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Blundering on the brink: The secret history and unlearned lessons of the Cuban missile crisis

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Sergey Radchenko and Vladislav Zubok

THERE aren’t enough palm trees, the Soviet general thought to himself. It was July 1962, and Igor Statsenko, the 43-year-old Ukrainian-born commander of the Red Army’s missile division, found himself inside a helicopter, flying over central and western Cuba.

Below him lay a rugged landscape, with few roads and little forest. Seven weeks earlier, his superior — Sergei Biryuzov, the commander of the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces — had traveled to Cuba disguised as an agricultural expert. Biryuzov had met with the country’s prime minister, Fidel Castro, and shared with him an extraordinary proposal from the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to station ballistic nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. Biryuzov, an artilleryman by training who knew little about missiles, returned to the Soviet Union to tell Khrushchev that the missiles could be safely hidden under the foliage of the island’s plentiful palm trees.

But when Statsenko, a no-nonsense professional, surveyed the Cuban sites from the air, he realized the idea was hogwash. He and the other Soviet military officers on the reconnaissance team immediately raised the problem with their superiors. In the areas where the missile bases were supposed to go, they pointed out, the palm trees stood 40 to 50 feet apart and covered only one-sixteenth of the ground. There would be no way to hide the weapons from the superpower 90 miles to the north.

But the news apparently never reached Khrushchev, who moved forward with his scheme in the belief that the operation would remain secret until the missiles were in place.

It was a fateful delusion.

In October, an American high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane spotted the launch sites, and what became known as “the Cuban missile crisis” began. For a week, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his advisers debated in secret about how to respond.

Ultimately, Kennedy chose not to launch a pre-emptive attack to destroy the Soviet sites and instead declared a naval blockade of Cuba to give Moscow a chance to back off.

Over the course of 13 frightening days, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war, with Kennedy and Khrushchev facing off “eyeball to eyeball,” in the memorable words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

The crisis ended when Khrushchev capitulated and withdrew missiles from Cuba in return for Kennedy’s public promise to not invade the island and a secret agreement to withdraw American nuclear-tipped missiles from Turkey.

The details of the palm tree fiasco are just some of the revelations in the hundreds of pages of newly released top-secret documents about Soviet decision-making and military planning.

Some come from the archives of the Soviet Communist Party and were declassified before the war in Ukraine; others were quietly declassified by the Russian Ministry of Defense in May 2022, in the run-up to the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.

The decision to release these documents, without redaction, is just one of many paradoxes of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where state archives continue to release vast troves of evidence about the Soviet past even as the regime cracks down on free inquiry and spreads ahistorical propaganda.

We were fortunate to obtain these documents when we did; the ongoing tightening of screws in Russia will likely reverse recent strides in declassification.

The documents shed new light on the most hair-raising of Cold War crises, challenging many assumptions about what motivated the Soviets’ massive operation in Cuba and why it failed so spectacularly.

At a time of escalating tensions with another brash leader in the Kremlin, the story of the crisis offers a chilling message about the risks of brinkmanship. It also illustrates the degree to which the difference between catastrophe and peace often comes down not to considered strategies but to pure chance.

The evidence shows that Khrushchev’s idea to send missiles to Cuba was a remarkably poorly thought-through gamble whose success depended on improbably good luck.

Far from being a bold chess move motivated by cold-blooded realpolitik, the Soviet operation was a consequence of Khrushchev’s resentment of U.S. assertiveness in Europe and his fear that Kennedy would order an invasion of Cuba, overthrowing Castro and humiliating Moscow in the process.

And far from being an impressive display of Soviet cunning and power, the operation was plagued by a profound lack of understanding of on-the-ground conditions in Cuba. The palm tree fiasco was just one of many blunders the Soviets made throughout the summer and fall of 1962.

The revelations have special resonance at a time when, once again, a leader in the Kremlin is engaged in a risky foreign gambit, confronting the West as the specter of nuclear war lurks in the background. Now, as then, Russian decision-making is driven by hubris and a sense of humiliation. Now, as then, the military brass in Moscow is staying silent about the massive gap between the operation the leader had in mind and the reality of its implementation.

At a question-and-answer session he held in October, Putin was asked about parallels between the current crisis and the one Moscow faced 60 years earlier. He responded cryptically. “I cannot imagine myself in the role of Khrushchev,” he said. “No way.”

But if Putin cannot see the similarities between Khrushchev’s predicament and the one he now faces, then he truly is an amateur historian. Russia, it seems, still has not learned the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis: that the whims of an autocratic ruler can lead his country into a geopolitical cul-de-sac — and the world to the edge of calamity.

In 1962, Khrushchev reversed course and found a way out. Putin has yet to do the same. – Foreign Affairs.

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