I am reading The Icarus Syndrome, by Peter Beinart. It’s a good book. Unfortunately, it gives a misleading impression of the strategic situation during the Cuban missile crisis. Moreover, the misleading impression is unnecessary for Beinart’s overall argument.
The Icarus Syndrome is about hubris and American foreign policy. Beinart argues that hubris (from different sources at different times) caused foreign policy overreach, first in World War 1, then in Vietnam, and then in Iraq. In the case of the Cuban missile crisis, he wants to fit it into a seamless narrative connecting Cold War “toughness” with the debacle in Indochina. Therefore, Beinart wants to imply that the Cuban confrontation of October 1961 was about toughness and signalling, rather than actual concrete strategic threats.
On page 155, Beinart writes:
At first Kennedy was not sure why the Cuban missiles posed such a grave threat. (“What difference does it make?” he mused. “They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway.”) But when he met with his advisers, a consensus quickly formed that the missile were intolerable. Whether or not the actually threatened America, Kennedy later explained, they “would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality.”
This description gives a misleading view of President Kennedy’s actual thinking. The first quote comes from page 72 of James Hershberg’s piece on the Cuban missile crisis in the Cambridge History of the Cold War. The quote is from a months before the U.S. detected Soviet missiles in Cuba, and appears to have been an offhand comment taken from a tape recording. As I will explain in a moment, Soviet missiles in Cuba did in fact give the USSR an offensive capability that it otherwise lacked, something that JFK knew quite well.
The second quote comes from pp. 174-75 of Melvyn Leffler’s For the Soul of Mankind: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, and Leffler’s paragraph is worth quoting in full:
Kennedy acknowledged that Khrushchev did not want to use the missiles in Cuba to attack the United States. But their presence in the Caribbean “would have politically changed the [world] balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality.” The Soviet leader had demonstrated again that he could not be trusted. Through guile and through daring, the Soviets ceaselessy sought to create “a monolithic communist world.”
In context (and Leffler is a very good historian) is clear that Kennedy’s comment referred to Soviet intentions, whereas Beinart makes it seem that it applied to Soviet capabilities. To analogize, Leffler recounts the fact that Kennedy stated that Khrushchev had loaded a gun and pointed it at the U.S., although he knew full that Khrushchev had no intention of pulling the trigger. Beinart, however, gives the impression that Kennedy was saying that the gun wasn’t loaded. (More accurately, he gives the impression that the Soviet leader was merely pointing a handgun at the U.S., when he already carried an assault rifle.)
In 1962, the Soviet Union possessed very little ability to threaten the continental United States with nuclear weapons. Let me repeat that. This is not something that was publicly known at the time, but it was something that was known by the President of the United States. In 1961, President Kennedy received a report indicating that the USSR possessed only four ICBMs, all at a test site in Plesetsk. In November 1961, the President received a dissenting CIA report that included the following table:
In other words, even the dissenters believed that the Russians likely had only 10 (or 25 on the outside) missiles, all of which were vulnerable to U.S. attack. We now know from Soviet sources that the low estimate was spot-on: the Strategic Rocket Forces had only 10 operational intercontinental ballistic missiles at the beginning of 1962, whose reliability the commanders did not trust. Soviet missiles at the time relied on radio guidance, which in turn depended on installations that were not likely to survive a war, given the American ability to quickly detect Soviet launches.
As for bombers, here is Anthony Cordesman: “Soviet long range bomber forces consisted only of 100 Tu-Bears and 35 May Bison, whose range and flight characteristics forced them to fly at medium and high altitudes, and which made them extremely vulnerable to U.S. fighters and surface-to-air missiles.” What Cordesman doesn’t mention is that U.S. surface-to-air missiles at the time were armed with nuclear warheads, which made them extremely effective at destroying incoming aircraft.
In short, placing Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba substantially changed the strategic balance. Moreover, in hanging tough, President Kennedy took less of a risk with American lives than is commonly perceived. The missiles in Cuba held the possibility of devastating wide swathes of the southeastern United States (and Western Europe would have been destroyed) but the sort of civilization-destroying attack that was very real by 1973 was not on the table in 1962. Of course, the logic also applies in the converse: by refusing calls to attack the missile sites in Cuba, the President was showing much greater restraint than he is commonly credited.
It is true, of course, that the Soviet buildup was so quick that within a decade any missiles in Cuba truly would have been superfluous. Moreover, as indicated, Kennedy did not believe that Moscow intended a first strike. (The fact that Moscow could not have pulled one off explains the President’s certainty, of course.) Restraint was of course an option. The point, however, is that there were solid strategic reasons to resist the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. It was not just about signalling and toughness and (by implication) pointless machismo.
None of this alters Beinart’s overall point. He makes an excellent argument about hubris, the cult of toughness, and the descent into Vietnam. The problem is that he wanted to make the Cuban confrontation a seamless part of that narrative, but it just doesn’t easily fit.