Cuban Missile Crisis: In context

In July 1962 the USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev, in agreement with Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro, made the fateful decision to place nuclear warheads in Cuba, just 90 miles from the US mainland. The Americans’ discovery of the weapons in October 1962 sparked a 13-day standoff between the superpowers of east and west that became known as the Cuban missile crisis. It is widely regarded as the most dangerous period of the Cold War.

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On 16 October, US president John F Kennedy convened his closest advisors in a secret body later known as ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), to discuss a response to the Soviet act of aggression. “Go to general war,” was the advice of some of the president’s closest advisors, who pushed for air strikes or a full-scale invasion of the island. After nearly six days of top-secret meetings, Kennedy – who had come to regard a nuclear strike and descent into war as “a final failure” – favoured a naval blockade. He delivered the news to the world in a televised speech on 22 October 1962; Cuba was cut off from any military aid from its communist ally in the east, and America had avoided a declaration of war.

A tense series of letters between the leaders followed, with Khrushchev and Kennedy eventually reaching a diplomatic compromise in which the Soviets agreed to remove missiles from Cuba, and in return Kennedy secretly agreed to remove American nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey. The crisis was diffused, and the world was brought back from the brink of nuclear war.


Can you introduce readers to your narrative of the crisis and how it seeks to handle this episode, 60 years on?

When I started to write this book, it seemed like simply a piece of history or archaeology. One thing that has been extremely spooky is that – as I researched and wrote this account of how the world, in the midst of the Cold War, came closer than at any time in its history to Armageddon, to a nuclear war – President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Suddenly the whole thing achieves an immediacy, because we are looking again at an incredibly reckless, dangerous and ruthless leader in the Kremlin who is prepared to take extraordinary risks to try and frighten the world into acquiescing in these acts of aggression.

Of course, this caused me to significantly change parts of the beginning and the end of my narrative. I’ve said: “Here is this terrifying episode that happened 60 years ago. And what can we learn from it about the experiences we’re going through today?” Alas.

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Putin is obviously an inescapable figure on the world stage now. And you write in Abyss that, contrary to ideas that personalities play only a minor part in determining history, the figures involved in the Cuban missile crisis dominated decisions and decided the outcome. What can you tell us about the key players?

There have been many accounts of the so-called “13 days” in October 1962 that followed the Americans’ discovery that the Soviets had secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. I think it’s a mistake just to look at that brief period. To understand what it all means, you’ve got to know quite a bit about what the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba were at that time. And, of course, these three extraordinary personalities.

First is Fidel Castro, the guerrilla leader who took over Cuba from dictator Fulgencio Batista at the beginning of 1959. Then there’s President John F Kennedy who remains, I think, by far the most fascinating and extraordinary US president of the past century – even more so than Franklin Roosevelt. And finally, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, this frightening thug; curiously, an impressive thug in some ways – you didn’t get to the top of the Soviet Union in those days without climbing over
a mountain of corpses. A lot of the first half of my book is about these people and these countries.

When it became clear that the US was going to seek to isolate Cuba, Castro turned to the other superpower – to the Soviet Union

The first thing to understand is how appallingly the US had treated Cuba for the previous century. The Americans always like to think that they don’t have an empire, but they treated Cuba as a colony. They decided everything, and most of the profits from Cuban sugar and tobacco went straight into American pockets. American gangsters were running all the casinos in Havana. With the ascent of Castro, the Americans suddenly found that they had been kicked out. One of the people interviewed for the book was the so-called head of protocol for the Castro government. He said: “People from the American embassy would turn up at our offices and say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do, we’re from the embassy and you’ll do it.’” And of course, the Cubans said: “It’s not like that anymore, this is our own country. We’re a sovereign country.”

How did the alliance between the Soviet Union and Cuba lead to such a dangerous crisis?

When it became clear that the US was going to seek to isolate Cuba and topple its leader, Castro turned to the other superpower – to the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev.

