Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy told the nation that “unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation” in Cuba and that a military “quarantine” of the island was underway.
On the anniversary of that address, a panel of scholars met at UVa’s Miller Center to talk about those anxious October days and to challenge some of the perceptions of the crisis as a purely US-Soviet standoff.
For years, says the Miller Center’s Presidential Studies Director Marc Selverstone, we viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis as a signal moment of American strength and resolve–the shorthand being Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s famous “we’ve been eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.”
The opening of Soviet and Cuban archives has allowed a new generation of scholars to look at the events of October 1962 with fresh eyes. Despite public perceptions, one thing that jumps out from this expanded view is how willing President Kennedy was to negotiate and how willing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was to pull back. “Diplomacy, not force, turned the tide.”
Svetlana Savranskaya of George Washington University’s National Security Archive argues that the common framework of a thirteen-day crisis is “just a constructed narrative” that emphasizes the US-Soviet relationship at the expense of the big picture. Viewed instead as primarily a Soviet-Cuban crisis, it “started earlier, lasted longer, and was harder to resolve.”
November 1962 was the real danger zone, she says, as Soviet officials struggled to control Fidel Castro and his government. Any false step could have reignited the conflict and tipped the balance back towards nuclear annihilation. It was largely through the diplomatic efforts of Deputy Premier Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan that the Soviets were able to de-escalate the anger of the Castro regime and begin removing nuclear warheads and Soviet troops from Cuba in the final weeks of 1962.
Had Castro controlled the nuclear weapons in October, he undoubtedly would have launched them, says Brian Latell of the University of Miami’s Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies. Castro wrote Khrushchev on October 26, saying in part: “I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba–a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law–then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of most legitimate self-defense,” in the form of a full-on nuclear strike by the Soviets against the United States. “However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.”
Latell says Khrushchev was “horrified” by Castro’s willingness to start nuclear armageddon and see his own country “reduced to powder.” That letter, combined with the downing of a U2 spy plane by a surface-to-air missile on October 27 (which Khrushchev believed, probably erroneously, to be the work of the Cubans) spurred the Soviets to hammer out the final details of an agreement with the Kennedy White House the next day.
While we tend to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis in the dry language of diplomacy and Cold War brinkmanship, what is striking was the raw human emotions on the part of the Cubans and Soviets.
Castro was humiliated by the sudden resolution of the crisis; he had been kept in the dark about the back-channel negotiations and actually learned about the deal over the radio. The Soviet leadership in Moscow was oblivious to the Cuban terror of US invasion and to the independence of the Cuban Communists. Nor did they see the extent to which their own troops were stung by the policy reversal. Like the Cubans, the Soviet military on the island had been ready and willing to fight to the last man. Instead, they were told to dismantle all they had built and prepare to ship out “like cowards” says Savranskaya.
Americans moved on from the terror of the crisis fairly quickly, but the shadow of those days lingered over Cuban-Soviet relations for decades. While Savranskaya says Castro could be called the winner, awarded with copious amounts of aid, non-nuclear weapons and troops as an olive branch from the Soviets, the relationship between the two countries was irreparably harmed. Latell argues that Castro was never able to win what he wanted most: a “defense guarantee” from Moscow. The Soviets would protect their Cuban counterparts…but only to a point.
The Miller Center is hosting a series of panels and discussions of the Kennedy years as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination. Visit their website for upcoming events–or, better yet, sign up for their monthly e-newsletter–and we’ll post the video of this panel discussion as soon it’s available.