Center for Arms Control

Kingston Reif speaks at CIGI signature lecture on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

On October 25 and 26, Center Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Kingston Reif participated in a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the Centre for International Governance Innovation's (CIGI) Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. Below is the video of Reif's remarks at the October 25 CIGI signature lecture "Empathy or Death: Applying the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 21st Century." The text of Reif's opening remarks are also below.

Kingston Reif Remarks at October 25 CIGI Signature Lecture: "Empathy or Death: Applying the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 21st Century".

Thanks janet. And thanks to you, Jim, and the Balsillie School for organizing a fabulous series of events on this very important anniversary, and for asking me to participate.

And thanks to Paul for a fabulous set of remarks.

I thought I’d supplement Paul’s perspective by offering a few of my own thoughts on the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s relevance today, and what it tells us about the nuclear threat.

My fascination with the Cuban Missile Crisis began in college.

In 2003, during my Junior year at Brown University, I enrolled in a seminar on the Cuban Missile Crisis and Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was taught by Jim and janet as they were - and presumably still are up here north of the border - affectionately known by their students and colleagues.

Jim and janet deserve as much, if not more, credit than anyone for revolutionizing the world’s understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most notably, they organized two high-profile conferences in Havana, Cuba on the 30th and 40th anniversaries of the Crisis that brought together scholars, newly declassified documents, and participants in the events of October 1962 from the US, Soviet Union, and Cuba (including then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Fidel Castro).

Their latest project, the Armageddon Letters, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Crisis, is a continuation of their magnificent legacy.

Thanks to these conferences and additional revelations, we now know that the Cuban Missile Crisis was far more dangerous than any of the participants at the time could have possibly imagined – and at the time, they thought it was damn dangerous. As McNamara put it in the Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of War, in the end it was largely luck that prevented a nuclear war.

Simply put, I was terrified by what I learned in Jim and janet’s seminar – and not because I quickly realized that Jim and janet were fanatical fans of Michigan University’s American football team, the Wolverines. As a native of the neighboring state of Wisconsin, I was and still am a passionate supporter of the Wisconsin Badgers.

No, what terrified me was the revelation that even though John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro did not enter the Crisis wanting a nuclear war, they almost unleashed one anyway.

Despite the seemingly halcyon stability of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, there were numerous moments during the Cuban Missile Crisis that could have resulted in nuclear Armageddon.

Upon learning of the secret Soviet deployment, many of President John F. Kennedy’s advisors recommended that he launch an air attack and invasion of Cuba to destroy the missile sites and overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Fearing the consequences of an attack, Kennedy instead opted for a quarantine of Cuba to allow for a diplomatic solution. This show of restraint has important implications for contemporary US policy toward Iran, as I will discuss in more detail in a few moments.

On October 27, Soviet forces in Cuba shot down an American U-2 spy plane. But Kennedy again refused to use force.

This strategy worked, but just barely. On October 28, 1962, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads from the island in exchange for Kennedy’s public commitment not to invade Cuba and his secret concession to withdraw US Jupiter missiles from Turkey at a later date. Had the Crisis lasted much longer, Kennedy likely would have given the order to strike.

What kind of world would we live in had Kennedy attacked Cuba? Unbeknownst to the President, 43,000 Soviet troops and 98 Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were already on the island at the time of the crisis. It’s hard to see how an attack wouldn’t have resulted in the use of nuclear weapons against the US invasion force, prompting an escalatory spiral to all out nuclear war.

While Kennedy and Khrushchev’s crisis management helped avert disaster, luck played an equally significant role. On October 27, the most dangerous day of the Crisis, Soviet troops in Cuba targeted the US military base at Guantanamo Bay with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down a U-2 spy plane. Another U-2 got lost over the Soviet Union, prompting Moscow to send fighters to shoot it down. In response, the US dispatched fighters armed with tactical nuclear weapons. In the Caribbean, a Soviet submarine captain almost fired his submarine’s nuclear-tipped torpedo at a U.S. warship. However, authorization to fire was denied by one of the officers on board.

It was what Kennedy and Khrushchev did not know and could not control that made the Crisis doubly perilous.

What prompted the Crisis in the first place? While Kennedy and Khrushchev exhibited just enough empathy at the end of the Crisis to prevent disaster, it was the total absence of empathy in the lead-up to the Crisis that made crisis management necessary.

As Michael Dobbs has written: "By authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion [in 1961], followed by Operation Mongoose, Kennedy had given the Soviets every reason to believe that he was determined to get rid of Castro once and for all. To protect his Caribbean ally, Khrushchev made the reckless decision to deploy nuclear missiles … right on America's doorstep." While Kennedy had no intention of invading Cuba following the Bay of Pigs debacle, he failed to appreciate how that and subsequent US actions were interpreted in Moscow and Havana. Castro - convinced a US invasion was imminent - repeatedly encouraged Cuban and Soviet troops to provoke a conflict with the United States, culminating in an October 27 letter to Khrushchev urging the Soviet leader to destroy America in a nuclear first strike in the event of a US invasion.