Khrushchev was absolutely enchanted by Castro. He was reminded of the 1917 revolutionaries, the young idealists who had taken over Moscow and Petrograd. He decided to give total support to Castro. In the spring of 1962, after a year of supplying weapons to Castro, Khrushchev was staying at his dacha [second home] on the Black Sea, looking through his binoculars. He was infuriated, knowing that 200 miles or so across the water, there were American nuclear missiles [in Turkey] pointed at his dacha. One day in April 1962, he said to his defence minister, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, “How would it be if we throw a hedgehog down Uncle Sam’s pants?” In other words: “How would it be if we install nuclear missiles in Cuba?”

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Cuban premier Fidel Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev meet for the first time
Cuban premier Fidel Castro and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev meet for the first time in New York in 1960, at the General Assembly of the United Nations. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Khrushchev knew that the Soviet Union was far weaker than the United States. He was obliged to face the fact that, at the same time as he was saying that socialism was going to take over the world, most of the Soviet Union was living in what Americans would think was abject poverty. Bread was rationed in some regions, and people had tiny televisions which they had to watch through water-filled magnifiers to make the picture big enough. Whereas on the other side of the world, you had Americans all eating steaks, with a growing audience for colour television.

This seemed so monstrously wicked and unfair to Khrushchev. It made him rage that – after all the Soviet Union had suffered in the Great Patriotic War, after losing 27 million people – the Americans should end up so rich and with this great nuclear arsenal, and that the Americans were trying to tell the world what to do. He was determined to even the score, to show the Americans that they didn’t rule the world.

Your book includes some staggering testimony from the ExComm meetings following the US discovery of the missiles in Cuba that shows just how close the west came to responding with a nuclear strike. How near did the world come to nuclear war?

The first thing Kennedy said, at the White House when he heard about this, was: “We’re probably going to have to bomb them.” At that stage, the Americans had no idea that there were also tactical nuclear weapons, they had no idea of the strength of the Soviet forces in Cuba. The US chiefs of staff wanted full bombing, an American invasion of Cuba. All through the crisis though, all the civilians around JFK, and the president himself, were always sure that they had to go very carefully, be very cautious. But America’s generals and admirals were saying “we’ve got to go in and zap these people. We’ve got to bomb them. We’ve got to invade them.”

My view, which I’ve expressed in my book very strongly, is that there is no doubt that neither the Kremlin nor the White House wanted a third world war, they didn’t want all-out war. But the Soviets had put hundreds of nuclear weapons in Cuba with no technical safeguards to stop local commanders from firing them. Had the Americans done what many people around the president wanted – bombed and invaded – I think the chances of these weapons not being used, and the idea the Russians would sit there and take devastating casualties to their own forces and not respond, is for the fairies. Once they started that, escalation would have been almost inevitable. You had a terrifying situation.

In those first days, as Kennedy presided over daily and sometimes hourly meetings of the so-called ExComm, they talked through every option: bombing, blockade, etc. The one thing they all agreed upon was that they could not do nothing. By around the Friday [19 October 1962], the chiefs of staff and McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, were urging towards bombing and probably invasion. But I think that – although JFK made many other mistakes in his time as president in his thousand days – when I listen to the recordings and read the transcripts of those meetings, he stands head-and-shoulders above all the others in his steadiness of purpose and his clear, unflinching understanding that if all this went wrong, we were going to have World War Three.

You write in Abyss of a collective wisdom on both sides that transcended the misjudgements of both the Kremlin and the White House. What was it about Kennedy and Khrushchev and their administrations that made this such an extraordinary episode?

I’m a passionate believer in diplomacy and diplomats. One of the scary things that’s happened in the last 20 years is that suddenly national leaders think the diplomats don’t matter anymore. I don’t think it’s just me as an old man being nostalgic. The quality of some of those top British diplomats and top American diplomats was so impressive.

Today, I’m afraid, there are no successors, because both American governments and British governments treat their diplomats with contempt. They get the diplomats they deserve, who are not people of remotely similar stature. It’s one of the things I’ve come to believe passionately about studying the Cold War. I hope anybody who reads my books will have a sense not only about the missile crisis, but about the wider Cold War. It was so important all the way through to keep talking. And even if the talks didn’t seem to get anywhere, just the fact there was dialogue was terribly important.

