Robert Socolow Cuban Missile Commentary

October 17, 2012

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.