October 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s announcement to the world that the United States had discovered that the Soviets were secretly deploying nuclear medium-range missiles in Cuba capable of striking targets in the United States on a moment’s notice. The crisis actually began a week earlier when a U2 flight over Cuba on October 14 discovered the construction of the new missile installations.
It is worth pondering the lessons of that crisis and what it meant for Canada. However, the principal lesson is that if it happened today the outcome would likely have been dramatically different: there would be war.
The simple reason is that Kennedy and his national security advisers had the luxury of a full week to figure out what they were going to do. Although the New York Times early on got wind that the Russians and the Cubans were up to no good, a simple phone call from the President to the Times kept the lid on the story until the President had decided his course of action and gone public with his message.
In the first week of the crisis, the U.S. military urged a quick military response to the crisis. General Curtis LeMay the head of the Air Force wanted to take out the Soviet missile installations by bombing them and then finish the job by invading Cuba and overthrowing Castro.
It is likely that the Soviets would have responded either directly with an attack on the U.S. or by taking hostage the city of West Berlin in communist controlled East Germany in a replay of the 1949 Berlin crisis.
Had the story gone public, Kennedy who early in his administration had fumbled the Bay of Pigs crisis, and was also seen as young and inexperienced, would almost certainly have been forced to take the drastic course of action LeMay was urging.
What we also know now — though Kennedy and his advisers did not know this at the time — was that the Soviets already had nuclear warheads on Cuban soil which had been shipped by submarine. Worse still, we have also learned through the careful work of historians that Fidel Castro was prepared to overrun the Russian controlled installations and take control of the missiles himself if the U.S. invaded Cuba.
Instead, by keeping the story under wraps the White House was able to think through its different options, understand better the risks of bombing Cuba, and come up with the idea of a naval blockade around the island.
The naval blockade also gave the Soviets time to think through the consequences of their own strategic deception and the risks of going to war with the United States.
Time was also critical for negotiations. It allowed for an exchange of letters between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy to defuse the crisis. Through his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy also contacted the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobryninn. The two men negotiated a secret quid pro quo which saw the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey in exchange for a halt and withdrawal of Soviet missiles.
The Cuban missile crisis was by today’s standards a crisis that unfolded in slow motion. In today’s world of social media and an adversarial relationship between government and the press, keeping a week-long voluntary gag order on the press while a president figures out what to do would be impossible even on a vital matter of national interest.
Those days of friendly and responsible relations between government and the press to keep state secrets are long gone.
What is also surprising is that Canada was not on the same page as the Americans during the crisis in a pattern that would later repeat itself when Lester Pearson took Lyndon Johnson to task over his handling of the Vietnam War and Jean Chretien’s refusal to join the United States in the invasion of Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein.
Canada’s Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was the “Doubting Thomas” among America’s allies about the severity of the threat and how to do deal with the crisis. When informed by Kennedy just hours before Kennedy took his case to the world, Diefenbaker expressed skepticism about Soviet intentions while demanding further irrefutable evidence about the Soviet installations. He urged Kennedy to send a team of UN inspectors to Cuba to find out what the Soviets were up to before taking any further action.
Diefenbaker also refused to put Canadian forces on a high state of alert over the objections of his own military advisors. Fearing the worst, Canada’s military nonetheless took informal steps to ready Canadian forces.
Diefenbaker’s judgment was clouded by his personal loathing of the young, attractive American leader. And as we now know from taped conversations with JFK’s wife Jackie, the feeling was entirely mutual. The first meeting between the two leaders, which took place when Kennedy visited Canada in 1961 was a complete disaster.
Diefenbaker continued to believe that Kennedy through his poor handling of the crisis had played a high stakes game and needlessly risked the fate of the world.
Historians who have studied the crisis believe differently as an important new book by James Blight and Janet Lang, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis, attests. But the discordant Canadian footnote to the crisis of the “missiles of October” is still worth pondering as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of those 14 days when the world stood on the brink.