The Truth About the Cuban Missile Crisis

Benjamin Schwarz has written a long and interesting article for The Atlantic that draws on recent scholarship (and not-so-recent scholarship) to debunk the conventional wisdom about the Cuban missile crisis, arguing that the Kennedy administration "risked nuclear war over a negligible threat to national security." The whole thing is worth a read, but this anecdote should be especially enjoyable for anyone who suspects that JFK was a playboy doofus in over his head:

On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: "Why does he put these in there, though?...It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that'd be goddamned dangerous, I would think." McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: "Well we did it, Mr. President."

If you prefer stories that make Bobby Kennedy look bad, you'll enjoy the part where the president's brother tries to conceal a document that "could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future."

But Schwarz has a deeper point to make than The Kennedys were kind of awful. The myths of the Cuban missile crisis, he writes, have encouraged a lot of dangerous and inaccurate ideas about foreign policy:

the idea that a foreign power's effort to counter the overwhelming strategic supremacy of the United States—a country that spends nearly as much on defense as does the rest of the world combined—ipso facto imperils America's security is profoundly misguided. Just as Kennedy and his advisers perceived a threat in Soviet efforts to offset what was in fact a destabilizing U.S. nuclear hegemony, so today, both liberals and conservatives oxymoronically assert that the safety of the United States demands that the country must "balance" China by maintaining its strategically dominant position in East Asia and the eastern Pacific—that is, in China's backyard. This means that Washington views as a hazard Beijing's attempts to remedy the weakness of its own position, even though policy makers acknowledge that the U.S. has a crushing superiority right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. America's posture, however, reveals more about its own ambitions than it does about China's. Imagine that the situation were reversed, and China's air and naval forces were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Surely the U.S. would want to counteract that preponderance.

Bonus link: Schwarz was one of the people I interviewed for this round-robin forum on Iraq and the War on Terror, way back in 2003.

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  • sarcasmic||

    Imagine that the situation were reversed, and China's air and naval forces were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Surely the U.S. would want to counteract that preponderance.

    BUT WE'RE MERKINS! WE'RE MERKINS! USA! USA! USA!

  • Cytotoxic||

    Worthless moral equivalence is worthless.

  • sarcasmic||

    WE DON'T HAVE TO HOLD OURSELVES TO THE SAME STANDARDS WE HOLD OTHERS BECAUSE WER MERKINS! MIGHT MAKES RIGHT! USA! USA! USA!

  • Cytotoxic||

    Your 'standards' aren't standards.

  • sarcasmic||

    You don't know what my standards are, Red Tony, but I'm sure that won't stop you from slaying a straw man.

  • Cytotoxic||

    The irony is overwhelming.

  • Cytotoxic||

    3 posts and your down to 'Red Tony'. You've let yourself go.

  • ||

    Yeah, Lyle is much more worthy of the "Red T o n y" badge.

  • Zeb||

    Who wears merkins?

  • Agammamon||

    AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!

  • A Serious Man||

    I thought the missiles in Turkey were obsolete and were going to be removed anyway.

    At any rate, what I thought was the most interesting facet of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that Khrushchev completely cut Castro and Che out of the loop, to the point where Che furiously denounced the Soviets for not launching the missiles and wiping out the Americas. One of the greatest icons of the left was batshit crazy.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I believe Castro wanted to launch, too. How sweet.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Castro was pretty pissed when the missiles were withdrawn. Even flirted with moving into the Chinese orbit.

  • Pro Libertate||

    He should've stuck with us. Back then, we were perfectly happy to support an anti-Communist tyrant.

  • Tim||

    I thought it was Kevin Bacon who wanted the missiles launched?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    By every definition of the term, Dr. Che was psychopathic serial killer.

  • Paul.||

    I thought the missiles in Turkey were obsolete and were going to be removed anyway.

    I believe they were which is why Kennedy gets so many props in the media for being a brilliant foreign policy strategist.

  • ||

    to the point where Che furiously denounced the Soviets for not launching the missiles and wiping out the Americas. One of the greatest icons of the left was batshit crazy.

    This undercuts the thesis of this post -- having nukes in a country controlled by a couple of crazy people who aren't deterred by the consequences of nuking an American city or ten seems kinda unstable.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Would they have controlled the missiles? Seems like that would be against the Soviet Union's interests, big time.

