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U.S. Far Off on Troop Estimates in Cuba Crisis

Times Staff Writer

U.S. officials weighing a possible invasion of Cuba at the height of the 1962 missile crisis were off by a factor of four in their estimate of Soviet troop strength on the island and underestimated the number of Cubans under arms by about 60%, it was revealed here Sunday.

“We estimated that (the Soviets) had around 10,000 men there and that the Cubans had around 100,000 men under arms,” former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara said at a news conference wrapping up an unprecedented meeting of Cuban Missile Crisis participants here.

Instead, Cuban and Soviet officials revealed, there were more than 40,000 Soviet troops on the island and 270,000 armed Cubans.

‘Fight to Death’

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“The entire people was ready to fight to the death,” said Jorge Risket Valdes, a member of the Politburo of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party and leader of Havana’s delegation at the extraordinary Moscow meeting.

He told reporters that Cuba had expected to lose as many as 800,000 people if the United States attacked.

“The figures they gave show it would have been a real war if we had gone in,” added Graham T. Allison, dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Sunday’s disclosures were only the latest of several surprises at the conference, which was organized jointly by the Soviets and officials of Harvard’s Nuclear Crisis Project. On Saturday it was confirmed that the Soviets already had nuclear warheads in Cuba at the time of the dramatic 1962 showdown and that the intermediate-range missiles on which they were to be mounted were aimed at Washington, New York and other U.S. cities.

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While several conference participants credited the common sense of the late President John F. Kennedy and then-Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev for avoiding a nuclear conflict that seemed dangerously near, Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel to Kennedy, offered a different view Sunday.

Mistaken Assumptions

Sorensen said that he had drawn up a list of 10 mistaken assumptions by parties to the crisis that were revealed during three days of formal and informal meetings here.

“The value of this conference to me,” he concluded, “is not proving how wise we all were, but how fallible we all were.”

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McNamara recalled in a closing statement that a Soviet participant had confided his decision to evacuate his family to the country at the height of the 1962 crisis for fear of a U.S. nuclear strike on Moscow. “And at the same time in Washington, on a beautiful fall evening, as I left the President’s office to return to the Pentagon, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night,” McNamara added.

What the conference underlined, the former defense secretary said, is that “in this nuclear age, crisis management is dangerous, difficult, uncertain. . . . Therefore we must direct our attention to crisis avoidance.”

‘Leap of Imagination’

The superpowers “have made little progress” in that direction despite the 26 years that have passed since the Cuban crisis, McNamara said, but he added that they now have “the greatest opportunity since the end of World War II to reformulate our relations.”

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It would require “a leap of imagination for us to conceive of our national roles in a world not dominated by the struggle between East and West,” but both nations need such a vision, McNamara said. “Conflicts within and conflicts between nations will not disappear,” he said. But the superpowers could assure that they would not be nearly so dangerous if they would agree that: “Neither would seek to take advantage of such disputes to increase or extend their political or military power beyond their borders, and their bilateral relations would be conducted according to rules of conduct which precluded the use of force.”

Scars Run Deep

The fact that such prominent personalities on all three sides of the 1962 crisis could for the first time sit down with one another to discuss it was hailed as a sign of significant progress. But Sunday’s news conference also showed that the scars still run deep.

Cuban delegation leader Risket repeatedly threw verbal jabs at the Americans for maintaining a hostile policy toward his country and, in a more surprising move, leveled rare public criticism at Cuba’s Soviet allies over the fact that Havana was never consulted before Khrushchev finally pulled his missiles out of Cuba.

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