What the Cuban Missile Crisis Can Teach Us about Nuclear Conflict Risk Today

Last week marked the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a two-week period in 1962 when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a high point that came to define the period. Though the Cold War would continue for nearly three more decades until the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the episode set the tone for a world learning to fear nuclear war.

The Soviet decision to base medium- and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba was driven by a number of factors, including its awareness that it could not match the U.S. capability to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on Soviet territory. Basing these shorter-range weapons near U.S. territory was an opportunity to compensate for the Soviet’s comparatively smaller intercontinental ballistic missile force and for U.S. medium-range Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey.

A PGM-19 Jupiter reentry vehicle.

Cuba was the target of an extended campaign by the United States to overthrow its government – including, most famously, the Bay of Pigs invasion – and agreed to host Soviet missiles as a deterrent. When footage taken by U-2 spy plane overflights revealed construction of missile sites in Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his advisers were worried not only about U.S. vulnerability to attack, but also that the missiles could be used to prevent U.S. intervention in the event that the Soviet Union attempted to take over West Berlin. The U.S. responded with a military blockade, which fell far short of the full-scale invasion that some officials had favored. After long and fraught negotiations, both countries agreed to withdraw their missiles stationed near the other’s territory. Though the crisis was over, the world had learned that peace in the nuclear age was fragile and could dissolve at any moment.

There are larger lessons about nuclear strategy and diplomacy in the story of the thirteen days that shook the world. A closer look at what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis reveals the complex factors that contribute to the risk of nuclear conflict. While tensions were running high because of the revelation of the missiles’ presence in Cuba, a few military incidents during the crisis presented an even more elevated risk of precipitating a hot conflict.

A surveillance photo taken during a U-2 overflight of Cuba during the crisis.

During the two weeks of the conflict, a U.S. U-2 surveillance plane was shot down over Cuba, and the U.S. Navy dropped a series of practice depth charges on a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear missile. In both these cases, orders were in place to respond militarily (and in the second case, to respond with a nuclear launch). These are only the most prominent incidents where the outbreak of nuclear war was nearly precipitated by aggressive military action during a crisis period.

The first lesson is that robust lines of communication to prevent a potentially devastating crisis are essential. A tense political climate and aggressive military signaling is a recipe for disaster; while concerted diplomatic efforts were needed to truly address both, the existence of formal and informal channels to exchange even basic information about an adversary’s behavior and intentions can be the difference between a bad scare and an irrevocable act of destruction. At the time, this lesson was well taken: the incident added urgency to proposals for establishing a direct line of communication between the Pentagon and Soviet Communist Party leadership.

The Teletype Model 33 was introduced for commercial use a year after the crisis.

One year after the connection was established, in 1964, the iconic film Dr. Strangelove solidified the image of this key piece of diplomatic technology as a telephone.

The final lesson is one we perhaps have yet to learn. To fully understand why the Cuban Missile Crisis happened the way it did, we have to commit to understanding the thought processes of both Soviet and American leaders, operating in a climate of high tensions and deep uncertainty, as well as the many millions of people who watched helplessly as their leaders bargained with their lives.

What is needed is a key shift of perspective away from the mindset that drives rapid nuclear escalation and cuts off meaningful diplomatic engagement. Today, U.S.-Russia relations are stuck in a terrible feedback loop where each side portrays its decision to drastically expand the role and importance of its nuclear weapons as a reasonable defensive response to the other side’s perfidy. In order to break this cycle and bring the world back from the brink of a nuclear exchange, we must acknowledge that international crises are rarely the result of a single bad actor and that cooperation in difficult circumstances is the key to their solution. The memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis can speak to the particular demands of the present – and it still has a lot to teach us.