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Khrushchev's Placement of Missiles in Cuba

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    Posted: 24 Jul 2009 at 09:51
Khrushchev's Placement of Missiles in Cuba

BY ACT OF OBLIVION


The ‘13 days’ of the Cuban Missile Crisis stands as the most ominous period of the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The world appeared to be on the edge of a nuclear abyss that that threatened to engulf the two superpowers. It is clear to the modern reader of Cold War history how close the world came to thermonuclear devastation, but also, with the benefit of historical hindsight we can be reasonably certain that Khrushchev never meant to instigate a third world war. The Soviet leader had made it clear to Washington that Cuba would feature in Soviet foreign policy. After all, he had stated at the time of Castro’s revolution that the Soviet Union would support ‘wars of national liberation worldwide.’[1] Although sceptical of Khrushchev’s motives, Dean Rusk certainly thought that the Soviet Union would not place nuclear weapons in Cuba “unless they’re prepared to generate a nuclear war.”[2] So how is it that Nikita Khrushchev risked the fate of human civilisation for the sake of placing a relatively small number of nuclear missiles on a small Caribbean Island? For General Maxwell Taylor the answer was initially very simple; the Soviet’s had placed the weapons primarily as “a launching base for short-range missiles against the United States to supplement their ICBM system.”[3] President Kennedy was sure about Khrushchev’s role in the matter; it was the Soviet leader that “initiated the danger…he’s the one that’s playing God, not us.”[4] Khrushchev’s own personality and ideological beliefs appear to have had central role in the decision making process. Fidel Castro once remarked that “Nikita had a weakness for Cuba…emotionally, and so on-because he was a man of political conviction.”[5] This understandable ‘political conviction’ motivated the Soviet leader to respond to the situation, and so it was that Khrushchev launched ‘Operation Anadyr’. In doing so, he instigated a Cold War stand off profoundly watched by the eyes of the world. Mark White describes the search for Khrushchev’s motivation in this episode as “the greatest enigma in the historiography of the missile crisis.”[6] It appears difficult to narrow down Khrushchev’s decision to an indisputable single reason. However, it is possible to identify several factors that may have influenced the reasoning behind the Soviet leaders decision to place nuclear missiles into Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
 
Some historians have argued that Khrushchev’s psychological make-up and ideological convictions were deciding factors in unravelling the leaders motivations in the missile crisis. Although this initially appears to be a simplistic and obvious statement, it does have an implication when considering Khrushchev’s powerful position and the responsibility that goes with it. White observes that Khrushchev approached international affairs “in a manner that reflected his personality; “impulsive, moody, and unpredictable,”[7] and yet here was a man who had control over the world’s second largest arsenal of nuclear weaponry. However, it seems that Khrushchev did not want to settle for second best. It also appears that in May 1962, Khrushchev was facing a political problem in the shape of a Cuban backlash. Fursenko and Naftali outline events that led to the dismissal of several Soviet ‘advisors’ to the Cuban government, thus undermining ‘the general co-operation with Moscow on foreign policy and security matters.’[8] Khrushchev not only had to prove Soviet power and prestige to America, but now he had to demonstrate to Castro the Soviet commitment to the defence his revolution. The Soviet leader had often wandered why the American ‘elephant’ should be afraid of the little Cuban ‘mouse.’[9] Thomas Paterson suggests that Khrushchev understood the answer to his own question; the United States feared a successful revolution in Cuba would become ‘contagious’ and diminish American influence in the western hemisphere.[10] A national intelligence estimate produced by the CIA had also conceded that a chief reason for Soviet missiles on Cuba might be the psychological effect of such a move throughout Latin America.[11] Gaddis suggests that Khrushchev had understood more clearly than Kennedy that the Western powers were winning the Cold War, and that the crisis arose due to Khrushchev’s efforts to correct this imbalance in military and political strength. It therefore could be argued that one reason why Khrushchev installed the missiles is that he saw this action as a means of addressing the status quo of the Cold War.
 
