The 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis falls at a time of election; of uncertain political transition in North Korea; of rising geostrategic ambitions in Putin’s Russia and during a heightened standoff between America and Iran. Today’s global tensions make it particularly important that we understand what really happened during the 20th century’s most dangerous moment. All too often, however, the wider historical truths of the cold war’s most dramatic showdown are obscured by self-serving myths of the event itself.
The first of these myths has been the tendency to see the missile crisis as proof of the underlying good judgment of liberal democracies, especially when confronted by irrational foes. Of course, it was far from a wise move for Khrushchev to attempt to smuggle dozens of ICBMs halfway across the world in the hope of installing them, undetected, just a short hop away from the North American mainland. But the truth is more nuanced than this. And even the phrase “the missile crisis” can be misleading here.
Not only were there actually several rather distinct crisis moments (from the game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse that took place prior to Kennedy’s public challenge to Khrushchev, to the naval blockade, the shooting down of a U-2 plane over Cuba, and the fallout between Moscow and Havana before the missiles were removed), but far more importantly, the road to October 1962 was much longer in the making than we tend to recall.
On this point, the Soviet historical term – “the Caribbean crisis” – is a far better shorthand, since the missile crisis was above all a crisis about Cuba. When Khrushchev took the decision to place ballistic missiles on the island, it was not simply on a whim, as American cold war historians long claimed. Nor was it a diversionary play in the ongoing superpower struggle over Berlin, as they also suspected. It was chiefly to respond to the Cubans’ requests for military support in light of American aggression, as well as the snippets of intelligence that Moscow was already picking up about Operation Mongoose – the CIA‘s covert plan to topple Castro.
Putting missiles on Cuba was also a way for Khrushchev to square off against Chairman Mao, who had been criticizing his lack of revolutionary internationalism. So, framing the crisis as set in motion by an act of Soviet irrationality and Cuban hotheadedness obscures the significant role that American interventionism and Chinese belligerence also played in precipitating events.
The second pervasive myth about the missile crisis that has set fast over these past 50 years is that in diplomacy, you win by standing your ground. This is well encapsulated in the popularity of the phrase attributed to Kennedy’s Secretary of State Dean Rusk:
“We’ve been eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.”
Not to mention in films like Kevin Costner’s 2001 production, Thirteen Days. The archival record of the way that Soviet and American decision-makers actually dealt with the crisis reveals how inaccurate this picture is. As the historians James Blight and Philip Brenner show in their book, Sad and Luminous Days, it was precisely by failing to compromise, let alone acknowledge the motives of the other side, that the various actors – Soviets, Americans and Cubans alike – actually helped escalate the October crisis. The real lesson ought to be, as Robert McNamara himself later admitted:
“Empathize with your adversary, or you may regret it!”
A third way in which we misremember the missile crisis is the still-pervasive myth in America that national security is best ensured through military-technological superiority. This rendering of the crisis takes its rhetorical force from the famous image of ICBM missile sites under construction at San Cristobal in western Cuba. This, of course, was the evidence that Kennedy was able to confront Khrushchev with via the American public, his diplomatic ace-in-the-hole. And it inspires a recounting of the crisis as a fable of the careful use, and ultimate value, of covert intelligence as provided by America’s then game-changing U-2 spy planes.
Again, closer attention to the facts urges caution here. It was intelligence reports on the ground that first led to Kennedy being apprised of the plot in the first place: the now-famous photos were just the final confirmation, with bad weather and internal political wrangles over “the birds” having kept the U-2s on the ground for a number of crucial days. Moreover, the U-2s themselves actually escalated the crisis at various points: with one shot down over Cuba at the very height of the crisis on 27 October, and another erroneously straying into Soviet airspace.
But the inevitable risks of such technology, and the fact that yesterday’s surveillance aircraft is now today’s expendable drone – and an armed one at that – have long been downplayed in favour of a vindication narrative. Indeed, Kennedy’s famous public airing of the photographs showing cleared palms and vehicle tracks scored into the earth still had sufficient public currency to have been mimicked by Colin Powell when asserting graphic evidence of Iraq’s WMD to the UN in February 2003.
Which brings us on to the fourth, and perhaps most ironic, way of misremembering the missile crisis. Namely, the way in which so many accounts of it contribute to the idea of the cold war as a largely bloodless affair: not a hot war of real combat, but an ideological and faintly romantic war of spies, diplomacy and geopolitical grandstanding, of which the missile crisis stands as the ultimate example. For all that the crisis may have been, as the late historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, the historical pivot of the 20th century, its sheer prominence in the popular memory has tended to obscure the far greater amounts of money that were spent by the two sides of the cold war to produce and distribute smaller – and ultimately more deadly – arms the world over: a legacy many parts of the world still suffer from today.
Indeed, one consequence of the missile crisis was to usher in a period in which the superpowers made sure to engage one another well away from their own populations and by proxy if possible: from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Central America.
In short, the popular memory of the missile crisis, as the central mise-en-acte of cold war confrontation, has tended to sanitise and to moralise that wider conflict in a way that it is all too easy to overlook. We would do well to bear this in mind today in our own, not so unpolarised times.