Nuclear weapons are unlike any weapons ever developed. One weapon could obliterate an entire city. A few dozen weapons could extinguish an entire country. Recent studies by climate scientists indicate that the use of 100-200 weapons could destroy human civilization.

At the height of the Cold War, there were some 70,000 nuclear weapons across the globe. Today, there are still approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons across the globe, most much more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945. Over ninety-five percent of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.

Supporters of maintaining the nuclear status quo argue that by deterring war, nuclear weapons keep us safe. But the Cuban Missile Crisis (and other close calls during and after the Cold War) provide clear evidence that deterrence is not fool-proof. The use of nuclear weapons is possible even if no one desires such an outcome, especially during a crisis in which military forces are on high alert, accurate information is hard to get, and events on the ground cannot be controlled. Moreover, the Crisis shows that nuclear use is unlikely to be premeditated, but rather the result of misperception, miscalculation, and risk-taking.

While many Americans believe that the nuclear threat disappeared with the Cold War, the risk that a conflict could lead to the use of nuclear weapons still exists. The threat of nuclear terrorism poses an additional harrowing danger.

The Cuban Missile Crisis has taught us that the threat of nuclear calamity is only a few errors or misperceptions away; but the historic crisis is also instructive in other ways: Delaying disaster or making distasteful compromises may be preferable to scare tactics or an outright attack. Take Iran's nuclear program.

In a series of provocative articles, Harvard's Graham Allison compares the US-Iran standoff to a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.

Instead of choosing between attacking Iran's nuclear facilities or acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran, Allison argues that President Obama ought to follow in Kennedy's footsteps and "explore alternatives that, however unacceptable, are less catastrophic." (In a nutshell, Allison proposes Iran permanently and verifiably abandon enrichment beyond 5 percent in return for US acceptance of Iran's continued enrichment up to that level.)

Another ominous lesson of the Crisis relevant to Iran is that Castro's willingness to embrace apocalyptic martyrdom was driven by the fact that he was convinced the US was bent on invading Cuba and overthrowing his regime. After the disgrace of the Bay of Pigs, this was certainly not Kennedy's intent, but can we really blame Castro for plausibly thinking otherwise, especially in the face of sustained covert operations in the form of Operation Mongoose?

Fast forward to today, where one constantly reads of covert US and Israeli efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program and new sanctions to undermine the regime. While regime change is not the stated goal of the Obama administration's Iran policy (the same probably can't be said for Netanyahu), our intentions probably look quite a bit different from the seat of power in Tehran.

As was the case during the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the United States and Iran are categorically failing to empathize with each other's security concerns. The consequences of this failure could be war and a nuclear-armed Iran.

The only permanent exit ramp from the specter of nuclear annihilation is the abolition of nuclear weapons. Nuclear disarmament is daunting and not risk-free itself. The political, technical, and other obstacles and challenges have been well documented.

Previous generations have at times awakened to the nuclear danger, which has prompted a meaningful sense of urgency about doing something about it. Such moments occurred in the immediate aftermath of World War II, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and during the Reagan administration when the Freeze Movement developed. But these moments didn’t last.

In recent years, another wave of interest in nuclear disarmament has begun to develop.

President Barak Obama devoted his first major foreign policy speech as president to the subject in April 2009 in Prague, where he pledged America's commitment to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In particular, the president laid out a series of interim steps that the United States must take to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

In articulating this vision, Obama was acting on a growing consensus most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who argued in a now famous 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed that the nuclear status quo -- defined by the potential spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the continued existence of bloated nuclear weapons and materials stockpiles -- is simply not tenable.

US leadership is essential to reducing the salience and number of nuclear weapons in international politics. In what is perhaps the grossest of understatements, the United States can preserve its security with far fewer than its current arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons. Such a large force does nothing to address 21st century threats such as terrorism and cyberattack, provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force, and undermines the credibility of efforts to strengthen non-proliferation rules and their enforcement.

Moreover, given the tough economic climate, spending tax dollars on Cold War-era nuclear weapons robs money from more important defense priorities.

President Obama has made an early down payment on the vision he articulated in Prague. The steps that have been taken over the past three years, including the New START treaty, which reduces the size of the US and Russian deployed nuclear arsenals, a new US nuclear policy review, and two nuclear security summits to raise awareness about and encourage action to prevent nuclear terrorism are significant achievements.

However, resistance from Russia, domestic political obstruction by Republicans, and the exigencies of an election year have combined to stymie next steps. In addition, Iran's nuclear aspirations and North Korea's intransigence continue to put significant pressure on the nonproliferation regime.

In order to permit further progress, our elected officials, military leaders, and opinion leaders must recognize that a HUGE problem exists, a problem that could end all life as we know it. Suffice it to say that this is not the prevailing attitude.

Speaking for my generation, I think our predominant attitude towards nuclear weapons is, not surprisingly, apathy. I doubt I’m speaking about anyone in this room. But I think there is a general attitude that nuclear weapons are a problem of the past. Put in another way the threat seems entirely abstract.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a well we must constantly draw from to be reminded of the perilous danger that we faced and still face. We lucked out 50 years ago. We may not be so lucky next time.

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