Excerpt From Chapter 1 of

Argument Without End


The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 began when the Soviets moved nuclear missiles and bombers to Cuba --secretly and with clear intent to deceive --in the summer and early fall of 1962. The missiles were to be targeted against cities along America's East Coast, putting 90 million Americans at risk.

Photographs taken by a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft on Sunday, October 14, 1962, brought the deployments to President Kennedy's attention. He and his security advisers --military and civilian --believed that the Soviets' action posed a threat to the West. Kennedy therefore authorized a naval quarantine of Cuba to be effective Wednesday, October 24.

Preparations also began for air strikes and an amphibious invasion. The contingency plans called for a "first-day" air attack of 1,080 sorties --a huge attack. An invasion force totaling 180,000 troops was assembled in southeastern U.S. ports. The crisis came to a head on Saturday, October 27, and Sunday, October 28. Had Soviet leader Khrushchev not publicly announced on that Sunday that he was removing the missiles, I believe that on Monday a majority of Kennedy's military and civilian advisers would have recommended launching the attacks.

By the conclusion of the third Cuban missile crisis conference, in Moscow in 1989, it had become clear that the decisions of each of the three nations before, during, and after the crisis had been distorted by misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment. At the time, some of us --particularly President Kennedy and I --believed that the United States faced great danger. The Moscow meeting confirmed that judgment.

But during the Havana conference (using the "critical oral history" method) we learned that we had seriously underestimated those dangers. While in Havana, we were told by the former Warsaw Pact chief of staff, Gen. Anatoly Gribkov, that in 1962 the Soviet forces in Cuba possessed not only nuclear warheads for their intermediate-range missiles targeted on U.S. cities but also nuclear bombs and tactical warheads. The tactical warheads were to be used against U.S. invasion forces. At the time, as I mentioned, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was reporting no warheads on the island.

In November 1992 --thirty years after the event --we learned more. An article appeared in the Russian press stating that at the height of the missile crisis Soviet forces on Cuba possessed a total of 162 nuclear warheads, including at least ninety tactical warheads. Moreover, it was reported that on October 26, 1962 --a moment of great tension --warheads were moved from their storage sites to positions closer to their delivery vehicles in anticipation of a U.S. invasion. The next day, Soviet Defense Minister Rodión Malinovsky received a cable from Gen. Issa Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, informing him of this action. Malinovsky sent it to Khrushchev. Khrushchev returned it to Malinovsky with "Approved" scrawled across the document.

Clearly, there was a high risk that in the face of a U.S. attack --which, as I have said, many in the U.S. government, military and civilian alike, were prepared to recommend to President Kennedy --the Soviet forces in Cuba would have decided to use their nuclear weapons rather than lose them.

We need not speculate about what would have happened in that event. We can predict the results with certainty.

Although a U.S. invasion force would not have been equipped with tactical nuclear warheads --President Kennedy and I had specifically prohibited that --no one should believe that had American troops been attacked with nuclear weapons the U.S. would have refrained from a nuclear response. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.

What lesson should we draw from these stunning data --data suggesting that our brush with nuclear catastrophe in October 1962 was extraordinarily close? The lesson was clear to me from that moment in Havana when we first began to learn, from General Gribkov, about Soviet preparations for nuclear war in the event of a U.S. invasion. Near the conclusion of that session, I asked Fidel Castro two questions:

Castro's answer sent a chill down my spine. He replied:

Now, we started from the assumption that if there was an invasion of Cuba, nuclear war would erupt. We were certain of that ... we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear.... Would I have been ready to use nuclear weapons? Yes, I would have agreed to the use of nuclear weapons. ... I would have agreed, in the event of the invasion you are talking about, with the use of tactical nuclear weapons.... If Mr. McNamara or Mr. Kennedy had been in our place, and had their country been invaded, or their country was going to be occupied ... I believe they would have used tactical nuclear weapons.

I hope that President Kennedy and I would not have behaved as Castro suggested we would have. His decision would have destroyed his country. Had we responded in a similar way, the damage to our own would have been disastrous.

But human beings are fallible. We know we all make mistakes. In our daily lives, mistakes are costly, but we try to learn from them. In conventional war mistakes cost lives, sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to affect decisions related to the use of nuclear forces, there would be no learning period. They would result in the destruction of nations. The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons carries a very high risk of a potential nuclear catastrophe.

This lesson --and I regard it as the most important substantive lesson by far deriving from the Cuban missile crisis project --has also been endorsed by many distinguished civilian and military leaders around the world.