Skip to main content

Clearer Vision on the 'Eyeball-to-Eyeball' Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Author:
  • Updated:

How close the U.S. and USSR came to mutually assured destruction (a term not then in vogue) during the Cuban missile crisis seems, on the crisis’s half-century anniversary, like it ought to be settled history. But as new and new-ish scholarship shows, the standard accounts, while not wildly inaccurate, could use some refining.

The conventional version is that President Kennedy, after learning that the Soviet bloc had placed nuclear weapons on their ally Cuba’s soil, risked setting off nuclear war when he imposed a naval blockade on Cuba even as Soviet naval units were en route to the island. After 13 scary days, the Soviets agreed to remove the existing missiles in Cuba while NATO quietly removed its missiles in Turkey.

As can be expected whenever we start revising history, the new understanding shows the participants were both in less danger—and in greater danger—than was commonly thought. In short, naval forces were not in eyeball distance when the Soviets blinked, as the popular narrative suggests, but the chance of a nuclear exchange was greater thanks to both the arsenals involved and the attitudes of those with fingers on the buttons.

Let’s start with those arsenals, which have been detailed by two researchers with the Federation of American Scientists in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen have unwrapped who had what available where around the world, including the slight Soviet numerical advantage in nuclear weapons in Europe.

This "nuclear order of battle" included the 158 nuclear warheads (100 or so of them ready to use) the Soviets had on Cuban soil. On the island, the local commander, Gen. Issa Pliyev, apparently had some leeway in using these nukes if a shooting war broke out. The authors quote scholar Steven Zaloga: "Moscow did not have any actual negative technical control over the weapons," and Pliyev "could have used them without permission had war broken out, assuming the assent of the custody units." (That assent was not a given; a standoff between U.S. Navy units and a Soviet submarine during the crisis was going seriously pear-shaped when underlings on the Soviet boat convinced the overwhelmed captain to forgo using his nuclear-armed torpedo.)

Pliyev's arsenal, while mostly tactical nukes that could have been used on American troops storming the beaches or perhaps on the American base at Guantanamo, also included six to eight warheads on medium-range missiles that could have reached all the way to, say, Dallas or Cincinnati.

The U.S., of course, had its own nukes, and according to a story this week in the New York Times about a newly publicized memo from November 1962, President Kennedy’s military advisers assured him that first-use of nuclear weapons by the Communists would be met by radioactive reciprocation—on the battlefield.

"We must accept the possibility that the enemy may use nuclear weapons to repel invasion. However, if the Cuban leaders took this foolhardy step, we could respond at once in overwhelming nuclear force against military targets," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, wrote the president (pdf). The same document speculated that the "more likely case" would not involve a nuclear exchange.

But Kennedy, whether he meant it or not, had already drawn a much more severe line in the sand during a public address to the nation: "It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

The U.S., Norris and Kristensen detail, had lots more nuclear warheads than the Soviets—roughly 17 for every one in the Warsaw Bloc. (So once again, there was no "missile gap," a catchphrase of the Kennedy presidential campaign two years earlier.)  As they write:

At peak alert on November 4, the US Strategic Air Command forces that were ready for employment in retaliatory attacks included 1,479 bombers, 182 ballistic missiles, 2,952 total nuclear weapons, and 1,003 refueling tankers. The Soviet Union had approximately 42 ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, no SLBMs, a long-range bomber force of 150 Bear and Bison bombers that would have had to face a formidable US-Canadian air-defense system.

Why did Khrushchev blink? Follow the numbers.

Then again, those numbers were known before the crisis. Another piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists lauds the behind-the-scenes diplomacy on U.N. Secretary-General U Thant in keeping the putative combatants operating on "jaw-jaw" mode instead of "war-war," especially in offering to take the fall in asking the Soviets to keep their ships away from the no-sailing zone around Cuba.

Here's what authors Walter Dorn and Robert Pauk draw from Thant’s effort:

Both the American president and the Soviet premier embraced Thant's proposal despite their subordinates' criticisms of its content. The superpower leaders saw that they could use Thant to disengage from a naval standoff. The lesson here is that, even if a mediator is initially criticized for proposing moderation, he can soon afterward be acclaimed and utilized by the protagonists to help de-escalate and resolve the crisis.

And about those ships … The folklore is that Soviet freighters carrying more missiles approached the U.S. blockade line to within "eyeball" distance before Moscow chickened out and had them turn around. As Michael Dobbs reminded us this week, he plotted out the freighters' positions during the crisis for his 2008 book One Minute to Midnight. Those eyeballs would have needed exceptional acuity—the ships were 750 miles apart when the Soviets turned around.

Why these not-so-ancient events might matter can be illustrated by recalling that JFK's own reactions to the crisis as it happened were influenced by his reading of history, specifically Barbara Tuchman’s tragedy-of-errors examination of the beginnings of World War I. I’ll let Santayana sleep, but looking over how a previous generation in a panic dealt with known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns might not be the worst idea as the world loses sleep over a nuclear-armed Iran. Or even figures out how to deal with the inheritors of a Fidel-free Cuba.