Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Bulletin Staff | October 16, 2012

Over the past 50 years, dozens of articles have appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the Cuban Missile Crisis. And with each passing year, new and relevant information has been reported — which, for better or worse, has taught readers that the world was closer to full-scale nuclear war than was originally thought. Yet in October 1962, the Bulletin's Doomsday Clock remained unchanged: It stood at 7 minutes to midnight and the following year, in 1963, the clock's hands moved to 12 minutes to midnight, when the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect.

But how did the Doomsday Clock — the very existence of which indicated how close the world was to nuclear catastrophe — stand still? The answers to this seeming anomaly are that the Doomsday Clock captures trends and takes into account the capacity of leaders and societies to respond to crises with reasoned actions to prevent nuclear holocaust. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for all its potential and ultimate destruction, only lasted a few weeks; however, the lessons were quickly apparent when the United States and the Soviet Union installed the first hotline between the two capitals to improve communications, and, of course, negotiated the 1963 test ban treaty, ending all atmospheric nuclear testing. Others have suggested that the gravity of the Cuban Missile Crisis has been defined by decades of scholarship but that, in 1962, the world population, to a large degree, was unaware of what exactly had just happened. Or, more precisely, what hadn't happened.

The Bulletin turned to a few of its current Science and Security Board and Board of Sponsors members — those who together decide the time of the Doomsday Clock — to ask them to share their personal memories or personal reflections of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What follows is a day in the life, from Siberia to Rhode Island, in October 1962: Essays of what the Cuban Missile Crisis meant and didn't mean then, and what it should mean today.

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Jayantha Dhanapala, A continuing crisis, Board of Sponsors,

Even for a young man in distant Sri Lanka, the reports on the Cuban Missile Crisis in the newspapers and on BBC radio were ominous. But in 1962, there was no television in this developing country to make the situation seem more tense, and, indeed, incredible as it seems in the hindsight of history, the vast majority of the country was ignorant of how close we were to nuclear Armageddon. Having barely emerged from four and a half centuries of crippling colonialism, Sri Lanka was now threatened -- by radiation and climatic and other effects -- in a contest for global supremacy not of its making and in which it had no part.

Years later, as a diplomat dedicated to the cause of peace and disarmament, I learned from conversations with Robert McNamara, Ted Sorensen, and others that we were all saved by sheer luck. The record of the crisis -- dramatized in so many film documentaries and interviews with the actual participants -- proves beyond doubt that the policy makers on both sides had no access to many relevant facts and were groping in the fog of the Cold War.

The passage of five decades and the introduction of hotlines, permissive action links, and other technological brakes on the launch of nuclear warfare has not decreased the threat of nuclear war. Nine nuclear-weapon-armed states have a total arsenal of 19,000 warheads, nearly 2,000 of which are on high operational alert. The threat has in fact increased, and potential for use of nuclear weapons -- whether intentionally or by accident, through computer error or cyber attack or terrorism -- is only too real. There is no guarantee that we will have luck on our side, as we did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in our time. To reduce the likelihood of an Armageddon that will doom all countries -- large and small, sophisticated or less so -- we must:

  • Get immediate agreement on the de-alerting of US and Russian nuclear weapons.
  • Have the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ratified by the eight countries that have either not signed or not ratified it; this important treaty is emblematic of nuclear disarmament and has always been regarded as the litmus test for nuclear disarmament.
  • The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty needs to be negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament, as was promised in 1995.
  • Although New START has been signed and ratified, the international community must ensure that the weapons involved are destroyed, and not just moved from deployed to non­deployed status.
  • While the United States and Russia -- which own 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- negotiate a new arms reduction treaty, the rest of the world must implement the UN Secretary General's five-point plan and commence negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, For South Asia, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a non-event, Board of Sponsors,

From any resolved crisis you can take one of two messages: Getting to the brink of disaster was so scary that you want to avoid a repeat at all costs. Or, because disaster didn't actually result, you needn't pay too much attention to the preceding weeks or months of tension. For Pakistan and India -- at the other end of the world from Cuba and non-nuclear at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- the crisis may as well have not happened. And since then, they have walked the same path to the nuclear brink (and then back) four increasingly dangerous times.

