Jeffrey LewisWard Wilson Wednesdays Part 2

Well, it’s still Wednesday in California — for a few more minutes.

Here is the second installment in the Ward Wilson Wednesdays series.  This week, Ward looks at the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Doubts about Nuclear Deterrence, Part II: Cuba

by Ward Wilson

I once sat in the office of a guy at Harvard. A distinguished scholar of nuclear weapons who’d had many responsible positions in government and the academy. Boyishly young (probably kept that way by going from success to success in life) and confident, we were talking about nuclear deterrence. I was raising doubts. He said, finally, “But Ward, what about the Cuban Missile Crisis? That proves that nuclear deterrence works, doesn’t it? After all, the Soviets put missiles in, there was a risk of nuclear war, and then they took them out.”

I had no answer but a sheepish smile. The most important nuclear crisis of the Cold War seems to point to the reliability of nuclear deterrence. But then, a month later, I sat up in bed with a thought. (Typical, you know? By then the guy had probably forgotten who I was much less our conversation.) The counterargument I though of was: What about Kennedy?

I love Kennedy. I memorized his speeches and learned to imitate him when I was in high school and college. So I don’t want to criticize Kennedy. But I do want to know if nuclear deterrence is reliable.

Think about it. Kennedy was faced with a crisis. The Soviets were sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba. There was going to be hell to pay in the U.S. politically. Kennedy knew that any action he took was likely to escalate the crisis. He knew that crises can get out of control. (He’d been handing around copies of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the outbreak of World War I to get people to think about how war can come unintentionally.) A crisis between two nuclear armed nations risks becoming a nuclear war. But he went ahead and escalated the crisis anyway. He put warships around Cuba, blockaded it, and started all the preparations for an invasion of the island.

He saw the risk of nuclear war, thought about it, and then went ahead and escalated the crisis. How is that not a failure of nuclear deterrence?

You might argue perhaps that Kennedy wasn’t fully aware of the dangers of nuclear war, that when they made the decision to install the blockade they hadn’t thought forward to the likely consequences. Clearly this is not the case. I went back and counted the number of times they mention or allude to the possibility of nuclear war in the Excomm discussions during the week of secret deliberations when they’re trying to decide what to do. They mention nuclear war 60 times. In one meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kennedy himself takes the lead in stressing the possibility of a catastrophic outcome to the Chiefs. After the crisis, Kennedy told Theodore Sorensen that he (Kennedy) judged the odds of war resulting from the crisis to have been about one in three to fifty-fifty. Of course, Kennedy’s judgment came after the crisis was over and he said “war” not “nuclear war,” so this doesn’t prove Kennedy had a clearly defined sense of the risk on nuclear war going in. But it could also be that he was aware of the risks going in but only had time for jocular conversations about the odds once the crisis was over.

One telling point is the lesson that Kennedy drew afterwards–the moral he gave to the whole business in a speech some months later. Kennedy said that it was important in a crisis not to confront an adversary with a choice between nuclear war and humiliation. Kennedy scholars usually assume that Kennedy is talking about Khrushchev here. They point to Kennedy’s sensitivity in not rubbing Khrushchev’s nose in the dirt after the crisis was over and talk about how smart Kennedy was to understand the importance of leaving your adversary a way out. But there is a more interesting possibility. It’s always possible that Kennedy was talking about himself. It may be that the moral he drew came out of self-reflection. After all, the leader who really faced a choice between humiliation or nuclear war was Kennedy. Kennedy was already being pressured by Congressional Republicans. As arms shipments arrived in Cuba all summer long, Republicans had risen in the House and Senate and used flame-throwing rhetoric. They taunted Kennedy as “soft.” And the president had already had a large chunk of prestige taken out of his hide when he refused to send U.S. warplanes to fight on behalf of Cuban revolutionaries landing at the Bay of Pigs the previous year. Nuclear missiles in Cuba would have meant public humiliation for Kennedy. It might have meant impeachment hearings. It would certainly have meant landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential election and the end (at age 46) of a promising political career. Kennedy faced personal failure and public ignominy. It is perhaps not surprising that he chose to risk nuclear war.

I’m pretty certain that if I had been in Kennedy’s shoes–lied to, pressured by aides and the bellicose members of the Joint Chiefs (Anderson and LeMay), and facing personal humiliation–I would have done at least what he did. (Actually, I probably would have ordered air strikes. Sometimes anger just takes the wheel.) It must be difficult when you’re a leader to tease out which is the nation’s interest and which is merely your own personal, political interest. But is it right for a politician to put 200 million lives at risk because he faces personal humiliation?

