Twenty-five years ago this week, the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over Moscow's plan to deploy in Cuba intermediate-range ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.
At the time, the crisis was considered, according to CBS newsman Charles Collingwood, "the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since the end of World War II." Robert Kennedy thought that the confrontation in fact "brought the world to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind."
Fortunately, while there has been intense rivalry between the superpowers, the world has never been as close to a war involving the possible use of nuclear weapons as it was in October, 1962. There have been subsequent crises--periods of intense pressure and tension over major international issues--involving regional conflicts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and, more recently, the Persian Gulf. And some of the crises have involved the threat that military force would be used unless a diplomatic solution were reached, or if one party pushed the other beyond a certain point. But none of these episodes had the gravamen of the Cuban missile crisis.
So is war between the United States and the Soviet Union less likely today than in 1962?
Yes. Much of the credit is due to the way in which diplomacy, rather than force, was used during the crisis and the subsequent changes that were made in the U.S. intelligence community.
While there is a tendency to romanticize about the strength and vigor with which President John F. Kennedy acted and the image of toughness that he projected, the historical record now available makes very clear that he bent over backward to give the Soviet leadership numerous opportunities and plenty of time in which to decide to back down. Kennedy used every possible diplomatic and political tool at his disposal to avoid military confrontation, and sought the absolute minimum from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in order to resolve the crisis peacefully--despite the counsel of many who at the time thought that the President should push for more concessions or launch a military strike against Cuba. Kennedy thus made it legitimate for his successors to seek to resolve other U.S.-Soviet crises peacefully, and to do so even when this meant some compromise in the American position.
For the intelligence community--which incorrectly forecast on Sept. 19, 1962, that the Soviet Union would not deploy offensive missiles outside its own territory--the Cuban missile crisis resulted in the development of the technology and manpower for the most comprehensive possible monitoring of Soviet military activities. No ship leaving any Soviet port, for example, would henceforth be immune from scrutiny by U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and satellites. And virtually every crate loaded aboard such ships was to become the focus of intelligence collection and research.
The result has been to make Soviet military activities very hard to conceal. This has given U.S. policy-makers much more time to dissuade Soviet leaders from large-scale military moves designed to change abruptly the balance of power.
Unfortunately, all this does not mean that the world is a less dangerous place today than it was in 1962. The superpowers have at least 10 times the number of nuclear weapons that they possessed then; at least four other countries, and perhaps some terrorist groups, also have such weapons. More than 40 wars have been fought in the past decade, suggesting that the resort to military conflict is becoming more, not less, accepted by non-communist as well as communist states alike.
Thus there is always the risk of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation. And through the liberal use of covert paramilitary action, Americans and Russians are involved in armed conflicts through the support that they provide to pro- and anti-government forces in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Central America.
Consequently, the significance of recalling the Cuban missile crisis today is not the points that are made in the dozens of books recently written about it--that is, that the crisis illustrates utility of diplomacy over force, that the way in which it was handled helped resolve other contentious issues in U.S.-Soviet relations, and that the experience of being at the brink caused the successors of both Kennedy and Khrushchev to seek detente.
The most enduring lessons of the crisis are that such confrontations can happen at any time--even when the memory of a world war is fresh--and that even overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons (as the United States possessed in 1962) is not a deterrent to situations that can suddenly come close to war.