The Cuban Missiles
To the Editor:
Patrick Glynn has effectively debunked the revisionist view of the Cuban missile crisis purveyed by McGeorge Bundy and others who seek to disparage the political importance of U.S. strategic superiority in the postwar period [“Nuclear Revisionism,” March]. I would add to his analysis of the 1962 crisis in two respects.
First, the Bundy view is not a recent phenomenon; it was a major theme of Kennedy-administration statements in the immediate wake of the crisis. In the winter and spring of 1962-63, George W. Ball, Robert S. McNamara, and Bundy himself publicly and repeatedly stressed the greater importance of U.S. local conventional and naval superiority in the crisis. The administration even cited the crisis as proof of the validity of “flexible response,” the new NATO strategy it was in the process of urging on its allies in place of “massive retaliation.” A parallel theme at the time also attributed our success to the limitation of our objectives (i.e., we did not ask for the removal of Castro), almost as if by analogy to the first theme about the limitation of means. In addition, officials drew lessons about the utility of controlled, limited, incremental escalation of force as a model for crisis management in the nuclear age (lessons transplanted rather clumsily, a few years later, to Indochina).
More “intellectual” than most administrations, the Kennedy team felt that the Cuban experience had “extraordinary pedagogical importance,” as Bundy put it in a speech in Boston in early 1963. Its spokesmen thus used the crisis to claim vindication for the main lines of its foreign and defense policies. (See my “The Missiles of October: Twenty Years Later,” COMMENTARY, October 1982.)
Second, the striking feature of the latest revisionism, to my mind, is the attempt to drain the missile crisis of its “pedagogical importance” with respect to facing down the Soviets. This goes even farther than Mr. Glynn indicates. One can quarrel with this or that Kennedy tactic, but I agree with Mr. Glynn that the near-universal perception that Khrushchev backed down is part of the historical reality. President Kennedy deserves credit for this. What is intriguing is the eagerness with which Bundy, McNamara, and Theodore Sorensen have recently begun to call attention to Kennedy’s nervousness and readiness to make further concessions if the crisis had persisted. Apparently Kennedy did come closer to caving in than was known at the time. The two Harvard-sponsored conferences in 1987 provided evidence of this—that Kennedy was contemplating, for example, agreeing to a public trade of the missiles in Turkey. George F. Will found it fascinating to see Kennedy’s former subordinates praising their leader by saying, in effect, that he “wanted to practice appeasement but calculated incorrectly.”
One cannot quarrel with new revelations of fact. But I suspect that the eagerness to debunk the standard perception of the crisis has other purposes. The missile crisis in its standard version has been part of the Democratic party’s honorable heritage of resistance to Soviet expansionism—the tradition of Harry Truman, Henry Jackson, and others. As centrist Democrats fight to save this tradition, Kennedy’s seeming courage in October 1962 has been a model to invoke. Now these gentlemen—active participants in today’s debates—seem to be claiming retrospectively that JFK was a McGovernite all along. I give Kennedy more credit than that.
Likewise with the January 1989 Moscow conference on the Cuban crisis, which brought together many more of the participants on all sides. Some of the same former U.S. officials came away persuaded that it was all our fault, since the Soviets genuinely feared a second U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba. In October 1964 Khrushchev’s colleagues showed they had a sounder view: they did not credit him with saving Cuba from invasion; they booted him out for his recklessness.
Peter W. Rodman
To the Editor:
I very much enjoyed reading Patrick Glynn’s article. Although I found myself often in disagreement—I am still not convinced that Khrushchev (or Kennedy) would have been terribly cheerful about escalating the crisis no matter who had nuclear superiority in 1962—the essay is enormously provocative and carefully reasoned. And I certainly do agree with Mr. Glynn about the inappropriateness of comparing 1914 and 1962.
On one point I think Mr. Glynn’s argument could be pushed a bit farther. He stresses most impressively the difference between a secret and a public deal on the Turkish missiles: its secrecy kept Khrushchev from being able publicly to proclaim a victory. But the secrecy of the agreement also meant that it was an extremely weak one. The U.S. could have later claimed never to have made an agreement, or that Robert Kennedy’s assurances were misunderstood, or that while the U.S. had agreed to remove obsolete missiles it had reserved the right to replace them with better ones.
