WASHINGTON — For 25 years, the men who decide how and when America goes to war have found the Cuban missile crisis to be the principal model for crisis resolution. Now, despite a wave of revisionist revelations, the current generation of national-security managers find themselves repeating by rote Cuban missile crisis lessons that are not only incorrect but dangerously likely to turn the hidden errors of 1962 into very real terrors of 1987.
The traditional view has held that President John F. Kennedy's unblinking brinksmanship led to a successful resolution of the most dangerous superpower confrontation in history. Kennedy and his inner circle of ExCom (Executive Committee) advisers are credited with cleverly managing superior conventional and strategic force, circumventing normal bureaucratic channels, carefully weighing intelligence and the insights of specialists, building consensus among allies by keeping them posted on each new detail and--on the eve of a U.S. congressional election--disarming an unprecedented divisive partisan debate over foreign policy.
These celebrations of successful crisis management have now proved to be horribly myopic. Former ExCom members, as well as Soviet and Cuban officials, after analyzing newly available documents and insider details, acknowledge in retrospect that they were unaware of essential facts about their own forces and were fundamentally wrong about the opposing forces, and that the situation was beyond the control of any one of the leaders.
Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and his ExCom colleagues now acknowledge what they did not know at the time:
--That the U.S. missiles in Turkey whose dismantling provided the key component of the final U.S.-Soviet deal had--despite the fact that the United States had already considered them obsolete--only become operational in mid-October, 1962, at almost precisely the same time as the Soviet missiles in Cuba.
--That without higher authorization the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command elevated the alert level of all SAC units without customary encryption, causing the Soviets to prepare for a pending attack.
--That the extent of damage by U.S. depth charges to Soviet submarines forced to the surface during the blockade was much more serious than known at the time.
--That nuclear weapons were loaded aboard U.S. bombers in Europe during the crisis.
--That none of the ExCom members were aware that U-2 reconnaissance flights on the borders of the Soviet Union continued during the crisis until after one strayed accidentally into Soviet air space the same day a U-2 was shot down over Cuba.
For their part, the Soviet officials now confirm that the Soviet Union had targeted Berlin, and that Cuba had plans to strike certain southern U.S. cities if U.S. forces invaded Cuba. The Soviets claim that because Kennedy made no prior private diplomatic overtures, his sudden announcement of a military blockade took them by surprise. They view his subsequent rejection of a secret Soviet request for a summit as provoking a world crisis that could have been handled quietly.
McNamara and his colleagues admit having believed Khrushchev's claims that nuclear warheads were already in Cuba and would be used against the United States on already deployed weapons were Kennedy to follow the advice of some advisers to stage a preemptive strike on the Cuban bases. Although American officials now claim they were wrong about the presence of nuclear weapons in Cuba, Soviet officials still insist that warheads were there and that they doubt Khrushchev could have prevented their use by Soviet troops in the case of such a strike.
Most important, it is only now that McNamara and others give credence to the Soviet motivations articulated at the time for putting missiles in Cuba. The Soviets have always claimed that they faced a rapidly growing U.S. nuclear arsenal of vast superiority, sufficient to render them vulnerable to being wiped out by a preemptive first strike.
American nuclear superiority was so complete--5,000 warheads to 300--that a massive first strike was in fact one of the five options available to the President under the U.S. nuclear-war-targetting plan at the time. The approximately 40 intermediate-range missiles the Soviets were sending to Cuba would not have given them a first-strike capability. But it would have made the Soviet strategic deterrent credible.
The second Soviet reason and the primary Cuban justification, the prevention of an impending invasion of Cuba, was scoffed at by American officials in 1962. But McNamara and others on the ExCom assert that they were unaware of important covert operations against Castro during the 16 months after the April, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion, which they acknowledge must have made a second invasion seem imminent.