May 19, 2013
James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis
Posted on Aug 21, 2008
By James Blight
In 1986 the Harvard political scientist Eliot Cohen spoke for many younger scholars when he announced that he was fed up with endless rehashing of the great escape of October 1962. In a widely read article published in the January 1986 issue of The National Interest, entitled “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cohen argued that the study of the missile crisis had become trite, repetitive, boring, misleading and irrelevant. Cohen called for an end to “the ceaseless pondering of the events of October 1962.” According to Cohen, the conditions no longer existed for the occurrence of anything remotely like another missile crisis, in which the superpowers play high-stakes poker as the world holds its breath. The crisis, he felt, was basically irrelevant to the contemporary world, however much some might enjoy delving into its arcane history. Not recognizing its irrelevance was itself a source of concern, according to Cohen. Threats to U.S. national security lay elsewhere, in 1986, in the less direct and highly variegated competition all over the world between Moscow and Washington. In Cohen’s opinion, the continued obsession with the missile crisis as the paradigm of Cold War competition between East and West was only an obstacle to addressing these and related problems. Scholars like Cohen could not have cared less whether Bob Dylan was right or wrong about the crisis. In their view, it was time to consign the missile crisis to the Jurassic Park of distantly remembered historical events, shove it into the history departments, and move on.
Ironically, Eliot Cohen’s call to abandon the study of the missile crisis was issued just as Gorbachev and his advisers became interested in joining Americans and Cubans in a joint historical inquiry into the crisis. The first discussions between U.S. and Russian scholars about a joint project on the crisis occurred in mid-1986. As a result of the research that followed, we in the West began to gain access to documents and oral testimony that had never before been available to us. Between 1987 and 1992, a series of international conferences were held in the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba, involving many officials from each of the three principal protagonist nations. A research method called critical oral history was developed to take advantage of the unprecedented simultaneous availability of these three elements: former officials from governments that during the events under scrutiny had been bitter enemies; declassified documentation from the governments in question; and top scholars from the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba whose familiarity with all three chronologies of decision-making helped ensure that oral testimony was bounded by the documentary record as far as it was known. “Stirring the soup” with these three elements in these critical oral history exercises proved surprising fruitful. By 1992, our historical understanding of the missile crisis bore little resemblance to the crisis of legend and myth that had accumulated and ossified in the quarter-century following October 1962.
Thus, in a weirdly postmodern parable, those of us working on the Cuban missile crisis had, de facto, abandoned the very missile crisis that Eliot Cohen was urging us to abandon. But we had done so not by moving away from the crisis, ignoring it, as if it were some dinosaur of an event, never to be seen again. We had abandoned the missile crisis of legend by moving more deeply into what actually happened, thanks to the sudden availability of information and people, mainly from the Soviet Union and Cuba. In so doing, the October 1962 fairy tale, the crisis management paradigm, began to crumble. As it happened, the missile crisis began to appear, in light of the new information, much scarier, the peaceful outcome much less determined, than anything implied by the mythology of the crisis. To our surprise, in addition, the crisis began to seem oddly contemporary, a cautionary tale of an event that, in some form, might happen again.
The picture of the crisis that had emerged by 1992 amounted to a revolution in the way the event is understood. The conventional wisdom was overturned in two principal ways. First, the crisis seemed far more dangerous, and its peaceful outcome far more miraculous, than ever before. Second, the principal sources of the heightened risk of nuclear war emanated from the circumstances on and around the island of Cuba—circumstances that were unanticipated and completely unknown or, at best, poorly understood, by officials in either Moscow or Washington. The deeper those of us working in the (then) fledgling field of Cold War history got into the details of the missile deployment on the island, the more dangerous the crisis seemed. We were repeatedly surprised by disconnects that emerged from both the documents and oral testimony regarding what leaders in Washington and Moscow believed they controlled or could control, versus what was driven on the ground, at sea and in the air by unforeseen events, unanticipated errors and local conditions in and around Cuba. These gaps in mutual understanding among Washington, Moscow and Havana revealed many points, previously unknown, at which war might have broken out and, if hostilities had begun, would almost certainly have involved the firing of nuclear weapons, which would have led to disastrous, possibly even catastrophic, results.
For example, the (then, in the late 1980s) first of the newly declassified “Kennedy Tapes” made secretly by JFK during the crisis revealed that many of the president’s civilian and military advisers pressed him relentlessly toward an air attack and an invasion of the island, and that it was Kennedy himself who was the major bulwark against the drift toward war. In addition, as the details of the Soviet deployment began at last to become available, we learned that, contrary to what the CIA believed at the time, the nuclear warheads had arrived on the island. Moreover, we learned that battlefield nuclear weapons (both warheads and launchers) were present on the island by the climactic weekend of the crisis, Oct. 26-28, and that in the event of a U.S. invasion the local Soviet commanders on the island would in all likelihood have ordered their use, thereby destroying large components of the invasion force, either at sea or on the beaches of Cuba.
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