Zubok and Pleshakov argue that what mattered most to Khrushchev, was the need to preserve the impression of Communism ‘on the march, critical to ending the Cold War on Soviet terms.’[12] Khrushchev was very much aware of the international pressure faced by the Soviet Union, particularly as the Soviet leadership was constantly under the scrutinising gaze of Beijing. The Soviet Union appeared to be producing ‘national rivalries’ compared to the relatively solid ‘international solidarity’ fostered by the United States.[13] Therefore, Khrushchev felt he had to preserve the Cuban revolution as a ‘dynamic socialist model’ for other countries to follow, as well as an urgent need to protect the Soviet Union from a Chinese challenge for the leadership of global Communism.[14] This sense of urgency led to what Gaddis observes as ‘a general sense of desperation’ about the Soviet leaders decision-making.[15] Indeed, Zubok and Pleshakov also support the idea that Khrushchev acted out of Communist fervour, and his policy on Cuba was ‘a gamble, a leap of Communist inspired faith.’[16] Desperate or not, Khrushchev’s ideological convictions and his somewhat ‘romantic’ memories of the old Bolshevik revolution, had led him to believe that for the sake of Communist prestige, Cuba had to be protected from the capitalists. The problem of ‘how’ to defend Cuba seemed to constantly nag Khrushchev. He had later stated that the thought “was constantly on my mind…what would happen if we lost Cuba?” adding that such a loss “would gravely diminish our stature throughout the world.”[17] For Khrushchev, the loss of Cuba “would have been a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism.”[18] He seems to have believed that the ultimate deterrent against American hostility would be to face the threat of Soviet nuclear weaponry. Nikita had stated that his personal justification for placing nuclear weapons in Cuba was “because there is no other way to protect Cuba’s revolution.”[19] Geoffrey Roberts maintains that there is no reason to doubt Khrushchev’s personal motives; this was a ‘genuine act of Soviet socialist solidarity.’[20] The Director of the CIA, John A. McCone, believed that Khrushchev’s actions were prompted by a series of failures on the part of the American administration.[21] Kennedy had allowed the erection of the Berlin wall, and he had authorised the Bay of Pigs invasion that ended in disaster and humiliation. However, Khrushchev had correctly recognised that the Bay of Pigs episode, although a failure, was only the beginning of a concerted American effort to oust Castro’s regime. Zubok and Pleshakov are of the opinion that after the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev only perceived Kennedy as a weak president in so far that he had limited control of his administration. As Elie Abel points out, Khrushchev never questioned American might, just Kennedy’s willingness to use it.[22]
 
For Zubok and Pleshakov, the answer to Khrushchev’s policy of missile placement was a matter of personal rivalry with President Kennedy.[23] Geoffrey Roberts also agrees that an ‘ulterior motive’ for Khrushchev was a sense of rivalry and competition with the United States.[24] Khrushchev had often expressed an unflattering opinion of the American president by highlighting the flaws and weakness’ of Kennedy’s character. Although this argument has a valid point in that Khrushchev placed the missiles in an attempt to ‘bully’ a ‘weak’ president, it tends to overlook an obvious reason for Khrushchev’s behaviour. A simple explanation for Nikita’s criticisms is that in political circles, Khrushchev would have been foolish to express a conciliatory and admirable attitude to anything representative of the Cold war enemy. Khrushchev quite clearly understood the two leaders ideological differences, but privately, it appears that Khrushchev developed a more respectful personal attitude towards the president.[25] Gaddis also argues that Khrushchev saw the Bay of Pigs not as a sign of Kennedy’s weakness, but as an act of American provocation and intention. Here was a sure sign of the President’s “determination to crush the only socialist revolution that had succeeded in the western hemisphere.”[26] Castro had sent a plea for Soviet aid to counter the realistic prospect of an invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev instinctively felt the need to respond. The problem for Khrushchev was how to counter this American campaign against Cuba. Therefore, by agreeing to place missiles on Cuba, Khrushchev believed he would ‘scare’ the United States and ‘restrain’ any further American hostility towards Castro’s government.[27]
 
Mark White has raised the idea that Khrushchev may have been motivated by economic considerations.[28] By placing short and intermediate range weapons on Cuba, Khrushchev could argue that he was in effect providing a cheaper emplacement of ICBM’s. By carrying out this plan, Khrushchev could reduce military spending in conventional weaponry and use the savings to bolster the domestic economy. This idea is plausible but it seems unlikely to have been a major consideration for Khrushchev. After all, Soviet domestic policy always appears to be the first to suffer whenever the Soviet Union has faced a threatening situation. Another more likely possibility was that Khrushchev wanted to strengthen the Soviet position in preparation for a renewed move against Berlin. Khrushchev had made assurances to Kennedy that he would do nothing about Berlin until after the American elections, but since the Vienna summit the Soviet leader had been forcing talks on a Berlin settlement. Before the Vienna meeting, Khrushchev had convened a session of the Politburo and informed its members that that he intended to force the ‘young and inexperienced President to make concessions, in particular in Berlin.’[29] Zubok and Pleshakov have also noted that Khrushchev warned against hostile American intentions towards Cuba, and that if it persisted, “a new conflagration may flare up in another area.”[30] For the United States, it must have looked like Khrushchev was finally making his move on the German capital. Abel argues that after secretly placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, Khrushchev would have gone to the United Nations General Assembly, revealed his missiles and put forward a Soviet proposition: ‘Let the western powers get out of Berlin in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba.’[31] Certainly, Washington felt Khrushchev would use Cuba as a bargaining tool to push for an agreement on Berlin. Kennedy felt that once the Soviet Union had completed the Cuban missile installations, they would then “start getting ready to squeeze us in Berlin.”[32] General Curtis LeMay, ever pushing for military action, demanded that “If we don’t do anything to Cuba, then they’re gonna push on Berlin.”[33] Berlin was no doubt a consideration for Khrushchev, and he must have seen the possible benefits if Operation Anadyr had turned out as he wished. White notes that Khrushchev would have been politically naïve not to consider the linkage between Berlin and Cuba.[34] Nevertheless, it remains arguable that Berlin was the deciding factor for Khrushchev. Having studied the missile crisis in detail, Zubok and Pleshakov do concede that there is little evidence on the Soviet side to support Berlin as the chief reason for Khrushchev’s decision to place missiles in Cuba.
 
