make for that war raises the odds that the war will actually happen.

In the age of Trump, some, though still too few, already wish fervently that we had heeded the mother of all lessons from the crisis: Having “lucked out” in October 1962, lacking any means of changing human nature, and in the absence of meaningful world government, nuclear weapons must be abolished before they abolish us.

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