The recent anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis should be a reminder to American citizens and policymakers that nuclear war is not impossible. For 13 days from Oct. 16, 1962, to Oct. 28, 1962, America and the Soviet Union nearly killed each other in a nuclear war. Today, the passing of that anniversary should warn us that through a crisis that spirals out of control, sheer accident, or miscommunication, Washington could still find itself in a nuclear exchange with Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang.
Today, relations with China are strained and tensions with North Korea — though on an uneasy pause — will likely resume sooner rather than later. America’s relationship with Russia is also contentious and only one arms control treaty remains in place between Washington and Moscow. The 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is set to expire in February 2021, but last-minute negotiations are underway to extend that treaty for another year.
History shows that dealing with a hostile nuclear power requires dual firmness: a strong military to deter any attack and a strong diplomatic corps to diffuse any crisis or misunderstanding. The problem is that without diplomacy, miscommunication, changing redlines, and accidents could start a nuclear war. In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a perfect example of that.
Kennedy considered many options, including bombing the missile sites or invading Cuba, but thankfully decided against military action. Instead, he ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba. While America enforced its de-facto blockade, negotiations commenced, and a secret agreement was made: Moscow would remove its nuclear missiles from Cuba if Washington removed its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. However, Washington kept its end of the deal quiet to make it look as if Moscow had backed down — a decision which has incorrectly given the impression to later generations of policymakers that hard power is all that matters when facing a crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis nearly spiraled into a nuclear war as accidents, errors, and miscommunication was commonplace. For example, the CIA incorrectly estimated that only around 12,000 Soviet troops were in Cuba. In reality, there were over 40,000 and if any of them had died, Moscow would surely have retaliated.
In addition, according to the U.S. National Archives, the CIA “was also unaware that the Soviets had on hand 35 LUNA battlefield nuclear weapons that would have devastated any American landing force.” The Archives also noted that during the crisis, “Several anti-Castro groups, operating under a CIA program… went about their sabotage activities because no one had thought to cancel their mission, which could have been mistaken for assault preparations.”
The list goes on. Shortly after being ordered to Defcon 2, General Thomas Powers, commander of America’s nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) dangerously broadcast some of his orders without code and out in the open. America also conducted a routine ICBM test even though such a move may have looked like an attack.
There were also not one — but two — simultaneous U-2 spy plane incidents. One American spy plane accidentally got lost over the Soviet Union for at least an hour and a half, while another U-2 over Cuba was actually shot down by Russian troops that acted unilaterally without authorization from Moscow.
Finally, there were multiple altercations between the U.S. Navy and Soviet submarines. Unknown to Washington, or the U.S. ships dropping practice depth charges to force the submarines to surface, at least four Soviet submarines each carried a nuclear torpedo. And at least twice, Soviet commanders — fatigued and worried the depth charges were real attacks — ordered their nuclear torpedoes readied but decided not to fire.
Unfortunately, today too many policymakers seem to forget the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Policymakers can never fully control a crisis, especially without sufficient restraint and diplomacy. Imagine how worse a fast-moving modern one would be amidst social media and disinformation. Firm diplomacy must always accompany firm military strength. Let us hope that policymakers never forget the true lesson from 58 years ago.
John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities. He is also an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and a Korean studies fellow.