General Maxwell Taylor felt that the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba in order to address a strategic imbalance and to provide adequate protection in the event of future conflict. Even George Kennan sensed that the Soviet Union feared the prospect of a pre-emptive American nuclear attack.[35] Khrushchev may have recognised the fact that by placing short and intermediate range missiles on Cuba he could have provided the Soviet Union with a way of righting the strategic imbalance. After all, following the ‘Sputnik rocket hysteria’, this was the same reasoning the American’s had used to justify the placement of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. Indeed, the initial idea of missiles in Cuba appears to have been thought of by Khrushchev whilst visiting his holiday home on the Black Sea coast. The Soviet defence minister, Rodion Malinovsky made a remark to Khrushchev concerning America’s ability to strike Soviet cities from Turkey in a matter of minutes. Khrushchev felt that by placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, he could provide a similar threat to the United States. The presence of Jupiter missiles near to the Soviet border in Turkey clearly provided Khrushchev with ample justification for Soviet missile installations in Cuba. As Khrushchev had argued, the United States had “set a precedent for intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.”[36] Indeed, Gaddis argues that ironically, the American missiles in Turkey inadvertently ‘gave’ Khrushchev the idea to do the same in Cuba. Gaddis also adds that Khrushchev saw the weapons in Turkey not just as a personal affront, but also as a moral and even legal justification for protecting the Cuban revolution. Khrushchev wanted to show American’s “just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you, we’d be doing nothing but giving them a little of their own medicine.”[37] It seems likely that Khrushchev felt that he could trade the removal of the Cuba missiles in exchange for the removal of American missiles in Turkey; but again this idea seems to be part of the whole strategy, not the decisive factor. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union saw strategic leverage in having a military base only ninety miles from the American coastline, but for Khrushchev it appears that this was of secondary importance. Even Robert McNamara argued that there was “no great difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.”[38] The apparent immediate reason was to maintain the impression of Soviet prestige in defending the Cuban revolution, and personally, to ‘get one over on the American president’. Nikita acknowledged an awareness of the Soviet Union’s strategic inferiority, and that missiles in Cuba would have “equalised what the west likes to call the balance of power.”[39] However, Khrushchev added, “the main thing was that the installation of our missiles in Cuba would, I thought, restrain the United States from precipitous military action against Castro’s government.”[40]
 
It appears that all the factors discussed would have had an influence on Khrushchev’s motives, and all the issues appear to contain a personal justification for Khrushchev’s eventual reasoning. It is not so much that Khrushchev ‘agreed’ to the placement of nuclear missiles on Cuba in so much that it was his idea in the first place, however, it remains difficult to pin down a definitive answer to the question as to why the Soviet leader made the decision in the first place. Khrushchev’s reasoning behind the placement of missiles was at best, a logical and perhaps justifiable personal reaction. However, the contradictory nature of Khrushchev’s personality makes it difficult to determine a chief personal reason for ‘Nikita’s’ actions. White notes that Khrushchev was ‘innovative and conciliatory,’ but also ‘erratic and dangerous’[41] This incongruous mix may well have played a significant role in the decision making process. At worst, this process led to a political miscalculation by a head of state who failed to understand his superpower opponent; thus bringing the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. It is still debatable whether Khrushchev meant the weapons to be defensive or offensive, no doubt at various times it was both. Nevertheless, it is now clear that the Soviet Union’s view of their ‘Caribbean Crisis’ highlighted Khrushchev’s need to counter the increasing global power of the United States, and the hostile stance Washington had taken in Latin America. In December 1962, Khrushchev stated that he had seen “ a possibility of defending the freedom-loving people of Cuba by stationing missiles there.”[42] It was for the Soviet leader to seek agreement and justification for his decision to install nuclear weapons in Cuba. At the heart of Khrushchev’s thinking, there developed an idealistic wish to bolster the image and power of the Soviet Communism and repel Beijing’s accusations of an ineffective Soviet leadership. To Khrushchev, Cuba was perhaps a ray of light that flickered through a crack in the ‘iron curtain’. Here was an opportunity to address the most pressing issues faced at that time by the Soviet Union, along with the chance to cultivate Communism beyond Eastern Europe. A settlement over Berlin, Communist prestige in the eyes of Beijing, military strategic parity with the United States, and a fundamental belief in the Soviet Union’s need to prevail in the Cold War were all-important considerations in Khrushchev’s deliberations. However, it was not be. Khrushchev maintained a belief that Kennedy would not respond aggressively, but the United States did threaten retaliation, and in the most ominous ‘eyeball to eyeball’ confrontation, Khrushchev blinked. The Soviet leaders prestige was severely dented by the missile crisis, and two years later, he was removed from power by a Communist system he had sought to protect.
 

