Reflections from Havana

Lessons from the Missile Crisis 60 Years On

Confrontation at the United Nations, October 25, 1962: deputy NPIC director David Parker points out the photographic evidence while U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson (at right) describes the photos. USSR ambassador Valerian Zorin is presiding at far left.
Picture courtesy of the National Security Archive

By Rafael Hernández*

The following is a paper given by Rafael at the online panel ‘The Missile Crisis 60 Years On’, held on 22 October 2022. You can watch the whole proceedings here:

Most of what has been published and what is still being published about the Crisis continues to emphasize everything on the American side, what the Soviets were intending to do, not about what was passing on the Cuban side.

When the Crisis exploded, I was picking coffee in the Sierra Maestra mountains. I was 14 years old.

In those years, we Cubans were not just used to be on the brink of a war with the US, actually, we were already at a war with the Americans. That war was part of our daily lives for 3 years. We had Bay of Pigs 18 months earlier. A civil war, with thousands of counterrevolutionary guerrillas, fueled and supplied by the US, had extended to the whole island. Teenagers teachers like me had been assassinated by those guerrillas.

Since 1960, Cubans had become accustomed to living with crises. That is to say, between states of alert (between DEFCON 3 and Defcon 1), bombing of sugar cane fields, and cities, U.S. Navy warships that could be seen from the Havana seawall, civil war with armed groups in all the provinces, infiltrations and landings of enemy forces, militia mobilizations, maneuvers and Navy war games in the Caribbean and the Guantánamo naval base. After the Bay of Pigs, the idea of a direct U.S. invasion remained a daily notion.

There are a series of questions that are still there, about the causes, the factors, the Cuban motivations about their security, before, during, and after the Crisis. The lessons of the Crisis, for us, remain a relatively unexplored matter.

What actions and plans in US policy towards Cuba led to the October Crisis of 1962? How were relations between Cuba and the USSR in 1960, 1961 and 1962? Did the Cuban-Soviet agreement subordinate Cuba to Soviet policy? Did Cuba and the USSR intend to threaten the US from their own backyard? Did the installation of nuclear weapons violate norms or principles of international law?

Did Fidel Castro suggest Nikita Khrushchev that he launched a first nuclear strike against the US? Was it a correct decision to exclude Cuba from the US-USSR negotiation to facilitate the achievement of a stable agreement? What consequences did this exclusion have? Did the agreement remove only nuclear weapons from Cuba? Were the world and Cuba safer after 1962? What lessons did the Crisis have then and now?

A Soviet declassified document that was recently released by the NSA, shows a unique first conversation between Raúl Castro and Nikita Jruschov, in the Summer of 1960, two years before the Crisis.

Nikita had warned the US, in a public speech, a few days earlier that the Soviet nuclear rockets would be used to defend Cuba if the US dared to intervene with troops.

Fidel Castro wanted to know if that declaration was for real.  “To what extent will the USSR take decisive action in the spirit of what was declared?”

Jruschov’s answer was very clear and distinct: “We will do everything to not allow the intervention against Cuba. But we don’t want war. However, we must bear in mind that one can unleash a great war to defend Cuba. » And he adds: «In our opinion, the United States does not want war either. We seriously warn the US that they should not even think about an intervention against Cuba. But you, the Cuban leadership, should also moderate yourself, so as not to be provoked.”

Four months before the conversation between Raúl and Nikita in Moscow, President Eisenhower had signed the Bay of Pigs plan, which included direct military intervention, once the 2506 Brigade controlled a territory where “his” government could land. Playa Girón was a self-fulfilled prophecy, which was ongoing, even though Soviet intelligence had not detected it, and the USSR had not sent the conventional weapons needed to defend Cuba, as they did later on.

The logic of spheres of influence and the geopolitical order agreed between East and West at Yalta is at the very core of the Soviet response. The solidarity and enthusiasm with the Cuban Revolution in the USSR, and Khrushchev’s personal interest in capitalizing on it, in a domestic political context, does not diminish the merit of a policy of economic and military support to the Cuban Revolution, which eventually went against the grain of that geopolitical order, vital for its survival in a decisive stage.

