The Cuban Missile Crisis: Breaking The Communication Barrier In The Cold War

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Imagine a world where a nuclear war had taken place and much of the United States and modern Russia were annihilated in a fiery holocaust. In this world, the Cold War escalated into a full-on war. Our world came within mere millimeters of this fate in 1962. It started with a decision by Nikita Khrushchev - the decision to put nuclear missiles on Cuba threatening the United States. President John F. Kennedy had days to make a plan. He started a massive naval quarantine of the tiny island, trapping the Soviets in a stalemate. The fierce negotiations between the two leaders led to the removal of the missiles in exchange for a promise by the U.S. During these 13 days between October 16-October 28, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis broke communication, diplomatic, and political barriers between the two superpowers, shaking the world to its core. After the crisis, the nations established emergency communications lines hence diplomacy, agreeing to several treaties to avoid nuclear annihilation.

The Background

The roots of the crisis originated long before Khrushchev’s missiles arrived in Cuba. The Cold War had been going on for years; now tensions were running high following the stalemate in the Korean Peninsula. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries overthrew Fulgencio Batista, a tyrant who had ruled Cuba for decades. Castro began to establish ties with the Soviets, which understandably worried the U.S. This caused them to cut off the supplies they gave to Cuba and put an end to imports of Cuban sugar. Then they launched Operation MONGOOSE, which aimed to undermine Castro and his government but ultimately failed. Desperately, the U.S. launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, using a brigade of Cuban refugees, but the landing craft got annihilated by the Cuban Air Force while the troops were deployed. This caused Castro to get even closer to the Soviets. The United States then agreed to put nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on Turkey, causing tension to reach its peak before the crisis.

The Buildup

Khrushchev had long bragged about how fast Soviet long-range missiles launched and how they could “hit a fly” across the ocean, but in reality, they took hours to launch and were inaccurate. However, while long-range missiles were only small talk, Khrushchev did have accurate medium and intermediate-range missiles. So what if he could position missiles on a small island near the U.S., as the Americans had done to them with Turkey? It seemed like a good idea at the time, as he could negotiate for Cuban protection and Berlin. So after a Soviet dispatch convinced Castro to allow buildup on Cuba, 85 ships carrying missiles and 42,00 troops are sent en route to Cuba. Little did Khrushchev know the massive ripples his decision would have.

Discovery

On October 16, 1962, in the White House, Kennedy is being presented blown-up images of missile launch sites taken by a U2 spy plane[Appendix B] A CIA analyst informs Kennedy that these are medium and intermediate-range missiles and that if launched, they could hit Washington in 13 minutes[Appendix D]. Kennedy rages at Khrushchev’s cheek, as privately Khrushchev had told him there would be no missiles involved. This was one of many miscommunications before and during the crisis, and political rivals had made the Cuban buildup a campaign issue. Kennedy had previously told Khrushchev that he would take action if missiles were involved, and now he is caught in a difficult situation. His advisors are presenting him with two very different opinions. Some of them say that the missiles aren’t ready for launch yet, so he has time to make a plan, while others say that the majority of the infrastructure is complete and he has to launch a direct invasion of Cuba. Kennedy sits there, stumped, as he doesn’t know what to do.

The Founding of ExComm

At 6:30 on October 16, 14 men meet in the Cabinet Room. These are official executives, officers, and advisors that Kennedy has summoned from the National Security Council, among other places. This is the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, known later as ExComm. Among them are the Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother. Someone starts a recording to preserve their conversation, and ExComm begins their conference.

Three Choices

ExComm presents three options to Kennedy, as follows; an airstrike followed by an optional invasion, diplomacy, or a naval blockade. ExComm argued for hours, as all three had their respective downfalls. The airstrike invasion option has a high potential to harm Soviet troops, and that could lead to war. Diplomacy has a very low chance of success, and a naval blockade is considered an act of war. ExComm reconvenes the next day, and debates continue. Questions are brought up whether or not it is necessary to act, and it is, as Kennedy had pledged to take action, and failure to do so would free the Soviets to “act as willed”. After hours, ExComm edges away from the airstrike invasion option and settles on the blockade, deciding to rename it a “quarantine” so it wouldn’t be an act of war. During this time, ExComm debated how to enforce the quarantine.

