Lessons from the Crisis

Posted November 2nd, 2012 by Alex Wellerstein

We’re just past the anniversary of the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, though as Svetlana Savranskaya emphasizes, in various forms the Crisis was still on-going through early December 1962. The missiles were still there, there were still huge numbers of tactical nuclear weapons on the island, and the military forces of the USA and USSR were still wound up and ready to pounce — nuclear war, even accidental nuclear war, was still a very real possibility. The claiming that the Crisis was “over” on October 28 was a publicity move (one well-timed for the 1962 midterm elections as much as anything else).

October 5, 1962: CIA chart, “Reconnaissance Objectives in Cuba.” We’re still looking, in a way. Via the National Security Archive.

Since I last wrote about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I’ve read a few more editorials on it, all from people trying to derive new timely new lessons from the past. Coming up with something that isn’t either entirely wrong-headed or really bland is a hard thing to do. Michael Dobbs can pull it off, but it helps to have already written the definitive book about the Crisis, I imagine.

The Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School has put together a pretty cool website dedicated to the Crisis (and managed to snag a pretty premium URL for it, which I bet they had to buy off of a loathsome cyber-squatter) where, among other things, they hosted a contest for new “lessons.” I was sort of intrigued with the contest idea — you had to write very short lessons (<300 words), and, again, they had to be novel. How many novel lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis can there be, 50 years later?

I tried my hand at it, though I realized immediately after submitting it that I had enough ties, present and past, to the Kennedy School to automatically disqualify me from entering. (Lesson: always read the fine print.) My lesson was also kind of a blatant attempt at both promoting my own topic (nuclear secrecy) while simultaneously trying to one-up the whole idea of the contest by presenting a meta-lesson: a lesson that dictated the means of production of other lessons. Trés academic, I know. Even without the automatic disqualification, I knew that this wasn’t really going to cut it, but it was a fun exercise.

My lesson — in brief — was that unless you peel back the layers of secrecy surrounding historical events, you can’t really figure out what happened there, and thus can’t formulate lessons at all.1 As I said, that’s a little too meta to be satisfying, an attempt to be too clever by half. But there are some things that would be nice to know that are still hidden behind layers of classification. The reasons, as usual, aren’t entirely clear (the weapons systems are no longer in use and the tactics have surely changed considerably since then), but assuming there is a rationale other than the knee-jerk approach to secrecy that happens whenever anything nuclear is on the table, I suspect there are diplomatic relations at issue.

As unimpressed as I was with my own showing, I was terribly impressed with one of the winning “lessons” in particular — and thought it was much more clever than my own. That it was provided by a member of the “general public” is even more satisfying. Here is what Zachary Elias, a Dartmouth sophomore (!) wrote:

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis taught the United States what containment feels like.

The lesson from the crisis is the extent to which containment is terrifying for the country being contained. Because the U.S. had been a global military superpower since the end of World War II, it had never faced an existential threat close to its borders. At the time, U.S. nuclear missiles were stationed in range of Soviet cities as a means of containment — but, for U.S. policymakers, it was unthinkable that the U.S. could end up in a similar position. So, when the USSR decided to raise the stakes by placing its own nuclear missiles in range of American cities, U.S. policymakers were inclined to compromise with the Russians on containment policy — trading nuclear warheads in Turkey for those in Cuba – to lessen the direct military threat posed to each nation by one another.

This is a lesson to keep in mind when deliberating the best means of dealing with rising powers. When making policy concerning the rise of China, for example, one would do well to remember that military containment and antagonism makes the contained country feel threatened, which in turn makes aggression more likely in response to U.S. provocations. It took trust, diplomacy, and compromise to resolve a crisis that was precipitated by military buildup, as dictated by standard realist power calculus. While it is unlikely that China will be able to challenge U.S. power as the USSR did during the Cold War, one should remain cognizant of the fact that surrounding another state with military threats is less likely to spur long-term trust and cooperation – which, in an era of cooperative globalization, is more important than ever.

That is some clever stuff — a wonderful reversal of perspective, one I’ve never really seen laid out quite that way before. Very smart. The Cuban Missile Crisis was when the US really got a glimpse at what it felt like to be “contained.” It wasn’t a nice feeling. It didn’t encourage us to view our “containers” as benevolent and peaceful. We should keep that feeling in mind when we happily talk about containing other nations.

Oct. 27, 1962: “Cuban anti-aircraft gunners open fire on low-level reconnaissance planes over San Cristobal site no. 1.” That is really low-level! Via the National Security Archive.

I had this in mind while I was at a big Cuban Missile Crisis conference at George Mason University last weekend. It was a great conference, better than I had even expected. It was moderated by Martin Sherwin (author of American Prometheus and a nice guy, to boot), who did an excellent job of it. Among those who spoke were a number of veterans of the Crisis: Colonel Buddy Brown (USAF, Ret.), who flew U-2s over Cuba; Dino Brugioni, who worked to analyze the U-2 data; and Lt. Commander Tad Riley (USN, Ret.), who flew F8U-1P Crusade Crusaders over the island’s surface-to-air-missile sites.

