Cuban Missile Crisis: When the Cold War could turn to hot

The crucial events of Cuban missile crisis happened 45 years ago. The agreement how to resolve the crisis was reached between the US President John  F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev on  October 28, 1962.

Questions:

1. Was the Cuban missile crisis really the moment when the Cold War was at its closest to the real “hot” war?

2. Which one of the leaders, Khruschev or Kennedy, had the situation more under control? Who was more afraid of the armed conflict, Soviets or Americans?

3. Why do you think the Soviets started with building of the missile silos in Cuba? Do you think they underestimated the Americans and their intelligence abilities? Or did they do it at will with full knowledge it may spark the confrontation?

4. Hypothetically, if there was no political solution to the crisis, do you think it would have started the nuclear war? Or do you think it would have gone in another direction (like for example Americans invaded Cuba and Soviets the West Berlin in turn?)

Answers:

David Snead, Associate Professor of History, Chair of the History Department, Liberty University

1. Yes. There was a scare in the fall of 1983 when the Soviet Union misinterpreted a NATO drill as the opening moves of an attack, but it did not get nearly as far the Cuban Missile Crisis.

2. Neither one ever lost control of the situation, but they both faced situations that could have spiraled out of their control. In particular, there were incidents at sea between U.S. naval destroyers and Soviet submarines, a U.S. reconnaissance plane that strayed over Soviet Territory near Alaska, and Soviet anti-aircraft crews fired on U.S. spy planes in Cuba without authorization. Potentially, any of these incidents and probably others could have escalated without either leader being able to stop them. For example, if the Soviet submarine captain had fired his nuclear-tipped torpedo and destroyed an American destroyer, it would have been very hard for JFK to avoid retaliating with nuclear weapons.

Both of the leaders were quite afraid of an armed conflict. At this stage of the Cold War, America’s nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities were much larger than the Soviet Union’s; so, conceivable the Soviet Union was in greater danger. However, any exchange of nuclear attacks would have been devastating to both.

3. It is not completely clearly why Khrushchev decided to place the missiles there. He was concerned about the presence of U.S. intermediate range nuclear missiles (IRBMs) in Turkey and Italy and believed placing missiles in Cuba would offset them to a degree. He also wanted to show is support for Fidel Castro in Cuba. He was also facing pressure from some Hardliners within the Kremlin to stand more firm against the United States. Finally, he thought he could get away with it.

There is no question that the Soviet Union underestimated American intelligence capabilities. However, Khrushchev was concerned from the beginning that the missiles might be discovered.

Khrushchev knew the missiles might spark a confrontation if they were detected before they were operational. However, he believed that if they could be kept hidden until they were operational, then the United States would not risk war to get them removed.

4. I have little doubt that if the crisis had not been resolved diplomatically, there would have been a nuclear war. The United States would have invaded Cuba, Russian forces on Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons to defend the beaches, and then the war would have escalated from there.

Timothy  McKeown, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1. It probably was the closest, but there were also other times when military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union  was a real possibility.  The two other times when this was most likely  were the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

2.  I believe that both sides thought that there was a real chance of nuclear war.  In Kennedy’s case, he famously remarked at one point during the crisis that he thought that the chances of nuclear war were between one in three and even [i.e. 50%].  Khruschev’s letters to Kennedy during the crisis also show a very keen awareness of the possibility of nuclear war.  It is impossible to say which side was the more fearful — in such a situation, I am not sure that it it is even useful to try to measure or quantify the degree of fear.

In some ways, both sides had only imperfect control of the actions of their own forces.  Amazingly, at the outset of the crisis the Politburo had delegated to the local soviet commander the authority to launch cruise missiles at ay U.S. invasion fleet — these cruise missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.  had they been used against U.S. ships, it almost certainly would have led to World War III.

The shooting down of an American U-2 flying over Cuba was the decision of a local commander, and was not (as many in Washington thought at the time) the result of a decision made in Moscow.

Likewise, U.S. reconaissance aircraft flew into Soviet airspace over Siberia during the crisis, and these were simply the result of pilot navigation error.

U.S. destroyers dropped depth charges on Soviet submarines in the western Atlantic during the crisis.  The extent to which this action was  controlled from the Pentagon still is not entirely clear.

3. The opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s provided some answers to this.  Partly it was to provide a deterrent threat in order to discourage a second U.S. attempt to invade Cuba.  Partly it was to shift the terms of bargaining between the U.S. and the Soviets over other Cold War issues, especially Berlin. Partly it was an attempt to create a quick and relatively inexpensive way to offset the U.S. superiority in ballistic missiles at that time.

If Soviets they underestimated the Americans and their intelligence abilities is a question that still has not been clearly resolved.  Originally the Soviet plan was to reveal the missiles to the world after the November, 1962 U.S. elections. However, the Soviets made little effort to conceal their missile base construction, and Cuban anti-aircraft defenses, while improving rapidly, were not sufficient to prevent U.S. aerial reconnaissance of the island.  The Soviets knew all about the U-2, having shot one down in 1960.  Some scholars have speculated that, because Soviet missile bases in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were not extensively camouflaged, they simply “forgot” to do this in Cuba.  This seems a bit far-fetched, but stranger things have happened.

As I noted above, Soviets did plan to reveal the missile bases in November. My best guess is that they expected that the U.S. would simply lodge diplomatic protests, but do little else.  The U.S. had begun to pick up intelligence about the arrival of the missiles in early September, and had begun planning a response to them about that time.  The Soviets seemed to have been surprised by the timing of the U.S. response, as well as its vigor.

4. The U.S. was preparing air strikes against the missile sites, and had the Soviets not backed down when they did, those attacks would have been carried out in a few day’s time.  It is not clear if the U.S. would then  have gone ahead with an invasion as well.  Nor is it clear how the Soviets would have responded to these air strikes, but it is safe to assume that the Soviets would have not reacted passively.

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