When primal passions drove them to war in 1947, 1965, and 1971, neither India nor Pakistan had the capacity to annihilate the other. This changed after India tested its first nuclear device in 1974 and Pakistan followed with its own nuclear weapons development program. In 1987, and then in May of 1990, during periods of high tension over Kashmir, Pakistan sent thinly veiled warnings to India that its newly acquired nuclear capability could be pressed into service. Tensions spiraled upward in 1999 after Pakistani troops secretly crossed into Kashmir, and then again in 2001 when Pakistan-based jihadists attacked the Indian Parliament. As shrill nuclear rhetoric poured from both sides, the world watched with bated breath. But each time, the two countries emerged unscathed. This strengthened their belief that nuclear crises are no different from any other.

A relatively quiet six-year period of subcontinental relations crashed to a close when a Pakistan-based group attacked Mumbai in November 2008. Although this time the two governments worked overtime to maintain calm, war talk thickened the air. Now it was the national media that worked hard to whip up frenzy. Seeing political opportunity, some popular Indian leaders, such as K. S. Sudarshan of the Hindu supremacist RSS party, announced that nuclear war between India and Pakistan may be necessary to destroy terrorist camps across the border.

In Pakistan, the willingness to go to war was even more apparent. Television programs frequently featured Pakistan's celebrated bomb-makers, A. Q. Khan and Samar Mubarakmand. They emphasized Pakistan's readiness and the scale of casualties to be expected on both sides, and they casually remarked that even after a nuclear exchange, there would still be millions left over in Pakistan to continue future wars against India. On a personal note: In a widely watched TV program, I was involved in a verbal battle with retired Gen. Hamid Nawaz, a former secretary of defence, who said that Pakistan should not bother using conventional weapons and must immediately launch a nuclear strike if India were to attack Pakistan-based jihadist groups.

Pakistan and India are learning the delicate art of living comfortably at the razor's edge. But this comfort is illusory because it comes from ignoring dangers rather than dealing with them. Surely, one must be grateful for every month and year that passes safely in a region that has hosted so many nuclear crises.


Lawrence Krauss, Everything has changed, save the way we think, Co-chair of the Board of Sponsors,

It is hard for those born after the mid-1950s to relate to the memories those of us older folk have of 1962. Even growing up in Canada, I was not insulated from the ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation. We regularly had exercises in school, absolutely silly in retrospect, in which we would hide under our desks in case of nuclear attack. I remember families of friends of mine who were building fallout shelters. At the time, it seemed inevitable -- not if, but when -- that nuclear weapons would be used.

I was too young in 1962 to remember many of the details of those tense days in October when the world came closest to the brink of nuclear war, but I vividly remember the tenseness with which my parents watched the news. I knew of President Kennedy -- even in Canada he seemed a heroic young leader at the time, compared to our older, and at the time scarier Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (who would soon be replaced by Lester Pearson, a Nobel Peace Prize winner) -- and I remember seeing him on the news; it was clear to even an 8 year old that something was desperately wrong.

The world has changed in many ways, and the immediate threat of total annihilation by a war between the superpowers has subsided. But I wonder whether children growing up today will remember the rhetoric of the current presidential campaign in the United States, and the fear that an unstable country like Iran or Pakistan might actually use a nuclear weapon against a civilian population -- and the concern about what might follow.

Every time a milestone like this passes, I think of Albert Einstein's words in 1946 that everything has changed, save the way we think.  Until we truly develop a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons, children are likely to grow up with at least one nuclear memory which, like mine, they would rather forget.

