Folks, I’m jumping around 20th century American history right now, and I’m not sure whether to go chronologically or to keep giving in to the temptation of being dragged into whatever corner that catches my eye.
This time around, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis. So we talked about Robert Kennedy before (don’t worry, I am planning on reading the JFK biography too), and nuclear missile safety in general, but the Cuban Crisis – the days around October 27 1962 – sure is the most important crossroad in 20th century history.
You don’t believe me? It seems counterintuitive, I know. You heard me rage about how important WWI was, or the Vietnam War. And what about Watergate? Yes, all important, but… sometimes, what does NOT happen is more important than what happened.
Because, for a couple of days, the survival of humanity was at stake. McNamara (he of the gelled hair and Kennedy’s Defense Secretary) later said that it was pure luck that we survived.
That’s not a great feeling, isn’t it.
We all more or less know what happened. The Soviet Union decided to plant some nuclear missiles on Cuba, the US found out about it, and all of a sudden, the stakes were high.
Kennedy could have invaded Cuba or bombed the missile sites, for sure, but that meant that retaliation by the Soviet Union would have come swiftly. But he also could not accept having nuclear missiles 50 kilometers off the Floridian coast.
So he was stuck.
As Bobby Kennedy said: “There was a feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling.” JFK himself estimated the chances of survival at 50-50.
It’s a weird consequence of living in a nuclear age that small territories become highly important. In a pre-nuclear world with missiles on Cuba, JFK could have simply invaded the island. Or used diplomacy to get them removed.
In a post-nuclear world, the stakes grew too high.
Another example for this: Khrushchev, the Leader of the Soviet Union, famously said that if we wanted to make the West scream, he’d simply squeeze his testicles … by which he meant Berlin.
It seems a bit odd now, because nuclear weapons are simply a fait accompli, but during the Cold War, these game theories were constantly played out.
So how did we get out of this? How did the world step back from the brink?
As mentioned above, McNamara said it was pure luck, and he probably has a point. But there’s also a personal component to this. Look at Kennedy and Khrushchev. Simply put, they didn’t want war, and they didn’t want the blood of millions on their hands.
But finding an acceptable compromise was more like reading tea leaves. What little direct correspondence there was, was translated and interpreted – kinda like when your friend gets a text from their crush and you ponder over it, trying to figure out what they meant by ‘what’s up’. That kind of thing, just on an international level with super high stakes.
So perhaps McNamara was right. We got lucky, thanks to a combination of the characters involved, the information that was available to them, and the circumstances they found themselves in.
Let’s just hope we get lucky next time, too.