Cuban Missile Crisis: Miscommunication That Could Have Resulted in a Nuclear War

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Disagreements, conflicts and discords can be said to be a continuing characteristic for human beings throughout the course of history regardless of time, place and especially one’s background since individuals have different beliefs and possess varying degrees of values. This can range from simple matters such as arguing between likes and dislikes to strongly voicing one’s opinion through platforms including protest and speech. We voice our opinions, form our words, and when disputes are made, we try to resolve them. It is, in other words, in our very own human nature that we are designed to clash our interests against one another. Though the conflicts can reach a consensus, it may also take an unexpected turn and result in a greater form – war – which serves as the central piece for this essay.

The idea of war, nevertheless, has been displayed throughout history as different countries have experienced countless wars, perhaps some more than others, for example World War I, the Pacific War, Korean War, Vietnam War, and so forth. What began as an innocent misunderstanding developed into a dire situation, causing mass casualties and irreversible effects brought upon by both parties. This was the whole concept that outlined the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) during the Cold War between the two Superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, in regard to their possession of nuclear warheads and the credibility of the rational nuclear deterrence theory. Therefore, taking into consideration the various perspectives that can be applied to the context of this essay, I believe that the Cuban Missile Crisis did not necessarily demonstrate the operation nor the success of the nuclear deterrence theory, but rather, contributed towards shedding a light to the necessity and demand of a deadly weapon.

The Cuban Missile Crisis did not fully demonstrate the capacity of the nuclear deterrence because of the decisions implemented by both the U.S. administration and the chief of staff of the Soviet Union B-59 submarine, Vasili Arkhipov. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a decisive moment in the Cold war as well as the history because of its proximity to almost inciting another World War. As the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 failed, Soviet Union Nikita Khruschev was incentivized to seek help from the Cuban Premier Fidel Castro and place Soviet nuclear missiles along Cuba in order to deter any further U.S. aggressions (Allison 1969: 690). Yet, matters turned unexpectedly when a U.S. U2 spy aircraft captured several photos showing medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba (Weldes 1999: 206). Although Kennedy paid close attention in crafting his words to dismiss any conflict, for example, using the term “quarantine” instead of “blockade” (James D. 1965: 12) to claim an absence of a state of war, Khruschev nevertheless turned a blind eye and accused Kennedy by responding: “The violation of freedom to use international waters and international airspace is an act of aggression which pushes mankind to the abyss of world nuclear missile war”(JFK Library 2012: 2). This followed by the U.S. reconnaissance flights discovering the Soviet missile sites nearing operational readiness (McAuliffe 1992: 121), mustered the U.S. military to position itself to DEFCON 2, the defence readiness one step away from a nuclear war (Welch and Blight 1987: 8).

The unavoidable fact that the U.S. military armed itself with the second highest military alert jeopardizes the nuclear deterrence altogether as it did not contribute to “[the] power to dissuade” (Snyder 1983: 129). Also, while advocates of the rational deterrence theory may assert the particular framework as sound due to the fact that it prevented nuclear attacks for a period of thirty years from 1950 to 1980 (Wilson 2008: 432), the entirety of this assertion, then, questions the fundamental idea of having a nuclear deterrence in the first place. It contradicts the rational deterrence theory as a whole since a possession of the nuclear weapon, in this case, is supposed to discourage the U.S., but instead, coerced the Kennedy administration to operate a task they have never carried out before (Guttieri, Wallace, and Suedfeld 1995: 596), an exact opposite action stated by George and Smoke (George and Smoke 1974: 11). In addition to this, another example that accentuates the argument is the launch of the almost-authorized nuclear torpedo. Mistakenly assuming the U.S. Navy’s depth bomb as an attack, Captain Valentin Savitskii and Captain Second Rank Vitali Savitsky authorized an attack on the U.S. Navy (Savranskaya 2007: 245). However, the launch was dismissed as Second Captain Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov opposed the authorization (Savranskaya 2007: 247). This, again, can be noted as a key event since the nuclear deterrence theory would have assured neither state in possession of a nuclear weapon would attack, or else, would result in a Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) (Robert 2002). Both of these examples highlight the vulnerability of the nuclear deterrence theory of how sound it is as a theoretical framework, but impractical when applied to a real-world situation. Had this launch been approved, the current state may have also been completely different. Therefore, the Cuban Missile Crisis did not necessarily approve the operation of the nuclear deterrence theory but emphasized its incapacity.

