Myths and Misconceptions About the Cuban Missile Crisis

In three weeks or so my book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Fires of October, will be released.  As we are in the middle of the anniversary of the crisis, I thought it would behoove me to dispel some of the commonly held misconceptions about the crisis.  A lot of these myths have been born in popular media…that and the fact that we don’t do a good job of teaching history.

We were hours from Armageddon.  This crisis was the closest we came to a nuclear confrontation with the former Soviet Union, but that does not mean that we were on the cusp of all-out nuclear war.  Because we went to DefCon-2 we did move some of our nuclear arsenal out of a highly controlled state to where lower ranking officers had access and the capability to unleash weapons without authorization.  Yes, the risk was there, but dropping bombs on the missile sites in Cuba did not necessarily mean we’d be toe-to-toe in nuclear war immediately with the Soviets.

The US was at risk of a first strike from Cuba.  Okay, on paper this was true, but in reality, the Soviet missiles in Cuba had to be prepped, set-up, fueled, targeted, etc..  All of this took considerable time.  With our Blue Moon reconnaissance flights over the island, we would have had some advance notice if the Soviets were preparing to launch.

This was the Soviet’s fault.  I’ll grant you, the Soviets put the missiles in Cuba.  In reality however the Kennedy Administration created the circumstances that led to the crisis.  The debacle of the Bay of Pigs signaled the US wanted to topple Castro.  The Berlin crisis which led to the creation of the Berlin Wall was not responded to by President Kennedy, seeming to signal that US resolve was not strong.  Yes, Khrushchev set the missiles to Cuba, but after the summit with the US President, he was convinced that the young American leader was weak and indecisive. Kennedy inadvertently sowed the seeds that led to this crisis.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff were pushing to get the US into war with the Soviets.  The movies and some of the memoirs sure seem to point to this.  Having said that, I’ve listened to some of the key tapes at the National Archives, and have spent hours going over the transcripts.  Much of this rhetoric that the JCS was trying to ignite a war is speculative and is often quoted out of context.  What they did repeat, over and over again, was that there was no way to ensure that all of the missiles were destroyed by airstrikes alone.  You’d need boots on the ground.  Their role, as they stated in conversations with the President, was to protect the United States.  The best way to ensure that was to attack and possibly invade Cuba.

The US made the Soviets back down.  Secretary Rusk’s comment, “”We’ve been eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked,” confuses some people.  This crisis was averted not by making the Soviets back down – but via a backdoor (non-public) agreement on the part of President Kennedy to trade the obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba.  We didn’t make the Soviets lose.  We didn’t make them back down.  We traded with them.

The infamous clash in the plot room.  The movie Thirteen Days made it look as if there was a clash between Secretary of Defense McNamara and Admiral Andersen in the plot room at the Pentagon resulting in Admiral Andersen stating, “We’ve been running blockades since the days of John Paul Jones!”   This is bolstered by McNamara’s autobiography.  However there are two sides to every story.  I found several written accounts by Admiral Andersen that certainly cast doubts on the McNamara account.  I’m not saying that McNamara is wrong, but if the truth is somewhere between these two versions of the event – then the movie is inaccurate.

The Soviet ships ran right up to the quarantine line, nearly sparking war.  The truth of the matter is the majority of the Soviet ships turned around hundreds of miles from the quarantine line.  In fact, the US contracted the line during the crisis, bringing it in closer to Cuba.

The US invasion of Cuba would have been a cake walk.   Okay, this is the subject of my upcoming book.  Let me assure you, this was not a walk in the park for the US.  We thought there were 17,000 Soviets on the island – there were 44,000 – and these were highly armored/mechanized units.  We could only account for 11% of the 100,000 men of the Cuban Army – and army that had been recently trained by Soviet advisors.  There’s more – but then again, that’s why I wrote the book.  Cake walk?  Far from it!

What did I miss?  Were there misconceptions you’ve spotted over the years that I missed?

5 thoughts on “Myths and Misconceptions About the Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. Greg

    LTC Anthony Herbert in his book, ‘Soldier’ (page 88) gives an account of the military preparations for the Airborne invasion of Cuba. It’s an interesting perspective from someone who knew about combat but was learning about military politics

  2. Author and Historian Blaine L. Pardoe

    Great tip. The airborne material was hard to come by when I was doing research on the book – but I had some good sources.

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