HISTORIANS ASSUMED, for many years, that it was this—having his Potemkin façade ripped away [by U-2 spy planes]—that drove Khrushchev into a desperate attempt to recover by sending intermediate- and medium-range missiles, which he did have in abundance, to Cuba in 1962. “Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants?” he asked in April, noting that it would take a decade for the Soviet Union to equal American long-range missile capabilities. It is clear now, though, that this was not Khrushchev’s principal reason for acting as he did, which suggests how easily historians can jump to premature conclusions. More significantly, the Cuban missile crisis also shows how badly great powers can miscalculate when tensions are high and the stakes are great. The consequences, as they did in this instance, can surprise everyone.
Khrushchev intended his missile deployment chiefly as an effort, improbable as this might seem, to spread revolution throughout Latin America. He and his advisers had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Never mind that Marx himself would never have predicted this—there being few proletarians in Cuba—or that Fidel Castro and his unruly followers hardly fit Lenin’s model of a disciplined revolutionary “vanguard.” It was enough that Cuba had gone communist spontaneously, without assistance from Moscow, in a way that seemed to confirm Marx’s prophecy about the direction in which history was going. “Yes, he is a genuine revolutionary,” the old Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan exclaimed, after meeting Castro. “Completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood!”
But Castro’s revolution was in peril. Before it left office, the Eisenhower administration had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, imposed economic sanctions, and begun plotting Castro’s overthrow. Kennedy allowed these plans to go forward with the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs landing of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, an event that gave Khrushchev little reason for complacency or congratulation. Rather, as he saw it, the attempted invasion reflected counter-revolutionary resolve in Washington, and it would surely be repeated, the next time with much greater force. “The fate of Cuba and the maintenance of Soviet prestige in that part of the world preoccupied me,” Khrushchev recalled. “We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.”
The United States could hardly object, because during the late 1950s the Eisenhower administration—before it had convinced itself that the “missile gap” did not exist—had placed its own intermediate-range missiles in Britain, Italy, and Turkey, all aimed at the Soviet Union. The Americans would learn, Khrushchev promised, “just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.”
But Kennedy and his advisers knew nothing of Khrushchev’s reasoning, and those who survived were surprised to learn of it a quarter century later when the opening of Soviet archives began to reveal it. They saw the missile deployment in Cuba—about which they learned only in mid-October, 1962, from the new mission the U-2s had been given of overflying the island—as the most dangerous in a long sequence of provocations, extending all the way back to the Kremlin leader’s threats against Britain and France during the Suez crisis six years earlier. And this one, unlike the others, would at least double the number of Soviet missiles capable of reaching the United States. “Offensive missiles in Cuba have a very different psychological and political effect in this hemisphere than missiles in the U.S.S.R. pointed at us,” Kennedy warned. “Communism and Castroism are going to be spread … as governments frightened by this new evidence of power [topple]…. All this represents a provocative change in the delicate status quo both countries have maintained.”
Just what Khrushchev intended to do with his Cuban missiles is, even now, unclear: it was characteristic of him not to think things through. He could hardly have expected Americans not to respond, since he had sent the missiles secretly while lying to Kennedy about his intentions to do so. He might have meant the intermediate-range missiles solely for deterrence, but he also dispatched short-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads that could only have been used to repel a landing by American troops—who would not have known that these weapons awaited them. Nor had Khrushchev placed his nuclear weapons under tight control: local commanders could, in response to an invasion, have authorized their use.
The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis. He was so emotionally committed to the Castro revolution that he risked his own revolution, his country, and possibly the world on its behalf. “Nikita loved Cuba very much,” Castro himself later acknowledged. “He had a weakness for Cuba, you might say—emotionally, and so on—because he was a man of political conviction.” But so too, of course, were Lenin and Stalin, who rarely allowed their emotions to determine their revolutionary priorities. Khrushchev wielded a far greater capacity for destruction than they ever did, but he behaved with far less responsibility. He was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun.
As children sometimes do, though, he wound up getting some of what he wanted. Despite what was still an overwhelming American advantage in nuclear warheads and delivery systems—depending on how the figure is calculated, the United States had between eight and seventeen times the number of usable nuclear weapons that the Soviet Union did—the prospect of even one or two Soviet missiles hitting American targets was sufficient to persuade Kennedy to pledge publicly, in return for Khrushchev’s agreement to remove his weapons from Cuba, that he would make no further attempts to invade the island. Kennedy also promised, secretly, to dismantle the American intermediate-range missiles in Turkey that Khrushchev had hoped to make a visible part of the deal. And long after Kennedy, Khrushchev, and even the Soviet Union itself had passed from the scene, Fidel Castro, whom the missiles had been sent to protect, was still alive, well, and in power in Havana.
But the Cuban missile crisis, in a larger sense, served much the same function that blinded and burned birds did for the American and Soviet observers of the first thermonuclear bomb tests a decade earlier. It persuaded everyone who was involved in it—with the possible exception of Castro, who claimed, even years afterward, to have been willing to die in a nuclear conflagration—that the weapons each side had developed during the Cold War posed a greater threat to both sides than the United States and the Soviet Union did to one another. This improbable series of events, universally regarded now as the closest the world came, during the second half of the 20th century, to a third world war, provided a glimpse of a future no one wanted: of a conflict projected beyond restraint, reason, and the likelihood of survival.