The Cuban Missile Crisis: Five lessons for today

World and We
Sergey Strokan is a journalist, essayist and a poet. He is also a political commentator with Russia's “Kommersant” Publishing House. Mr. Strokan hosts “Red Line”, a weekly analytical program broadcast by The Voice of Russia in New York City. He is the author of three poetry collections, a winner of the Maximilian Voloshin International Literary Award (2010) and a member of Union of Russian Writers.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: Five lessons for today
­The Cuban Missile Crisis, which put the world on the brink of nuclear conflict half a century ago in 1962, from ...

­The Cuban Missile Crisis, which put the world on the brink of nuclear conflict half a century ago in 1962, from October 16 to 28, is grabbing international media headlines again. Moscow and Washington are quietly marking the 50th anniversary of the event – a rare moment of truth in US-Russian relations, which have known their ups and downs in recent decades, and are currently facing new and critical tests.

As the drums of war today get louder and louder, and Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney labels Russia as America’s number-one foe, it is instructive to recall the stormy events of October 1962, which have been mostly left to the archives and 20th-century history textbooks. As the famous English poet T.S. Eliot once said: “History is not past in the past, but past in the present.”

With scholars hunting for new classified documents explaining the events and the roles of US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, political pundits, media and the public are asking the same ontological questions: What pushed the two superpowers into the standoff? What made them avoid conflict? And finally, what is the role of world leaders, who can overcome the circumstances of the moment and determine the course of history? Let’s have a brief look at the lessons of Cuban Missile Crisis, survived not only by the unruffled Commandant Fidel Castro, but also by the trajectory of the post-Cold War world.

The origin of the Cuban Missile Crisis is itself food for thought. What prompted Nikita Khrushchev – a maverick, picturesque Soviet leader of the post-Stalin thaw – to order a secret deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba? Well, at some point Khrushchev was obsessed competing with the US superpower – taking them on in all spheres, from weaponry and space exploration to muddy fields of agriculture. It is not America, but the Soviet Union which had to reinstate itself as the world leader, Khrushchev believed. Remember his famous “We will bury you” declaration?

When America deployed missiles in Turkey, Nikita Sergeyevich decided to show them a Khrushchev-style ‘asymmetric answer.’ This is how Soviet nukes were moved to the other part of the world, closer to US shores, forcing President Kennedy to respond. So, the first lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: Asymmetric military moves are an extremely risky venture. They are the heritage of the Cold War, and have no place in today’s world. Instead of asymmetric responses, leaders should understand that any attempt to build their nations’ security at the expense of others will only result in insecurity in the end.

The second lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that crisis resolution – both global and regional – should be built on leaders’ restraint, and should unequivocally exclude wars as an instrument of world politics. Some will say that, 50 years after Cuban crisis, it is sheer idealism and wishful thinking to believe that leaders of today would ever follow this principle, considering the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and warmongering rhetoric over Iran. However, Kennedy and Khrushchev showed that such a code of conduct is by no means impossible.

Documents and aging witnesses of the Cuban crisis testify that it took enormous personal courage and resolve on the part of Soviet and American leaders to withstand the pressure of domestic hawks, and resist the temptation of striking their adversary. So, when warmongering politicians say ‘all options are on the table,’ or arming opposition forces and scheme up intervention scenarios, it is high time they look at Kennedy and Khrushchev, whose prevented the world from sliding into a nuclear abyss.

The third lesson of Cuban Missile Crisis is the notion that in such a crisis, there are always accidental circumstances that may eventually escalate beyond leaders’ control. It is reported that when the US blockade of Cuba went into effect and Soviet submarines approached, Kennedy ordered US ships to fire small depth charges at the ships to force them to surface. Historians say that what Kennedy didn’t know was that the subs were carrying nuclear missiles, and were close to using them.

The fourth lesson for US-Russian relations is that labeling each other the number-one foe, as Mr. Romney does today, is a shabby and odd practice, to say the least – this is an outdated, obsolete mentality. Leaders who stick to old dogmas were probably poor history students. Today, they look like men trapped in the past. Let them take a better look at the chairs used by Kennedy and Khrushchev during their Vienna talks, or consider how shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev started their own US-Russia ‘reset’ by signing an extensive trade agreement in 1963. And less than a year after the crisis, speaking from the UN rostrum on September 20, 1963, JFK proposed the joint US-Soviet exploration of space.

Some say that for both the US and Russia, October is a scary month – not just because of Bolshevik revolution and Halloween, but because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, disasters can easily be avoided when national egos and paranoia give way to new pragmatism, usually discovered with enormous difficulty after crises and mistakes. This is the fifth and final lesson to be learned from the Cuban crisis.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.