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Myths of the missile crisis

By Michael Dobbs
Author of One Minute To Midnight

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 is the best documented case study of decision-making by a United States president at a time of grave international peril.

Unfortunately, those 13 tension-filled days when the world stood on the brink of a nuclear precipice have become encrusted with myth and political spin.
US Air Force RF-101 reconnaissance plane
US Air Force RF-101 reconnaissance plane entering Cuba at the height of the crisis

Over the last three years, I spent thousands of hours interviewing missile crisis veterans and combing through archives in the US, Russia, Cuba, and Britain to assemble a minute-by-minute account of the crisis.

In the process, I uncovered numerous examples of bad information flowing into, and out of, the White House. "What the president didn't know, and when he didn't know it" was a recurring theme in my research.

My conclusion: the beginning of wisdom for any president - from John F Kennedy to George W Bush - is to understand that you are groping about in the dark.

It turns out that much of what we think we know about one of the most studied episodes in modern history is either inaccurate or incomplete. Even more alarming, much of what Kennedy thought he knew about Soviet actions and motivations rested on flawed intelligence reports.

Far from being an example of "matchlessly calibrated" diplomacy - a term used by Camelot historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr - the missile crisis is better understood as a prime illustration of the ever-present "screwup factor" in world affairs.

Here is a short list of some of the myths surrounding the Cuban missile crisis:

Eyeball to eyeball

The "eyeball to eyeball" myth. The notion that US warships were minutes away from a confrontation with Soviet freighters transporting missiles to Cuba has persisted for over 45 years. The reported comment of Secretary of State Dean Rusk: "We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked" - has become part of missile crisis mythology.
John F Kennedy on 22 October, 1962
John F Kennedy makes a national television speech 22 October 1962

The eyeball to eyeball moment is described in some detail in Robert F Kennedy's memoir, Thirteen Days, and Graham Allison's political science classic, Essence of Decision.

Declassified CIA records and Russian archives show that it never happened. The Soviet missile-carrying ships were at least 500 nautical miles away from the quarantine line at the time of the supposed confrontation, steaming back toward the Soviet Union.

By using intelligence reports to plot the positions of Soviet ships, I was stunned to discover that Khrushchev took the decision to avoid a confrontation with the US Navy more than 24 hours earlier.

'We knew the facts'

The "we knew the facts" myth. This was part of the Kennedy spin in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. It is true that the president received good (if belated) intelligence on the status of Soviet medium-range missiles on Cuba capable of hitting targets in the US.

But he was grossly misinformed about the numbers of Soviet troops on the island, and the fact that they were equipped with tactical nuclear weapons, which could have been used to wipe out an American invading force.

Based on interviews with Soviet participants and American intelligence records, I show that the Soviets deployed nuclear cruise missiles to within 15 miles of the Guantanamo naval base on the night of 26-27 October. The Soviets had sent 80 14-kiloton cruise missile warheads (roughly the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima) to Cuba for local battlefield use.
FKR nuclear cruise missile
FKR nuclear cruise missile, similar to the ones targeted on Guantanamo during the crisis

Defense secretary Robert McNamara told JFK on 20 October that there were 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet "technicians" on Cuba. In fact, there were 43,000 heavily armed Soviet troops on the island at this point.

In control?

The "fully in control" myth. While there is no evidence of military insubordination on either the American or the Russian side during the crisis, there are many examples of the inability of both Kennedy and Khrushchev to fully control their own forces. Any one of these incidents could have led to a nuclear exchange.

On the American side, there is the extraordinary case of Captain Charles Maultsby, a U-2 pilot who blundered over the Soviet Union at the height of the crisis on 27 October after being sent on a mission to the North Pole to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.

Declassified US documents reveal that Maultsby spent 74 minutes in Soviet air space, causing the Russians to scramble half a dozen Mig fighters in response. The Air Force failed to inform the president of what had happened until half an hour after he left Soviet air space.

On the Russian side, communications were so bad that Khrushchev could only exercise tenuous control over his troops on Cuba. The nuclear missiles aimed at Guantanamo were under the command of a major. There were no locks or codes to prevent them being fired.

Today, there is no longer such a thing as strategy, there is only crisis management
Robert McNamara

The happy outcome to the crisis - with Khrushchev withdrawing his missiles and no nuclear exchange - engendered a spate of hubris among "the best and the brightest".

McNamara declared: "Today, there is no longer such a thing as strategy, there is only crisis management." McNamara and others attempted to put these lessons into practice in Vietnam, with disastrous results.

Fortunately, Kennedy did not believe his own spin. His own prior experience - both as a US Navy lieutenant in World War II and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 - had taught him to react sceptically to the assurances of the military brass. He moved decisively to bring the crisis to an end by secretly offering to match a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba with a dismantling of US Jupiters in Turkey.

JFK understood, better than any of his advisers, that events were spiralling out of control by 27 October, the day that became known as "Black Saturday". He knew that the chances of something going drastically wrong increase exponentially the closer you get to actual fighting. In a war, anything can, and usually does, happen - as we have seen repeatedly in Iraq.

Kennedy knew that crisis management was a myth, and that there is no margin for error in preparing for a nuclear war.

That is the abiding lesson of the Cuban missile crisis.

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