All right, enough about Kennedy’s dilemma. Two important points: nobody talks about this failure of nuclear deterrence. This episode, presented this way, is never talked about in texts about nuclear deterrence. If Khrushchev’s actions prove nuclear deterrence–as the impressive guy from Harvard argued–then why doesn’t Kennedy’s action disprove nuclear deterrence? This is what I was talking about in my first post when I said that there is a tendency to report the good news about nuclear deterrence (“See! It works!”) and to ignore the bad.

The other point is the obvious one. Here is a situation where the risk of nuclear war was clear and yet a national leader escalated the crisis with aggressive action. This looks like it ought to count as a failure of nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence supporters might say, “Well, the fact that there was no nuclear war shows that nuclear deterrence, although it might have bent, didn’t break.” This is an argument that I’ll come back to in the fourth and final post of this series. But here let me just talk about three things that seem to show that we avoided nuclear war during the Cuban Missiles Crisis not because nuclear deterrence is magic and flawless, but because of blind, dumb luck.

The first and most important piece of luck had to do with plans for invading Cuba. Officials in Washington were unaware that the Soviets had already moved tactical nuclear weapons into Cuba. Washington’s plans for an invasion, or even plans for an airstrike, proceeded in blissful ignorance of the dangers that either of those actions posed. An invasion of Cuba would certainly have resulted in the use of these Frogger tactical nuclear weapons against invading U.S. forces. And even airstrikes might have led to their use–perhaps against U.S. forces in the area or Guantánamo Bay. Once Soviet forces on the ground were killed, who knows what the reaction of local commanders would have been? It is sobering to consider how easily the Kennedy administration could have blindly stumbled into a nuclear war.

Second, Michael Dobbs, in his excellent recent book on the Cuban Missile crisis, One Minute to Midnight, talks about a little-known episode where a Russian submarine captain ordered the use of a nuclear weapon. Ordered its use. Here’s the section of my book based on Dobb’s research.

The seas around Cuba were also a potential site for confrontation between U.S. and Soviet forces. During the early fall of 1962, the Soviets had sent four Foxtrot-class attack submarines to patrol the waters near Cuba and keep a watchful eye over the many freighters carrying military materiel to that island. When the blockade was imposed, U.S. naval commanders were eager to find these submarines and force them to surface. U.S. officials had earlier sent a message to Moscow saying that as part of the blockade, they were going to force Soviet submarines to surface and identify themselves. They would do this by dropping nonlethal depth charges, they said. But Moscow either never received this message or failed to forward it to the captains of its subs in the Caribbean.

On Saturday, October 27, 1962, Valentin Savitsky, the captain of Soviet submarine B-59, was nearing the end of his tether. His vessel “was plagued with mechanical problems. The ventilation system had broken down. . . . Temperatures aboard ranged from 110–140 degrees. The presence of carbon monoxide was approaching critical levels.” In addition, the U.S. Navy “had been chasing his submarine for the last two days. His batteries were dangerously low. He had been unable to communicate with Moscow for more than twenty-four hours. He had missed a scheduled radio session that afternoon because American airplanes had appeared overhead and he had been forced to make an emergency dive.” He knew that the world was on the brink of war. Who knew what might have happened during the last two days while he was trying to avoid the Americans?

Now four U.S. destroyers were circling over B-59’s position and dropping explosives into the water all around it. The explosions played on the nerves of the Soviet captain and his crew, down in the dim light and the heat of the submerged submarine. The sub was armed with twenty or so conventional torpedoes. But it also carried one nuclear torpedo with a ten-kiloton warhead. Authorization was needed from Moscow to use the nuclear torpedo, but there were no special locks or devices to prevent a captain from launching the torpedo on his own initiative.

As the explosions continued, Captain Savitsky summoned the officer in charge of the nuclear torpedo and told him to prepare it for firing. “Maybe the war has already started up there while we are doing somersaults down here,” he shouted. “We’re going to blast them now! We will perish ourselves, but we will sink them all! We will not disgrace our Navy!” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Savitsky was eventually convinced to bring B-59 to the surface without firing any torpedoes. A missed warning about blockade procedures, accidents, mechanical failures, and the fraying nerves of sailors under stress; suddenly, there was only the flimsiest divide between a minor confrontation and nuclear war.


