Commentary Magazine

The Cuban Missile Crisis

To the Editor:

While Peter W. Rodman’s article on the Cuban missile crisis [“The Missiles of October: Twenty Years Later,” October 1982] is original and thought-provoking, he seems to have swallowed several of the delusions which have become incorporated in the standard (or “Camelot”) version of the affair.

For example, is it true that Khrushchev was defeated and that the Soviets “lost” and America “won”? Let us see. Khrushchev started from Square One in which he knew himself to be way behind in strategic nuclear capacity and way behind in conventional capacity, except in Europe. Bluffing magnificently, he aimed for a huge increase in his nuclear capability by installing the missiles in Cuba. He had only one real asset in the theater of the operation—Fidel Castro.

After the crisis was over, he was back to Square One, and nothing had changed. Or had it? The United States, as part of the price for withdrawing the Soviet missiles, agreed, without consulting Turkey, Italy, or NATO, that all land-based Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles, which were a real danger to the USSR, would be taken down and removed in six months. Turkey, Italy, and NATO realized full well that the Soviet missiles had been taken out of Cuba at the cost of European security, without even a by-your-leave. And more; the United States promised formally and openly never to invade Castro’s Cuba—a promise which might mean nothing to a state like the USSR, but which was a real inhibition on a state like the United States. And, as icing on the cake, Castro refused to allow the international inspection of the missile withdrawal which the superpowers had agreed on, and he got away with it. . . . Thus the Soviets got out of Cuba as far as the missiles were concerned, but stayed in every other way; and they retreated with three prizes for their audacity. If that is losing, it. would be interesting to see the Soviets win a crisis.

The Camelot mythmakers, with whom Mr. Rodman seems implicitly to agree, would reply to this analysis that JFK had earlier ordered the removal of the Jupiter missiles because they were obsolete, that America did not intend to invade Cuba anyway, and that international inspection of the Cuban missile removal turned out to be unnecessary. But there is no evidence whatever that the President had earlier ordered the Jupiters to be taken down; the whole story was apparently concocted after the crisis to make it appear that a major concession by the U.S. was not a concession at all. In the unlikely event that the President had issued such an order in early 1962, it was a strange order indeed, made without any consultation with Turkey, Italy, or NATO, and affecting as it did not U.S. government forces and installations, but the weapons inventory of allied foreign forces, who were not in any way obligated to jump when the U.S. President whistled. (As it happened, it cost us more than $300 million in other military goodies to persuade Turkey to dismantle its Jupiter missiles—obsolete, of course—by an iron deadline which by the merest chance happened to be just six months to the day after the Cuban missile accord.) It was also a strange order by virtue of its short-sighted stupidity. Recall that at present the U.S. is trying desperately to put theater nuclear missiles into Europe under NATO auspices. The idea is not new. Such weapons were there in the 50′s and 60′s. If the Jupiters were obsolete, why couldn’t they have been replaced with more modern missiles, instead of being removed under the pitiful excuse that Polaris weapons, useless for anything but city-busting, were now on station under exclusive American command and control?

With regard to the self-limiting promise not to take direct military action against Cuba—is anyone prepared to argue that Castro’s subsequent flagrant defiance of the United States would have been quite the same without this guarantee? . . .

What a pity that such a knowledgeable and perceptive observer as Mr. Rodman has only picked around the edges of the received official version of what happened twenty years ago and its relevance to American security today.

John W. Bowling
Troy State University
Troy, Alabama



Peter W. Rodman writes:

Critical as I am of the Kennedy administration’s performance in and after the Cuban missile crisis, I find the notion that the Soviets really “won” the encounter difficult to accept. It was universally perceived even in the Communist world that the removal of the missiles was a humiliation for the Soviet Union: the Chinese denounced Khrushchev for “capitulationism” and the affair was one of the “hare-brained schemes” for which he was ousted two years later. His argument that he had secured Cuba against invasion did not seem to impress his comrades. The famous candid quote of V.V. Kuznetsov which foreshadowed the Soviet military build-up—“You Americans will never be able to do this to us again!”—hardly suggests that the Soviets saw it as a triumph.

That the United States, in the long run, paid a huge price for missing opportunities in the crisis and lulling itself into complacency afterward is, of course, the whole point of my article. John W. Bowling seems to agree, but I believe he misses the point of what the real problem was: not the precise terms of the “understanding,” but the preconceptions which underlay the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy generally, which it mistakenly saw as vindicated in the crisis, and which led to even more mistaken decisions in its aftermath. Mr. Bowling is correct, for example, that the removal of the land-based Jupiter MRBM’s, jointly operated by the U.S. and its allies, and their replacement by U.S. Polaris submarines, only opened up the problem we are facing today of having to redress the “decoupling” effect of sea-based systems. But this reflects something bigger than Cuba; the real problem was the political blindness of the systems-analysis methodology that dominated too many decisions during the period. In this case, whether or not the order had been given, George W. Ball’s most recent book makes clear that the administration was determined to replace the Jupiters with SLBM’s and would eventually have done so even without a Cuban crisis.

I continue to believe that the principal harm done by the crisis was the complacency it fostered in the policy-makers of the time—the missed opportunity to sever the Cuban-Soviet military connection, the illusions of a new turn toward peace, the smug misjudgments about the strategic balance, the pedantic theories of crisis management later misapplied in Vietnam. Even with a no-invasion pledge, these errors need not have been committed. The administration came out of the crisis with some of the same soft-headed attitudes that tempted the Soviets to think they could get away with such an adventure in the first place. This is a much more fundamental indictment of the Kennedy and Johnson policies. Nothing agreed to in October 1962 required us to halt our strategic missile construction a few years later or to fight the Vietnam war stupidly.

Likewise, no Cuban “deal” prevented us from taking forceful action to block the Soviet-Cuban take-over in Angola thirteen years later. The United States remains free to act in its supreme national interest against any new Soviet or Cuban threat, just as President Kennedy acted against the missiles in Cuba without the benefit of any pre-existing “understanding” that they shouldn’t be there. No tactical victory will ever relieve us of the permanent responsibility of understanding our interests and defending them with vigilance and determination. Perhaps this is the final “lesson” of the Cuban crisis.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.