It was eyeball to eyeball but who really blinked?

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the US ambassador in a suburb of Vienna, June 3, 1961. Source: AP

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy talk in the residence of the US ambassador in a suburb of Vienna, June 3, 1961. Source: AP

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was trumpeted as a propaganda coup by the West but it was a victory only in Western minds. In reality it ended with Moscow achieving its key geopolitical aims.

‘‘We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.’’ An entire generation of Westerners has celebrated this quote attributed to then US secretary of state Dean Rusk, who had a ringside seat to the most dangerous standoff in modern history. The statement has entered Western folklore but as we all know folktales don’t necessarily reflect the truth. And in actual fact, Rusk was lying – he knew the US had capitulated just as much as the Soviets and yet he peddled a different story.

So who really blinked? Well, why don’t you be the judge?



The decision to place missiles in Cuba was taken in May 1962 by Premier Nikita Khrushchev to defend the island nation against the very real possibility of an American invasion. (Exactly a year ago America’s attempt to seize Cuba had ended in the spectacular CIA failure known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.)

There was another more immediate reason. In April 1961, the United States in an act of stupefying recklessness had installed Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey. From this NATO outpost, the intermediate range ballistic missiles were barely 15 minutes flying distance from key Soviet locations including Crimea, Volgograd, Krasnodar and the Caucasus republics. By leaving the Soviet high command with little reaction time, it placed the nuclear button on hair trigger.

So by stationing Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles – and theatre nuclear weapons which the Americans did not know about during the entire episode – Moscow restored the balance.
Now this is where it gets curious. The Soviet side of the bargain was made public, but the American climbdown was kept secret for decades. It took the end of the Cold War for the missile swap to come to light. Here’s what The Cold War International History Project Bulletin says: ‘‘The first authoritative admission on the US side that the Jupiters had actually been part of a "deal" came at a conference in Moscow in January 1989, after glasnost had led Soviet (and then Cuban) former officials to participate in international scholarly efforts to reconstruct and assess the history of the crisis.

At that meeting, former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen admitted, after prodding from (Ambassador Anatoly) Dobrynin, that he had taken it upon himself to edit out a "very explicit" reference to the inclusion of the Jupiters in the final deal to settle the crisis.’’

Facts are sobering but there are many in the West who refuse to come out of their Cold War era hangover. They believe the missile swap was a sideshow and that it was Kennedy’s threats that stared down the Soviets. But on the contrary it was the chief reason the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully.
While the Executive Committee of the National Security Council – a coterie of hawkish generals and civilian officials – were ‘‘itching for a fight’’ the US President and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were secretly striving for a back channel deal involving the removal of US missiles from Turkey. The President in fact authorised Rusk to announce the missile swap at the United Nations if the Soviets would not accept a secret agreement. Incredibly, to Kennedy's relief, Moscow agreed to keep the deal under wraps.

Moscow’s gains

Although Khrushchev couldn’t quite comprehend the necessity of making an important American concession public, he had nevertheless accomplished two objectives with his missile manoeuvres: one, the Americans promised not to invade Cuba and of course they never did. Two, the Americans not only carted away their Jupiter missiles from Turkey, as a bonus they also dismantled Jupiters in Italy. Another gain was the US did not call for Soviet disengagement from the Caribbean.

Kennedy's reasons for the cover up

Kennedy had two reasons for the cover up. Firstly, domestic pressures – the President would have been fried by the American right if he had been seen as weak. (A problem Barack Obama has also faced in his presidency.) Secondly, Atlantic alliance members including Turkey and Italy enjoyed their nuclear status over the non-nuclear ones and therefore did not want to lose the Jupiters.

Three months after the crisis when Washington informed Rome of its decision to dismantle the Jupiters, Italian leaders were left to face the domestic political blowback, especially because the Americans were peddling the same anti-missile arguments the Italian opposition parties had been making all along – and it coincided with Italy's parliamentary elections. To America’s assurance that Italy would be included in a proposed multilateral force, Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani remarked to a colleague: “The United States would probably propose placing Italian cooks on the submarines and call it joint control."

Like the Italians, the Turks too quietly accepted the inevitable. All they wanted was a ride on the Polaris submarines, which the US said would be enough for the defence of its Mediterranean allies. However, Washington declined. As Phillip Nash says in the book The Other Missiles of October, the Americans were happy to play off one ally against another without offering too many tangible strategic lollies.

