Lessons From The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fifty years ago, a United States Air Force U-2 spyplane captured photographic proof that the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear missile sites in Cuba, and a diplomatic standoff ensued. Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin talks with Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government about the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Russia and the U.S. continue to struggle with the consequences of the Cold War nuclear build-up, we mark a sober anniversary in our history with nuclear weapons. On this day, 50 years ago, a U.S. Air Force U2 spy plane captured photographic proof that the Soviet Union was installing offensive nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Suddenly the veil is torn from the Russian secrets.

MARTIN: Newsreels would later show the pictures to American audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Another photo revealed a surface-to-air missile assembly depot, a place to supply the offensive sites.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens...

MARTIN: Eight days after the photos were taken, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation from the Oval Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

KENNEDY: Unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere...

MARTIN: It was the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War standoff that brought the world to the edge of nuclear war and back again.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

KENNEDY: Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace...

GRAHAM ALLISON: Kennedy estimated after the fact that the chances of war were somewhere between one and three and even.

MARTIN: That's Graham Allison. He's director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

ALLISON: So I think that as a reminder of nuclear danger and of a crisis-end period, in which countries and leaders could contemplate actions that could kill hundreds of millions of people, we can look back and be thankful that the Cold War ended; that it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and that we have lots of problems today but none of them pose anything like the risks that we saw then.

MARTIN: Essentially, Kennedy was faced with a choice to accept missiles in Cuba or attack. Those were the two options that his advisers laid out for him. He, in the end, chose to avoid both of those options and crafted a third choice. What was that choice?

ALLISON: Kennedy came up with a pretty imaginative, but I'd say unique cocktail of three elements: a public deal, a private ultimatum and a secret sweetener. So the public deal was, you, Khrushchev, withdraw the missiles and we will pledge not to invade Cuba. The private ultimatum said, unless you tell us within 24 hours that you're withdrawing the missiles, we're going to act unilaterally to eliminate them. So that was clear threat of a military strike.

And then, thirdly, as a secret sweetener, you, Khrushchev, had pointed to U.S. missiles in Turkey as essentially analogous to the weapons that were in Cuba. We're not going to make a trade with you, but, he said, if the missiles are withdrawn from Cuba within six months, there will not be missiles in Turkey. And that private sweetener allowed him at least to back down without humiliation.

MARTIN: I'd like to talk about what lessons have come out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just last month, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the current standoff with Iran to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and here's what he had to say:

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades. In fact, it's the failure to place red lines that's often invited aggression.

MARTIN: What are your thoughts on that? What do you make of his analysis?

ALLISON: He certainly said some things right. This is part of his U.N. speech. And I would say on that core point, with respect to red lines and the ways they can constrain the competition, and therefore contribute to preventing war, he was basically correct.

I've written about the current Iranian nuclear challenge, that it's like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In 1962, in the course of 13 days, the U.S. and the Soviet Union sort of rushed to the precipice. Here, you can see, probably over the next year - or let's say 13 months - the U.S. and Iran moving seemingly, inexorably towards a confrontation in which a president is going to have a choice between attacking or acquiescing in an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

And whichever of the two of these options you've analyzed most carefully most recently, it usually leads me to conclude, well, maybe the other one is better than I thought. And so, I go back and forth. And I think actually the most interesting takeaway from the Cuban Missile Crisis, relevant to the Iranian nuclear challenge today, Kennedy, at the beginning of the week of the 13 days, if you had said to him: What about this deal that he ultimately proposed?

He would have said, forget about it. He wouldn't have even thought of it. It was when he looked at the two alternatives that were the only realistic choices that he became intensely inventive about an option that he would have rejected previously. So I think we're now into a season where I would hope that after the election, whomever is elected will become intensely focused and inventive about options that are not very good - I call them ugly options, very ugly options - but that would nonetheless be better than attack or acquiesce.

MARTIN: Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He's also a professor of government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Professor Allison, thanks so much for talking with us.

ALLISON: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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