Updated: November 20, 2012 10:53AM
October is the scary month, and not just because of Halloween. Exactly one-half century ago, the Cuban Missile Crisis during Oct. 22 through Oct. 28 dominated global news as Washington and Moscow sparred right on the edge of thermonuclear war.
Despite the passage of time, this distinctively terrifying crisis holds extremely important lessons for current foreign policy. They include the exceptional difficulty of securing accurate intelligence, the uncertainty of events in a crisis and the vital importance of prudence at the top. Intense current debate over nuclear plans and capabilities of Iran, plus other security concerns, gives these insights considerable continuing importance.
After U.S. U-2 aircraft reconnaissance photos revealed the Soviet Union was placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, despite contrary assurances, President Kennedy and his advisers spent a week debating options, which included an immediate military attack to destroy the missiles.
On Oct. 22, Kennedy addressed the nation and the world over television, declaring unequivocally that the U.S. would not permit such missiles in Cuba. Until Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on Oct. 28 agreed to withdraw the missiles, Armageddon was only a misstep away.
Senior Kennedy administration officials, with the exception of Republican CIA Director John McCone, had assumed Moscow would never put long-range missiles into Cuba. They erroneously thought Khrushchev and associates felt the move would be just too risky.
Earlier, reconnaissance flights over Cuba had been severely curtailed to avoid antagonizing Moscow, and were resumed only because McCone aggressively, adamantly pressed the matter. Hard photographic evidence of the Soviet deception was received just before the missiles were to be activated.
However, there was already substantial circumstantial evidence, including reports from reliable agents in Cuba, that something of this nature was underway. As with the Bush White House regarding Iraq, senior decision makers chose the evidence they preferred to believe.
At the start of the crisis, there was strong sentiment among Kennedy advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for military destruction of the strategic missiles and launchers. JFK decided instead on a naval blockade as the U.S. first step in response to the Soviet move.
Years after the crisis, surviving policy makers from Cuba, the Soviet Union and the U.S. initiated a series of meetings which have revealed important new dimensions and insights. Soviet commanders already had shorter-range nuclear armed missiles in Cuba, and at least for a time authority to use them in the event of an American invasion of the island.
Soviet submarine commanders had nuclear armed torpedoes. The recent book by Michael Dobbs, “One Minute to Midnight,” documents at least one occasion in which a Soviet sub commander nearly launched one of these against a harassing U.S. Navy surface warship.
National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy’s history of the nuclear age, “Danger and Survival,” published a quarter century after the crisis, reveals JFK privately accepted, while publicly rejecting, a Soviet proposal for a Cuba-Turkey missile trade.
Throughout the crisis, Kennedy demonstrated open-minded engagement. He assembled an ad hoc group, the Executive Committee or ExComm, which freely debated a wide range of options. In this atmosphere, the initial strong support for a military strike faded.
The previous year, a very inexperienced JFK had too casually signed off on a Cuba invasion plan strongly endorsed by the CIA and military — the experts. The disaster at the Bay of Pigs followed.
The missile crisis led to Kennedy-Khrushchev arms control cooperation. The enduring 1963 nuclear test ban treaty resulted.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.”