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Russia: Forty Years Later, Cuban Missile Crisis Still Offers Lessons For Nuclear Policy

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The premiere in Moscow of the American film "Thirteen Days" -- depicting the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, commonly considered the closest the Cold War ever came to nuclear confrontation -- was the occasion last night in Moscow for a discussion between Russian and American participants in the crisis. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on what "lessons" these men say they have for today's nuclear world.

Moscow, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last night (Wednesday) in Moscow, a Hollywood disaster movie provided the occasion for a serious and thought-provoking round-table discussion on the nuclear risk today. The film is "Thirteen Days," which recounts the events that unfolded between October 15 and October 28, 1962 -- the Cuban Missile Crisis. The standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is widely considered the closest point the world has ever come to nuclear war.

The roundtable, hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reunited key players in the nearly 40-year-old event -- Kremlin and White House officials who spent many sleepless nights determining whether it would be war or negotiation to bring the crisis to an end. The officials gathered for last night's discussion used their collective experience in the 13-day standoff to reflect on its lessons for the world today.

In introductory remarks, Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Matthews noted that despite the passing of time and changing ideologies, U.S. and Russian nuclear strategies seem "essentially indistinguishable" from their Cold War predecessors. Because of this, she said, they are equally ill-equipped to deal with today's nuclear risk.

Robert McNamara, the U.S. defense secretary at the time of the crisis, was among the round-table participants. Now an energetic 84 years old, he reminded the audience that despite the end of the Cold War, some 200 warheads on 15-minute alert are still directed against Moscow.

McNamara went on to point out that mistakes are a natural -- and in the case of nuclear weapons, irreversible -- part of war. This, he said, is reason enough to step up disarmament negotiations. The next missile crisis, he added, might not end so well.

"[The Cuban Missile Crisis was] the best managed foreign policy crisis, the best managed defense crisis of the past 50 years -- in a sense I think it was. But that's not why we avoided nuclear war. We came that close, and in the end we avoided nuclear war solely, solely because we were lucky."

To make his point, McNamara recalled some of the errors of judgment made during the crisis by U.S. President John Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy -- then U.S. attorney general -- and the Russian leadership.

McNamara said the Soviet Union made a mistake when it thought that just a year after the fiasco of the failed U.S. invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs, Washington would not react to the Soviets' secret transfer of missiles to Cuba, just 90 miles southeast of the Florida coast. To the contrary, McNamara said, when U.S. spy planes discovered the missiles in the middle of October in 1962, most of Kennedy's advisers pressed him to launch an immediate bombing and invasion campaign to claim control of the island. He said up until the last moment, this option was being seriously considered.

McNamara detailed what he calls the "biggest" mistake:

"At the time the CIA was saying there were no nuclear warheads there; that was the only basis on which the majority of Kennedy's military and civilian advisers recommended the attack. We didn't know for 30 years -- until in January 1992 in Cuba, in a meeting chaired by President [Fidel] Castro, that you had something of the order of 162 warheads there which would have confronted our invasion force -- we didn't know for 30 years that had we attacked we would have confronted that."

While the invasion option was still pending, diplomatic efforts continued. On October 28, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev defused the crisis by agreeing to dismantle the missiles in exchange for assurances that Cuba would not be invaded -- and that U.S. missiles would be pulled out of Turkey.

Khrushchev adviser Fyodor Burlatsky, also attending yesterday's discussion, said he is still surprised that common sense prevailed in resolving the crisis. He remembers an incident revealing Khrushchev as what he termed a dangerous "adventurist." According to a letter from Khrushchev to Castro that Burlatsky had edited, the Soviet leader was ambling along the Black Sea shore in Bulgaria when an aide pointed out that just on the other shore, in Turkey, the U.S. held a missile base. Khrushchev then decided that the Soviets should have a base of their own -- in Cuba. Burlatsky recalls the idea was set into motion without any thought as to what would happen if the U.S. found out.

In discussing contemporary lessons to be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the roundtable turned its attention to current U.S. plans to deploy a National Missile Defense system, or NMD. U.S. President George W. Bush has argued that such a system is intended to protect the U.S. and its allies from rogue nations like Iran or North Korea that are suspected of developing their nuclear arsenal. But the plan has spurred outrage in Russia, where many politicians say they believe NMD may be directed against their own country, and that it could violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

All of the speakers at yesterday's roundtable said the defense shield would only increase the danger of nuclear confrontation. Theodore Sorensen, a Kennedy policy adviser and speechwriter, presented his point of view:

"I think it would intensify the arms race among those who believe -- and there's very good reason to believe -- that offense can always keep ahead of defense just by building more [missiles] and finding new ways. I don't think a world where the United States was free to strike out -- because it has a shield and no one else [does] -- is a world that would be good for the United States or for anyone else."

Georgi Kornienko, a Soviet embassy official who was involved in the settlement efforts in 1962, says that Washington is currently repeating the Soviet's original mistake of failing to see the other side's point of view.

"Slip into the other's skin, to take into account the psychological factor of how he will perceive it -- I think that is another very important lesson that also has some weight today. The United States has plans to deploy a National Missile Defense shield. So the U.S. should today slip into our skin -- and imagine how [this shield] will be perceived here."

Sorensen also pointed out the increased risk of nuclear proliferation if NMD is deployed. He argued that deterrence -- the Cold War mantra that no one would risk mutual destruction -- worked for "rational" people like Khrushchev and Kennedy, but would have no effect on "irrational" leaders.

McNamara suggested cutting U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear forces from 7,500 to 1,000 -- levels even lower than preliminary START III targets. He said the risk of inadvertent or accidental launch could also be reduced by separating the warheads and the launch vehicles.

An outside observer, Aleksei Arbatov, deputy head of the Duma Security Committee and one of Russia's most prominent security specialists, pointed out that East and West have sidelined disarmament issues on the basis of the unproven theory that "democracies don't wage wars with one another."

"[We think] now that we're not enemies any more we can just forget all about it. Instead, [we should be thinking] now that we are not enemies we can get even further than we ever did -- by creating a stable strategic balance that excludes the possibility of a first strike, reduces the alert status of the strategic forces, [and] increases transparency of the entire system."

Arbatov added that by forgetting about nuclear risks during the 1990s, Moscow and Washington are now being confronted by the issue again -- and in an atmosphere of growing bilateral tension.

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