JOHN F. Kennedy confided to his brother, Bobby, that he thought the chances for nuclear war were 1 in 3, maybe even 50/50. Though that figure has been the subject of great debate ever since, we know things now that JFK did not know in the midst of the Crisis. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” To me, the scariest Halloween movies aren’t the ones with all the obvious and out-in-the-open shock factor, with blood and gore; it’s those stories that leave room for your imagination to wander. Fear of the unknown. To contemplate what could go wrong when you know you only get one shot at this; one shot to get it right or else the world is over. But this just isn’t any Halloween story. This is the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is History, and History can be very, very scary.
FOR one, Kennedy and the EXCOMM knew that there were plenty of IRBMs and MRBMs on the island, however they were not confident that they were all operational; what they didn’t know was that in addition to those missiles on the island, the Soviets had already sent 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba that were under the command of the local commander; these were nukes designed to be used on the battlefield and ready to launch at the discretion of the commanders without any further orders, codes or procedures from the Kremlin.
SECONDLY, estimates put the number of Russians on the island at roughly 3-4,000 “technicians” but we now know there were over 40,000 heavily armed “technicians” alongside over 200,000 Cuban troops with expert knowledge of the terrain. Would the Kremlin or Soviet commanders on the ground tolerate any casualties from a U.S. airstrike? If you were a Soviet commander on that island, where you could have probably cut the tension with a knife, would you have been able to distinguish between a “surgical” strike and an all out bombardment?
THIRDLY, there was no guarantee that an airstrike, even with over 1,200 sorties (a lot of planes), was going to take out all of the missiles, and that was only for the missiles that we knew about. That meant that a ground invasion would have to follow, involving tens of thousands of Marines, for on-the-ground confirmation of destroyed targets, to secure the other sites, and to overthrow the Castro regime. Estimates by the Joint Chiefs that just came out a few years ago estimated 18,500 American casualties in the first 10 Days, all under the assumption that there were only 3-4,000 Russians on the island. Those estimates also assumed nuclear weapons would not be involved: “If nuclear weapons were used by Soviet/Cuban personnel, there is no way to estimate the casualties”. If the airstrike had been carried out, followed by an invasion, which Kennedy was originally in favor for in the first EXCOMM week of the Crisis, and which he had on tap for the third week if the crisis hadn’t been resolved by then, it is quite likely that those tactical nuclear weapons would have been used against the American invaders. Moreover, our naval base at Guantanamo Bay probably would have been turned into a glass parking lot, along with the 9,500 Marines stationed on it. So what happens when tens of thousands of American troops get nuked? I don’t have to tell you what would probably happen after that.
BUT we know JFK didn’t opt for the strike. What actually happened? How was it ultimately resolved? The story was that in the first instance that the US, with a spy plane, discovered the Soviets had been sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba. There was a week of private/secret deliberation during which Kennedy changed his mind several times. At the end of that week he ordered a blockade of the island (Oct 22) which he called a “quarantine,” of any further arms shipments going to Cuba (technically a “blockade” is an act of war, and that . That gave them time, and gave Khrushchev some breathing room and step back from the brink. That went on for a week, during which time the Soviets continued finishing construction of the missile sites as Adlai Stevenson embarrassed the Soviet Union for the entire world to see at the U.N. to drum up international support for the U.S. Check this out, you rarely see this stuff at the U.N. anymore:
By the end of the second week, tensions were fraying: 1) a US U-2 spy plane on a recon mission over Cuba was shot down over Cuban airspace, 2) a nuclear weapons test was conducted in the Pacific which Kennedy forgot about, and 3) another U-2 flew off course in Alaska and entered Russian airspace (which alarmed the Russians since they speculated this could have been a recon mission to prepare for a nuclear attack) and both sides scrambled their fighter planes to intercept it (or destroy it depending on which side you’re on). On the 20th, China invaded India. These were just a handful of events that could have bode ill for the Crisis, but it was clear that taken together, things were happening in such a way that made people think “this can’t go on for much longer.” The stress was unbearable.
IN the end, the President went with a creative option that consisted of what can be broken down into 3 parts: 1) a public deal, if you (the Soviets) withdraw the missiles, we (the U.S.) will pledge to never invade Cuba, 2) a private ultimatum in which Bobby Kennedy, sent by his brother, told Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, that if in 24 hours we find that you’re not taking action to withdraw those missiles, we’re going to do it for you and 3) a secret sweetener where Bobby essentially said “we’re not saying that we’ll trade for our missiles in Turkey, but if this crisis is resolved successfully, those missiles won’t be there anymore. But if you mention anything about it being part of the Cuba deal, the whole deal is off.” So to bring it together it was a public carrot, a private stick, and a private carrot. In fact, a VERY private carrot; so private in fact that only a handful of EXCOMM knew it had been offered; we know this because the night Bobby is at Dobrynin’s residence, some officials in the EXCOMM are still talking about how we can’t give up those missiles in Turkey.”
Fine, it was a close call. SO WHAT?
A thought. Bundy, Rusk, LeMay, McNamara, Thompson, the whole gang. These guys and just about everyone else in Kennedy’s circle during the Crisis were the A Team. The Wiz-kids and the Wizards (older guys). Strategic Giants. I can go on and on. I’m not saying that the people who have Obama’s ear are not qualified (they’re sure as heck more qualified than me), and it may be too early to tell, but I just don’t see many people like the ones who formed the original EXCOMM 51 years ago in Obama’s circle. Granted, those same guys got us into Vietnam, though. That being said, I think the debate we’ve been having about Iran has become so politicized that it will be difficult for our national security decision-makers to find a creative solution.
Let’s not kid ourselves about Iran’s intentions. Critics dismiss Israel as the “boy who cried wolf” when Netanyahu calls for red lines against Iran as it inches closer to developing a nuclear weapons program. But let’s not forget the most obvious lesson of that children’s story: the wolf eventually does come, and it eats the boy. It’s pretty clear that even if Iran does not want a nuclear weapon outright (a very conservative assumption) they may want the capability to produce one. But just because that’s true, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that there are only two options for the U.S. and its allies here either.
Graham Allison, one of the foremost experts of the Crisis, has compared the situation with Iran to a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion,” where a President (Obama) will eventually come to a confrontation where he will be forced by his advisors to make a decision: 1) attack 2) reluctantly accept a nuclear Iran. If you ask me, those are two really lousy options. But remember, those were the same options presented to Kennedy in the Missile Crisis, and Kennedy spent those 13 days searching for an alternative. Bomb Iran and you may delay their program, but that’s pretty much all you’d accomplish: delay, foster further mistrust, and convince them to develop the capability in secret. Acquiesce to their new status as a nuclear power once they develop the capability and you just took back years of rhetoric about “red lines” and “credibility” and may have very well started a nuclear arms race in a region. It’s clear that like Kennedy, Obama does not want either option. The big lesson for Iran is this: if allowing Iran to get a nuclear bomb is as unacceptable as the White House and every other U.S. official make it out to be, and if an air strike on Iran could have a catastrophic chain of events and therefore is an equally terrible option, we should be aggressively searching for something in the space between these. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the new negotiations with the Iranians began on the anniversary of the Missile Crisis this year, and you can be sure that all leaders on both sides have looked to that event for lessons. Let’s just hope that they don’t draw the wrong conclusions from it.