Notes

[1] Kennedy’s Quest for Victory, American Foreign Policy 1961-1963, chapter 5-Fixation with Cuba; The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro edited by Thomas G. Paterson (Oxford, 1989) p.125.
[2] William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office-The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (London, 1999) p.125.
[3] William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office-The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (London, 1999) p.123. Quoted from a transcript of de-classified secret tape recordings made by Kennedy on the morning of October 16th 1962.
[4] William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office-The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (London, 1999) p.124. President Kennedy on the evening of October 16th 1962.
[5] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.263.
[6] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.30.
[7] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.30.
[8] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, ‘One Hell of a Gamble’-Khrushchev, Castro, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1958-1964 (London, 1999) p.183.
[9] Kennedy’s Quest for Victory, American Foreign Policy 1961-1963, chapter 5-Fixation with Cuba; The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro edited by Thomas G. Paterson (Oxford, 1989) p.127.
[10] Kennedy’s Quest for Victory, American Foreign Policy 1961-1963, chapter 5-Fixation with Cuba; The Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, and Covert War Against Castro edited by Thomas G. Paterson (Oxford, 1989) p.127. Paterson writes that Kennedy reacted to Cuba because ‘as symbol and reality, Cuba challenged the U.S hegemony in Latin America’.
[11] Elie Abel, The Missiles of October, Twelve Days to World War Three, An Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (London, 1969) p.26. Revised edition.
[12] Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, From Stalin to Khrushchev (London, 1996) p.261.
[13] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.261-262.
[14] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.34.
[15] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.262.
[16] Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, From Stalin to Khrushchev (London, 1996) p.261.
[17] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.185.
[18] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.185.
[19] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.263.
[20] Geoffrey Roberts, The Soviet Union in World Politics, Coexistence, Revolution and Cold War, 1945-1991 (London, 1999) p.57.
[21] Elie Abel, The Missiles of October, Twelve Days to World War Three, An Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (London, 1969) p.36. Revised edition.
[22] Elie Abel, The Missiles of October, Twelve Days to World War Three, An Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (London, 1969) p.37. Revised edition.
[23] Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, From Stalin to Khrushchev (London, 1996) p.237.
[24] Geoffrey Roberts, The Soviet Union in World Politics, Coexistence, Revolution and Cold War, 1945-1991 (London, 1999) p.58.
[25] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.40. We are told that Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, has written that his father returned to Moscow after the Vienna summit “with a very high opinion of Kennedy. He saw him as a worthy partner and a strong statesman”.
[26]John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.262.
[27]Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, ‘One Hell of a Gamble’-Khrushchev, Castro, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1958-1964 (London, 1999) p.182.
[28] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.36.
[29] Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, From Stalin to Khrushchev (London, 1996) p.243.
[30] Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, From Stalin to Khrushchev (London, 1996) p.242.
[31] Elie Abel, The Missiles of October, Twelve Days to World War Three, An Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (London, 1969) p.47. Revised edition.
[32] William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office-The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (London, 1999) p.125.
[33] William Doyle, Inside the Oval Office-The White House Tapes from FDR to Clinton (London, 1999) p.128.
[34] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.39.
[35] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, ‘One Hell of a Gamble’-Khrushchev, Castro, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1958-1964 (London, 1999) p.185.
[36] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.264.
[37] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.264.
[38] Elie Abel, The Missiles of October, Twelve Days to World War Three, An Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (London, 1969) p.44. Revised edition.
[39] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.265.
[40] John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1997) p.265.
[41] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.30.
[42] Mark J. White, Missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis (Chicago, 1997) p.31.
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