Reviews | The Cuban Missile Crisis Can Guide Us on Ukraine and Putin’s Threats
Last Friday, President Biden warned that in the Ukraine war, “for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons.” The warning is well founded. The Kremlin’s best ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Chechen Republic, recently wrote that Russia should consider “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”. Russian television and military blogs echo such suggestions. And Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted that he is ready to use “all means” in the conflict.
This is impossible to know whether Putin is prepared to follow through on his threat. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, puts the odds at around 10 to 20 percent. But we do know how to reduce disaster risk. The Cuban Missile Crisis proved that even in the face of potential nuclear devastation, de-escalation is possible and diplomacy can prevail.
Experts and scholars have questioned the crisis for decades. But in recent years, archives and memoirs have clarified the picture of what happened during those 13 days from October 16, 1962. The story is clearly articulated in “Gambling With Armageddon.” a 2020 book by Pulitzer-winning historian Martin J. Sherwin that The New York Times declared “should become the definitive account” of the event. The book offers urgently relevant lessons – both about the circumstances that can bring humanity to the brink of annihilation and how we can step back from that chasm.
A chilling reminder of how crises are sometimes averted was first offered by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1969. Reviewing “Thirteen Days,” the posthumous memoir of Robert F. Kennedy, Acheson , who advised President John F. Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, strikingly supported that nuclear war was averted by “simple stupid luck”. Sure enough, it has since emerged that a nuclear missile was nearly fired not once but twice – once by the 498th Tactical Missile Group on Okinawa, Japan, and once a a soviet submarine in Cuban waters. In both cases, the resistance of a single individual derailed a launch.
Of course, the world cannot rely on luck alone to prevent nuclear catastrophe. In 1962, according to political scientist Graham Allison, Kennedy put the chances of a nuclear war “between one in three and even.” If Kennedy’s assessment were accurate, then after only a few comparable confrontations, “the probability of nuclear war would approach certainty”. Mankind cannot afford to spin the reel again in this game of Russian Roulette; we have to unload the weapon. Our only way forward is de-escalation.
And de-escalation, as Sherwin points out, begins with dialogue. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, people like General Curtis LeMay argued that negotiation was equals relief. But a balanced discussion is essential to avoid some misfortune. Sacrificing it in the name of chauvinistic posture is not simply absurd; it’s potentially apocalyptic. As Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recalled“The greatest tragedy, as [my military advisers] As we saw, it was not that our country was devastated and completely lost, but that the Chinese or the Albanians could accuse us of appeasement or weakness. … What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that even if our great nation and the United States were in complete ruin, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact?
Today, when the world is once again threatened with erasure, personalities of all persuasions are call for dialogue to prevent the apocalypse. A small but growing list of progressive members of Congress (as well as several peace organizations) are increasingly focused on how best to promote de-escalation and dialogue, inspired by a truth that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has maintained itself: This war “will definitely end only through diplomacy”. Pope Francis released an unpublished statement calling on world leaders “to do everything possible to end the war”. Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reiterated the importance of dialogue. Like him recently quarreled“It has nothing to do with whether we like Putin or not. … We are dealing, when nuclear weapons are introduced, with a historic modification of the world system. And a dialogue between Russia and the West is important.
We cannot depart from the belief that nuclear weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances. We would be wise at this grave moment to recall the lessons of history — encapsulated in Sherwin’s work — and to repeat, loud and clear, the November 1985 statement by President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, also reiterated recently than in January by the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states: “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”