Finally, there’s the U-2 spy plane that strayed off course. At the height of the missile crisis, a United States spy plane was sent on an air sampling mission over the North Pole. The plane’s navigation equipment malfunctioned, and the plane strayed more than 300 miles into Soviet airspace. When the pilot realized his error, he turned back toward the United States. Air Force commanders in Alaska scrambled U.S. fighters to protect the U-2 until it could reach safety. Soviet commanders scrambled MIG fighters to shoot it down. Because it was the height of the missile crisis, however, the U.S. fighters had had their conventional air-to-air missiles removed and replaced with Falcon nuclear air-to-air missiles. If the U.S. and Soviet fighters had found each other, the U.S. pilots would have had no alternative but to use nuclear ordinance.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. These three incidents seem like pretty compelling evidence (to me) that we avoided nuclear war as a result of luck or happenstance, not because nuclear deterrence is all that reliable. The problem with nuclear deterrence is that any failure can lead to all-out nuclear war. And that puts a really high premium on making sure nuclear deterrence never fails. But the evidence seems to show that the failure rate for nuclear deterrence is alarmingly high.

For  “Doubts about Deterrence, Part 1” click here.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    I look forwards to more from Ward; prior work on deterrence failures and risks (Jervis, “Psychology and Deterrence” etc,; Sagan’s “Limits of Safety”, etc) has been highly educational.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Throughout the Cold War, and today and I expect into the indefinite future, it has been believed by leaders, advisors, strategists, soldiers, and people generally, that risk lies not only on the side of being too aggressive, but also in being too yielding to aggression.

    We all recognize that “appeasement” is dangerous when dealing with Hitler, but even in ordinary relations with not infinitely ruthless and reckless Others we find that pushy people often get their way, and then push some more, until finally one loses one’s temper and some sort of violence ensues. It is often safer to push back from the start and negotiate clear terms.

    A more sophisticated discussion of why deterrence is not a safe long-term strategy would focus on the subjectivity of what are understood as the terms of a peace, what constitutes aggression, and when one “is justified” in objecting forcefully to the actions of another.

    From the perspective of American rulers in 1963, the Cuban revolution was a Communist aggression. It was not seen as legitimate. This is not my view, and it is a view that has little credibility today, but it was the typical American elite view in 1963.

    An attempted invasion of Cuba two years earlier had failed, but the defeat was not accepted. Other means, including attempts to assassinate Castro, were being pursued to reverse what was seen as the “loss” of Cuba.

    For the Soviets to try to use Cuba as a nuclear missile base, posing the threat of a fast-flying attack on the United States mainland, was naturally viewed as unacceptably aggressive, given this frame.

    Yes, Kennedy could have said, “Oh, missiles in Cuba, well, we have similar missiles in Turkey and we have ICBMs and bombers and Polaris subs to keep them deterred. So we can live with these Soviet missiles, rather than confront them and risk nuclear war.”

    However, the political risks of such a response would not only have exposed Kennedy’s career to danger. Consider the risks of a far more aggressive leadership replacing Kennedy’s, whether in the next election, impeachment, a coup or…. That would have been one consideration. Another, most certainly believed by Kennedy and his advisors, was that failure to confront this Soviet aggression would lead to further aggression until the United States would finally be forced to take a stand, and then the risk of war would be even greater, not only because of tactical military advantages the Soviets would have gained, but because they would have been emboldened and would be less willing to compromise or back down.

    You can reasonably argue that in the actual context of the Cuban Missile Crisis such thinking was patently insane, but that is the way they thought, and it doesn’t prove that “the theory of nuclear deterrence” is wrong, if “the theory” is that leaders will try to do whatever they believe they must do in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

    What it does show is that “the theory” is wrong if it means that nuclear holocaust can never happen. One of the ways that deterrence can fail is that leaders misjudge each other’s perceptions of what is the status quo, what is agreed, what is fair, and what is aggression that goes too far.

    Deterrence can fail either as a result of being too aggressive, or a process that begins by letting the other guy get away with being too aggressive. But what is too aggressive? That is often subjective and ambiguous.

    The fact that so many events during the days of the Crisis could have escalated into open combat — including Kennedy’s being advised to launch an invasion, the confrontation at the blockade, the U-2 incident you cited and the shootdown over Cuba, and more — shows both the vulnerability and the resilience of nuclear deterrence.

