Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

13 days -- and what was learned

Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on June 22, 2012

Article summary below; read the full text online.

The most dangerous moment of the nuclear age -- and likely any age -- unfolded 50 years ago as the world waited and trembled. For 13 harrowing days, the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba brought the planet within a hair's breadth of nuclear catastrophe. Despite the seemingly halcyon stability of deterrence throughout the Cold War, there were numerous moments during the Cuban Missile Crisis that could have escalated into full-blown nuclear war. As then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put it some years later, "We're damn lucky to be here." As the 50th anniversary of the crisis approaches, the implications of this near miss with disaster still resonate. As long as nuclear weapons exist -- and right now approximately 22,000 of them can be found in nine countries -- the risk of cataclysm remains. We lucked out in 1962. We may not be so lucky next time.

Declassified history and a crisis laid bare. The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 16, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy was shown photographs taken by a U-2 spy plane exposing the secret construction of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The crisis ended on October 28, 1962, when the Soviet Union's leader, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to withdraw the Soviet arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads from the island in exchange for America's public commitment not to invade Cuba and its secret commitment to withdraw US Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a later date. Most experts agree that had the crisis gone on any longer, the United States would have launched an air attack and ground invasion of Cuba, unwittingly triggering a Soviet nuclear assault.

For many years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the conventional wisdom followed a common narrative: Khrushchev secretly deployed missiles in Cuba to correct the US-Soviet nuclear balance. US intelligence discovered the Soviet leader's treachery but did not know two important facts: that the deployment was not yet complete and that the nuclear warheads to arm them had yet to arrive on the island. Kennedy, resisting repeated calls from several advisers to launch an air attack and invade Cuba, resolutely yet peacefully forced Khrushchev to relent. Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro, meanwhile, played no meaningful role in the crisis, except as a parking lot for the missiles.

Or so the story went.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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