Most people still believe that U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s eyeball-to-eyeball war of nerves with the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev–in which the latter blinked first– saved the world from nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. There was a confrontation on Oct. 24 of that year between US destroyers and Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles to Cuba. According the legend, the Soviet vessels were within a few miles of the US blockade line, yet turned away at the last minute.
This was the moment when Secretary of State Dean Rusk memorably said, “I think the other fellow just blinked”. This eyeball-to-eyeball imagery has made for great drama and documentaries down the years, but has been responsible for some of the most disastrous decisions in American foreign policy including the escalation of the Vietnam war under president Lyndon Baines Johnson and the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.
The imagery lives on. In late 2012 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on President Barack Obama to “draw a line in the sand” about Iran’s nuclear program, “just as President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban crisis”. The truth is rather different. The lead Soviet ship, the Kimovsk, was actually 750 miles away from the American blockade line, heading back to the Soviet Union, at the time of the supposed eyeball contact incident. Acting to avert a naval showdown, Soviet Premier Khrushchev had turned aside his missile-carrying freighters 30 hours previously.
It’s true that Kennedy was preparing for an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontational moment but it never happened. There is now plenty of evidence that both Kennedy and Khrushchev were a lot less steely than is often supposed. Thus, transcripts from the White House deliberations at the time show Kennedy was willing to make significant concessions, including a public trade-off of Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Turkey and even the surrender of the United States Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
Although there was certainly a dire risk of war in 1962, it was not caused by a clash of wills. The real threat came from the “fog of war”, the danger that as two superpowers prepared for the worst, there might be a breakdown in communication or a misunderstanding which could plunge the world into chaos. On Oct. 27, Soviet troops in Cuba targeted Guantanamo with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down an American U-2 spy plane. Another U2 got lost over Soviet Union airspace and MiG jet fighters were already in the air even as Alaska Air Defense Command scrambled F-102 interceptors armed with tactical nuclear weapons. In the Caribbean, a Soviet submarine commander very nearly launched a nuclear torpedo on American destroyers which were trying to force him to surface. Both Kennedy and the Soviet leader were in real danger of losing control of their own militaries–the very essence of the “fog of war”.
When the crisis subsided, Kennedy’s aides obviously sought to spin the crisis by depicting the president as a man of decisive action who knew exactly what he was doing all the time. One biographer praised “the mathematical precision” with which Kennedy acted and extolled his “composure, clarity and control.” In time the wider world accepted this interpretation even though, as the White House tapes illustrate, Kennedy himself was skeptical about red lines and deadlines and sought to buy time for a negotiated settlement.
President Bush made a fateful error when, in 2002, he depicted Kennedy as the father of his pre-emptive war doctrine. In fact Kennedy went out of his way to seek a deal with the Soviets. Far from “ignoring” Khrushchev’s public offer of a Cuba-Turkey missile deal, Kennedy sent his own brother to seal the deal with the Russian ambassador to America. As it turned out, the Americans were able to keep this agreement secret for several decades.
In deciding how to respond to Krushchev, Kennedy was strongly influenced by his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s book on the origins of the First World War. The most important lesson he drew was that mistakes and misunderstandings lead to unpredictable consequences which cause a chain of events over which national governments have little control and no understanding of the consequences. Once the troop trains started rolling in 1914, it proved impossible to stop them. This is a lesson that statesmen need to remember to this day.