    Cooler heads did prevail. Why? Because everyone knew what it would mean if hotheadedness prevailed. I think this is the only plausible explanation why every one of these sparks failed to ignite the conflagration that was primed and ready to blow.

    At the same time, we should not fool ourselves into thinking we were not very lucky to make it out alive. You are right, this did come within a hair’s breadth, and we are still not much farther than that from the possibility of blowing up civilization.

    We have largely stopped playing with matches, but we are still knee-deep in gasoline. I believe that the abolition of nuclear weapons is possible, necessary and urgent. But I don’t think it can be achieved through denial that nuclear deterrence is real, and has worked until now, thank whoever.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I see differences in nuance and emphasis, but I am not sure I see a big difference between Ward’s view and Mark’s view. I do not see Ward denying that deterrence can work on some occasions; only that it cannot work on all occasions. We are taking a big risk if we complacently presume that nuclear deterrence always works. Both Mark and Ward see the effort to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons as urgent, feasible, and important. For what it’s worth, I agree.

  3. Martin Hellman (History)

    Ward makes an excellent point about JFK’s warning about not forcing a superpower to choose between humiliation and nuclear war is really important, and his turning the usual argument on its head (making Kennedy the one to fear humiliation) is something most people miss. So why do we keep humiliating Russia, a nation which can still destroy us in under an hour? Probably because most Americans are unaware how often we do that. I’ve got some examples in my briefing paper on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

    Ward’s book is a great read, and highly recommended as my Amazon review makes clear. Search on Hellman to find it on:


  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The above piece dwells on the circumstances Kennedy faced and the risks Kennedy took. Fair enough, but what about the risks Khrushchev took?

    Khrushchev should have seen the whole idea of sneaking nuclear missiles into Cuba as quite risky. What if the Americans discovered his plot before he had a chance to fully implement it? What was plan B? Even worse, as almost happened, what if the Americans tried to bomb one set of non-yet-installed missiles without realizing that other nuclear missiles in Cuba were already operational?

    Was Khrushchev simply a risk taker? Or were he and his advisers too stupid, ill-informed, or unimaginative to understand the risks?

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Both sides were extremely nervous in the late 1950s-early ’60s, given the huge nuclear buildup and the emergence of the nuclear missile threat. The Soviets felt especially threatened because despite their early milestones they lagged way behind.

      The US had IRBMs in Turkey, and 10x more ICBMs than the USSR. The US had overwhelmingly larger numbers of strategic nuclear weapons and had not renounced its first strike policy. The Soviets viewed the Cuban revolution as legitimate and progressive, and either did not understand or would not accept the American attitude of imperialism (it’s our backyard, Monroe Doctrine, etc.). Khrushchev must have known that he was taking a risk, but he faced risks on the other side as well, and probably felt his action was justified and that the risk could be managed.

      Former Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, early in the crisis, pointed out to Kennedy that the Soviet/Cuban missiles were left out in the open, where “they knew we would see them,” when they could easily have been made much harder to spot and identify. He said this was a sign that the Soviets wanted to negotiate, and that the crisis could be resolved short of war.

      At the time, Kennedy was being urged by all the military chiefs to launch an immediate attack on Cuba. Thompson urged the blockade instead, and to try to seek a way out.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Interesting perspective, Mark. One can take the view that both Kennedy and Khrushchev acted rationally to minimize their overall risk, both short term and long term. If the remaining risk is still too high, this suggests that nuclear weapons present an almost insoluble problem: Not even rational men, acting cautiously, can reduce nuclear risk to tolerable levels.

      But did both men actually minimize risk? Did Khrushchev actually minimize overall risk by initiating the Cuban missile crisis? Did Kennedy actually minimize overall risk when he insisted that Soviet nuclear missiles be taken out of Cuba? For either the United States or Soviet Union, was there a general long-term risk reduction that resulted from and was caused by the short-term risk taking during 1962? Did the long-term risk reduction (if any) justify the short-term increase in risk?

  5. JohnLopresti (History)

    There was a lot at play for the US president, besides what peope are describing, above. The US president was risking his historically contextual instincts in order to lead.

    My sense was neither leader had a sense of the meaning of his, respective, positions. Future Kremlinologists will have to write a large portion of that story still untold.

    The drawback of deterrence is it is a position of increasing risk.

  6. Max (History)

    “…he refused to send U.S. warplanes to fight on behalf of Cuban revolutionaries landing at the Bay of Pigs…”

    revolutionaries? Do you even know what that word means?