In 1958, my family was living in Cuba when a revolution clamoring for democracy and economic reforms overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. One group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, and Argentinian doctor Ernesto Che Guevara became the “faces of the revolution,” particularly in the American press. They quickly leveraged their popularity to push competitors aside and establish the first communist government in the Americas, prompting President Dwight Eisenhower to organize an armed invasion of the island by anti-communist Cuban exiles.
My father, who had opposed the previous dictatorship, turned against the revolution when he became aware of its communist direction and joined the new democratic underground. American intelligence was already helping to organize the Cuban opposition and my father was recruited into one of the cells. President John F. Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s operation and approved the invasion, which took place in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs in the province of Matanzas. It was an embarrassing failure for the United States that gave Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev an opening to establish a strategic foothold just 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida.
A year later, in the spring and summer of 1962, the Central Intelligence Agency, which had stayed in contact with its remaining Cuban operatives, began receiving reports of Soviet military activity around the city of San Cristobal in the western province of Pinar del Rio. Refugees fleeing to the United States corroborated the reports, which eventually led to reconnaissance flights over the island in late September and early October. On October 14, Kennedy was informed by his national security advisor that photo analysts had uncovered convincing evidence of Soviet missile sites being constructed in Cuba—the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun. The Kennedy administration chose a naval blockade and quarantine to prevent missiles and other military equipment from reaching Cuban ports. The United States let the Soviets and Cubans know that if they challenged the blockade or launched strikes against US forces, the island would face air attacks followed by a ground invasion.
US Navy surveillance aircraft shadows a soviet cargo ship as it approaches the US blockade boundary.
Limited knowledge and risky decisions
Late one night in October 1962, Lieutenant General Nikolai Beloborodov, head of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in Cuba, was standing near a military control center in the city of Mariel on Cuba’s north coast, with a few of his colleagues. As they watched US ships, helicopters and other aircraft enforcing the quarantine just outside the island’s territorial waters, they recognized the superiority of the forces aligned against them. The Cuban Missile Crisis was at its zenith. As Beloborodov later wrote, “it was clear that in the conditions of the existing balance of forces in conventional arms, which was ten to one against us, there was only one way we could repel a massive assault—by using tactical nuclear weapons against the invaders… But that would be the beginning of the end.”
Nearby and across the island, the remnants of the Cuban underground, which had been decimated after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, were keeping an eye on Soviet and Cuban military activities. Their observations, taken at the risk of their lives, were being passed to American intelligence to help fill gaps in air surveillance. My father and his fellow operatives understood that their homes and families would be on the front lines if the Americans invaded. The risks were enormous and yet they could say nothing to friends and family, although my mother would later say that she knew something was up because the tension was palpable. Parents and grandparents gathered their kids, and an eerie silence descended on much of the island as the "cuarentena” took hold and families awaited their fate.
Unbeknownst to the island’s residents—and to the American soldiers and marines waiting to come ashore—Soviet forces were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to repel an invasion. It would have killed tens of thousands of GIs, sealing the fate of the island and potentially dooming the Soviet Union, as well. General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed the President in a November 2, 1962, memorandum that they “must accept the possibility that the enemy may use nuclear weapons to repel an invasion. However, if the Cuban leaders took this foolhardy step, [the US] could respond at once with overwhelming nuclear force against military targets.” On an island less than 30 percent the size of Japan, a nuclear response would have been catastrophic to life and the environment.
On the other side of the world, the Soviet leadership could only wait and hope that the Soviet Union would not again lose millions of lives in another war its leaders never wanted, all because of a gamble in an outpost of dubious military and symbolic value. Moscow controlled the arming and launching codes for their medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, but tactical nuclear weapons did not require them and could be used at the discretion of local commanders. They had allowed a crisis that could decimate their nation to get out of their control.
What the US government did not know at the time (but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev certainly did) was that the Soviet military had limited capabilities for launching a widespread nuclear attack on the United States. They could perhaps destroy a few American cities and push through East Germany into Western Europe, but only at the cost of a devastating American retaliatory strike. President Eisenhower’s defense policies had left Kennedy with the means to destroy every major city, industrial complex, and military center in the Soviet Union. Yet Khrushchev still gambled by trying to sneak his missiles into America’s backyard.
What, exactly, was at stake? Everything hinged on the possibility of a US invasion and whether the Soviets and Cubans resorted to nuclear weapons to repel the assault. In a war of strictly conventional weapons, the US military was ready for up to 18,500 American casualties over the first ten days of operations. But if it escalated into a general nuclear war, then later studies estimated that hundreds of millions of lives would have been lost in the Soviet Union, and Central and Eastern Europe alone. It would have made Khrushchev’s gamble the most catastrophic, reckless decision in human history.
Lessons and implications
This post describes the Cuban Missile Crisis from different frames of reference: the Americans, the Soviets, the Cuban government, and the Cuban underground. Each is based on primary sources and discussions with those who were there. Historically, many conflicts have started in part because adversaries experienced “reality” through different frames of reference and were largely unaware of what the other side was thinking. While sometimes tragic, most conventional wars have been limited in scope and in the damage they caused. Not so when nuclear weapons are involved. In 1962, a relatively small military operation (not unlike many the US carried out during World War II) threatened the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And it would have been over in a matter of hours, rather than stretching out over five years as the last World War had done. Millions of lives are always the stakes in nuclear proliferation gambles.
There are important lessons in the Cuban Missile Crisis for a future Middle East where Iran and Israel face each other in a nuclear standoff. They demonstrate that political and military leaders will always be making decisions with limited information and only partial knowledge of what the other side is thinking, planning, and is prepared to do. Leaders of emerging nuclear powers may believe that they will have full control over their nuclear arsenals and will effectively manage the risks of nuclear conflict, but experience shows that to be a risky proposition. Cold War experience in general and the Cuban Missile Crisis, in particular, do not support the notion held by some academics and policymakers that the horrors of nuclear weapons promote rational decision-making, constrain risk-taking, and minimize the chances of conflict.,, That kind of thinking is not so much informed by history as it is fueled by myths.
US Navy photo in the public domain
 Ozzie Paez, “Young President in the Hot Seat,” from Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War, to be published in Fall 2015.
 General Nikolai Beloborodov, “The War Was Averted (Soviet Nuclear Weapons in Cuba, 1962),” National Security Archives. Accessed September 22, 2015, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB449/docs/Doc%202%20Nikolai%20Beloborodov%20Memoir.pdf.
 General Maxwell D. Taylor, “Evaluation of the Effect on US Operational Plans of Soviet Army Equipment Introduced Into Cuba,” National Security Archives, November 2, 1962. Accessed September 22, 2015, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB397/docs/doc%2022%2011-2-62%20memo%20to%20JFK%20re%20invasion%20plans.pdf.
 Timothy J. Body, Ace in the Hole (Greenwood Press, 1996), 185-186.
 Taylor, “Evaluation.”
 Daniel Ellsberg, “US Nuclear War Planning for a Hundred Holocausts,” Daniel Ellsberg’s Website, September 13, 2009, http://www.ellsberg.net/archive/us-nuclear-war-planning-for-a-hundred-holocausts
 Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2012-06-15/why-iran-should-get-bomb.
 Johnathan Tepperman, “Nuclear Weapons Can Keep You Safe,” Newsweek, August 28, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/how-nuclear-weapons-can-keep-you-safe-78907.
 David E. Sanger, “Suppose We Just Let Iran Have the Bomb,” New York Times, March 19, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/weekinreview/19sanger.ART0.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.