Nuclear war: does it take luck or reasoning to avoid it? Lessons from the Cuban missile crisis, 60 years on

The Conversation

The United States and the Soviet Union came dangerously close to war in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. Just ahead of its 60th anniversary, Russian president Vladimir Putin is issuing nuclear threats following the unexpectedly poor performance of his troops in Ukraine. The invasion poses a new kind of challenge to European security, but as in 1962, tensions between Russia and the west are rising.

Talking of use of nuclear weapons, the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin recently said that Putin could make “another decision”. US teams have been exploring possible responses to a nuclear attack, it has emerged.

Journalists ask: “How close we are to nuclear war?.” It’s hard to tell. Deliberate escalation may be unlikely, and we may avoid the worst-case scenario. However, there are many situations that could unintentionally lead to disaster.

The Cuban missile crisis cannot teach us how to avert war – it shows us that, once tensions are ratcheted up, this comes down to luck. Instead, we should learn from the crisis, the nearest the world has got to nuclear war, that the very existence of nuclear weapons always invites catastrophe.

We have been lucky to avoid nuclear war so far. If the nuclear crisis in Ukraine is averted, we will have been lucky again. The key lesson of Cuba is don’t mistake luck in Ukraine for reassurance that nuclear war in the 21st century is impossible.

Learning from history

On October 14 1962, a US spy plane captured photographs of Soviet missile launch sites under construction in Cuba. Missiles launched from Cuba would be within range of much of the US mainland. In response, US president John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade of Cuba.

This was intended to prevent Soviet nuclear weapons reaching the Caribbean island. Kennedy demanded that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev remove the weapons. Khrushchev refused.

Over the days that followed, the two leaders traded private appeals and public demands, urging each other to back down. On October 26, Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev, asking him to attack the US. On October 27, Soviet antiaircraft missiles shot down a US spy plane over Cuba.

Realising that war was imminent, Kennedy and Khrushchev offered concessions. Kennedy agreed to remove US intermediate range nuclear missiles from Turkey – within range of the Soviet Union. In return, Khrushchev agreed to remove the offending Soviet missiles if the US promised not to invade Cuba afterwards. By October 28, the crisis was over. Global thermonuclear war was avoided – but only narrowly.

Creating an illusion of safety

Despite the close call, many analysts were over optimistic about lessons from the crisis. Influential US political scientist Joseph Nye argued that the crisis produced a sense of vulnerability and fear among policymakers and strategists. US and Soviet leaders learned from this experience (and other near misses) that they had been lucky to avoid war, and that measures were needed to prevent future crises. In response, they created arms control agreements and lines of communication, intended to make future crises less likely. These can be helpful, but they contribute to an illusion of safety.

President Kennedy’s speech on the Cuban missile crisis.

Alternatively, others including US historian John Lewis Gaddis have argued that the crisis showed that nuclear deterrence works: the Soviet Union was deterred from attacking by the prospect of a devastating nuclear response from the US. Under this argument, the crisis was under control, despite misunderstandings between the leaders. Kennedy and Khrushchev calculated that the other wanted to avoid conflict, and the prospect of nuclear retaliation lowered the risk that either would attack.

These lessons have influenced how we interpret the nuclear dangers of the war in Ukraine. Most western officials act as if Russia’s nuclear threats are a bluff, because Putin is well aware of the devastating potential of nuclear escalation. Furthermore, conventional wisdom still tells us that possessing nuclear weapons – or being under the nuclear umbrella of an alliance such as Nato – is a reliable way of deterring Russian aggression.

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Some would argue that these lessons come from a fallacious interpretation of the Cuban missile crisis: because we avoided nuclear war then, nuclear war in the future must be unlikely. On the contrary, over a long enough timeline, it is inevitable. Some people tell us that the continued existence of nuclear weapons isn’t really dangerous, because we’ve learned how to minimise the risk of war, and even that nuclear weapons themselves make war less probable. They encourage us to believe that we can control nuclear escalation and accurately calculate nuclear risks.

Recent research and reviews of Cuban missile crisis documents has shown that many global leaders believed that the nuclear risks were under control during the crisis. Nuclear history expert Benoît Pelopidas shows that, even at the height of tensions, French and Chinese leaders were less fearful of nuclear war than many might expect. For them, the fact that war was avoided simply proved that it is possible to reliably “manage” the danger of nuclear weapons.

In addition, most scholars now agree that nuclear war was only avoided during the crisis by sheer luck, not rational decision making. For example, on October 27, 1962, a Soviet submarine captain believed that war had begun. He decided to fire his nuclear torpedo at US ships, but was convinced otherwise by a fellow officer. On October 28 1962, US forces in Okinawa, Japan, received a mistaken order to launch 32 nuclear missiles, again only being stopped by one quick thinking captain.

Remember that Putin could invade Ukraine without worrying about a western military response because of Russia’s ability to threaten nuclear retaliation. He may yet calculate that he can use tactical nuclear weapons to defend against a Ukrainian counter-attack without provoking a Nato nuclear retaliation, because western leaders will not risk nuclear war. He may be mistaken.

Comforting stories about the cold war have encouraged people to believe that nuclear deterrence keeps the peace. This is not true. We have forgotten the dangers of states holding large nuclear arsenals. Assuming nuclear war in Ukraine is avoided, the lesson from Cuba? Don’t forget again.

Tom Vaughan has previously received funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).