Martin Rees, The choice: Arms control or Russian roulette, Board of Sponsors,

During the days of the Cuban crisis, I participated anxiously in student demonstrations. But we would have been not merely anxious, but paralytically scared, had we realized just how close we were to catastrophe. Only later did we learn that President Kennedy assessed the odds of nuclear war, at one stage, as "somewhere between one-in-three and even." And only when he was long-retired did Robert McNamara state frankly that "[w]e came within a hair's breadth of nuclear war without realizing it. It's no credit to us that we escaped -- Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise."

Throughout the decades of the Cold War, we lived under a threat of nuclear catastrophe that could have shattered the fabric of civilization. October 1962 was the tensest moment, but there were other occasions when the superpowers could have stumbled toward Armageddon through muddle or miscalculation.

It is now conventionally asserted that deterrence worked -- indeed, there's no denying that, in a sense, it did work. But that doesn't mean it was a wise policy. If you play Russian roulette with one or two bullets in the barrel, you are more likely to survive than not, but the stakes would need to be astonishingly high -- or the value you place on your life inordinately low -- for this to seem a wise gamble.

But we were dragooned into just such a gamble throughout the Cold War era. It would be interesting to know what level of risk other leaders thought they were exposing us to, and what odds most European citizens would have accepted, if they'd been asked to give informed consent. For my part, I would not have chosen to risk a one-in-three -- or even a one-in-six -- chance of a disaster that would have killed hundreds of millions and shattered the physical fabric of all our cities, even if the alternative were a certainty of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. And of course the devastating consequences of thermonuclear war would have spread far beyond the countries that faced a direct threat.

The threat of global annihilation involving tens of thousands of H-bombs is thankfully in abeyance -- even though the risk that smaller nuclear arsenals are used in a regional context, or even by terrorists, is higher than ever. But when we recall the geopolitical convulsions of the last century -- two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and so forth -- we can't rule out, later in the present century, a drastic global realignment leading to a standoff between new superpowers that could be handled less well or less luckily than the Cuba crisis was. So a new generation may face its own Cuba -- and this thought should surely energize worldwide arms control efforts.

Roald Sagdeev, A view from the heart of Siberia, Board of Sponsors,

At the time of the Cuban crisis, I lived in the heart of Siberia, in a newly established science campus called Academgorodok in the vicinity of the city of Novosibirsk, which had a population of about one million people. The first alarm came from official Soviet broadcasts in October, warning about the "blatant and aggressive" threat by the United States to stop our commercial ships from going to brotherly socialist Cuba. But very soon I learned that the Soviet government in its addresses to the domestic public was downplaying the real danger of the emerging situation. From the Voice of America broadcast in its special English program (the Russian-language broadcast was heavily jammed), I picked up a different story that included the grave words of President Kennedy. The atmosphere in the Institute of Nuclear Physics, my workplace, became very tense. We expected the worst. Sometimes I caught myself, as I opened my eyes in the morning, wondering whether I was seeing the morning sun or a distant fireball.

My parents and younger siblings lived in Kazan, on the Volga River, while one of my brothers served in a nearby air-defense regiment, which, I thought, would provide at least part of my family with some protection. Little did I know that he and his unit had been moved to Cuba, carrying their surface-to-air missiles with them. Needless to say, we felt enormous relief at the end of crisis. My Moscow friends told me the story of how Muscovites got the very first indication that the crisis had had a happy ending: Nikita Khrushchev appeared in a VIP box at the Bolshoi Theatre when an American guest tenor was on stage.

Many years later, close to the 25th anniversary of that crisis, I was the director of the Soviet Space Research Institute in Moscow and an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev on missile defense and science generally. I had the privilege to host Robert McNamara as my institute's guest at a small dinner. Inadvertently, the conversation turned to the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the atmosphere inside Kennedy's inner circle. My guest recalled that the available estimate of the strength of the mutual deterrent forces were about 17 to 1, in favor of the United States. Perhaps that ratio was what drove some American proponents of a preemptive attack to suggest it. But McNamara said there was a sobering consideration: Even after the US launched a seemingly successful disarming strike, a single ICBM might have survived somewhere in Russian forests, the commander of which would have pushed the button to retaliate for his perished brothers. The moral of this story is that a minimal deterrent was sufficient to stop wise leaders from making the Cold War into World War III.

