Nikita Khrushchev on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Inner Workings of the Soviet Government and the Party's Criticism of Him
An Analysis of the Impact of Nikita S. Khrushchev on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Inner Workings of the Soviet Government and the Party's Criticism of Him
Many people today simply do not realize just how close the world came to nuclear war when John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev squared off for 13 tense days during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. What actually transpired during those fateful days in October 1962 is just now filtering out the American general public, and it remains unclear whether the people of the former Soviet Union have ever been told the complete story either. Given the highly secretive nature of the Soviet regimen during this period in history, it is unlikely that many average citizens were aware of what was taking place during this fateful 13-day period in history. Despite these constraints, much has been learned since 1962 about what took place behind closed doors in Moscow and Washington, and this paper will seek to investigate this information to determine what part Nikita S. Khrushchev played in negotiating the compromise, and the response of the Soviet leadership of the day. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview. In his essay, "Averting the 'Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings," Jeffrey W. Taliaferro reports that since October 1962, the deliberations of President John F. Kennedy and the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) have been the focus of countless books, articles, documentaries, and films (1). "With the John F. Kennedy Library's 1996 release of the secret recordings of the ExComm meetings and the subsequent publication of Ernest May and Philip Zelikow's The Kennedy Tapes, it appeared that we had the 'definitive' account, at least on the U.S. side. Is there anything new to learn about the Cuban missile crisis? The answer evidently is yes."
According to Max Frankel, there is indeed much to be learned on both sides concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis because much of what is widely accepted as being factual about the crisis is simply wrong:
For most Americans who experienced it or relived it in books and films, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a tale of nuclear chicken -- the Cold War world recklessly flirting with suicide. We remember a bellicose Soviet dictator, who had vowed to bury us, pointing his missiles at the American heartland from a Cuba turned hostile and communist. We remember a glamorous president, standing desperately against the threat, risking World War III to get the missiles withdrawn. We remember the Russians blinking on the brink, compelled to retreat by a naked display of American power, brilliantly deployed, unerringly managed. The crisis was real enough, but for the most part, we remember it wrong (emphasis added).
Today, the Cuban Missile Crisis is generally remembered as lasting for just thirteen days (from October 16-28), beginning with the point at which Washington discovered that active construction was taking place in Cuba to install launch facilities for Soviet medium-range missiles, to the day the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Khrushchev, publicly and formally agreed to withdraw missiles from Cuba.
As part of the eventual compromise that was reached, President Kennedy guaranteed that the United States would not invade Cuba. More comprehensive accounts of the missile crisis extend beyond these immediate 13 days to include the period from October 28 to November 20 as well, when intensive negotiations were conducted that more fully set forth and codified the agreements had been reached, the period when the U.S. naval blockade was lifted, and the special alert status of the military forces of both countries had ended.
The respective Soviet and Cuban reports about "Caribbean crisis" portrayed a drastically different picture than what was being delivered in the West in general and the United States in particular. For example, Garthoff points out that the Soviet and Cuban versions tended to emphasize the continuing American hostility to Castro's rule in Cuba in the form of economic sanctions, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion by American-armed Cuban emigres in April 1961, as well as an alleged continuing American threat to invade Cuba. According to Garthoff, "The more immediate crisis itself is seen as beginning, not on October 16, but on October 22, with President Kennedy's announcement that the Soviet Union was installing medium-range missiles in Cuba and his demand that they be removed, accompanied by a naval quarantine to prevent any further shipment of offensive arms to Cuba."(2)
The political maneuverings that took place during the initial 13-day period as well as subsequently have naturally been the focus of much attention, and the point that continues to recur in the literature is that both sides were faced with a wide range of unknown variables when the Cuban missile crisis did take place, but enough was known about each other to create an atmosphere of mutual distrust and suspicion.
In his book, The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Struggle over Policy, Roger Hilsman says the Soviet perspective was vastly different than what many Americans were being told about the other major superpower in the world. "Consider the view from Moscow when President Kennedy took office in January of 1961," Hilsman says, "18 months before the missile decision. In the Soviet Union, the domestic situation was good. Work was proceeding on the party program and on the 20-year plan for increasing domestic production."
The United States had also suffered an enormous political defeat when the Soviet Union beat them into space: "The world situation was also good. First and foremost, the Soviets were still basking in the afterglow of the Sputnik success, and the world generally assumed that the military and strategic balance had significantly shifted in the Soviets' favor."
Therefore, at the time, the United States was struggling to maintain hegemony with the Soviets in the race for space as well as in Europe and Southeast Asia, and it was still unclear who the winner was going to be; nevertheless, the Cuban missile crisis was certainly not the first such confrontation between the Soviets and the United States following World War II. "The missile crisis was not an isolated event, Hilsman says. Rather, "It was the most dangerous of a series of crises that threatened the peace between the superpowers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The origins of the Cuban missile crisis illuminate the dynamics of superpower rivalry and the ways in which conflicting interests, mutual insecurities, and threat-based strategies can provoke war-threatening confrontations."
Certainly, these dynamics have not gone away in the 21st century, but the Cuban missile crisis did help to highlight many of the inadequacies in a system that was intended to prevent, rather than cause, a nuclear holocaust. According to Hilsman, "The Cuban missile crisis is also important because of the influence it had on subsequent American thinking about national security. It spawned or confirmed lessons about crisis prevention and management that continue to shape American thinking and policy. The most important of these is the belief that resolve discourages aggression and accommodation invites it."
The manner in which the missile crisis was ultimately resolved also seems to indicate that Khrushchev may have been more insightful into the thought processes of his American counterpart than many have believed.
According to Lebow and Stein, the missile crisis' origins were attributed variously to President Kennedy's failure to sufficiently demonstrate his resolve in the matter; his self-imposed restraint at the Bay of Pigs, his performance at the Vienna summit, and his failure to interfere with the construction of the Berlin wall; all of these issues were believed to have convinced Khrushchev that he would encounter with no resistance if he deployed missiles to Cuba. Likewise, Kennedy's apparent resolve during the crisis that followed has long been credited with convincing Khrushchev that he would have to withdraw the missiles; however, new evidence challenges these fundamental interpretations.
The growing body of evidence suggests that Khrushchev's determination to send missiles to Cuba was not the result of his low estimate of Kennedy's resolve; rather, he decided to deploy them secretly out of respect for that resolve. "His decision to withdraw the missiles was conditioned almost as much by the expectation of gain as it was by the fear of loss. Kennedy made an important concession to Khrushchev through a secret 'back channel,' and considered a further concession if necessary to end the crisis. "The 'hidden history' of Cuba also reveals that the efforts of both sides to manipulate the other's perception of its interests and resolve were largely unsuccessful. These findings challenge some of the most fundamental axioms of the American approach to crisis prevention and management."
There have also been some profound revelations about how the crisis was managed within the Kremlin over the past 50 years that have contributed…