The Blockade Begins

The quarantine is scheduled to begin on October 22nd or 23rd, and there are still debates on how to enforce it. ExComm immediately shoots down the Navy’s idea of challenging, firing, then boarding the ship if it doesn’t stop. Even if it is practice shots, firing on enemy ships could still cause a war, so Kennedy dispatches someone to make sure the Navy doesn’t do anything rash. Khrushchev is completely against the quarantine, stating that it is an act of war. However, he does call back all ships freighting warheads in case they’re caught. He lets food and supply ships go on, as inspecting those will only embarrass Kennedy. But he lets one ship filled with nuclear missiles forge ahead toward Cuba. Just days later, a fleet of American destroyers fills the waters around Cuba.

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Live. John F. Kennedy announces to millions of anxious Americans about the discovery of the Cuban missiles. He speaks about the Cuban buildup, the missiles that threaten the lives of millions, and the naval quarantine enforcement. He states, “Any hostile move anywhere in the world against the safety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed, including in particular the brave people of West Berlin, will be met by whatever action is needed”. The military is at DEFCON 3, with missiles and bombers ready to launch within minutes of an order. Castro summons 300,000 troops to defend Cuba, and 120,000 men gather in Florida with aircraft at ready. The stage is set for any spark, even the smallest one, to trigger a nuclear war.

Eyeball to Eyeball

On October 24, Soviet supply ships plunge toward Cuba, while hundreds of American ships lie in wait. Submarine escorts lie beneath the water, ready for action. Kennedy had signed the authorization for the quarantine the previous day, but Robert Kennedy had come back with grave news. An uninformed ambassador had told him that the Soviet ships won’t stop. Another miscommunication. As the supply ships approach the destroyers, they suddenly slow and halt to a stop. New orders from Moscow; turn around and head home. The ships slowly inch away, and back far away from the quarantine line. In the White House, ExComm waits anxiously for news back from the Navy, and the message comes in. Soviet ships have turned away from the quarantine line. ExComm celebrates. “We’re eyeball to eyeball,” Secretary Rusk whispers, “and I think the other fellow just blinked”.

Near Disaster

Major Anderson is flying a U2 spy plane over Cuba to update ExComm on the missile sites. Suddenly, his radar beeps rapidly. Anti-aircraft missiles are incoming. Anderson swerves, trying to avoid the missile before it crashes into the side of the plane. The aircraft falls in a ball of fire into the Cuban field below. It is the first casualty of a conflict that could kill millions. In the seas near Cuba, an American destroyer and a Soviet sub play a game of cat and mouse. Little do the pilots know that the sub has one nuclear torpedo that could annihilate the entire American fleet. Khrushchev is getting nervous and drafts an initial letter to Kennedy offering to remove the missiles in exchange for a promise not to invade Cuba. He sends it to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but the letter will take 8 hours to arrive in Washington.

Black Saturday (The Buildup)

Saturday, October 27, 1962: the day mankind came closest to a nuclear holocaust. ExComm waits for news of a U2 spy plane overdue from Cuba. Meanwhile, another U2 is thousands of feet above land. The pilot is scanning the ground. He has been trying to get back to Alaska, but with his navigation systems compromised this far north, he has been going just by instinct. However, the ground beneath him looks… off. He has entered Soviet airspace, and fighters wait far beneath to shoot him down. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the American destroyer has caught the submarine and it begins signaling the sub with grenades and then practice depth charges. Now, the Presidium knew the Americans would use this signal, but no one had informed the submarine crew. Another miscommunication. The captain is furious, and orders for the nuclear torpedo to be launched. For the torpedo to be launched, both officers aboard the ship must agree to launch this nuclear torpedo. They do. The situation looks grave.