Frank N. von Hippel, Murphy's Law and the doomsday machine, Board of Sponsors,

In October 1962, I was in my own cocoon, hardly aware that the future of humanity hung in the balance.

Twenty-one years later, over Thanksgiving 1983, I flew to Moscow as another major nuclear crisis was winding down. Unbeknownst to me, the Soviet leadership had interpreted a 10-day NATO nuclear command exercise, Able Archer 83, which started on November 2, as preparations for an actual nuclear attack. Public statements from within the Reagan administration that a nuclear war could be fought and won had already worried the Soviet leadership.

Two years later, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. A few months later, in November 1985, the joint statement from the first Gorbachev-Reagan summit included the sentence, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." The same sentence appeared in their summit statements of December 1987 and June 1988.

Twenty-seven years after the first Gorbachev-Reagan summit statement and 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, the United States and Russia still have approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads each on ballistic missiles that are ready to be launched with about 15 minutes of warning. Neither country expects the other to attack, and both militaries are convinced that nothing can go seriously wrong. The Japanese had a similar belief about nuclear reactor safety before the Fukushima accident. They now call it "the myth of safety."

According to Murphy's Law, "anything that can go wrong will go wrong." High-level sustained attention is required to force the military to stand down the nuclear Doomsday Machine that political leaders forgot to stand down in the euphoria of the end of the Cold War. Such attention is unlikely to come, however, until the public demands it.

Lynn Eden, Armageddon on the Capitol steps, Science and Security Board,

I remember some things from the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I remember turning 13 that year. I remember the 1962 hits "Duke of Earl," "Johnny Angel," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and the awful "Monster Mash," which was No. 1 in late October. I remember thinking Ricky Nelson was very handsome, and Fabian even more so. I remember that our family did not have a television, even though everyone else did.

I remember my father, in a friendly argument with a close friend before the election in 1960, saying that he would not vote for Kennedy because Kennedy would invade Cuba, and as it turned out, my father did vote for Kennedy, and the United States was involved with the Bay of Pigs invasion the following spring.

I remember listening on live radio on a Friday evening -- it was, in fact, March 2, 1962, almost a year after the Bay of Pigs and close to my birthday -- as President Kennedy explained to the American people why, in response to the Soviets breaking the nuclear test moratorium begun in 1958, Kennedy would resume limited nuclear testing. I remember that both of my parents at first were deeply opposed to what he was saying. And how, over the course of Kennedy's speech, we all found ourselves persuaded that he might be right.

I remember being on a city school bus on November 22, 1963, in complete shock with my classmates, as word spread that the president had been assassinated.

But I have only one memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis itself, and it's a memory from shortly after it ended. My parents had been out of town at a meeting of the National Lawyers' Guild, and when they returned, they told us that I.F. Stone had addressed the meeting. I.F. Stone's Weekly was one of the few things my father read cover to cover. Stone had said that he had been in the Capitol during the crisis, and that as he walked down the steps, he thought it might really be his last night on Earth.

Lawrence Korb, Politics, even inside a crisis, Science and Security Board,

The Cuban Missile Crisis took place about eight weeks after I went on active duty with the Navy, while I was attending Officer Candidate School at the Newport naval station in Rhode Island. The first indication that a crisis was brewing came on Sunday afternoon, October 21, 1962, when the Navy began telling all sailors to return to their ships. On Monday morning, I noticed that almost all of the ships stationed in Newport had left.

When President Kennedy gave his speech on Monday evening, October 22, 1962, outlining the situation, most of us wondered whether we would be commissioned early to join the coming war against the Soviet Union, rather than having to wait the full 16 weeks to get our commissions. We all assumed that the coming war with the Soviet Union would be a repeat of World War II, a global war against international communism fought with conventional weapons.

