The cloud that passed over the promise of detente last week in the form of an off-again, on-again Gorbachev-Reagan summit came twenty-five years to the week after the most serious storm in the history of the superpowers' relations. The conflict over Soviet missiles in Cuba was more immediately globe-threatening than the disagreement over U.S. lasers, etc., in space. But the two events partake of a common historical dynamic of mutual threats, disputed motives, opportunistic advances-and implicit deals. Perhaps it's not so farfetched to suggest that the current diplomatic impasse could be resolved in ways similar to the old eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
In the autumn of 1962 the United States maintained an aging but still immensely powerful nuclear battery in Turkey, pointed at the Soviet Union. The missiles were not placed there for the defense of the Turks. They were engines of a deterrence policy based on the credible use of offensive weapons of mass annihilation in the heartland of the enemy.
In that same season, Soviet ships began transporting nuclear missiles of similar range and force to Cuba, its one ally within short shooting distance of the U.S. heartland. But if in Turkey there was no threat, or even likelihood, of an invasion by the Russians, in Cuba the danger from the United States was real and present. The Bay of Pigs assault the year before was merely the most recent in a century-long string of interventions and wars by proxy on Caribbean islands and shores. President Kennedy and his Best and Brightest claimed at the time that Premier Khrushchev's missiles were offensive, believing (but never saying so publicly) that their function was the same as similar U.S. weapons ready to attack the Soviet Union.
But now, as surviving B & Bs remember the anxious October days twenty-five years ago, a revised history emerges. Although some of the knights of Camelot were eager for a nuclear showdown and wanted to get Castro and Khrushchev in one blow, others actually agreed with the tiny group of critics and dissenters at the time who said that the Soviet missiles were mainly to defend Cuba and posed no real threat to the U.S. mainland. Doubts about Soviet aggression were widespread. According to Raymond Garthoff in Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Oleg Penkovsky, the Central Intelligence Agency's mole in the Kremlin, signaled that the Russians were about to drop the big one on America, so little credence was given his message that neither the heads of the agency nor the White House were notified. …