What can we learn from the Cuban missile crisis 50 years after the fact? From the realities of containment to the need for a strong Navy to the role of multilateralism in a crisis, these nine insights get at the heart of what America can learn today from its closest brush with nuclear war.
For the 50th anniversary of what historians agree was the most dangerous moments in human history, Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Foreign Policy magazine sponsored a contest for scholars and citizens to reflect on the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and its lessons for challenges the U.S. faces today. Today, we're happy to announce our three winners: Zachary Elias, Reid Pauly, and Eden Rose Niles. Their challenge was to present the most persuasive, original lesson flowing from the confrontation that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over 13 days in October 1962. Below, we've collected the top three finalists in three categories -- the general public, scholars, and students -- and presented their insight into the crisis.
Category #1: General Public
Winner: Zachary Elias, Dartmouth College, undergraduate, Hanover, NH
Lesson: The Cuban missile crisis taught the United States what containment feels like.
The lesson from the crisis is the extent to which containment is terrifying for the country being contained. Because the U.S. had been a global military superpower since the end of World War II, it had never faced an existential threat close to its borders. At the time, U.S. nuclear missiles were stationed in range of Soviet cities as a means of containment -- but, for U.S. policymakers, it was unthinkable that the U.S. could end up in a similar position. So, when the USSR decided to raise the stakes by placing its own nuclear missiles in range of American cities, U.S. policymakers were inclined to compromise with the Russians on containment policy -- trading nuclear warheads in Turkey for those in Cuba -- to lessen the direct military threat posed to each nation by one another.
This is a lesson to keep in mind when deliberating the best means of dealing with rising powers. When making policy concerning the rise of China, for example, one would do well to remember that military containment and antagonism makes the contained country feel threatened, which in turn makes aggression more likely in response to U.S. provocations. It took trust, diplomacy, and compromise to resolve a crisis that was precipitated by military buildup, as dictated by standard realist power calculus. While it is unlikely that China will be able to challenge U.S. power as the USSR did during the Cold War, one should remain cognizant of the fact that surrounding another state with military threats is less likely to spur long-term trust and cooperation -- which, in an era of cooperative globalization, is more important than ever.
Robert Walsh, global financial crime officer, AXA Group, New York, NY
Lesson: In a democracy, the need for broad public support to engage in a dangerous confrontation can have lasting unintended foreign policy consequences. One example is foreign policy tunnel vision that can last for generations because of "accepted truths" trumpeted to justify the confrontation.
Since 1962 U.S. foreign policy stewards have been hamstrung on Cuba, because so much patriotic capital was invested in villainizing Soviet Cuba and Fidel Castro. The martyrdom of JFK compounded this by making it unholy to question his taking us to the brink. It remains near-treasonous to suggest negotiations with Fidel Castro. Two comparisons help make this argument: Vietnam and Japan. While the Vietnam War traded on American patriotism in a similar way to the Missile Crisis, the success of that rallying cry was mixed, and petered out feebly at the end. Yet that enabled, in only 40 years, the U.S. to make friends with the same regime in Vietnam as was in power at the end of that war. Contrast that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. patriotism necessarily invoked at that time, and since, has rendered it verboten in polite company to ask if perhaps the U.S. should not have dropped those bombs. It is not politically astute to disagree with the notion that the use of such bombs "is justified in the right circumstances." Today the U.S. enjoys tremendous solidarity with the EU, the U.N. and other countries on international embargo programs regarding Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan -- but the U.S. stands alone on Cuba. Not even our closest allies agree with the U.S. sanctions on Cuba. In 1962, in priming its population for a dangerous confrontation, the U.S. painted itself into a corner with respect to future dealings with Cuba and Fidel Castro.
Jacob Schroeder, advertising copyeditor, Chicago, IL
Lesson: As a conflict develops, minor actors play the biggest roles. A man who made one of the most remarkable decisions during the Cuban missile crisis did not have the famed name of John Kennedy or Nikita Khruschev, but rather the unremarkable name of Vasili Arkhipov. As deputy commander of a Soviet submarine in need of oxygen and perilously encircled by the U.S. Navy, he urged his superior to take the vessel to the surface for air instead of engaging American warships with its armed nuclear torpedo in an attempt to flee. What if Arkhipov had chose to say nothing? That alternative outcome is easy, yet horrific, to imagine. It is true, a single man smoking a cigarette can burn an entire parched forest and likewise, during crisis, one minor actor can effect major sequences. While world leaders command in crises, they do not sail the ships or pull the triggers. Thus, it is imperative that statesmen be aware of minor actors in the background or better yet, in military terms, the minor actors on the ground -- be it generals or privates, diplomats or secretaries, or in today's interconnected world galvanized by social media, a single citizen -- and the roles that they play. Inevitably, they are bigger than one would surmise. Unfortunately, however, the name of an actor like Arkhipov will always live in obscurity under the shadow of actors named Kennedy or Khruschev.