Looking back and knowing what I know now, it amazes me that neither I nor my shipmates contemplated how close we were to Armageddon. And while most of us did go to war, it was not against the USSR but in a far off place called Vietnam, which was not on anyone's radar in 1962.

For many of those in the Navy, the main point of discussion about the crisis was the clash between Secretary of Defense McNamara and Adm. George Anderson, the chief of naval operations, who had spoken at our commissioning in December 1962. As part of a long-running turf battle, Anderson and McNamara had disagreed about how to run the blockade (oops, I mean naval quarantine) of Cuba. McNamara subsequently asked Kennedy to fire Anderson; ultimately, the president chose not to reappoint Anderson chief of naval operations, instead naming him ambassador to Portugal.

In 1968, after finishing my four years as a naval flight officer and while working on my dissertation, I interviewed Anderson and asked him why he gave the administration a way to avoid the controversy his firing would have caused by taking the embassy post in Portugal. He replied that although he despised McNamara, as the first Catholic to become chief of naval operations, he did not want to embarrass the first Catholic president.

R. Rajaraman, The cobra on our laps, Science and Security Board,

Considering that the Cuban Missile Crisis could well have resulted in a nuclear war, killing hundreds of millions of people and destroying much of  civilization, I do not recall it having a commensurately traumatic or riveting impact on me while it was developing. This was despite the fact that I was then living in the United States, completing my doctoral thesis at Cornell, not far from New York City, where the first Soviet bomb may have fallen.

I bring this up because such a response was not limited just to me. I don’t recall an atmosphere of extreme anxiety or gloom and doom at Cornell during most of that fateful fortnight in October 1962. Life went on and classes were convened, as were fraternity parties. No large crowds held vigils in front of TV sets. A tornado in the neighborhood would have had more eyeballs glued to TV screens.

True, the White House successfully kept the developments under wraps for the first week, and there were no frenzied 24/7 news channels then to unearth and amplify news items. It was only after President Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22 that the seriousness of the situation dawned on the public, but the crisis lasted only a few more days before Khrushchev finally blinked and Russian vessels steaming toward Cuba turned back.

The reason for this general lack of anxiety, clearly, was that most people did not fully realize the power of large nuclear arsenals, their potential for catastrophic damage. Even today, that reality hasn't sunk in. This is why, despite the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ever more nations have gone nuclear. Disarmament proceeds only at a ponderous pace, motivated more by cold strategic pragmatism than by the compelling sense of urgency you might feel if you found a cobra sitting on your lap.

It is almost as if it will take another nuclear bombing of a large civilian population before the world wakes up to what nuclear weapons really mean. Surely there is a better way.

M.V. Ramana, Deterrence: A flawed construct, Science and Security Board,

The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the pivotal moment of the nuclear age. More than anything else, it revealed the potential for catastrophe that lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence. That potential does not arise just from the risk that accidents or misjudgments may overwhelm strategies and plans. The danger exists because the brute facts of military, political, and human reality are at odds with the basic presumption of nuclear deterrence.

In Jonathan Schell's wonderful book The Gift of Time, Gen. Lee Butler, who served as commander-in-chief of the United States Strategic Command, a position in which he had planning and operational responsibilities for all US strategic nuclear forces, explained that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, "[t]he goal -- the wish, really -- might be to prevent nuclear war, but the operational plan had to be to wage war. After all, actual nuclear 'deterrence' -- which is to say a mental state of restraint brought about by terror of annihilation -- was nothing that we could bring about by ourselves. In the last analysis, it was up to the enemy whether he would be deterred or not. What both sides had to do in the meantime was plan for nuclear war. Wish and plan collided at every point -- psychologically, intellectually, but, above all, operationally."

This inevitable conflict between the idea of nuclear deterrence and the operational plans for nuclear war that are required to make deterrence workable was what set off the Cuban Missile Crisis in the first place. And, as Butler observes, once the two countries entered the crisis, "thoughts of deterrence vanished."

