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55 Years Later, What Is Still Misunderstood About The Cuban Missile Crisis?09:45Download

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President John F. Kennedy announces on television the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions during the Cuban missile crisis, on Oct. 22, 1962. (Keystone/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
President John F. Kennedy announces on television the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions during the Cuban missile crisis, on Oct. 22, 1962. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Fifty-five years ago this week, the world came to the brink of nuclear war in what became known as the Cuban missile crisis. In October 1962, President Kennedy responded to reports of the Soviets setting up nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba with an order to blockade the island. The standoff lasted nearly two weeks.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks about what we can learn about today's international conflicts from the Cuban missile crisis with Timothy McKeown, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

Interview Highlights

On what most people misunderstand about the Cuban missile crisis

"I think the standard view is essentially the movie 'Thirteen Days,' which shows a purely bilateral confrontation that's mostly about military issues. And it basically explains U.S. success in terms of superior resolve and courage, and while resolve and courage certainly have something to do with it, there was a lot more going on than just that."

On the run-up to the crisis

"For one thing the missiles in Cuba like the missiles in North Korea were not a complete surprise. The United States began worrying about missiles in Cuba, ballistic missiles in Cuba, after the Bay of Pigs invasion. And when the Soviets began a substantial arms buildup in Cuba in the summer of 1962, the U.S. began receiving reports from the island that ballistic missiles might be included in those arms shipments. Most of those reports were dismissed as unreliable, but by the late fall, enough information has accumulated that Secretary of Defense [Robert] McNamara in particular began to take those reports very seriously. So the U.S. began planning for the possibility of Soviet missiles long before the U.S. uncovered them with the U-2 flights."

"People I think miss the main lesson, or one of the main lessons, of this crisis if they think the Americans simply squeezed the Soviets, and the Soviets cried 'uncle.'"

Timothy McKeown

On what ultimately resolved the crisis

"I don't know that either the Soviets or the Americans were fully in control of the events, but certainly, when [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev decided that the risks of war were becoming high, he became more receptive to a solution. But people I think miss the main lesson, or one of the main lessons, of this crisis if they think the Americans simply squeezed the Soviets, and the Soviets cried 'uncle.' For the Soviets to agree to remove the missiles they had to get some concessions. First they had to have the Americans agree that they would end the blockade. Secondly they succeeded in extracting an agreement from the U.S. that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Finally the concession that's received the most attention lately, because it was the one that was the most carefully concealed, was the trade of the missiles in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba. Once the Turks indicated that they would be amenable to this solution, it was relatively easy for the U.S. to go ahead and do this."

On lessons from the crisis that apply today

"I think probably the most telling lesson is that third parties were really instrumental in the outcome in Cuba. And I think the role of third parties in the Korean situation is also gonna be critical, particularly the role of South Korea and of Japan. It's hard to imagine a solution emerging that doesn't meet with the consent of those two countries. And I think if the U.S. uses force against North Korea without securing the consent of the South Koreans in particular, that this could have really quite negative political consequences."

On differences in decision making between the Kennedy and Trump administrations

"It's hard to know a lot about how the Trump administration makes its decisions, but it seems to have a rather narrow set of officials involved in this process, and they all seem to have similar backgrounds: They are either close to the president, or they're military or ex-military. In the Kennedy years, national security decision making was made by a much broader array. Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, was a Republican. McNamara and [Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon] were Republicans too. It wasn't crazy or unheard of to have Republicans in your cabinet. And during a crisis, Kennedy reached out to [former President Dwight] Eisenhower and called him up and asked him his opinion. He didn't have any problem talking to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress about what he was doing, and he kept them up to date on what the administration was doing. So in that regard, it's a very different world than the world that we live in now."

This segment aired on October 20, 2017.

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