The threat of nuclear weapons is once more among us. So far, however, the danger of today’s “loose” nukes lacks the combination of surrealism and ordinariness that accompanied the peril of those stockpiled forty years ago at the height of the cold war. In my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire, for example, the school day was sometimes interrupted by a drill requiring us to hunker beneath our wooden desks in the misguided belief this would somehow minimize the effect of a nuclear explosion on us kids. Lunch at home on Saturdays was often accompanied by the howl of the city’s air-raid siren, which was tested, as I recall, every other week to be sure we were ready in case Soviet bombers carrying nuclear bombs approached the East Coast. To us children, these cold-war precautions carried little fear and almost no understanding of what a nuclear attack might actually mean for our small city nestled against the Massachusetts border. The drills and siren were just things the grown-ups made us pay attention to, like going to church on Sundays or staying out of the woods during deer-hunting season.
Over the past decade or so, it has become increasingly clear that the grown-ups may not have had much of an idea what was going on either. At least this has been the conclusion to emerge from a series of six conferences held over the past fifteen years on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, those thirteen days in October during which the world came the closest it has ever been to destroying itself. Orchestrated by Professor James Blight and Adjunct Associate Professor janet Lang, both of the Watson Institute for International Studies, these conferences—along with two related ones on the disastrous April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion—have revealed that we were much closer to nuclear annihilation four decades ago than anyone had previously thought, and that the management of the crisis in Washington and Moscow was blessed with a far higher level of sheer dumb luck than analysts and historians had earlier been able to accept.
“I conclude from this discussion,” Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the missile crisis, said in Havana at the latest conference this past October, “that we’re damn lucky to be here.”
Among those assenting to McNamara’s comment was the man sitting in a dark business suit and facing him twenty feet away: Fidel Castro. By far the most striking sight at the Blight-Lang conference in October was that of these two men—who had spent much of their younger years wishing each other dead—exchanging quips and pleasantries. McNamara and Castro had been brought together for complicated reasons—in addition to the conference’s examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis, each man had his own cause to promote, be it Cuban honor or nuclear disarmament—but their presence in the same room at the Havana International Conference Center could not help but electrify the atmosphere. They, and to a lesser extent historian and JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy special counsel Theodore Sorenson, and JFK special assistant Richard Goodwin, all of whom were seated with McNamara, gave the conference both a tinge of nostalgia and the feel of a gathering of thoughtful former colleagues trying to learn from old mistakes and grievances. Although there was ample room for contradictory memories and ideological friction among the members of this remarkable group, they were united in the passionate conviction that, far from being an example of brilliant conflict management, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been resolved through a series of decisions made on the basis of what the intervening history has revealed to be willful misunderstanding and grossly inadequate information.
This point of view could be heard frequently at Brown in the weeks before and after the conference, when Blight and Lang brought some of the conference participants, including McNamara, to speak to students in their class, The Cuban Missile Crisis: American, Russian, and Cuban Viewpoints. One of these visitors was American University professor Philip Brenner, a Latin America specialist who with Blight coauthored last year’s Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis. The conference, he hoped, would “put a nail in the coffin of this idea that this was a crisis that could be managed.” In part, his was a critique of the widely accepted notion of the crisis expressed in Graham T. Allison’s classic work, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. “For thirteen days in October 1962,” Allison wrote, “the United States and the Soviet Union stood ‘eyeball to eyeball,’ each with the power of mutual annihilation in hand. The United States was firm but forbearing. The Soviet Union looked hard, blinked twice, and then withdrew without humiliation.”
The alternative interpretation of those October 1962 events is messier. As McNamara explained to the students in the Blight-Lang class, no one in the White House in 1962 knew the number of nuclear warheads already in Cuba at the time of the crisis; nor did they know that the Soviets and Cubans had tactical nuclear warheads they were ready to use against U.S. troops. Had Khrushchev not agreed to withdraw the missiles on October 28, a military conflict might have easily broken out, with consequences no one in Washington had sufficient information to foresee, far less control.
What’s more, McNamara and Blight believe, the implications of the miscommunication and the missing facts about what was going on in Cuba at the time should be seen as a cautionary tale for all confrontations with small countries able to acquire nuclear weapons. Despite questions from the students, however, McNamara stopped short of commenting in class about the U.S. conflict with Iraq. “It’s not right for a former secretary of defense to comment publicly when the president is engaged in very delicate negotiations,” he said, adding, “but one lesson from our conferences with the Cubans so far is that there is an absolute requirement that you develop an empathy—which is not the same thing as sympathy—with respect to your enemies.” Only through the imaginative act of seeing your actions through the enemy’s mind-set, he stressed, can you anticipate their likely outcome.