My colleague Zia Mian once summarized the state of affairs succinctly: "Deterrence is hope masquerading as strategy." Reliance on this hope comes with a very high price. As the Cuban Missile Crisis reminds us, the search for deterrence using nuclear weapons can transform the normal dangers that flow from military crises and war into extraordinarily destructive ones.

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Priorities in the nuclear age, Science and Security Board,

My mother was a kindergarten teacher of uncommon patience, even with regard to her own children. She escaped Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport child rescue mission and survived the Blitz of London, in so doing acquiring a perspective on life and its essential priorities. In October 1962, I was 7 years old. We were one of the last families to buy a TV, a small black-and-white set that illumined my parents' bedroom. I remember to this day President John F. Kennedy on the screen announcing the blockade of Cuba as I noisily pranced around the room. My antics were too much even for my mother, who brusquely told me to hush because "the world was about to end."

The immediacy of these words and their palpable sense of danger convey the sense of the times. They were of a piece with the bomb shelters dug in suburban backyards and school children huddled under desks preparing for the arrival of Russian ballistic missiles. The Cuban Missile Crisis accentuated the tenuous nature of security -- personal and national -- when nuclear arsenals could wipe out a good portion of humanity.

This capability for destruction remains intact, but exists in our minds largely as an abstraction, devoid of the terror so acutely felt 50 years ago. This is a positive development for our health and our psyches, but it would be better still if it were matched by reductions in nuclear stockpiles, the stand down of nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, and robust controls on fissile materials. The link between perception and actuality is an essential element in the call to action.

I have no nostalgia for the days when the future of the world hung on a slender thread, subject to the ability of Khrushchev and Kennedy to find a face-saving solution to nuclear war. But I do miss the gimlet-eyed focus of the early 1960s on the dangers presented by the nuclear age. Unlike our parents, many of us have had the good fortune to develop perspective at a remove from harsh experience, but we cannot let that dull our sensibilities as we develop our individual and collective priorities.

Robert Socolow, Deterrence, or sheer luck?, Chair of the Science and Security Board,

It is hard to retrieve the experience of living through the Cuban Missile Crisis, since it is buried under many layers of later reading and questioning. In October 1962, I was a newlywed and a graduate student in physics at Harvard. I remember filling my car's gas tank and thinking that this was a smart thing to do, but that taking even more precautions would not be. Cambridge was in love with Kennedy, and at least in the company I kept, there was a general sense that everything would turn out all right.

Among the layers of encounters and ruminations in the intervening years, I single out one book and one question. The book is Graham Allison's Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, published nine years after the crisis. It taught me as much about the value of looking at a subject in more than one way as any nonfiction book I have read. Yes, the crisis was about Kennedy and Khrushchev. And bureaucratic positioning within governments. And nation states projecting power. Never settle for one explanation of anything!

The main question raised for me by the Cuban Missile Crisis is whether deterrence is such a robust concept that nations should count on it for their security, going forward. Can India and Pakistan count on deterrence? Can Israel and Iran? Or, should the opposite conclusion be drawn:  The United States and the Soviet Union were amazingly lucky that no misunderstanding or technical glitch led to nuclear war in 1962. If so, no country should base its national security on that particular history repeating itself.

With the random reading that I do, I find more voices in favor of becoming or remaining a nuclear state and counting on deterrence than in favor of denuclearization. The United States seems relaxed about having its missiles and Russian missiles still on high alert, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Perhaps, on this 50th anniversary, the experts can bring my question back into play: Does deterrence really work, or have we just been lucky? If the dominant reading of that crisis is that luck was a big part of how the crisis unfolded, can the world's leaders possibly come to their senses and see nuclear weapons as undesirable and unusable? If they can't, there are going to be a lot of newlyweds filling their gas tanks, decade after decade. And, one day, the luck may run out.

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