For this reason I suspect Khrushchev got little play from the agreement in the Politburo: “You call that an agreement? You really think we can trust the Americans to carry it out?” Better than nothing, I suspect, but not much.
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York
To the Editor:
In his article, “Nuclear Revisionism,” Patrick Glynn . . . disputes the idea that nuclear sufficiency in the form of “a survivable nuclear capability” is adequate to deter enemy aggression “regardless of the superiority or inferiority of forces on either side.” . . . In my opinion, Mr. Glynn should make a distinction between an actual nuclear attack upon a country and aggressive activities by an opponent which seek to weaken a country’s position, alliances, prestige, or international clout. I think a small nuclear force is adequate to prevent a nuclear attack, and increasing that force is not going to make an enemy attack more unthinkable. Thus, for the purpose of deterrence, I do not believe that parity or superiority is of any value.
I do think, however, that for purposes other than deterring a nuclear attack, the size of a nation’s nuclear force is definitely of importance. It serves as a psychological tool which can be exploited—. . . what biologists, talking about lower animals, call “a threat display.” It has been fortunate . . . that the Soviet Union never acquired nuclear superiority, . . . for the Russians would use it to bully concessions from the West. . . .
Writing about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Mr. Glynn connects the missile withdrawal by the Soviets with the fact of American nuclear superiority. In my opinion, this factor was irrelevant, for the Soviet Union was not about to . . . attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons even if the U.S. attacked its missiles. Even if the Soviets had had nuclear superiority at the time, such an attack would still have been certain suicide.
Mr. Glynn offers no evidence that the American superiority in nuclear weapons caused or influenced John F. Kennedy to decide finally to attack the missiles. . . . Indeed, subsequent statements by American leaders indicate that they actually did not regard American nuclear superiority as a significant factor in dealing with the crisis. Moreover, the conduct of America’s leadership contradicts the widely held belief that Kennedy acted with superlative skill and bravery and that the crisis was a dazzling example of statesmanship. JFK actually conducted himself in a timid and confused manner and never showed himself reassured by U.S. nuclear superiority. . . .
At the start of the crisis, JFK demanded research on how the Russians had reacted to forceful action in the past, an odd query from a President who just months before had gone through a confrontation with the Russians over Berlin, and who supposedly possessed a phenomenal grasp of history. . . .
Khrushchev assumed he could get away with placing missiles in Cuba because JFK had impressed him as a weak and unassertive man. . . . Had Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1960, there would have been no missiles in Cuba because, though Khrushchev personally disliked Nixon, he respected him as a firm individual. . . .
Kennedy said at the time that he believed there was one chance in three that the crisis would end in nuclear war, and that he had no doubt Khrushchev would have started a nuclear war if he felt boxed into a corner—even though the Soviet Union’s vital interests were in no way involved and even though it would have had nothing to gain by committing national suicide. JFK never seemed reassured by the overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority, as he should have been according to Mr. Glynn’s thesis. . . .
Patrick Glynn writes:
Peter W. Rodman’s seconding of my thesis is particularly welcome, since my essay focuses on an issue that, in his 1982 COMMENTARY article on the Cuban missile crisis, he essentially sidestepped. In that article, he had written that it was “fruitless” at the time of the crisis and “remains fruitless today” to debate whether nuclear or local conventional forces were more decisive, since the United States enjoyed superiority in both. I am glad—to judge from his letter—that, with respect to the role of nuclear weapons, he has now apparently come around to a more categorical view.
Indeed, my sense upon reading his article some years ago—and rereading it in preparing my recent essay—was that a stronger case for the decisiveness of nuclear superiority could and should be made. For too long, strategic commentators of a high caliber—not just Mr. Rodman, but even Raymond Aron back in the 1960′s—had chosen to sidestep the Bundy-McNamara arguments rather than meet them head-on.