Years later, US Air Force General Gabriel Diososway, who had played a key role in the initial stationing of the Jupiters, bitterly remarked: “We gave away everything. We lost our fannies on that Cuban deal.”

Direct consequences

Although Moscow got its immediate threats neutralised, it was clearly a PR disaster for the Politburo. A consequence of Khrushchev’s climbdown – followed by unrestrained American triumphalism – was that the Soviet Union vowed to never again let the US play with them in this way. An aggressive breed of Soviet leaders – such as Leonid Brezhnev – took over in Moscow. What followed was the most massive arms build-up in modern history, in which the Soviets first closed the missile gap and subsequently overtook the US in almost every military sector. By the eighties, the Russians had 40,000 nuclear warheads compared with 22,000 in the US arsenal.

Similarly, the hawks in the US who had preferred a pre-emptive air strike to diplomatic actions, believed it was US superiority that was paramount in the outcome of the crisis. These men continued to influence US policies long after the crisis was over and propagated the thinking in Washington that overwhelming force rather than negotiation was what mattered in dealing with nations they saw as adversaries. US actions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan followed from that attitude.

Lessons for current and future N-powers

According to Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor in international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, if any crisis should have resulted in war, it was the Cuban crisis because of the enormous complexities of the crisis, the trouble that both sides had in controlling their respective military forces, and the difficulties Khrushchev and Kennedy faced in convincing their colleagues that a less than honourable peace was better than war.

So why was the crisis resolved short of war? Whatever political leaders might say in peacetime, he argues in his book Second Strike, they do behave with great care when dealing with nuclear weapons in a crisis.

In 1962, the US had 5,000 warheads compared with the Soviet Union’s 300. But this 17: 1 advantage played little part in the confrontation. But what is of more relevance to new nuclear states like India is that the dog that didn’t bark in the Cuban crisis was not Soviet restraint but American restraint. Soviet restraint may be understandable, considering their relative weakness. Rajagopalan, a former member of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, says American restraint, despite their overwhelming advantage is counter-intuitive. And difficult to explain, except as the consequence of the fear of nuclear war itself.

Says McGeorge Bundy, the author of existential deterrence, ‘‘We had to assume that in any nuclear exchange, no matter who started it, some missiles and bombers would get through with megaton bombs. Even one would be a disaster. We had no interest in any nuclear exchange other than to avoid it. The fact that our own strategic forces were very much larger gave us no comfort.’’

Conclusion: if superiority and inferiority do not matter when dealing with nuclear weapons, numbers and balance are irrelevant.

Going by Rajagopalan’s theory, if India has any superiority in nuclear bombs it is no guarantee of complete dominance over Pakistan. Therefore, India and Pakistan do not have to worry about each other’s nukes because nuclear weapons are not apocalyptic destabilisers as the West has been arguing for decades but in fact prevent all-out destructive wars between adversary nations.


October 1962 was a harrowing time for the world but it was much worse for Kennedy and Khrushchev, with generals on both sides wanting war. Below is a heated argument recorded by Sorensen in the White House and later dramatised in the movie Thirteen Days:


Robert Kennedy: No, no, no! Now, there is more than one option here - and if one isn't occurring to us, it's because we haven't thought hard enough!

John McCone, CIA Director: Bobby, sometimes there is only one right choice, and you thank God when it's so clear.

Robert Kennedy: You're talking about a sneak attack. How will that make us look? A big country blasting a little one (Cuba) into the stone age. Yeah, we'll be everyone's favourites.

Dean Acheson: Come on Bobby, that's naive. This is the real world. You know that better than anybody.

This exchange between Kennedy and General Curtis LeMay who was demanding a nuclear strike on Moscow sums up the taut situation among colleagues:

LeMay: You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr President.

President Kennedy: What did you say?

LeMay: You're in a pretty bad fix.

President Kennedy: Well, maybe you haven't noticed: You're in it with me.

And finally this is how close the world was to annihilation:

Robert Kennedy: [At the USSR embassy] You smell that?

Kenny O'Donnell: They're burning their documents.

Robert Kennedy: They think we're going to war... God help us, Ken.


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