  • Cytotoxic||

    We don't know, nobody does, including the author of this bullshit 'me, worry?' post.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I can't imagine the Russians would want to give someone else the ability to start a nuclear war. Because our response to a launched Cuban missile would have been to obliterate Cuba and the U.S.S.R.

  • Cytotoxic||

    The Russians didn't want a lot of things to happen that did in fact happened.

  • A Serious Man||

    The missiles were under complete control by the Soviets. Any firing order would have to come from Moscow, although during the actual confrontation between the US Navy and the Soviets the officers in the silos and the captains in the nuclear subs had authority to use their nukes if attacked.

  • R C Dean||

    Well, something that's under the Russian thumb today, may not be tomorrow.

    Just ask Assad.

  • Pro Libertate||

    True. I suppose whatever safeguards they used could be defeated in time.

  • Gray Ghost||

    I'm not even sure the warheads for the SS-4s were even in Cuba at the time. Not that it mattered, with ~40 or so shorter range tactical nukes in Cuba, control given to the local Soviet commander in the region, and orders to use them if he was attacked.

    While the Cubans could certainly have stormed the site, the Soviets could easily have set up the rockets to be destroyed, in the event of a Cuban takeover. Due to the peculiarities of the technology, the rockets also needed, IIRC, about 1-2 hours or so to fuel before launch. It wasn't like they could turn a key and off they go. Disabling the warheads so the Cubans couldn't take them, would require some more doing and would be undoubtedly messy.

    I'm sure the whole episode was on the minds of warhead designers when they came up with the PAL system just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wouldn't surprise me at all if details of it were shared with the Soviets. It serves no one's interest to have runaway nuclear weapons.

  • Paul.||

    I find the post interesting, but I'm not sure I buy the thesis either.

    And even if the Russians could maintain control of those missiles after being placed in Cuber, and even if the threat was "negligible", everyone believed the threat wasn't. I agree with the analysisthat we were closer to nuclear war than even the mainstream texts say we were.

    Two crazy people threatening to blow eachother up over something negligible can still result in people blowing eachother up.

    For me, I'm more curious about the awfulness of the Kennedys.

  • A Serious Man||

    It appears that all it would have took for a nuclear exchange was for this guy to attack the US Navy blockade.

  • A Frayed Knot||

    Kind of like Iran. Hmm.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The original article makes it clear that the Russians probably wouldn't have sent the missiles to Cuba but for some of JFK's actions.

  • sarcasmic||

    99% of cops give the rest a bad name.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....d-cam.html

  • fish||

    Well Mr. Greene will think twice about having another disrespectful medical episode when Sergeant Seekatz is on duty. Serves him right.

  • Brendan||

    He actually works for Henderson, NV PD.

    The whole picture I've seen of HPD tells me a lot of that department are people who wish they worked for LV Metro PD and/or its shadow.

    A lot more cops without hair, all of their Tahoe/Suburban style SUVs (the bulk of their patrol fleet apparently) are veritable traveling light shows. They seem to have managed to mount strobing xenon and LED lights in every available space on their vehicles.

    If there are 4 or 5 police vehicles in a row at a stop, it's HPD. They can be counted on to have at least 2 or 3 cops chat for 10-15 minutes after a stop.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Any narrative of that incident that doesn't address the manipulations of Sebastian Shaw unfairly shifts blame to Washington and Moscow.

  • Mike M.||

    Ugh, I kind of forgot that we're now officially in the 50th anniversary year of Kennedy's death. I expect to be overwhelmed with JFK fatigue by summertime.

  • ||

    CAMELOT

  • Pro Libertate||

    'Tis a silly place.

  • Delroy||

    It's just a model.

  • Enough About Palin||

    Back in the 60's in Minneapolis, there was this really ritzy restaurant called The Camelot. It's where rich folk took their womens to dine. So two guys invited their dates to dine at The Camelot and of course the womens said yes. Only they didn't dine at The Camelot. They were taken to the Camel Lot at Brookdale, The Camel Lot was next to the Rabbit Lot and the Owl Lot.