My point was this: if U.S. nuclear superiority had indeed been decisive in the missile crisis, as many of us—including, I would wager, Mr. Rodman—clearly felt, then one ought to be able to show it working in the actual crisis events. If this could be demonstrated through a “close reading” of the crisis, then the whole neorevisionist case for the “essential irrelevance” of nuclear weapons—i.e., Bundy’s book and a number of others—would be called into question. That was my approach in reviewing Bundy, and to judge from Mr. Rodman’s letter, it succeeded, at least for him.
This narrowness of focus precluded a review of the evolution of Bundy and McNamara’s thinking over the past quarter-century. Mr. Rodman is right, of course, that the Kennedy administration was making this argument even in the 1960′s. That is why I was careful to state in the article that Bundy and McNamara had championed these views “for some time.” My chief concern, however, was to call the reader’s attention to a new phenomenon with potentially far-reaching effects on the manner in which these issues are currently taught in universities, namely, neorevisionism; to have traced the evolution of Bundy’s thinking would have been a digression.
However, by drawing attention to what has remained the same in McNamara and Bundy’s thinking, Mr. Rodman arrives at a valuable formulation of what has changed—namely, that they are turning their backs irrevocably on the “Democratic party’s honorable heritage of resistance to Soviet expansionism.” Indeed, it is ironic that men like Bundy and McNamara, who owe their reputations to the Kennedy of cold-war fame, are now undermining the very reputation that originally sustained theirs. It is also ironic that they—who are using a manifestly tendentious interpretation of the Cuban missile crisis to promote a certain policy agenda—would not recognize when Soviet officials do the same. That is clearly what was going on during the recent Moscow conference on the crisis, when the Soviet participants apparently did their best to persuade the Americans present that war might indeed have occurred, no doubt in order to convince us of the dangers of confronting or challenging Soviet encroachments in the future. (Interestingly, Ray S. Cline, the senior CIA analyst during the crisis, wrote an article recently in the Washington Post disputing the retrospective claim by the Soviets that their missiles in Cuba had been armed.) At all events, with Mr. Rodman’s basic assessment of these latter phenomena, I would wholeheartedly agree.
I was surprised to read John Mueller’s comments on my article, since Mr. Mueller is himself one of the leading neorevisionists. I have not read Mr. Mueller’s book, Retreat from Doomsday, but I have read his recent article in International Security. The gist of the piece is contained in its title: “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons.” Since Mr. Mueller liked my article so well, I wish he would think harder about its implications. It seems to me he evades my conclusions by setting up a straw man. Neither I nor anybody else is contending that Kennedy or Khrushchev would have been “cheerful” about escalating the crisis. That is not the point. The point is that because of Soviet nuclear inferiority, Khrushchev was not in a position to escalate, whereas because of U.S. nuclear superiority Kennedy was in a position to make a U.S. threat of escalation quite credible—credible enough to end the crisis and force Khrushchev to back down. On October 26 and 27, 1962, the “detail” of U.S. nuclear superiority mattered, and mattered greatly. In other words, nuclear weapons were very relevant indeed to the crisis outcome.
Joseph Forbes makes a number of points about the missile crisis, some valid, some considerably less so, but he somehow misses mine. The final connection between U.S. nuclear superiority and the crisis outcome lies not primarily, as he would appear to believe, in Kennedy’s behavior but in Khrushchev’s. The issue, to repeat, was not whether Kennedy would have ultimately escalated the crisis but the fact that Khrushchev believed he might and backed down. Notwithstanding Kennedy’s behind-the-scenes tergiversations, it was U.S. nuclear capability that made the threat of a U.S. conventional attack on Cuba all too credible from Khrushchev’s point of view.
However, Mr. Forbes’s letter raises a larger point that it is worth taking a moment to address. The rigid, mechanistic distinction that he and so many others draw between deterrence of central war, on the one hand, and what is sometimes called “extended deterrence,” on the other, has ill-served American strategy for many years. The notion that there is some minimum nuclear capability which will deter major nuclear war even though such capability will not guarantee us against political blackmail is inherently fallacious: it ignores the nature of political conflict and the mechanism by which wars usually begin. If we cannot deter blackmail, we cannot deter war. That was the lesson of Munich in this century. Deterrence that cannot be “extended” to cover our vital interests and those of our allies does not deter. At the moment when we become vulnerable to blackmail, it is already too late. And that is one important reason why strategic superiority matters.