That lesson was reinforced later during a visit to the class by Thomas Blanton, the executive director of the George Washington University–based National Security Archive, which has been a cosponsor of the Blight-Lang conferences. The mistakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis never played out, Blanton said, not because President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev went eyeball to eyeball and Khrushchev blinked, but because “everybody blinked—and thank goodness.”
THE SIX CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS conferences held between 1987 and this past October are examples of critical oral history, a research tool Blight originated during a stint at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Indeed, his career has been largely devoted to developing the technique. The rationale behind critical oral history is to enrich the objective facts found in original documents and in the work of academics with the more subjective elements of memory and intention that arise when you assemble the people who actually made the decisions driving a historical confrontation. (The writer Frances Fitzgerald once described the practice as a cross between oral history and group therapy.)
All the elements of critical oral history were on display at the October conference in Havana: academics, reams of newly declassified documents from U.S. and foreign-government archives, and former decision makers, CIA agents, and military officers who took part in the crisis. Also at the large rectangle of tables taking up most of the conference room were former Soviet military and foreign-policy officials and more than a dozen Cuban government, military, and academic participants. Adding to the odd mix in the room were the observers credentialed to watch, among them a contingent of Brown professors, students, and alumni, as well as the director and producer of the Kevin Costner movie Thirteen Days, and several members of the Kennedy family, including Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel. Also present were official Cuban video cameras, all positioned for the most flattering angle on Castro. Although the conference was closed to the press, whenever Castro began one of his lengthy statements, reporters and photographers were herded into the crowded room, given a few minutes to listen and photograph, and then herded out once more.
The meeting was also notable for the absence of one participant. Watson Institute Senior Fellow Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita’s son, who was scheduled to be part of the Brown delegation in Havana, was denied a visa and an invitation to the conference, a move that still puzzles Blight today. “I suspect,” he says, “the Cubans knew they couldn’t badmouth Nikita as much as they wanted to if Sergei was in the room.”
The October conference, as well as its 1992 predecessor, grew out of one held in Moscow in 1989. “Before the ’89 conference,” Blight says, “the Soviets told us, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve invited thirteen Cubans to attend.’ At the time, I did not know the Cubans had anything to do with the Cuban missile crisis. At most, Cuba had been just the parking lot for the missiles.” The 1992 meetings brought the Cubans to the forefront. To Castro, it was clear, the missile crisis was inseparable from the Bay of Pigs invasion and from something called Operation Mongoose, a clandestine attempt by the United States to infiltrate Cuba and disrupt the country’s economy enough to bring down Castro through a host of mostly ineffectual acts of sabotage. To the Cubans, Mongoose and the Bay of Pigs foreshadowed an inevitable larger U.S. military invasion. Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the missiles at the end of the thirteen days in October 1962, though viewed by the rest of the world with a sigh of happy relief, was seen within Cuba as a Soviet betrayal. Although Khrushchev had extracted from Kennedy a pledge to later withdraw U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey, Kennedy refused to promise unequivocally that the United States would never invade Cuba. He did recognize, however, that any immediate rationale for military action would evaporate if the United Nations inspected the island and found that no nuclear missiles remained—an inspection to which Castro strenuously objected as a violation of Cuban sovereignty.
“Two nights before that 1992 conference opened,” Blight recalls, “the Kennedy-Khrushchev correspondence from the time became declassified. What was clear from that correspondence was that Kennedy had not pledged not to invade Cuba. Castro stayed up all night reading the letters. He was so angry that he asked to join the conference.” Castro’s longtime perception that only Cubans could be relied upon to defend Cuba had been vividly affirmed. In fact, at the conference this past fall he insisted that the presence of the missiles turned out to be humiliating and sad. “We would have preferred the invasion rather than having the missiles here,” he said. “We would have preferred anything but dishonor and cowardice.” In the end, he added, Cuba, so dependent on the Soviet Union at the time, could not refuse that country’s offer of installing the weapons and aiming them at the United States, much as the United States had earlier placed missiles in Turkey, on the border of the Soviet Union.
The most startling surprise of the 1992 conference, however, was the revelation that in addition to the nuclear missiles able to take out major U.S. cities, the Soviets had also supplied Cuba with tactical nuclear weapons—battlefield missiles for use against invading troops. This news astounded McNamara, who remembered that in 1962 a major land and air invasion of Cuba was precisely what an influential group of Kennedy’s military advisers had recommended—some 1,080 bombing sorties, to be exact, and an invading force of 180,000 U.S. troops. Had President Kennedy followed this advice, and had the Soviets and the Cubans responded with tactical nuclear weapons, might the conflict have quickly and inexorably escalated to nuclear war?