The two pilots were fascinating to listen to, and their experiences were surprisingly different. U-2s were high-altitude spy planes, as you know. They required hours of preparation before taking off, including having the pilot spend two hours breathing 100% oxygen to purge all of the nitrogen from his blood, so he wouldn’t get “the bends.” The importance of the pilot’s physiology was key — if his blood pressure was slightly off normal, he would be cut from the mission. The tolerances of flying in such planes at such high altitudes were very small. Everything had to be perfect… except, in Brown’s case, the weather, which was dangerously awful when he took off for Cuba. And while up there, the margin of error was slim. Brown was basically wearing a spacesuit up there, because if he had lost pressurization, his blood would have literally begun to boilBrown also said they primarily used celestial navigation to find out where they were — he was literally using a sextant to figure out where to fly.

As for Riley, his planes had the opposite problem: he was flying a mere 200 feet off the ground… at 500 mph. Which is really nuts if you think about it, navigating solely by maps and visual landmarks. He said it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since Cuba didn’t have very many power or phone lines. That’s cutting it pretty close. He said that the Cubans would occasionally take pot-shots at such planes, but their equipment was too outdated to hit them. The Soviets on the island had better equipment, but they knew not to fire.

Nov. 5, 1962: “Low-level photography documents loading of Soviet missiles at the main Mariel port facility for return to the USSR. On the dock are vehicles later identified… as nuclear warhead vans.” Via the National Security Archive.

As for analyzing the 6,000 feet of U-2 film that came back from each mission, Brugioni said that it was like going over a roll of film stretching from the White House to the Capitol building with a magnifying glass, looking for things that resembled known installations in the Soviet Union. One interesting point he made was that the reason they (erroneously) didn’t think there were actual nukes on the island was because their baseline was the level of security given to nuclear warheads in the Soviet Union. The nukes on Cuba were barely guarded — just in anonymous vans or barely-attended-to bunkers — so they assumed they must not be nukes. The reason they were so unguarded is not known — that is, whether it was purposeful to avoid scrutiny, or just a different (lax) security standard.

Lastly, there a talk and commentary from Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita. He was pretty amazing — he looks just like a slimmer version of this father (in person, the resemblance is uncanny). The spitting image. He spoke with a melodious, article-dropping Russian accent that really gave an authentic touch to everything. At one point, he was asked how he, a rocket scientist in his 20s, felt at the time of the Crisis. He said that he, like most average Soviets (in his view), was not unusually disturbed by it at the time. Why? Because Russia had been living with the “enemy at the gate” for a very, very long time. They whole 20th century, at the very least, had been one long crisis for them. So this was nothing new.

The United States, Khrushchev said, had the luxury of two oceans separating it from the real horror of war and invasion, so its newfound vulnerability during the Crisis affected it much more on a psychological level. He concluded — now imagine this in the aforementioned article-dropping Russian — that “America was like tiger raised in zoo, suddenly released into jungle.” If that’s not a strong take on the situation, I don’t know what is!

  1. My verbatim lesson:

    Lesson: Government secrecy can cloud our understanding of the past’s lessons.

    The Cuban Missile Crisis continues to be a source of scholarly attention and public interest. The reason for this is clear: as arguably the closest moment the world came to thermonuclear war, it was, and remains, one of the most momentous diplomatic conflicts of human history. Never have the decisions of two men — Kennedy and Khrushchev — held so many lives in the balance.

    And yet, we seem to learn new things about it every year. It was not until 1989 that there was confirmation that Kennedy had agreed to remove the United States’ Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a condition of “the deal” that diffused the Crisis, for example, and this confirmation came during a conference held by a Soviet Union in the throes of glasnost, at that. Of all of the facts to know, this was one of the most important: it showed that one of the unambiguous lessons of the Crisis was that toughness and compromise need not be incompatible, a lesson worth repeating in any age.

    In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the declassification of new sources, including the Oval Office tapes, have greatly enhanced scholarly and public understanding of the Crisis. Is there more to be known, still under official hold, or blacked out by a redactor’s pen? It seems foolish to imagine there is not, but it is not always clear in whose hands some of this information could plausibly be dangerous at this point.

    If historians are to make real sense of the lessons of the past, we must be given the access to study the facts of the past. Until then, we will just be grasping at guesses and official narratives.


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2 Responses to “Lessons from the Crisis”

  1. Steve Huntsman says:

    Elias’ lesson is in fact well known to current China hands. There is a vast literature on the rise of the PLA, and much of it takes into account what Chinese analysts are saying and publishing. One constantly hears about China’s desire (need?) to break out of the “first” and “second island chains” and China’s perception of geographic vulnerability and containment. For instance, the recent uptick in attention about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has a great deal to do with this, as does the Chinese “string of pearls” basing approach for providing a capability of breaking the island chains.

    It is also worth noting that this has informed the strategic doctrine and technology of the PLA through the development of A2AD as exemplified by antiship ballistic missiles and the ginormous array of missles pointed at regional airfields, the demonstration of cyber capabilities, etc.

    I presume a big difference between now and then is that it’s a lot easier for US analysts to digest and disseminate Chinese strategic thinking that it was in the Soviet case.

  2. Bill says:

    Great posting. There’s a very interesting and critical view of the Belfer Center Web site, or at least part of it, at

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