Cuba and its leaders suddenly found themselves in that major league of world politics, forced to play a game on which the Revolution depended, and also the independence and sovereignty of the nation. Having defended them with political intelligence and determination, albeit at a high cost, was their major legacy, on the way to build a grand strategy, according to the classic definition, that involved the whole Cuban people mobilization and political support.

Did the US learn his Cuban lesson in 1962 and later? A historian as Arthur Schlesinger, opposed to the blockade and in favor of normalization, affirmed however that “the United States never had the intention of attacking Cuba,” and mocked “the Cuban litany about CIA conspiracies,” as “a way to divert attention from the real problems of the country,” one wonders if hawks, doves and owls really learned anything from the Missile Crisis.

The JFK-Khrushchev pact that sealed the biggest Cold War confrontation did not materialize in a treaty, not even in a signed piece of paper, and left many loose ends and inconsistencies. Although Cuba did not participate in the negotiation, it was agreed that it let its territory be inspected by the United States and the UN. After the terms of the Soviet-American agreement, the Soviets would remove “ofensive weapons,” not “medium- and intermediate range missiles.” So the Komar missile boats, MiG 21s, the IL-28 bombers, and any other conventional means that could reach U.S. territory fell under what the United States could continue demanding.

The U.S. commitment was limited to not invading with its troops. Nothing about paramilitary actions from U.S. territory, support for armed groups in all provinces, terrorism and other subversive actions, provocations from the Guantánamo naval base, the total multilateral embargo, most of which remains until today.

Cuba shared the basic interest of avoiding nuclear war, but not the way it was negotiated, without its presence. Not just because of principles of sovereignty and equity but for having been an active participant of the deployment of the missiles, as well as the theater of operations. That is, for being in the front line of combat, running the greatest danger, and the biggest risk.

In spite of all the above, however, it cooperated with the departure of the missiles and the Soviet troops; and it was left alone with the enemy, who had never given up trying to put an end to the Revolution.

As for the aftermath of the Crisis, the cause to put the missiles, that is, the U.S. threat, and its effects on the lives of Cubans, never ceased. Because being exposed and alone with a not exactly appeased United States determined its political system and the conduct of its leadership from then on. Because the Guantánamo naval base, with its constant provocations; support for the armed counterrevoutionary groups in various provinces, and the headquarters of paramilitary organizations in Florida, throughout the 1960s and 1970s; the economic blockade, which has become the axis of the isolation and destabilization strategy, continued being present. And also, because the island remained a recurring  target on its radars about threats in the Caribbean, and in its contingency plans.

If the Cuban policy has principles, it is not because it is tied to a doctrine, to a set of apothegms, but rather to practices dictated by a specific historical and geopolitical situation. The necessity to integrate a community of nations that refused to align themselves with great powers, be they capitalists or socialists, and that at the same time, require alliances that compensate for the fatality of the space that they were assigned, in the face of the hostility of their main neighbor. For example, Vietnam.

For Cuba, the October Crisis is not a simple episode of the Cold War, but a key in the architecture of its foreign policy. Having refused the inspection of its territory when the missiles were withdrawn, after a negotiation in which it did not participate, as well as the continuation of low flights over its territory, were not rhetorical gestures or outbursts of wounded pride, but practices of sovereignty, which did more in favor of the application of international law and stable peace than most treaties.

This story not only shows that being in the geopolitical space of a power, in its “sphere of inëuence,” does not entail assuming submission to its dictates. It also documents that Cuba did not seek to wage war against the United States, nor did it ever join an enemy military bloc, nor did it align itself in favor of nuclear proliferation in the region. The history of the “Missile Crisis” shows under what exceptional conditions of imminent threat the country accepted the placement of the missiles. What I call “the cornered cat syndrome” is a lesson big powers should learn.

My Cuban Lessons.

One first commentary about the October 1962 Crisis from the Cuban viewpoint was written by Che Guevara in his farewell letter to Fidel. He assessed the 1962 crisis as a turning point of lucidity and disillusion: excluded from dialogue with the superpower by its major ally, Cuba was sailing on its own in that East-West confrontation, and as a consequence of that critical experience, a 36-year-old chief became a great statesman. Praising Fidel, Che says that “rarely has a statesman shone brighter,” and praises his way of “perceiving dangers and principles,” in those “bright and sad days.” In that personal letter, barely three years after the events, the words he choses capture the complex intensity of a dramatic moment.

