Before the Thirteen Days
With this month marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, it is no surprise that this occasion has unleashed a flood of retrospectives and analyses. See, for example, Les Gelb at Foreign Policy, Fred Kaplan at Slate, Chris Matthews in the New Republic and Michael Dobbs in the New York Times.
The common thread among these pieces is that they all take aim at what they dub the prevailing “myth” about how the events of October 1962 unfolded. In Gelb’s words, it “is the tale that, by virtue of U.S. military superiority and his steely will, Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to capitulate.” Under this myth, “Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing.”
The authors all correctly note that this is not true. Rather, what happened was that under a secret deal made by the two leaders, Washington agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets taking their missiles out of Cuba. America also made a promise not to invade Cuba. Their point is well taken: that the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is not that one must merely show “strength” and “resolve,” but also be open to reasonable compromise when necessary.
However, there is an odd oversight in these pieces. Namely, they tend to ignore the period leading up to the crisis and focus solely on the famous “thirteen days” in October. There is scarcely a mention of the fact that for several years prior to 1962, the policy of the United States was to support the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. The U.S. government launched a series of covert operations to this end, most notably in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Operation Mongoose, which consisted of a “plan to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban government and economy.”
In this context, is it any surprise that Castro wanted nuclear weapons on his territory, or that the Soviets would have wanted to protect the regime of their client state? As Dobbs has written elsewhere, “By authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion, followed by Operation Mongoose, Kennedy had given the Soviets every reason to believe that he was determined to get rid of Castro once and for all.”
None of this absolves Khrushchev for his responsibility for the crisis. The decision to send nuclear missiles to Cuba and take the world to the brink of nuclear war was hugely reckless and out of proportion to America’s actions in Cuba—and it helped lead to Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964. But it’s worth noting because there’s another myth about the crisis (and to some degree the Cold War more broadly) that also deserves puncturing: the idea that the United States was merely a reactive power standing up to Soviet aggression. This mistaken attitude is only reinforced by a narrow focus that treats the thirteen days as the only relevant element of the crisis.