Written by Tommaso Stoppani
This investigation considers the verdict that “both sides lost” during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, arguing that quite the opposite is true. When considering whether the United States and the Soviet Union ‘lost’ the confrontation, the aims of both nations must be considered. If the majority of those objectives were achieved, then the nation cannot be perceived as having lost. In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the US and the USSR managed to achieve most, if not all, their goals, signifying how the two superpowers actually ‘won’. The USSR managed to guarantee the US removal of missiles from Turkey, ensure Cuba’s security and, simultaneously, reduce the risk of future war by the end of the crisis. The USA successfully removed Soviet missiles from Cuba and likewise accomplished the isolation of Castro’s regime. This investigation further explores the guiding statement by considering the implications for the two leaders of said countries, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, and whether they both lost. While Kennedy gained mass domestic support and, thus, a huge public victory, Khrushchev sacrificed his public reputation and standing within the Kremlin to successfully advance his foreign policy. The only loser in the crisis is, in fact, Khrushchev himself.
A major Soviet objective throughout the crisis was guaranteeing Cuba’s independence and preventing a US invasion of the island. The idea to station missiles in Cuba was hatched by Khrushchev himself, explaining the need to do so to “restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government”. In order to solve the crisis, in fact, Khrushchev pushed Kennedy to guarantee, through a public statement to the Security Council at the United Nations, that “the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba”. The simple fact that the US government has not attempted an invasion, or even impinged on Cuba’s sovereignty, ever since is testament to the USSR’s success in achieving their aim of safeguarding the security of the island-nation. Khrushchev, in fact, claimed that Cuban independence was safeguarded, and that the island remained a Soviet satellite state in “Uncle Sam’s back yard”.
A second, but equally important, objective established by Khrushchev was to redress Soviet nuclear inferiority, doing so by seeking to double their ability to strike targets on the US’ mainland through medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs), which were cheaper and more easily deployed than the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stationed in Russia. Khrushchev, in fact, also explained how “our missiles would have equalised what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power’.” Attempting to counterbalance the US’ ability to launch MR and IRBMs from Turkey and, thus, close the nuclear gap between the two superpowers was a clear objective actively being pursued by the USSR. Anatoly Gribnov, Chief of Missiles Operations, supports this idea by explaining how “America deployed its Jupiter missiles in Turkey, Italy and Germany; they could do it, why couldn’t we do it?”. While Soviet missiles were ultimately removed from Cuba, Kennedy did so at the expense of the US removal of missiles from Turkey and Italy: the complete decommission of the US Jupiter missiles happened just over five months after the end of the crisis. The US’ strategic advantage was, essentially nullified, the imbalance removed and, therefore, the USSR was successful in achieving the second objective of addressing US nuclear superiority.
The third principal goal pursued by the Soviet Union, or rather by the man leading it, and perhaps the most future-poised one, can be best summarised by the last line of Khrushchev’s famous article ‘On Peaceful Coexistence’: “I repeat, there is only one way to peace, one way out of the existing tension: peaceful coexistence.” Khrushchev sought to ease tensions between the US and the USSR and, in spite of the fact that the two powers had been closer to nuclear war than ever before, the resolution of the crisis witnessed gigantic steps towards closer cooperation between the powers. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev had experienced being poised on the brink of total annihilation and had been, quite simply, terrified by its prospect, catalysing their willingness to work together to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The establishment of a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin, created as a result of Moscow and Washington signing the “Hot Line Agreement” of 1963, symbolises the first concrete action taken by the two governments to reduce the risk of a full-fledged nuclear confrontation.
The crisis also arguably provided the necessary impetus to propel the nations of the world into signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. Roland Timerbaev, Soviet delegate during the signing of the NPT, recalls how the crisis completely reoriented the two superpowers’ perspective on the control of nuclear weapons, explaining that “It is after that crisis the negotiations on the nuclear weapons problem began in earnest”. In fact, the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was led by the US and the USSR, who were its first two signatories. The crisis provided an opportunity for them to collaborate and find common footing, as the two nations accomplished unprecedented joint efforts, signifying that the USSR was successful in its third and final aim.