Getting in and out of the nuclear crisis where the war with the U.S. dragged us, with an ally more experienced militarily, but trapped in deadly competition with its archenemy, and inept at deciphering the political algorithm of the Cuban Revolution; and doing it as part of the major leagues of world politics was a supreme test of survival for the Cubans, which was only worth it because the recovered ideal of independence and sovereignty was at stake once again.

Fidel Castro’s statesmanship, recognized by his worst enemies, was tested by his ability to defend national integrity, even in the face of the force majeure of an essential alliance with the Soviet Union, which led him to emerge from the Missile Crisis with the political recognition and prestige of a Third World leader. This acknowledgment of the Third World opened a large gap in the U.S. political siege.

If Cuba was not attacked by the US after 1962, it was not because of the lessons learned by JFK, who was assassinated a few months later. It was not because of the Soviet umbrella, that was definitively not granted any longer. It is true that the agreed status quo has been respected in practice. However, that can`t provide a retroactive argument to question the realistic choices available to Cuban leaders 60 years ago. That is a peculiar way to understand a historic political context.

As a  total conventional war against Cuba launched by the US before October 1962 implied total devastation of the country and annihilation of the civilian population, it was not, in terms of national interests, a better option than nuclear deterrence. Looking back to the Cuban strategic situation in the early days of the Revolution, the idea to put the missiles remains the most rational choice, in terms of avoiding a kind of war equivalent to a one side holocaust.

When the missiles were withdrawn, after been wrongly concealed “under the cloak of secrecy and deception,” Cuba should depend only on its own defense and security capacity. A military buildup, that drained and distracted a huge portion of Cuban resources, was necessary, because of national security. The political, economic, ideological consequences of that national security centrality on the Cuban political system and life until the present can`t be exaggerated.

Nowadays, misinterpretations of Cuban policies judge as “ambiguous” its position. However, that position characterizes the current Russian intervention in Ukraine as “the use of force and non-observance of legal principles and international norms that Cuba subscribes to,” and that reaffirms its opposition “to the use or threat of force against any state.” Of course, Cuban position is not defending Ukraine’s right to join NATO militarily, and to support its far-right government.

The parallel between Cuba and the US during the Missile Crisis and the Russia-Ukraine conflict is misguiding. For instance, the statement that “Ukraine challenges Russia with the same spirit as Cuba challenges the United States.” Or that “the invasion of Russia will be like the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and Iraq.” Such comparisons assume that not joining the anti-Russian bloc is equivalent to isolation, as if China, India, Vietnam, Iran, South Africa, had not done the same, and did not appreciate self-determination. And it takes for granted that this Cuban position will have repercussions in relations with its main interlocutors and allies in Africa and Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Finally, it argues that this position will give rise to the continuation of the blockade; or even to a U.S. intervention on the island.

History shows, however, that the end of the USSR and the withdrawal of Cuban troops in Africa, more than 30 years ago, did not move the US Cuban policy one millimeter.

Progress in bilateral relations, under Carter and Obama, has occurred precisely when the island has been less alone or distanced from allies such as the USSR or Russia or China. In the end, U.S. policy has helped to bring its two main Cold War rivals together; and has made it easier for Cuba to strengthen its relations with both at the same time as never before in 60 years.

In any case, the determination to maintain independence and sovereignty at all costs has played a decisive role in the dissuasion of the use of military force by the US as a rational choice to dispose of the Cuban Revolution after 1962.

*Rafael Hernández is a Cuban political scientist, attended the first trilateral conference about the Crisis, in Moscow, 1990, as an academic advisor to the Cuban government delegation; and participated in the planning of the Havana conference, in 1992. He is the author of Otra guerra. Ensayos sobre estrategia y seguridad internacional (1999), and has written extensively on US-Cuban relations, international security, Cuba’s foreign policy, civil society and politics. He has been visiting professor at Columbia, Harvard, Renmin (Beijing), and other universities. He lives and works in Havana, as the Chief Editor of Temas, a social science journal.