New Look at Missile Crisis

November 15, 1985

Prof. Barton J. Bernstein of Stanford University has made some important contributions to our understanding of American history, but his article (Opinion, Oct. 27), "New Look at the Cuban Missile Crisis," is not one of them. Rather, he has repeated some longstanding criticisms of President John F. Kennedy's handling of that crisis and has provided no new evidence from "newly declassified" documents to support them.

There is no denying the sense of danger and high tension that pervaded Washington in those days in 1962, nor is there anything new in noting it. Bernstein's conclusion that private negotiations with the Soviets would have been preferable to the quarantine ignores the Soviet foreign minister's flat denial, in private conversations with Kennedy only a day before the President's announcement, that offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba.

Kennedy knew that Andrei Gromyko was not telling the truth and logically concluded that the Soviets intended to hide what they were doing. Negotiations would have delayed any American response, probably until the missiles were operational. And that was something that Kennedy and his advisers felt they had to avoid because once the missiles were in place the American negotiating position would have been radically worsened.

Bernstein's contention that the location of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba did not shift the nuclear balance against the United States is based on the kind of reasoning that has driven the arms race he has so eloquently and frequently condemned. The strategic balance is not based merely upon the number of missiles each side aims at its rival. In the early 1960s missiles were much less accurate than they are today, and so were properly considered counter-value, rather than counter-force weapons.

The limited range of the IRBMs, which meant that they could not hit American missile silos for a preemptive first strike, was therefore irrelevant.

Further, the IRBMs in Cuba sharply reduced the lead time available to the United States for responding to a crisis that might go nuclear. Those missiles did, in other words, mean an important change in the status quo, a destabilization of the strategic situation that was sudden and unilateral. That sort of the destabilization is the source of the greatest danger of nuclear war (witness the current debate over "Star Wars"), and that is what provoked the American response.

Of course considerations of national prestige and even domestic politics were involved, but the Cuban missile crisis was the product of Soviet adventurism, of Nikita Khrushchev's attempt to exploit what he believed was the weakness of the President and of the American system in order to achieve some clear advantage. Given the possible and unknown consequences, and given the options available to him, Kennedy's reaction was moderate, responsible, and thoroughly appropriate.


Associate Professor of History

Pomona College


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