A Lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fifty Years Later

Courtesy of Monica Amarelo, FAS Director of Communications

Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, many assume that we have moved away from the prospect of a nuclear war. But that’s not the case, claims Dr. Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a nuclear security expert. On October 18, 2012, at a briefing hosted by the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC, Hellman discussed his paper, “Fifty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis: Time to Stop Bluffing at Nuclear Poker,” which was published by FAS and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Hellman argued that the U.S. took considerable risks during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we continue to learn how close those risks brought us to a nuclear war.  On October 27, 1962, U.S. destroyers forced a Soviet submarine to surface near the quarantine line. Now, we know that the submarine carried a nuclear torpedo. Also, the U.S. considered invading Cuba. Yet, decision makers did not know that the Soviet Union had placed battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba to deter, among other things, an invasion. What we should have learned, said Hellman citing Robert Kennedy, is “the importance of placing ourselves in another person’s shoes.”

However, the record shows that we have not followed this lesson. Hellman argued that the U.S. has not thought through certain foreign policy decisions with regard to America’s stated top priority: nonproliferation.

On December 26, 1979, one day after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that Afghanistan resistance included Pakistan’s exemption from America’s nonproliferation policy. Shortly thereafter, Pakistan developed a nuclear weapons capability. In 2003, President George H. W. Bush promised former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi an “open path” to relations with the U.S. in exchange for giving up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. During the Obama administration, NATO and the U.S. overthrew Gaddafi. Hellman argued that this sent a signal to North Korea that it made the right decision to maintain its nuclear program. Examples such as these, Hellman stated, indicate that the U.S. did not learn the lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some policymakers have shifted focus to missile defense. Hellman pointed out that this, too, must follow Kennedy’s lesson.

Hellman stated that the missile defense system in Eastern Europe bears an uncanny resemblance to the set-up in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy had placed nuclear-armed American missiles in Turkey in the spring of 1962. If we had taken Russia’s perspective into account, Hellman argued, we would have realized that it made sense for Russia to “hop the line” and stick missiles in Cuba. In the end, it didn’t matter if it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Russia or a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) from Cuba.

Today, do our Eastern European allies unnecessarily provoke Russia while sitting beneath the U.S. defense umbrella? Hellman recommended that the U.S. “warn allies that our security agreements don’t cover them if they poke the Russian bear.” The same situation, Hellman explained, applies to the “Chinese dragon” and the Senkaku Islands. Hellman asked if the U.S. wanted to risk our homeland’s existence over these islands.

The problem, he argued, is that the United States has unquestioned conventional superiority. China and Russia don’t have the conventional forces to win a war with the U.S., and to save face, the conflict will likely escalate to include nuclear weapons. “Any war with China or Russia runs an unacceptably high risk of going nuclear,” said Hellman.

The conventional wisdom is that nuclear deterrence works. But, what happens if it doesn’t? Hellman said that, “If it doesn’t work perfectly, then it fails, and we’re dead. Can it work perfectly forever? That doesn’t seem reasonable.” At best, Hellman predicted that nuclear deterrence will work for only 1000 years.

Hellman reached this limit through a preliminary study using quantitative risk analysis. He called for Congress to fund a study to use quantitative risk analysis on the possibilities for failures in nuclear deterrence. The goal is to bring greater objectivity and move beyond the current debate. Risk analysis recommends an end state, Hellman explained, and he proposed that the end state be a “state of acceptable risk.” What is acceptable risk? That’s the first question to be answered by this research group.

This end state might not be the goal known as “Global Zero.” Hellman argued that we do not know if we can reach Global Zero, but it seems sensible to keep it as “the vision.” Then, we can see what options are available.

On this issue of nuclear policy, Hellman remarked that there is “bipartisan idiocy and bipartisan sanity.” However, both sides have a vested interest in making sure a nuclear weapon is not launched against the United States. Progress on this issue requires only “a couple of representatives to get this into an appropriations bill,” not a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Today, U.S. policy on deterrence is to appear “irrational and vindictive” regarding threats to our interests. Hellman stated that this was a dangerous policy, especially when it involves nuclear weapons. One product of a study using quantitative risk analysis would be to rethink America’s nuclear force posture with, hopefully Hellman added, less reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons.

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