The US had a clear principal objective throughout the crisis: remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba. Shortly after being informed of the presence of nuclear weaponry, in fact, the ExComm recordings capture Kennedy explaining that “that’s what we’re going to do . . . We’re going to take out these missiles.” This goal was obviously achieved, since the USSR dismantled its missiles and removed the warheads from the island altogether by the end of the crisis, with the best possible outcome of avoiding the breakout of a fully-fledged nuclear war between the two nations. Kennedy described the potential start of said war as “obviously the final failure”, and the fact that he successfully avoided this while simultaneously ensuring the removal of warheads from Cuba is testament to his ‘victory’. Furthermore, the Soviet II-28 bombers, which were capable of striking targets on the US mainland and that were dispatched to Cuba concurrently with the nuclear missiles, were also withdrawn. The ultimate removal of missiles from Cuba in combination with Kennedy choosing the ideal strategy to achieve nothing but the best outcome to defuse tensions summarises the sheer success in the US achieving their principal aim.
A secondary yet crucial goal for the US government was the isolation of Cuba and the distancing of Castro’s regime from the USSR. While this might not have been at the forefront of their strategy in dealing with the crisis, the US ultimately achieved this long-term aim by pressuring Khrushchev to the point of rupturing Soviet-Cuban relations. Schlesinger, historian and advisor to the Kennedy administration, explained how “Castro was infuriated by Khrushchev”, since the latter did not consult him before deciding to remove the missiles.
Castro, despite the fact that Khrushchev had received assurances by the US that Cuban independence would be guaranteed, essentially felt betrayed by the USSR, who he felt had abandoned and left them exposed by removing the nuclear weaponry stationed on the island. According to Ignacio Ramonet, this was the cause for the deterioration of relations between the two countries for years to come. Khrushchev sending ambassador Mikoyan for two weeks to Havana in the hidden ‘November Crisis’ is proof of this, the latter communicating back to Moscow that Castro had “began to cease cooperation”. While Castro was ultimately convinced in allowing the removal of the missiles, the paranoia and discord sown by the crisis marked a huge blow in relations with the USSR.
When considering whether either side really did ‘lose’ from the crisis, we must also look to the men leading the two countries. In Kennedy’s case, his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an indubitable success. The fact that the dismantlement of Jupiter missiles in Europe remained secret ensured that Kennedy looked like the clear winner, gaining him huge domestic support, both publicly and politically. Ben Walsh, in fact, explains how “Kennedy came out of the crisis with a greatly improved reputation in his own country and throughout the West. He had stood up to Khrushchev and had made him back down.” Kennedy had also managed to avoid several influential members of the US military forces from taking over and starting a war based on their suggestions of military intervention, such as a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union or Operation Northwoods. Attesting to his sheer success, it is extremely difficult to find historians, let alone historiographical waves, who argue anything but Kennedy being a clear victor and making massive gains from the crisis.
James Hershberg is, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule, as he claims that Kennedy’s personal campaign against Castro came across as “obsessive, irresponsible… and reckless” and that his refusal in using discreet diplomacy is testament to his failure as a statesman. He further suggests that Kennedy should have sent a message to Moscow demanding the secret removal of the missiles to avoid confrontation. Not only does this not take into account the fact that this would have allowed the Soviets more time to install missiles and build sites, but is also built on the assumption that they would accept without any kind of incentive whatsoever. What was, after all, the point of placing missiles on the island in the first place, then? The notion also refuses to consider the reality of politics, since Kennedy needed a show of strength after the catastrophic failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and managed to do just that. In fact, between the end of the crisis and his death, JFK had the highest approval rating ever recorded for a POTUS, at 70.1%, peaking at an astounding 83% in May 1962, during the crisis itself.
Lastly, in considering Khrushchev, we can see the only party who can be regarded as having lost. He had lost prestige – he had failed in the public eye. First to approach to find a solution and, ultimately, the one to back down, meant that the large majority of people within the USSR and also the world at large, who were not privy to the knowledge of the deal regarding the removal of US missiles from Turkey, saw him as the clear loser. Khrushchev had chosen successful diplomacy and policy over personal standing: he could not broadcast the victory because of the secret nature of the deal. His claim to have “saved” Cuba, which was considered hollow in 1962, is retrospectively valid. Troyanovsky explains how “’Khrushchev failed in that the missiles were withdrawn and in a way which was humiliating, but he did not fail in that America agreed not to attack Cuba.”
Nonetheless, two years later, the Soviet politburo quietly ousted Khrushchev. However, modern knowledge on just how close the world was to a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, serves only to foreground how impressively the two leaders handled the situation, by rejecting pressured hardline solutions to favour a gradual de-escalation of tensions. Revisionist Ben Walsh claims that “The fact that Khrushchev had been forced to back down was quickly forgotten in Soviet circles. Instead, his role as a responsible peacemaker… was highlighted” and, while an unpopular opinion in the historiography of the topic, it is based on more current and recently declassified Soviet documents which show that the crisis played a smaller role in Khrushchev’s removal from power than what previously thought.
