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U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, seated at right, describes aerial photographs of launching sites for intermediate range missiles in Cuba during an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council Oct. 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (AP)
U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, seated at right, describes aerial photographs of launching sites for intermediate range missiles in Cuba during an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council Oct. 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (AP)

Cuban Missile Crisis: 50 years ago, the world held its breath for two weeks Add to ...

Near the end of the crisis, Ottawa offered to paint white some of Canada’s Voodoo fighter-bombers, put UN markings on them and provide them to verify that the Soviets had made good on their promise to pull missiles from Cuba. That mission was turned down.

Risks of brinksmanship

Miscalculation, the grave risks of brinks-manship and the unpredictable behaviour of leaders under stress all remain real and present dangers even as the Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the Cold War ever came to erupting into a full-blown nuclear conflagration that would have turned both the United States and the Soviet Union into wastelands – fades into history.

“It’s not the Cold War anymore, so people don’t go to bed at night fearing they will be incinerated,” says David Welch, the CIGI Chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. But the dangers remain, even as the grim calculus of mutually assured destruction in a world dominated by two superpowers armed with thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles, has been eclipsed.

“There’s still lots of nuclear weapons around and people need to be reminded that we could still have a catastrophe,” said Prof. Welch, a leading expert on the Cuban Missile Crisis and critical leadership issues in moments of confrontation.

While no pair of superpowers are ranged in a nuclear standoff, there are plenty of asymmetrical but no less fraught confrontations, he said in an interview: unpredictable, and now nuclear-armed, North Korea; the looming confrontation between nuclear-armed Israel and Iran over the latter’s murky and controversial nuclear program; the long-standing, and nuclear, India-Pakistan standoff. Even seemingly minor confrontations, like the current one between China-Japan jockeying over tiny islets, can spiral out of control, he said.

It isn’t the nature of the arsenals that poses the gravest risk but rather the dangers of miscalculation and of events spiralling out of control, Prof. Welch said.

As the full truth has slowly emerged about the October, 1962, crisis, the reality is that it wasn’t cold-eyed brinksmanship that averted war, nor a secret deal in which Soviet missiles would be moved from Cuba while American ones would be taken out of Turkey. Luck and fear played major roles over a chaotic – and dangerous – few weeks.

“It was an incredibly messy, dangerous, interaction” Prof. Welch said. “Some of the time [the leaders] didn’t know what their own folks were doing.” Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev, he added, were “scared to death of their own militarys.” War could have started almost by accident as local commanders overreacted, he said.

In a multipolar, unstable 21st-century world, where even non-state actors wield powerful, if unconventional, weapons like fuel-laden jetliners turned into martyr-guided missiles, the most enduring Cuban-crisis lesson may be the overriding need to defuse confrontation.

Fidel Castro: The most dangerous man in the world

Fidel Castro, the fiery, headstrong Communist revolutionary who had ousted the Americans from Cuba and was transforming the Caribbean island into his personal vision of a modern socialist paradise, was – for a few weeks in October, 1962 – the most dangerous man in the world.

“Kennedy thought he had Castro and the Cubans under control, but he didn’t. And Khrushchev thought he had Castro, under control, but, as he would learn to his horror, he didn’t. Cuba was the intervening variable, the ‘X-factor,’ the outlier, the loose cannon that nearly exploded in the faces of the superpowers in October 1962.”

That except from The Armageddon Letters, a dramatic account of the interplay between three powerful leaders, all of whom failed to understand each other, provides a sometimes chilling, new look at the Cuban Missile Crisis

At one point, Mr. Castro, convinced that the confrontation will inevitably end in a massive nuclear confrontation, pressed his Soviet patron to act, actually pushing for a nuclear first-strike.

Written by James Blight and janet Lang, both at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, the account is based on the exchanges of letters and cables among the three leaders, and presents the psychological imperatives that drove them in the midst of the crisis.

The book is part of an ambitious, multimedia effort to reassess the crisis.

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