    True Story.

    http://finance-commerce.com/fi.....dale3x.jpg

    http://www.twincitiesdesignsce.....mal-signs/

  • Paul.||

    The whole thing is worth a read, but this anecdote should be especially enjoyable for anyone who suspects that JFK was a playboy doofus in over his head:

    Great blogpost, Jesse. I'm going to read further.

    Oh, do the pop-DemOp (thanks, RC) media tropes ever stop?

    Kennedy is always portrayed as an intellectual beacon, Reagan an amiable dunce.

    Milton Friedman said that Reagan was extremely bright, and understood monetary policy with great acumen.

    This blogpost forces me to ask, is that Aaron Sorkin abomination gonna have a second season?

  • A Serious Man||

    This blogpost forces me to ask, is that Aaron Sorkin abomination gonna have a second season?

    Yup, although Season 2 will feature an entirely new staff of writers, but I doubt it'll stop them from using news stories from two years ago to provide us with moral lectures on the wisdom of liberal Top Men.

  • Paul.||

    OH come on... with Sandy Hook, that Newsroom show will practically write itself.

  • A Serious Man||

    Oh God, do not want to even think about that impending episode. I hate it when scripted shows like that act all smug and preachy because they benefit from hindsight.

  • Killazontherun||

    I tried to warn them, Freeman.

  • Les||

    Milton Friedman said that Reagan was extremely bright, and understood monetary policy with great acumen.

    He knew the best way to raise money for terrorists in Nicaragua was to sell weapons to terrorists in Iran. Extremely bright.

  • IceTrey||

    My father, a then Marine lieutenant, was assigned to the first helicopter scheduled to land in Cuba if their was an invasion.

  • John||

    The Cuban missile crisis was only twenty years removed from Pearle Harbor. Pearle Harbor and the fear of their being another one colored American foreign policy. They were terrified of letting America be subject to another sneak attack. This was especially so when they considered the effect of nuclear weapons. So yeah, their theory was to put a knife at everyone else's throat and keep them from doing the same to the US.

    Is that fair? No. But would I rather live with an unfair American policy that kept us from being on the receiving end of an attack than a fair one that created such a risk? You damn right I would.

  • Tim||

    Pearle Harbor? Is this the Antiques Roadshow?

  • LTC(ret) John||

    An anchorage with piles of eyeglasses?

  • Pro Libertate||

    I thought Pearle Harbor was on Hee Haw. Which, incidentally, needs a gritty reboot as a film.

  • ||

    Naw, man, superhero movies are played out.

  • Tim||

    Could be a good porno name.

  • Tim||

    Starring Pearle Harbor as the naughty nurse.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Who gets sneak attacked by some Japanese businessmen.

  • GILMORE||

    "Where Richard Pearle keeps his fleet of Neoconservative Yachts"

  • Liberty||

    I wouldn't argue that Kennedy was much different from other presidents. Cuba is much closer to our shores than Korea or Greece.

  • John||

    Of course him and Eisenhower let the communists take it over and turn it into a septic boil on the ass of the world. When you think about all of the meddling in the world we did do, you have to wonder why the fuck the US didn't do something about a country 90 miles off of our coast.

  • A Serious Man||

    When you think about all of the meddling in the world we did do, you have to wonder why the fuck the US didn't do something about a country 90 miles off of our coast.

    Ah-hem.

  • John||

    Setting up a bunch of dumb asses to invade a country with no air support, doesn't quite count. Why the hell didn't we just invade the place and prop up the government like we had always done in Central America. The Cuban Missile crises proved the Russians were not going to go to war over Cuba. So instead we risked war and got nothing out of the deal beyond the Russians not using it as a missile base. Meanwhile, fifty years later we have the festering shithole sitting off of our coast waiting to explode and produce a giant mass migration problem.

  • A Serious Man||

    My guess is because Castro took over during Eisenhower's lame duck period. Things may have been differently if Nixon, who ran Operation 40 and recruited a couple of of his future 'plumbers' from that outfit, had beaten Kennedy in 1960.

  • IceTrey||

    They did do something, the Bay of Pigs. It was a complete disaster.

  • John||

    They didn't do much. Kennedy backed off and let those people die down there.

  • Enough About Palin||

    " Kennedy backed off and let those people die down there"

    That's the Democrat's way. Just ask Hillary.

