October 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous moment of the nuclear age – and perhaps any age. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been a missile crisis afficiando – indeed, it’s behind my personal and professional interest in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.
In my June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column, I summarize how close the world came to all-out nuclear war during the the crisis and why the lessons of 1962 are so relevant today. Here’s the intro:
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.
Let me add a few additional points that didn’t make it into the piece.
First, while most people associate the Cuban Missile Crisis with 13 harrowing days in October 1962, it may be more accurate to think of the crisis as unfolding over the course of many months (beginning with the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961) and continuing well after October 28, 1962, at least until Kennedy lifted the naval quarantine in later November 1962. Thus while Graham Allison compares the US-Iran standoff to a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion, the actual Cuban Missile Crisis was itself a crisis in slow motion.
Second, though the Cuban Missile Crisis may have been the most extreme and dangerous close-call in the history of the nuclear age, it was by no means the only near-miss. Stanislav Petrov. Able Archer. A Norwegian-US research rocket. The list goes on. These are the well-known names of near disaster.
Peter Scoblic put it characteristically deftly in his April 2010 tour de force on nuclear deterrence and strategy: “Deterrence, then, whatever its strength, is susceptible to Murphy’s Law. Shit happens, it happens with remarkable frequency, it happens even when the consequences could be nothing less than the destruction of an entire country or worse, and it is obviously more likely to happen when more states have nuclear weapons.”
Third, piggybacking off of Allison’s recent articles on the subject, in the piece I highlight the lessons the Cuban Missile Crisis might have for the Iranian nuclear problem. Clearly there are many differences between the two cases, but we shouldn’t ignore the important parallels.
One ominous lesson that I didn’t flesh out in the piece 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 reads almost weekly of covert US and Israeli efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program and new sanctions to undermine the regime. While regime change may not be the 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. As Robert Wright writes, the consequences of this failure could be a nuclear-armed Iran: “So as we try to retard Iran’s nuclear program–and as we stall on the negotiating front, while applying more and more economic pressure–we may be, in effect, converting the program from a civilian to a military one. Or, more precisely: we may be taking a nuclear program whose ultimate character is undetermined and making it more and more likely that this character will be military. And that seems kind of stupid.”