Saturday, June 21, 2008

What we didn't know about the Cuban Missile Crisis

Michael Dobbs has a fascinating piece in the Washington Post about the Cuban missile crisis. He has written a new book, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, and it turns out that there is quite a bit that is different from the commonly held picture we have of what went on. He has uncovered some crucial new details. For example, that whole eyeball-to-eyeball moment didn't really happen.
Declassified U.S. and Soviet records show that the Soviet ships were 500 miles from the closest U.S. warship at the moment when then-secretary of state Dean Rusk famously declared, "We were eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." The incident never happened, at least as depicted by Kennedy aides, Harvard professors and Hollywood moviemakers. Khrushchev had ordered his ships to return to the Soviet Union more than 24 hours earlier.
That is certainly news to me. And Dobbs goes on to tell about another incident that took place at the crucial moment that I bet is news to a lot of people.
By contrast, historians have given scant attention to a much more frightening moment -- the accidental overflight of the Soviet Union by an American U-2 spy plane amid the swirling tensions of what White House aides called "Black Saturday," Oct. 27. Capt. Charles "Chuck" Maultsby was on a routine mission to keep an eye on Soviet nuclear tests when he took a wrong turn at the North Pole and ended up in Soviet airspace on the most dangerous day of the Cold War. Air Force chiefs failed to inform Kennedy and McNamara for an hour and a half that they had a plane over the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets sent MiG fighters to shoot Maultsby down and the Alaskan Air Command responded by scrambling nuclear-armed U.S. fighter-interceptors.
And here is a crucial fact that, apparently, JFK was unaware of.
Consider just a few examples of "what the president didn't know and when he didn't know it." Unbeknown to Kennedy, the Soviets had deployed nuclear cruise missiles within 15 miles of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the early morning hours of "Black Saturday" -- something I learned decades later, from interviews with Soviet participants and declassified U.S. intelligence documents reporting the movement of "unidentified artillery equipment." The missiles, which were equipped with Hiroshima-sized bombs, could have destroyed Guantanamo in five minutes.
Dobbs uses the Cuban missile crisis as an example to learn about leadership in a moment of crisis. And one of the lessons he details is how the information a president, even JFK, has to go on can be sketchy and misleading.
Nor was this the only major failure to see the full chessboard. While Kennedy had relatively good (if belated) intelligence about the medium-range Soviet missiles capable of hitting the United States, he had no idea on Black Saturday where the nuclear warheads were stored and how they had been dispersed to various missile sites. As it turns out, U.S. reconnaissance planes had actually taken photographs of the Soviet nuclear-storage bunkers at Bejucal and Managua, 15 miles south of Havana -- but the CIA concluded that neither site could have been housing the warheads because of the lack of adequate security.

Kennedy was also woefully misinformed about the size of the Soviet troop presence on Cuba. On Oct. 20, following the discovery of the missiles, McNamara told the president that there were about 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet "technicians" on the island. In fact, there were 43,000 heavily armed Soviet troops on Cuba, equipped with tactical nuclear weapons targeted at suspected U.S. beachheads. Kennedy rightly rejected as too risky the Joint Chiefs' calls to invade, but he didn't know the half of it.
Would Kennedy have acted differently if he'd known that the Soviets had seven or eight times the number are armed troops in Cuba and that they had nuclear missiles aimed at Guantanamo? We will never know.

Dobbs credits JFK's recent reading of Barbara Tuchman's history of the lead-up to World War One, The Guns of August, with giving the President that extra impetus to blundering into war as Europe's leaders did in 1914.

You wouldn't think that there would be much new to learn about a much-studied event that happened over 45 years ago, but there seems to be new information here. So much of what we thought we knew about the Cold War has changed because of the availability of the Soviet archives. It took almost 30 years to learn that Kennedy had made a secret deal with Khrushchev to pull our missiles out of Turkey as he pulled his out of Cuba. So it wasn't quite the concessionless victory over Khrushchev that the press and academics were celebrating. And now comes Dobbs' book with more details that we didn't know. It goes to show that it takes a long time before we can have a complete view in order to understand a historical event. That's one reason why I'm willing to hold off on any historical judgment of Bush's presidency and I have contempt for all those historians who are willing to jump on an ideological bandwagon to declare that Bush is the worst president in history. We just don't know enough at this point about what the President knew or didn't know at the time he made crucial decisions and we don't yet know enough about how those decisions will play out. Think of how many books have been written about JFK's presidency and the Cuban missile crisis and we're just now discovering some new details.