I was rather shocked a few years ago when a British general said to me, “You do realise, don’t you, that nowadays we talk less to the Russians than we did in the worst days of the Cold War?”

How do you think the international situation today, particularly regarding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, compares with that of the missile crisis?

President Putin today represents a terrifying threat. I personally believe that he’s a more dangerous and less stable figure than was Khrushchev, who had to consult the Soviet Presidium; although Khrushchev dominated the Presidium, its opinion still mattered. Putin appears to act entirely alone. I’m not suggesting that if we’d had better diplomats then Putin might have acted differently. But I think in general, in international affairs, it is so vital that we understand the importance of dialogue, and the importance of understanding each other in a way that, I’m afraid, I don’t think governments do today. And it is very scary.

Sure, you can say, what about Suez and Harold Macmillan, who only a few years earlier had been complicit in the British government being mad enough to invade Egypt in 1956? And of course later, the best and the brightest around Kennedy during Cuba, they got the United States into Vietnam.

Images of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin loom over a TV interview in October 2022
Images of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin loom over a TV interview in October 2022 by journalist Caroline Roux with the French president Emmanuel Macron. Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, hugely escalating a war that began in 2014. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/FRANCE TELEVISIONS/AFP via Getty Images)

I’m not naive enough to suggest that those people all had the wisdom of Solomon all the time. But one effect of researching this book and reading all the transcripts of who said what during the crisis, is that one can see that people like Robert McNamara [US secretary of defense 1961–68], whom I met later and whose reputation was destroyed during Vietnam, was brilliant on the missile crisis. All the way through, he looked for ways of very graduated escalation, with the blockade as a first step. The chiefs of staff loathed him. After the missile crisis, one of them said – and I quote this in the book – that McNamara as defence secretary was the most dangerous man in America. They meant that he wouldn’t do the horrible things that they wanted to do, including risking nuclear war.

Even if these were not guys who got everything right all their lives, by gosh, they were guys who got a lot right in those days.

What did you make of the legacy of the Cuban missile crisis during your reporting in the US in the late 1960s, and in the years that followed?

I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to write this book about what’s overwhelmingly an American subject, but for the fact that I lived in the United States in 1967–68, and I always remember at the beginning of ’68, sitting in the White House Cabinet Room listening to President Lyndon B Johnson, with a group of other foreign journalists, talking about another American crisis, in Vietnam. I was taking a look around the Cabinet Room in those days and thinking, “This was the room where ExComm met earlier in the decade.”

When I was there as a young reporter, I met a lot of the people who were involved intimately in the missile crisis, including [secretary of state] Dean Rusk, [attorney general] Robert Kennedy, and McNamara, and [presidential speechwriter and historian] Arthur Schlesinger became a close friend.

Kennedy had a clear, unflinching understanding that if all this went wrong, we were going to have World War Three

Of course, at that period, America was racked by the whole Vietnam agony. It did give one an insight into how, on the one hand, it was the most exciting country on Earth. No one doubted its towering stature in the sixties; it was the absolute powerhouse of the world, for its technology, its wealth, its power. But on the other hand, one witnessed the United States doing terrible things, conspicuously including the appalling racial strife. There was always this contrast between the wonderful things about America – which remain true today – and also the terrible things; somehow America has a tragic talent for presiding over some of the worst things that have happened on the planet. I was there in the Vietnam period, and later reported in Vietnam. When I see all that’s going on in Ukraine – and I hasten to add that this does not make me an apologist for Putin – I can’t forget that “our side”, if you like, has its own share of shames, and some of them date from the 1960s.

I do feel it was a big help to me in writing this book to have been around in the sixties and to have known some of those people, and to remember how it all felt. Because in the 21st century, to you who were not even born until ages after that, it seems an eternity away. To me it almost seems like yesterday.

Max Hastings is a leading British journalist, author, broadcaster and former newspaper editor who is currently a columnist for The Times and Bloomberg Opinion. His latest book is Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 (William Collins, 2022)

Hear what life was like for ordinary Cubans during the crisis in BBC World Service’s Witness History

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast

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