Mary Olney Fulham
Sixty years ago, in the depths of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came closer to nuclear war than ever before during the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis was set off by the Soviet decision to station ballistic missiles in Cuba, far too close for the United States’ comfort. Despite miscommunication and mixed messages, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ultimately negotiated their way back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon. The Soviets pulled their nuclear-capable missiles out of Cuba, and, in kind, the United States subsequently and quietly pulled its nuclear-capable missiles out of Turkey.
While much has changed since 1962, experts, analysts, and politicians increasingly are invoking the Cuban Missile Crisis as a benchmark for understanding how significantly U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated in recent years, especially since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. As President Biden said recently, “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going.”
So, now that we’re facing present day nuclear dangers, what can we learn from the near miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis? NTI asked a diverse group of security experts to share their take.
Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO and former Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. Department of State
We must remember the Cuban Missile Crisis because it was the last time that the world was brought to the brink of nuclear weapons use. Of course, on that occasion, Washington and Moscow were threatening each other, and the possibility of an intercontinental nuclear exchange was high. This time, reprehensibly, Russia is threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory, to terrify Ukraine and its partners and force negotiations on Moscow’s terms.
The threat is thus not identical to sixty years ago, but we must do our utmost to avoid a nuclear attack in wartime for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the Russians use nuclear weapons, it will break a nuclear taboo that has been embraced by the whole world for over seventy years.
The threat is thus not identical to sixty years ago, but we must do our utmost to avoid a nuclear attack in wartime for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Former Deputy Secretary General of NATO
Instead, let us hope that the crisis leads, once it cools, to the same result we achieved after the Cuban Missile Crisis: U.S. and Russian leaders, awake to their responsibility as the two biggest nuclear powers, will redouble their joint efforts to control, limit and reduce nuclear weapons. China, modernizing and building up its nuclear arsenal, should be invited to join in the discussions, in line with the size of its force structure.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at NTI and former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy
The reality of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was brought to life during the Cuban Missile Crisis and defined U.S.-Soviet bilateral relations throughout the Cold War. Shaken by the near miss with nuclear catastrophe, both sides set about in grim determination to constrain the nuclear arms race and introduce greater predictability and transparency into the nuclear decision-making process. They lost no time. Over the next decade, the two superpowers passed a dizzying array of agreements, including the Hot Line; nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963); Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968); Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (1969); Nuclear Risk Reduction Treaty (1971); and the Nixon-Brezhnev Moscow summit (1972) that crowned key arms control successes of détente. On the intelligence front, the CIA and KGB placed Foresight and Early Warning of nuclear threats at the very top of their list of priorities and espionage became the go-to means of deciphering one another’s plans and intentions—trust but verify.
Unfortunately, the palpable fear of mutual annihilation that our leaders felt in 1962 has faded over time. We have grown complacent. Our leaders must see past our differences to focus once more on what matters most—to work together to save humanity from the existential threat of global destruction.
Our leaders must see past our differences to focus once more on what matters most—to work together to save humanity from the existential threat of global destruction.
William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow
Juliette Kayyem, author of The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters and former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security
The success of the United States’ Cuban Missile Crisis response was, ultimately, about buying time. President Kennedy’s strategy was to continue to, proverbially, extend the runway, to avoid the moment when there was no turning back. He set the pace, ignored Russian moves that might have sped up the pace, and knew that the worst mistakes are made when leaders feel pressed to make a decision. He demonstrated an understanding of crisis management and disaster response that is still relevant today.
As the threats we face today multiply—cyber, nuclear, terror, viruses, and Mother Nature—our capacity to save lives often comes down to whether we can avoid a total, systemic failure by delaying the moment when catastrophe is inevitable. We build redundancies; avoid single points of failure; try to stop cascading losses; surge resources to stop incidental deaths after the harm has passed. We try to, we need to, extend the runway. While wise men did much to avoid nuclear Armageddon, their strategy was often a strategy of delay.
Laicie Heeley, CEO, Inkstick Media
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that Kennedy and Khrushchev did not run or even walk up to the precipice of a nuclear war. Rather, they stumbled. Khrushchev didn’t authorize the famous shooting down of an American U-2 over Cuba that led to the most dangerous point in the crisis but, as he later remarked, “There’s always some sonofabitch that doesn’t get the word.” While the present moment is far from analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the chance for false assumptions, misinformation, and near-misses remains very real. As does the presence of an additional threat: That of a leader, actively engaged in a losing battle, with few options left.
Putin’s nuclear threats should not be treated as a standoff to be won, but an impending crisis to be prevented.
CEO, Inkstick Media
The following three actions are essential to reducing the chance of a nuclear escalation in Ukraine and avoiding a similar crisis in the future:
Jacquelyn Schneider, Hoover Fellow, Stanford University
For many years, scholars and practitioners voiced concern that cyber would make crises more dangerous by creating vulnerabilities that might induce states to use nuclear weapons earlier. In the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fear is that cyber would have made Khrushchev or Kennedy more worried about their second-strike arsenal and therefore more likely to use nuclear weapons. What I’ve found after wargaming cyber threats to nuclear arsenals over the last four years is that the real impact of cyber to a future Cuban Missile Crisis is more complicated.
Across wargames and experiments, cyber vulnerabilities are often underestimated, creating anxiety, doubt, and fog instead of fear or an impetus to action. That’s somewhat good news. Cyber threats aren’t likely to catalyze a crisis into deliberate nuclear use. However, there are implications for inadvertent and accidental nuclear use. Cyber led to riskier strategies overall. For example, when faced with a cyber vulnerability, many automated and pre-delegated command, placing nuclear forces on alert as a preemptive measure to negate cyber threats. Further, the lure of a potentially covert and less escalatory counter-force option led many teams to not only use cyberattacks against nuclear command and control, but also to pair these attacks with air, sea, and special operations attacks against an adversary’s nuclear arsenal. Together, these games suggest that cyber would only have made the tripwire diplomacy act of the Cuban Missile Crisis more prone to mistake, a dangerous but perhaps not obvious implication of cyber for crises today.
...cyber would only have made the tripwire diplomacy act of the Cuban Missile Crisis more prone to mistake, a dangerous but perhaps not obvious implication of cyber for crises today.
Hoover Fellow, Stanford University
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