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Even though the nuclear deterrence theory may appear only to be a sound, theoretical framework when applied to a hypothetical scenario, the Cuban Missile Crisis still highlights the operation of the particular theory because of the covert meeting held between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Soviet Union Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and the respective Superpowers’ awareness of how appalling the potential aftermath could be. As the Kennedy Administration and Soviet Union came to an intense halt following numerous encounters, it seemed, at first, as if neither side had the intention to withdraw. Yet, on October 26, 1962, a letter addressed to President John F. Kennedy from Nikita Khrushchev suggested otherwise (Garthoff 1988: 66). The letter stated that the Soviet Union would remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for a promise from the U.S. to not invade the island and lifting the quarantine (JFK Library 2012: 7).

Soon after, a second letter followed as a continuing series that demanded the dismantle and removal of the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey (Garthoff 1988: 71). Here, the two letters sent by Khrushchev show the cautious steps taken into account by Kennedy and Khrushchev in order to avoid risking yet another World War at all cost since “both sides were ready to make sacrifices because they feared war” (Lebow and Stein 1995: 63). This argument is further emphasized by the covert meeting held between Attorney General Robert Kennedy of the U.S. and Soviet Union Anatoly Dobrynin (Costigliola 1995: 116). After a thorough negotiation, they reached a proposal that the U.S. would remove their nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy and promise to never invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet Union withdrawal from Cuba under the UN inspection (Allison 2008: 267). This advocates the nuclear deterrence theorists because both sides were highly aware of the immeasurable damage the deadly weapon could inflict, and therefore, came to a decisive conclusion. In other words, it reinforces the fundamental building blocks that compose the particular theory: “a threat… intended to keep an adversary from doing something” (Schelling 1966: 69), and that people should be more inclined to the idea because it is far more robust than what has been believed (Rajagopalan 2000: 452). Furthermore, the next example that solidifies the validity of the nuclear deterrence was the establishment of a direct hotline between the White House and Kremlin (Medland 1990: 435). Once Khrushchev publicly announced the removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba (Norris and Kristensen 2015: 89), a communication method was installed to encourage an efficient contact between the two Superpowers, and in 1963, a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed (Schwelb 1964: 642). From these examples, it becomes evident of the key element that is often times underestimated by the opponents of nuclear deterrence, and that is: the intention, awareness and most importantly, the rationality of Kennedy and Khrushchev. Had they not been rational decisionmakers, the issue would have not been diplomatically solved and the history may have gone down a wrong path. Thus, while criticized by many, the Cuban Missile Crisis nevertheless served as a platform to prove the certainty and legitimacy of the nuclear deterrence theory.

However, regardless of the nuclear deterrence supporters insisting of its direct link in preventing a catastrophic third World War, the Thirteen-Day Confrontation between the Superpowers was not as fruitful as it seemed in introducing the full potential of the particular deterrence theory because of the false assumption of actors behaving rationally, difference in interpretation among policymakers and scholars, and the irrelevance of nuclear superiority. As it was shown in the previous argument, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a diplomatic triumph for both Kennedy and Khrushchev in terms of resolving the crisis (Dobbs 2008: 351). Have they not been rational actors, a frightening World War Three could have possibly ensued (Somerville 1981: 576), and the world may have been wiped out without any warning. All of this, however, is based on the assumption that actors will behave rationally despite the myriad of circumstances they will encounter. An example that demonstrates this point is Sagan’s statement. In an argument, he conveys that “human beings are not [perfect] rational machines, but rather operate with limited and fallible cognitive capabilities” (Sagan 1993: 19). Likewise, both authors, Sagan and Waltz express a similar perspective in that actors behaving rationally is a presumption made by political scientists that is not supported nor proven by evidence (Sagan and Waltz 2003: 51). Assuming that actors will be logical and rational under extreme conditions is, then, almost impractical given that immense pressure disables actors from thinking clearly (Johnson 2009: 115).

