Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Melvin A. Goodman Melvin A. Goodman is professor of international security studies Washington. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 1990 | Go to article overview

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis


Melvin A. Goodman Melvin A. Goodman is professor of international security studies Washington., The Christian Science Monitor


MASSIVE new deployments of American force in the Persian Gulf create a new level of risk and raise the question of whether we can learn from other flash-point situations that faced this country.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is an example. It helps to remember that US participants in that crisis had information not available to the informed public but still lacked conclusive data on Soviet and Cuban actions. At the same time, the public was unaware of the Kennedy administration's secret efforts to resolve the crisis without the use of military force. Finally, both Soviets and Americans made judgment errors in trying to analyze the intentions and behavior of the other side. All these factors should give us some pause in examining the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The Problem of Incomplete Information: It was unknown whether the Soviets had actually deployed nuclear warheads to the island before the US blockade was in effect. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the nuclear nose cones were not in Cuba at the time, but 25 years later we learned that some warheads had arrived, none had been mated to missiles, and Khrushchev had not ordered the firing of the missiles even if attacked. We also learned only recently that the US U-2 reconnaissance aircraft that was downed at the peak of the crisis was shot down by a Soviet antiaircraft missile fired by authority of local Soviet commanders and not the overall Soviet commander in Cuba, against the orders of Defense Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky who had given instructions to fire only if attacked.

This raises questions about Iraqi capabilities in view of their secret nuclear and chemical programs but, more important, their willingness to use any weapons system in their battle against Iran. It also raises issues about Iraqi command and control on the front lines and the possibility of accidental launch.

JFK's Use of Diplomacy: President Kennedy presented a tough image to the American public, but privately he took a series of conciliatory steps to avoid the use of force. When Khrushchev belatedly sought during the crisis to trade Soviet missiles in Cuba for obsolescent US missiles in Turkey as a way out, Kennedy's advisers told him that acceptance of such a proposal would have meant a major diplomatic and political defeat for the administration. Kennedy ostensibly agreed with them, but ordered Secretary of State Dean Rusk that, if Khrushchev went public with his offer, the United Nations Secretary-General, U Thant, should "spontaneously" make a similar appeal that the US would accept. …

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