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55 years later: Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, and John F. Kennedy.

With the longest war in US history currently underway, risks of terrorism spread worldwide, and North Korean nuclear threats in the headlines, it’s not uncommon to hear warnings of an impending World War III. Now, more than ever, the study of US foreign policy and security is vital.

To that end, we looked back at a specific moment in history—a time when the possibility of World War III seemed imminent—that has become a foundational case study in US foreign policy and security crisis management for the past 55 years: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“That was the closest we’ve come to World War III—a nuclear World War III—and we wouldn’t be talking about it today if that had happened; there’s no way the world would have been the same. That’s why the Missile Crisis remains significant,” says Professor Philip Brenner, who has taught US foreign policy at the School of International Service (SIS) for 37 years and asserts that the traditional lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis are dangerous and based on misinformation.

A Thirteen-Day Standoff

In 1962, the United States entered a 13-day nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union after Soviet ballistic missiles were discovered in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. At the time, there were similar US ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy, well within range of the Soviet Union. In response to the discovery, the US raised its defense readiness condition to DEFCON 2, the highest state of alert short of actual war and the most severe security alert level the US has ever reached. Tense negotiations between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev ensued, as well as a blockade to prevent Soviet nuclear warheads from reaching Cuba. Meanwhile, US citizens held their breath in anticipation of a nuclear Cold War.

“I remember how disturbing it was for people who lived in Miami,” said Charlotte Jones-Carroll, SIS/BA ’67, who lived there at the time and later went on to study international development at SIS. “In my case, my father was quite upset. I think parents felt like they had to do something to take care of their families—but what could they do? A lot of people in Miami felt that they would be the ones hit if there was a missile sent from Cuba. It was a tense time.”

The traditional lessons and events of the Cuban Missile Crisis are that President Kennedy stood “eyeball-to-eyeball” with Khrushchev, that Kennedy was steel-willed in making Khrushchev back down, and that he forced the Soviet Union to “blink first” and remove the missiles. Lauded as a crisis management success, nuclear weapons in Cuba were dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union, and the US agreed not to invade Cuba without direct provocation.

Yet Brenner notes that the episode was hardly a model of successful crisis management, because the US’s actions were based on the false assumption that nuclear warheads had not yet arrived on the island. In reality, the Soviets already had brought 168 nuclear bombs to Cuba. “A local Soviet commander could have launched tactical nuclear weapons at an invading US force or Guantánamo Naval Base,” Brenner says.

Lessons Learned

Brenner worries that if the US found itself in a similar situation today, “like the one we’re entering with North Korea,” the outcome would likely be different from that of the Cuban Missile Crisis if US leaders followed the traditional lessons that Kennedy has been praised for.

“His aim wasn’t winning, as the traditional idea suggests. His aim was avoiding a nuclear war. Contrary to the myths of the Missile Crisis, Kennedy demonstrated an enormous capacity to be flexible and empathetic, to try to put himself in the adversary’s shoes, and to try to understand how he could help the adversary get out of the situation by saving face,” Brenner says.

For example, Kennedy adjusted the naval blockade boundaries to prevent conflict when a Soviet ship came close to the boundary line. He also agreed secretly to remove the US missiles from Turkey to placate the Soviets—a fact kept secret for 25 years.

“The real lesson is that we need to be empathetic,” says Brenner. He adds that other critical lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis about minimizing risk and conflict during a crisis include the ability to be flexible and open in communication, and that the aim should be to prevent crisis, not manage it.

Preparing the Next Generation

Since those 13 days in 1962, the United States has never placed its strategic forces again at DEFCON 2; the Soviet Union has dissolved into what is now Russia; and the Cuban Missile Crisis has found its way into the curriculum of nearly every student who studies international relations at the advanced level.

Brenner is hopeful that what he considers to be the real lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis will become as prevalent in other foreign policy and security studies as they are at the School of International Service, where students are prepared with a set of interdisciplinary skills that can help prevent and mitigate security crises. For example, one of the distinctive aspects of the United States Foreign Policy and National Security (USFP) program is its focuses on diplomatic history as a way to build empathy.

“Part of the goal of empathizing is seeing the ways countries have reacted in the past to the United States and to be more self-reflective to what the United States has done in the past,” says Brenner, who recently co-authored a book that touches on this topic. Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence takes a deep dive into Cuba’s traditions and long history—including the Cuban Missile Crisis—in order to better understand its foreign policies.

“Today, we live in such a globalized world, we have to learn how to live with other people. A flippant remark by a president can set off gyrations in another country,” he warns of the current political and international landscape. “Foreign policy is about the world’s life and death situations…isolation is not an option.”


Learn more about the 60th anniversary of the School of International Service.