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Lessons from the brink

We should not be complacent about nuclear war

Artillery Row

French poet Paul Valéry wrote that history is all that occurs only once. Attempts to grasp contemporary events by analogy are always tempting, but often misleading.

Those thirteen days in October 1962, during which the Cuban Missile Crisis played out and the world stood on the precipice of annihilation, contain a wealth of insights: how chaotically institutions can act; how irrationally individuals can respond; how events follow a logic that quickly becomes opaque, all whilst the risk of inadvertent escalation unexpectedly increases. President Kennedy estimated after the crisis that the chances of disaster were “between one out of three and even.” 

Those October days have no analogy. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t draw lessons from them. As the situation in Ukraine unfolds, we can’t rule out that they may prove useful.

In brief, the course of events was as follows. In September 1962, the Soviets secretly place nuclear missiles in Cuba. On 14 October, an American reconnaissance plane photographs them. Eight days later, President Kennedy announces this discovery publicly, ordering a naval blockade around Cuba, whilst putting American forces on alert and calling for the removal of the missiles from the island. In response, Khrushchev puts Soviet troops on alert and declares that if American ships get in the way of Russian vessels, fire will be opened. Ultimately, Soviet ships do not attempt to break the blockade. On 26 October, Khrushchev makes an offer to exchange the pledge that the Americans will not attack Cuba for the removal of the missiles. The next day, however, he sends additional demands, asking for removal of nuclear missiles from Turkey. Americans agree to the first proposal and to the second as well, but privately, assuring Russians that the process will take several months. On 28 October, the Soviet head of state finally announces that the missiles will be removed from the island.

The rational model of the crisis assumes that two actors — two decision-making centres — gauged their military potential and determination and, eventually, reached a compromise. However, the path to this outcome had nothing obvious or linear about it, as chance and luck played a critical role.

As a result of a malfunction, a U-2 aircraft flew into the Soviet air zone

First, the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba came as a complete surprise to the Americans. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated in a speech four months before the crisis that a nuclear confrontation seemed impossible since it would be unreasonable. Sherman Kent, described as “perhaps the foremost practitioner of the craft of analysis in American intelligence history”, assessed in September 1962 that the probability of Soviet missiles being placed in Cuba was very low. He argued that this would be inconsistent with past Soviet behaviour — a display of a greater propensity for risk than had been observed before. Moreover, the Americans repeatedly warned through public and private channels that such a move would force a firm response, and the Russian side reassured them that those signals were acknowledged. As Graham Allison put it in his excellent The Essence of Decision, “the policy followed the tenets of deterrence espoused by the best scholars of the subject, then and now.” When the president and his entourage received news of the presence of missiles on the island, they were shocked. Kennedy wondered why the Soviets had acted in this way. His conclusion: “Well, it’s a goddamn mystery to me.” On the Soviet side, one can also speak of surprise. Khrushchev had not systematically analysed Cuba’s defence plans; for his General Staff, his decision concerning the missiles “was like a roll of thunder in a clear sky”.

The detection of the missiles owed much to chance. The weapons were not camouflaged in any way. Some of Kennedy’s advisers thought that the Russians wanted these to be seen. In reality, it was not the result of Khrushchev’s decision, but rather of confusion and lack of coordination among Soviet personnel on the island.

The risk of accidental escalation fluctuated throughout the crisis. After the discovery of the missiles, Kennedy was about to give a speech on 22 October. Fearing that the American president would announce an invasion, the Soviets wanted to give permission to one of the commanders on the island to fire nuclear missiles at will. Concern that the Americans would intercept these instructions stopped them at the last minute.

During the crisis, there were plenty of instances when the world nearly tumbled into the abyss. One U-2 aircraft was making a flight over the Arctic, planned prior to the crisis, to collect samples after a Soviet nuclear test. As a result of a malfunction, it flew into the Soviet air zone. Two Russian jets took off to intercept it. At the same time, two U.S. fighters flew out of Alaska to escort it back to base. As the US military was put on DEFCON 3 alert, they were equipped with nuclear warheads. When Kennedy was briefed on the incident, he remarked: “There is always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

The president today would not have the luxury of secret deliberation

Another dangerous moment occurred when an American reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba. It was hit by Russian air defence. McNamara proposed a retaliatory strike, but Kennedy rejected this option. The rational model of behaviour would assume that the next step should be retaliation. Robert, the president’s brother, wrote in his memoirs that after the downing of the plane there was unanimity that an attack should have been carried out the next day. Years later, it turned out that the shoot-down was not authorised by Moscow, and that the decision was made independently by the Russian crew in Cuba. Around the time of the incident, Castro informed Khrushchev that an American invasion was imminent and would occur within the next 24–72 hours. He urged the Russian leader to prevent it with a nuclear attack, but to no avail.

Yet another incident happened on 28 October: U.S. radars received a warning of incoming missiles from Cuba. It was too late to react. Fortunately, it turned out to be a technical error — an early warning centre had just run a test tape. One can easily imagine how a similar malfunction could have sealed the fate of the world.

The negotiations, too, were full of miscalculations and misperceptions that nearly derailed their outcome. One example will suffice: after Khrushchev sent a proposal to resolve the crisis on 26 October, the next day he decided to add another condition — removal of American missiles from Turkey. Whilst the first offer was secret, the second was announced publicly. Turkey immediately rejected the proposal, and the U.S. could not accept the offer without losing credibility with its NATO allies. A rational analyst would have to conclude that the Russians were probably not interested in a settlement, as some of Kennedy’s advisors did. Historic records show that this was not the desire of Soviets: they chose the public route because it seemed quicker to them than the traditional diplomatic one.

Roughly three groups formed around Kennedy during the crisis, as the authors of one article insightfully put it: hawks, doves and owls. Hawks advocated for invasion, but what distinguished them was their unwavering belief in the rationality of the other side and conviction that the course of the crisis itself could be controlled, if not predicted. 

Owls, unlike doves, wanted to avert the humiliation of backing down. Contrary to hawks, who found comfort in rigid rationalist models and certainty through false assumptions, they understood the risks associated with inattention. Hawks did not recognise the possibility of blundering into disaster, whilst owls perceived American nuclear superiority both as an asset and a risk. Kennedy sided with the owls and prudently supported the idea of a blockade, giving both the Soviets and himself room to manoeuvre, whilst avoiding a dangerous run up the escalation ladder. As Allison put it, “for the president, the problem was to pace and manage events in such a way that the Soviet leaders would have time to see, think, and blink.”

Today the power and pace of media is greater. The president and his entourage would not have the luxury of a few days of secret deliberation before choosing a course of action. Another difference is that — at least in the West — elites are not trained as they used to be in dealing with nuclear crises. On the other hand, if the Russian military performance in Ukraine can serve here as a proxy, Russian warning and nuclear systems may be in worse condition than they were during the Cold War. 

The next time the world finds itself on the brink of nuclear annihilation, it will be led there by an entirely different, intertwining chain of causes. Retreating from the precipice will be accomplished in a manner impossible to imagine now. What will remain constant, however, is in Kennedy’s words, the essence of the ultimate decision, “impenetrable to the observer — often, indeed, to the decider himself”. Let’s hope that those responsible for it will have time to see, think and blink.

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