  • Tim||

    Eisenhower planned the invasion, the Kennedy brothers fucked it up, grounded the air support.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The CIA helped, too. Their incompetence should not go unnoted.

  • Ron||

    reminds me of Bengazi. Theres less explaning when nobody lives to tell the tale.

  • pmains||

    People did survive Benghazi.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Kennedy's refusal to send air support is a disgrace to America. The BoP would have easily succeeded.

    Kennedy also lied in the debates about Eisenhower's anti-Cuba commie efforts. Nixon and Kennedy were both informed but Nixon had to keep silent as Kennedy dishonestly accused his opponent of inaction.

  • John||

    And don't forget the missile gap with Russia was completely made up. Kennedy knew it was a lie but knew Eisenhower or Nixon couldn't call him on it without compromising US intelligence.

    Kennedy was a real charmer.

  • pmains||

    The mineshaft gap was real, though.

  • GILMORE||

    the idea that a foreign power's effort to counter the overwhelming strategic supremacy of the United States...ipso facto imperils America's security is profoundly misguided

    wAIT - ARE YOU SUGGESTING IRAN AND NORTH KOREA *ARENT* PLANNING AN INVASION ACROSS THE NORTH POLE???

    But.... but...... RED DAWN!?!?

    I never ceased to be amazed by armchair foreign-policy wonks* who never cease their pants-wetting about our 'national security', or assume even-minor regional conflicts are something we should be perpetually concerned about... (see: Israel/Palestine)

    (*read: people who have little grasp of actual foreign affairs or military issues, but feel free to opine ad nauseum regarding both)

    i suspect it is sourced most often from people whose generation *grew up* in the shadow of an 'existential threat of nuclear annihilation' via the Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to have only caught the tail end of it in the '80s, but it was enough to get a taste of the paranoid zeitgeist. Throw AIDS and Crack in there too, and its TEH END OF TEH WORLDS.

    I feel like we only had 3/4 of a decade or so in the 90s where there was actually a sense of relative security and optimism, where we didn't need to be turning anyone (even Iran!) into a Global Boogeyman or have politicians constantly accusing each other of being 'soft' on X or Y national-concern.

  • GILMORE||

    Paul.| 1.15.13 @ 2:56PM |#

    I find the post interesting, but I'm not sure I buy the thesis either.
    .... I agree with the analysis that we were closer to nuclear war than even the mainstream texts say we were.

    Two crazy people threatening to blow eachother up over something negligible can still result in people blowing eachother up.

    An interesting comment from Robert McNamara in the Errol Morris' movie, "The Fog of War" =

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtUfBc4qQMg

    Robert McNamara: [about Castro] I said, "I must have got the translation wrong." So I asked him 3 questions. One- did you know there were nuclear warheads in Cuba? Two- would you have recommended to Khrushchev to use nuclear missiles in the event of an American invasion of Cuba? And three- what would have happened to Cuba?

    He said, "One- I knew the missiles were there. Two- I would not *have* recommended it, I *did* recommend it! And three- we would have been totally obliterated".

    Perhaps thats an answer to John's query as to why we didnt "just invade".

  • Lord Peter Wimsey||

    I'm all for setting the record straight on myths and whatnot, but this smacks of typical bullshit from The Atlantic, sort of like the Seymour Hersh fantasies at the New Yorker. They often take the right position (war bad; government over-reaches) but in the process they shovel enormous amounts of left wing horseshit onto the readers.

    Cuba was close. Castro was bad. The USSR was pulling the strings (however imperfectly). The missiles were a threat (worth going to war over? probably not, but that's govt. for you). This constant reassessment of JFK as having almost killed us all (and yes, we've heard this story before Mr. Schwartz) is almost as dubious as the old JFK myths we were brought up on.

    And just when did The Atlantic become more than a slightly higher grade of toilet paper than Newsweek? I musta missed that.

  • The Derider||

    "today, both liberals and conservatives oxymoronically assert that the safety of the United States demands that the country must "balance" China by maintaining its strategically dominant position in East Asia and the eastern Pacific—that is, in China's backyard."

    Does anyone think that Taiwan would be a free-market democracy today without us strategic dominance in the west pacific?

  • waaminn||

    Sometimes dude, you jsut gotta smack it good man.

    www.make-anon.tk

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