Dispelling the Cuba Missile Crisis Myths

November 4th, 2022 - by Andrew Latham / The Hill

Forget the Myths: Here’s How the Cuban Missile Crisis Was Actually Resolved

Andrew Latham / The Hill

(October 31, 2022) — The threat of nuclear Armageddon hangs over the war in Ukraine today as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago. And that has prompted some in the commentariat to call for President Biden to handle his adversary in the Kremlin in 2022 the way President Kennedy handled his in 1962.

They assume or assert, in other words, that the situation now is analogous to the one then. And that being the case, they further argue that the president of the United States today should employ the same basic approach as his predecessor back then. If the situations are analogous, the logic runs, what worked then should work now.

The problem is, this is not only a faulty analogy, but also a downright dangerous one.

Now, I readily concede that analogies have their place. But analogical arguments can also be profoundly misleading and, in the geopolitical domain at least, very dangerous indeed.

They can be misleading in that they are sometimes faulty or false. Such flawed analogies can involve likening one case to another when the differences between the two outweigh the similarities.

Similarly, they can involve treating one version of a historical case as objective history when in fact there are multiple, competing versions of the narrative, any of which could lead to quite different conclusions about the contemporary case. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, analogies can be fatally flawed in that they may be based on a historical fantasy or myth rather than the objective historical record.

And, at least in the geopolitical domain, flawed analogies can be dangerous if they suggest a course of action that may well have worked in the past but that is unlikely to work in the non-analogous circumstances of the present.

With all this in mind, let’s examine the Cuban Missile Crisis analogy.

The myth, of course, is that calibrated brinkmanship — the willingness to stand “eyeball to eyeball” with the Soviets until they “blinked,” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it — is what carried the day in 1962.

This myth, mid-wifed by the Kennedy family and its hagiographers, portrayed the United States’s victory over the Soviet Union as the outcome of President Kennedy’s greater willingness to stand up to a belligerent bully until he backed down and to inch closer to nuclear Armageddon than his opponent was willing to.

It emphasized, in other words, intimidation over negotiation, unilateral concessions over reciprocal ones.

The reality is quite different. As revealed in numerous accounts, based on both US and Soviet sources, the peaceful resolution of the crisis (the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its missiles from Cuba) came after a series of secret meetings in which Robert F. Kennedy offered Soviet Ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin an old-fashioned diplomatic deal: a pledge not to invade Cuba coupled with a parallel commitment to withdraw US nuclear-tipped missiles in Turkey.

The terms, according to RFK’s posthumous memoir “Thirteen Days,” were that this deal would never be publicly acknowledged by Washington, and that the Soviets should not see it as a quid pro quo arrangement, even though that is exactly what it was.

Further revisions of the myth emerged in the following decades, all of which emphasized that the resolution to the crisis was achieved via negotiations not brinkmanship, that JFK was indeed very close to “blinking” to avoid Armageddon and that pretty much the entire narrative of Kennedy’s steely-eyed resolve forcing the Soviets into an ignominious set of unilateral concessions was pure self-serving political grift.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, then, is a false analogy to today’s episode of great power nuclear gamesmanship. But if we are to insist on analogizing 2022 to 1962, the true lesson learned is not the one that the myth-mongers continue hawking.

It is not, in other words, that President Biden must stand strong and uncompromisingly stare down Putin until the Russian leader blinks. Rather, it is that Putin’s implicit nuclear threat should be met, not with unblinking (unthinking?) resolve, but rather with the kind of deft diplomacy that ultimately carried the day back in 1962.

Let’s hope that the current Democratic administration is as deft behind the scenes today as its forebears were 60 years ago.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

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