McNamara’s answer at the October conference was yes. During one particularly dramatic exchange between him and Nikolai Leonov, the head of the KGB’s Cuban affairs department in 1962, the two men agreed that Kennedy and Khrushchev had been very lucky. McNamara asked Leonov whether the Soviets in Cuba would have responded to a massive U.S. invasion by launching their tactical nuclear missiles against U.S. troops—missiles that no one in the United States at the time knew were in Cuba.
“It may seem logical,” McNamara said, “to use the tactical nuclear weapons if you feel threatened and have no alternative, due to a massive attack. Yes, from the field commander’s point of view, it is logical. But from the political leadership’s point of view, it seems almost insane, due to the danger of uncontrollable escalation. I mean, where would it lead? To nuclear disaster, to the destruction of nations, even large nations like yours and mine.”
Leonov responded by underscoring how certain a U.S. invasion seemed in Cuba at the time. Soviet troops, far from home and about to be vastly outnumbered by the invading force, would have needed extraordinary means to defend themselves. In fact, Leonov revealed, on October 27, 1962, the day the U.S.-Soviet battle of nerves reached its peak, the invasion seemed so close that Soviet personnel on the island were ordered to change out of the Cuban military uniforms they had been wearing to blend in and to don their Soviet ones: “Why?” Leonov asked. “Because they were told they were preparing for battle, and they wished to die in the uniforms of their own country.… Pliyev [the Soviet commander in Cuba] was a very good soldier, a tough soldier, as he proved in the Second World War. In this situation, it is inconceivable to me that he would have neglected to arm and fire his tactical nuclear weapons! Inconceivable!”
The two men then speculated about the possibility that the Soviet Union might have also retaliated by moving against West Berlin. “One mistake at the wrong time in October 1962,” Leonov concluded, “and all could have been lost. I can hardly believe we are here today, talking about this. It is almost as if some divine intervention occurred to help us save ourselves, but with this proviso: we must never get that close again. Next time, we would not be so lucky.”
Avoiding a next time is precisely what has motivated Robert McNamara for the past twenty years, and for most of that time he and Blight have worked together in a relationship that has been extraordinarily beneficial to both men. To McNamara, Blight’s oral history approach has been the perfect vehicle through which to air and examine the lessons of recent conflicts. McNamara hopes that his final legacy—he is now eighty-six—is represented in books such as In Retrospect, about the Vietnam War, and Wilson’s Ghost, which he coauthored with Blight. His obsession has been to use the foreign-policy mistakes of the recent past—his own included—as a warning to current and future leaders. To Blight, on the other hand, McNamara’s zeal and renown have facilitated his own development of critical oral history.
“We [McNamara, Blight, and Lang] met in 1983 or 1984,” Blight recalls. “McNamara was at this conference in Big Sky, Montana. He challenged anyone in the room—Harvard people and people who once worked with him in the Pentagon—to state any scenarios where the use of nuclear weapons would result in net gain for the initiator. He’d ask, ‘What comes next? And after that?’ We watched this spectacle of the smartest people I’ve ever seen setting up scenarios—and Bob just shredded them. McNamara remembered that in the missile crisis he’d run out of options, and just when there seemed to be no other option but nuclear annihilation, Khrushchev capitulated.” But what if he hadn’t? The likelihood of a nuclear war was too great to ignore, and McNamara, haunted by the close call of 1962, eventually chose it as his overarching issue. “In the mid-1980s,” Blight explains, “McNamara’s views on nuclear weapons were considered nuts. He felt we’d been lucky in the missile crisis—he’d had this intuition—and he felt we had a responsibility to take that intuition to the next step.” That next step was Blight’s missile-crisis project.
THE OCTOBER CONFERENCEopened with José Ramon Fernández, a military hero of the Bay of Pigs invasion and now Cuba’s avuncular vice president, emphasizing, in Spanish, that “the president subtracted many hours from his duties to offer reflections.” Ramiro Valdes, another leader of the Cuban Revolution, talked about the events that led up to the crisis. “Mongoose,” he said, “represented bloodshed and pain for the Cuban people.” It was, he explained, “a broad terrorist plan,” but in the end, “the mongoose was overcome by the peaceful alligator.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. responded for the U.S. side. The plan for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, he said, was formed during the Eisenhower administration. Kennedy did not entirely support it, but according to Schlesinger he felt he could not scuttle a military plan approved by such a war hero without appearing weak. But, Schlesinger added, the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs defeat made it unlikely that Kennedy would ever again completely trust the advice of his military advisers. As a result, he was predisposed to reject their recommendation of a large-scale Cuban invasion. “Kennedy,” Schlesinger insisted, “had no interest in invading Cuba.”
