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October is the cruelest month

Debris of a railway depot ruined after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko)

With deference to T.S. Eliot, April may not be the cruelest month. Regarding U.S.-Russian/Soviet relations, October has been far riskier and more dangerous. Of course, October 1929 brought the great stock market crash and the Great Depression.

Consider other Octobers. In October 1917, the Russian Revolution became the Soviet Union’s midwife.  In October 1956, the combined British-French-Israeli forces seized Egypt’s Suez Canal. Nikita Khrushchev then used that crisis as cover for his brutal repression of the Hungarian Revolution and later Poland.

The next October, the White House was aware of the launch of Sputnik. But Russia won the race to orbit the first satellite in space. Many Americans became convinced that Russia was leaving the U.S. technologically far behind. Sputnik was the predicate for the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the most dangerous as well as the first nuclear confrontation of the Cold War, leading to 13 perilous days in October 1962.  

That crisis bears closer inspection. Folklore held that a courageous young president, John Kennedy, stood eye to eye against a formidable Soviet adversary who had been clandestinely installing short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba and was found out by U-2 spy planes. Instead of resorting to a military strike, Kennedy chose to place a naval embargo around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships laden with weapons from entering Cuban ports. 

At a critical juncture, the first Soviet ship reversed course and headed back to Russia. Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked that “…the other guy just blinked.” Khrushchev relented and withdrew his missiles. The U.S. claimed a great diplomatic coup that prevented a possible nuclear war.

But that is only a partial rendition of what happened in Cuba. Khrushchev did not provoke the Cuban Crisis. Kennedy did, one of history’s great ironies.  

Long before Kennedy began a massive nuclear and conventional arms buildup, Khrushchev had begun reducing the Soviet military. In January 1960, against strong opposition, 1 million soldiers were cut from the reserves. Khrushchev had concluded that by the second Eisenhower administration, “peaceful coexistence” had stabilized USSR-U.S. relations, lowering tensions and thus allowing shifting scarce rubles from defense to the civilian sector.  

Khrushchev further assumed that Richard Nixon would win the 1960 election and carry on Ike’s policies. But Nixon lost. And Kennedy won in part by running to the “right” of Ike and Nixon, calling both “soft” on defense.

Either uninformed or deliberately ignoring the intelligence, Kennedy used the “missile gap” arising from Sputnik to claim the Soviets were far ahead of the U.S.  and that he would close it. There was a gap. And it was the Soviets who faced overwhelming U.S. strategic nuclear superiority.  

To satisfy his generals’ warnings and keep his economic priorities in place, Khrushchev’s plan was to use Cuba to outflank U.S. missiles. Less well known, Kennedy made several concessions to Khrushchev after the missiles were removed. The U.S. committed never to invade Cuba. And, even though Kennedy’s previous order to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey was ignored, as part of the quid pro quos, the missiles finally were withdrawn. In essence, Kennedy gave Khrushchev a way out.

Octobers in 1967 and 1973 brought two Arab-Israeli wars that Israel won. In the latter, President Nixon, set Defense Condition III, one level up from peacetime Condition IV, as a signal to the Soviets not to intervene. Some wrongly called Nixon’s action a “nuclear alert” and a diversion to deflect attention from the Watergate scandal that would end Nixon’s presidency. Regardless, the crisis ended peacefully, and ultimately Israel and Egypt would recognize each other.

Some would suggest that October 1983 and the Grenada invasion was another U.S.-Soviet crisis. Cuban workers were expanding the airport that the Reagan administration thought would provide the Soviets a forward base. But Cuba, 90 miles off the Florida coast, was a far better base. In fact, the Cubans were working for a British company contracted by London to increase tourist flights to Grenada.

Aside from pitting October against April as the cruelest month, what can be learned from these crises? First, the U.S. was misinformed on too many of them. And the 1973 crisis was resolved by Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy, not Defcon III.

Second, for the Ukraine October crisis, does the White House fully understand what is driving Russian President Vladimir Putin and how that might contribute to a strategy for ending the war? Probably not.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags China Cuban Missile Crisis Israel John F Kennedy John Kennedy Missile gap Nikita Khrushchev Nikita Khrushchev Richard Nixon Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Sputnik Ukraine

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