McNamara and Blight reevaluate the Cuban Missile Crisis, 40 years later

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and James Blight, professor of international relations at Brown University, spoke to the College community in Chapin Hall this past Wednesday. Their lecture, entitled “Back to the Brink: The Cuban Missile Crisis 40 Years On,” focused on the lessons to be drawn from a reevaluation of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how these lessons pertain to current issues.

McNamara and Blight have recently co-authored a book entitled Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing and Catastrophe in the 21st Century.

Blight began the evening with a discussion of how perceptions of the Cuban Missile Crisis have changed over time. His goal was to “paint in broad brush strokes where we are now in our understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

He emphasized that our depth of understanding has increased dramatically following the demise of the Soviet Union and the declassification of many of that nation’s secret documents. He also highlighted the academic importance of being able to interview people who used to be on the “other side.” There have been a series of meetings between crucial American, Soviet and Cuban leaders since 1987 which have shed a great deal of light on the subject. The most recent of these meetings took place in October.

Blight addressed the Bay of Pigs incident, and said that “if you remove it from the Cuban missile equation, there is no Cuban missile crisis.”

The original view of the incident was that it was unrelated to the crisis since the origins of the crisis lay in Soviet insecurities over the growing disparity between the strength of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals. This old perception painted the situation in cruder, ‘good vs. bad’ views, which have become more nuanced as more information has come to light.

Blight also pointed out the increasing desperation of the Cuban people due to what he termed “state-sponsored terrorism” on the part of the US, which had initiated a program called Operation Mongoose in order to destabilize the communist regime. Since Fidel Castro felt so threatened by the American program, he turned to the Russians for help, which led to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Another aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis that is often ignored is the situation’s true severity. “It’s a miracle that we came out of it alive,” said Blight. JFK and his advisors came very close to deciding on an air attack of Cuba as their response to the missile discovery; it was only after a great deal of deliberation that the decision to establish a naval quarantine of the island was reached.

Blight contrasted the typical view of the crisis as being an example of “Kennedy’s finest hours” to a view of the crisis as a “function of mistakes on the part of all three players.” According to Blight, Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev, the Soviet General Secretary at the time, all committed some miscalculations about US-Cuban relations that caused the crisis to escalate.

Blight also said that all three sides backed down at a critical moment in the crisis; the resolution was not solely a function of JFK’s skill in managing the US actions.

McNamara echoed many of Blight’s sentiments in his explanation of the evolution of his thinking regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. While he termed it the “best managed foreign policy crisis since the end of WWII,” he noted that “luck also played a predominant role.”

He traced JFK’s leadership through the critical 13 days of the crisis and placed an emphasis on the president’s initial decision to create a group of knowledgeable advisers to help manage the growing problem. Without this early decision making, the later resolution of the crisis would not have been possible.

McNamara highlighted two important lessons from the crisis: one of American fallibility and the other of the need for empathy. Due to the complexity of military operations, the possibility of mistakes is even greater than in everyday life. A mistake during the Cuban Missile Crisis easily could have caused a nuclear war. This is particularly clear now that more details are known about the military operations during the crisis.

McNamara also emphasized the need for empathy in international relations. The crisis partially evolved out of misunderstandings between the various nations involved. He said that the occurrence of such misunderstandings can be decreased by “putting yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side of the table.”

One member of the audience posed a question regarding the significance of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of the current situation with Iraq. McNamara declined to comment on President Bush’s policy in Iraq, terming it a very “delicate issue.”

He did, however, say that the quarantine of Cuba should not be considered an example of preemptive military action; instead, the quarantine was used as “a means of communication” with Khrushchev when no other channels of communication were viable.

McNamara also responded to a question regarding current American policy towards nuclear weapons. His view on nuclear arms is “to ensure they aren’t used; they shouldn’t be permitted.” Therefore, no non-nuclear nations should be allowed to produce nuclear weapons and all other nations should limit their weapons. He defined weapons of mass destruction as “something the human race should not accept or tolerate.”