And so it went for the next two days, the old men reminiscing and disagreeing with varying degrees of accuracy and passion. Occasionally—and often beginning by saying he would be brief—Castro would speak for twenty minutes or a half hour, slowly and quietly at first, but then warming to the task, his slightly scratchy voice taking on volume and intensity. “Each event,” he said at one point, “has an antecedent, and each has an antecedent before that. So maybe we have to go back to Christopher Columbus to understand all the antecedents to this event.”
There were war stories, too. An officer from a Soviet submarine that was among those approaching the U.S. blockade around Cuba in 1962 traded anecdotes with an officer from the U.S. destroyer that had forced it to surface, not knowing that among its armaments was a single nuclear-tipped torpedo. One afternoon the participants and observers were all bused to San Cristobal, the site of the only remaining missile bunker from the crisis. There, accompanied by his Soviet counterpart, career CIA officer Dino Brugioni, a specialist in interpreting aerial surveillance images, oriented his 1962 aerial reconnaissance photographs to the objects on the ground, comforted forty years later that his interpretation had been precise and correct.
Inside the conference room, though, occasional moments of drama were overwhelmed by the number of questions asked and not answered, as well as by confusion over the innumerable details of the crisis. Over and over, it was McNamara and Castro who reminded the gathering why they were there.
“We are talking about too many plans,” Castro said at one point.
“The purpose of these meetings is to learn from being this close to nuclear war and to avoid it in the future,” McNamara insisted.
As the hours passed, the awareness seemed to rise for many of the men at the table that age and infirmity—and finally their own mortality—meant that this would probably be the last chance for all of them to sit in the same room trying to learn from this particularly perilous chapter of history. They knew that, in all likelihood, they would not live to see the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis.
And so in the last hour of the last day, every other participant of the conference seemed to recede when José Ramon Fernandez asked McNamara and Castro, as “the two most important actors in the events of the October crisis,” to address the room.
McNamara, leaning forward to his microphone, revealed that he had originally refused the invitation to the conference. “I had attended five previous conferences on Cuba,” he explained, “and I thought there was nothing left to be learned. I was wrong.”
He’d drawn two lessons from these conferences, he said, one obvious and one not so obvious. The obvious lesson, “speaking for myself and for my country,” he continued, is “for God’s sake, put yourself in the shoes of your adversary.” The second, he went on, is “absolutely fundamental” but less known and never applied. “Military operations are far more complex than civilian operations, with far more variables.” Mistakes are more likely. “I know I made mistakes,” he said, “and the mistakes killed people. We, our troops in Afghanistan, have killed friendly Canadian forces in recent weeks. We’ve killed people at an Afghani wedding. Thousands have been killed with mistakes using conventional weapons—mistakes made by troops who are well-trained, highly disciplined—and often wrong.”
But nuclear weapons are not so forgiving: “There isn’t going to be a learning curve with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake, and you’re going to destroy nations. I argue that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to their use and the destruction of nations. This is a totally unacceptable situation.”
At this, Dino Brugioni, sitting several seats to McNamara’s right, jumped to his feet, pulling out his earplug. “I support our troops,” he barked at McNamara, pointing his finger at the former secretary of defense, “and if they make mistakes, they don’t make them intentionally.” Slamming his earplug to the table, he pushed back his chair, whirled, and strode out the room, repeating: “I support our troops, and if they make mistakes, they don’t make them intentionally, buddy.”
“You see, Dino,” McNamara pleaded. “You’re proving my point.”
“I think we need a bit of calm,” Castro interjected. He added, referring to Brugioni, “If possible, if the member of the delegation would return and explain his view, this would be better.” And to McNamara: “You shouldn’t worry, Mr. McNamara, because this is a small crisis in the context of the big crisis—without the use of weapons. Let’s see if diplomacy can succeed in this case.”
McNamara then stood, gathering his papers and stuffing them into his briefcase. Explaining that he had a flight to catch, he walked quickly around the rectangle of tables and approached Castro, who rose to receive him.
And the two old foes embraced.
“I’ll come down from hell for the next conference,” McNamara said.
“No,” Castro replied, “you will surely return from heaven.”
Then McNamara was out the door and gone.
Norman Boucher is the editor of the BAM.