All of this, therefore, asks the very essence of the nuclear deterrence when the deployment of a deadly weapon is at stake. Moreover, the apparent difference in interpretation between policymakers and scholars is an additional example that reiterates the failure of the nuclear deterrence. While the removal of the Jupiter Missile from Turkey in response to the Soviet Union withdrawing from Cuba (Garthoff 1988: 71) certainly enabled the crisis to dispel, some of the U.S. policymakers displayed a rather bitter reaction to the negotiation (Blight, Nye. Jr and Welch 1987: 172) and stated at least a degree of ‘assured destruction’ would be inflicted (McNamara 1988, cited in Art and Waltz 2004: 149). This underlines the distinction between the events taking place on a superficial level, compared to the different intentions that were considered. Nevertheless, unlike the scholars who associated themselves with peaceful resolutions through the interaction with nuclear weapons, policymakers relied on aggressive tactics solely because of their possession of nuclear weapons. Additionally, the nuclear deterrence theory resulted in a poor execution due to the irrelevance of nuclear superiority. During the Kennedy Administration, despite maintaining a nuclear superiority compared to its counterpart (Rajagopalan 2000: 444), the president mentioned what difference would it make with an abundance of nuclear weapons when Soviet Union have enough to damage them (Trachtenberg 1985: 150). Hence, the only factor that was imperative was the acknowledgement of mutual fear (Scott and Smith 1994: 681). This claim was further favoured by the explanation made by the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara: “[t]he assumption that the strategic imbalance mattered was absolutely [false]” (Lebow and Stein 1995: 169). By carefully examining the components that illustrate the weakness of the nuclear deterrence theory, that is, the actors constantly behaving rationally, the presence of various interpretation between the scholars and policymakers, and lastly, the insignificance of nuclear superiority, it aids in the argument of the Cuban Missile Crisis not demonstrating the operation of the particular theory.

In conclusion, by carefully assessing the pros and cons of the rational nuclear deterrence theory through the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is reasonable to state that the particular theory, although safe and sound as a framework, is not necessarily practical when applied to a real, complex world scenario. This was first observed through the argument of the Kennedy Administration signaling the second highest military warning in history of DEFCON 2 followed by the crucial decision made by the Soviet Union B-59 submarine Second Captain, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. In this case, it showed the underlying contradiction that the possession of a nuclear weapon would discourage any conventional attacks but resulted in almost initiating the exact opposite outcome. In comparison, the second paragraph looked at the supporting evidence of the nuclear deterrence theory stating that because of the strong awareness of what the consequences can invite, it led to both Kennedy and Khrushchev displaying a clear intention of not wanting to risk and engage in a costly war. The last paragraph, nevertheless, sheds light on the faults that are present – the false assumption of actors behaving rationally, the difference in perspectives, and pinpointing the minimal importance of nuclear superiority – and conveys that it can be the root cause of failure. All of the above points guide us to contemplate that the possession of nuclear weapons would deter any significant conflicts if the world were filled with rational and logical actors.

At the same time, while some critics may complain that Kennedy and Khrushchev bargained with the enemy, there is no doubt that the Thirteen-Day Confrontation would have ended drastically different if it were not for the two Superpower leaders’ ability to diplomatically and logically solve the crisis.

Nonetheless, there is a disturbing lesson that we can all learn as creatures of disagreements, and that is: a slight miscommunication error, or a split-second decision made by the Second Captain could have potentially thwarted all their efforts. Therefore, the Cuban Missile Crisis reveals just how fragile human politics can be compared to the terrifying power they can unleash.

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