Regardless of the magnitude of Khrushchev’s ‘loss’, it is clear that neither the US nor the USSR actually did lose from the crisis, since they achieved their main goals successfully, thus making both nations victorious, per se. The Soviet Union redressed their nuclear inferiority, guaranteed Cuban independence and promoted their policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’. The US removed Soviet missiles from Cuba and distanced Castro’s government from the Kremlin. Kennedy exited the crisis with a massive surge in popularity: a clear victory. Khrushchev secured his aims at the cost of his personal standing within the party and can, therefore, be considered the only one to have lost from the crisis. From this investigation’s perspective, the notion that “Both sides lost” carries little credibility.
1. Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, Strobe Talbott, and Edward Crankshaw. Khrushchev Remembers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977
2. American Foreign Policy, Current Documents. Historical Division, Bureau of Public Affairs. 1962. pp. 443–446. Accessed March 12 at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9q19YkzhANEC&redir_esc=y
3. Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, Strobe Talbott, and Edward Crankshaw. Khrushchev Remembers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
4. Quoted in The Cuban Missile Crisis, UK History Channel Documentary, 2002.
5. Schlesinger, Arthur. Robert Kennedy and his times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
6. Khrushchev, Nikita S. “On Peaceful Coexistence.” Foreign Affairs 38, no. 1 (1959): 1.
7. Graham, Thomas; La Vera, Damien (2002). “The “Hot Line” Agreements”. Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era. University of Washington Press, 2002.
8. Khlopkov, Anton. “Roland Timerbaev: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Has Largely Achieved Its Goals”. Arms Control Association, 2017. Accessed March 14 at https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2017-09/interviews/roland-timerbaev-nuclear-nonproliferation-treaty-largely-achieved-its-goals
9. Limited or Partial Test Ban Treaty. Atomic Heritage Foundation, 2016. Accessed March 16 at https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/limited-or-partial-test-ban-treaty-ltbtptbt
10. May, Ernest R. and Philip D. Zelikow. Audio Clips from the Kennedy White House. The National Security Archives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Accessed March 15 at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/audio.htm
11. May, Ernest R. and Philip D. Zelikow. Audio Clips from the Kennedy White House. The National Security Archives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Accessed March 15 at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/audio.html
12. Mikoyan S. A., and Svetlana Savranskaya. The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012.
13. Ramonet, Ignacio. Fidel Castro: My Life. Penguin Books, 2007.
15. Matthews, Joseph. Cuban missile crisis: The Other, Secret one. BBC News, 2010.
16. Garthoff, Raymond L. “Did Khrushchev Bluff in Cuba? No”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 1988.
17. Walsh, B. Modern World History. London, John Murray: 1996.
18. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba (TS)”, U.S. Department of Defense, 1962. Accessed March 15 at https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//news/20010430/northwoods.pdf
19. Hershberg, James G. “Before ‘The Missiles of October’: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike Against Cuba?” The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, 1992.
20. Presidential Job Approval, The American Presidency Project, Accessed March 15 at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/presidential-job-approval
21. Quoted in The Cuban Missile Crisis, UK History Channel Documentary, 2002.
22. Walsh, B. Modern World History. London, John Murray: 1996
2.1: Literature Cited
Garthoff, Raymond L. “Did Khrushchev Bluff in Cuba? No”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 1988.
Graham, Thomas; La Vera, Damien (2002). “The “Hot Line” Agreements”. Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era. University of Washington Press, 2002.
Hershberg, James G. “Before ‘The Missiles of October’: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike Against Cuba?” The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, 1992.
Khrushchev, Nikita S. “On Peaceful Coexistence.” Foreign Affairs 38, no. 1 (1959): 1.
Khrushchev, Nikita Sergeevich, Strobe Talbott, and Edward Crankshaw. Khrushchev Remembers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
Matthews, Joseph. Cuban missile crisis: The Other, Secret one. BBC News, 2010.
Mikoyan S. A., and Svetlana Savranskaya. The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012.
Ramonet, Ignacio. Fidel Castro: My Life. Penguin Books, 2007.
Schlesinger, Arthur. Robert Kennedy and his times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Walsh, B. Modern World History. London, John Murray: 1996.
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