Black Saturday (Peak of the Crisis)

ExComm is wringing their hands. Khrushchev’s proposal has arrived and ExComm is debating accepting, but a message arrives. The overdue U2 won’t be returning - it was shot down. DEFCON 2 is announced, the lowest it has ever been. Khrushchev is sick to his stomach with worry. Who ordered the U2 to be shot down? Are Soviet troops now following Cuban orders? If so, will the next strike be nuclear? Aboard the B-59 submarine, the captain and officers are going ballistic. They had agreed to launch the nuclear torpedo, but a third man is aboard this submarine, Vasili Arkhipov, and he too gets a say. He votes no, causing an argument to break out. Arkhipov argues that they haven’t received orders from Moscow and should surface. The submarine surfaces, surrounded by 4 American destroyers. By simply saying no, Vasili Arkhipov saved the world that day, at the darkest moment in human history.

An Agreement

Khrushchev is ballistic. The news came in about the U2 that crossed into Soviet airspace. What could Kennedy try to be saying with this? He is stumped and realizes he could ask for something else to boost his reputation in this situation. He sits at his desk and begins writing. Hours later in D.C., Khrushchev’s new offer arrives, and it’s offering missiles out of Cuba for exchange of American missiles in Turkey, as well as the previous promise not to invade Cuba. ExComm argues for hours. It’s hard not to accept just because it’s so reasonable, but it requires trading away an ally’s safety for their own. Kennedy decides ExComm has outlived its usefulness and withdraws with a handful of advisors. They find a solution. They will publicly accept the first deal, promising not to invade, as well as secretly accepting the second missile trade offer. That night, Robert Kennedy slips into the Soviet embassy and hands the ambassador both offers, explaining them. On October 28th, 1962, the agreement is announced. ExComm celebrates, and Khruschev gets some sleep.

Impact of the Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis created giant ripples within years of its ending. Kennedy organized a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev in 1963 and created a hotline so the President could talk to the Soviet Premier directly, breaking communication barriers between the two superpowers. Kennedy’s reputation soared in the U.S., while Khrushchev was ousted from power 2 years after the crisis, as the Presidium believed his performance was weak. This shows a massive change in the perspective of the leaders. Both superpowers continued to work toward denuclearizing the world, and signed the SALT I and II treaties in 1972 and 1979, respectively, hence breaking diplomatic barriers. The crisis impacts the world today as well, as it was cited in a speech by Izumi Nakamitsu in a speech to the UN, stating, “The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into force in 1963, only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, opened for signature in 1968. Judging from history, it should never be the case that a poor international security situation obviates the pursuit of disarmament. Rather, growing tensions, simmering conflicts, and the unchecked proliferation of destabilizing arms must compel us to act with new urgency.” This proves that we are still learning from the crisis that occurred 58 years ago.

Lessons

Undoubtedly, the world learned that communication is important. The miscommunication between both sides was what caused the crisis. Failure to understand the other side and cultivate empathy was another major factor, as well as the failure to understand that one has to “Be careful what you do because other people will sometimes read what you do differently from the way you intend it,” Welch states. Also, the use of espionage has changed significantly, as it was learned that all forms of espionage have serious diplomatic consequences if compromised. These lessons, among others, are being implemented today, for example, in North Korea. But some of these lessons are being forgotten, particularly with the recent strikes on Iran. One could reasonably argue that the number of miscommunications during the crisis was merely the cause of forgetting under stress, but there were several cases of miscommunication that don’t make sense. For example, the fact that the Soviet ambassador in Washington didn’t get a message at all, which led him to relay false information to Robert Kennedy. Typically, leaders want their ambassadors to know everything, so they can communicate with the other leaders.

Conclusion

To conclude, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a time of miscommunication and danger. It is a near miracle that the world evaded nuclear war. Imagine, what if Arkhipov had voted yes? What if Khrushchev had taken the airspace crossing as an act of war? What if the U.S. had invaded Cuba? As you can see, there were many factors in play during this time, many close calls, and an uncountable number of miscommunications. But it was these things in the end that allowed the U.S. to establish better diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, create a new generation of leaders, and break the communication barriers between them that, in the end, made the world a safer place.

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