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A Nuclear Secret

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On a citizen diplomacy trip to Moscow in October 1986, I learned a disturbing secret about the Cuban missile crisis that shocked Robert McNamara when he first heard the Soviet secret six years later. The consequences of this secret continue to be relevant today.

During the crisis in 1962, McNamara had been U.S. Secretary of Defense; and my Soviet source, a close aide to Nikita Khrushchev who had sent missiles and warheads to Cuba and decided, at the climax of the crisis, to remove them. That crisis, which lasted 13 days for the U.S. side, has been called the most dangerous moment in human history.

What the former aide told me, over coffee, was that before the climax of the crisis the Soviets had already brought to Cuba not only big missiles that could reach much of the U.S., but also, unknown to JFK and his aides, tactical nuclear weapons for delivery systems that could be used to repel a U.S. naval invasion of the island.

As I knew from Robert Kennedy's account (published in 1969, after the author's murder), U.S. leaders had seriously considered launching an invasion of Cuba and made preparations to do so. According to Michael Dobbs in One Minute to Midnight(2008), arguments in favor of doing so were presented by the President's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, by members of the Joint Chiefs, by Senators Russell and Fulbright, and by others.

Having been in Reykjavik on the way to Moscow during the 1986 summit meeting between President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev, I was even more attuned than usual to the possibility of accidental nuclear war. In Reykjavik, I was no closer to high-level negotiations about the nuclear standoff than the CBS television control room (where I watched the coverage), but since then, thanks in part to the Freedom of Information Act, many of the papers about the summit meeting are now available online.

After coffee with the former Khrushchev aide, it never occurred to me that U.S. intelligence had not subsequently discovered the presence in Cuba in 1962 of Soviet tactical nuclear warheads (as perhaps they did after McNamara had left the Pentagon). It seemed likely that my Soviet source was trying not to scare me, but to find a way to prevent a future miscalculation, to reduce the probability of something like the Cuban missile crisis ever happening again. I regarded the information as an example of the new and uncertain policy of glasnost or openness.

My modest contribution was to suggest that the former Khrushchev aide and other principals and staff on both sides could meet and share their perceptions during the crisis, and to mention some possible sponsoring organizations, mainly academic. A series of meetings did occur, including one held in Havana in 1992, at which McNamara learned about the tactical nuclear weapons.

In the Havana meeting when Castro told about the tactical nukes, McNamara was so upset that he thought the translation must be bad ("I couldn't believe what I was hearing"). He asked Casto three questions: Did the Cuban leader know in 1962 about the Soviet nuclear warheads then on the island? Would he have suggested that the nukes be used against the U.S.? And if they were used, what did he think would happen to Cuba?

In the frank atmosphere of these retrospective meetings, Castro replied that he did know during the crisis that the Soviets had brought nukes to Cuba (including 90 tactical warheads, said McNamara in "The Fog of War"); he (Castro) had in fact suggested to Krushchev that nuclear missiles in Cuba be fired at the U.S.; and if his advice were taken, he expected his country to be totally destroyed. Further, Castro offered his opinion that if McNamara and JFK had been in a similar situation, they would have acted as he did.

In the documentary movie, "The Fog of War," McNamara pauses, at a loss for words, overcome by emotion, and reports that he replied to Castro, "Mr. President, I hope to God we wouldn't have done it. Pull down the temple on our heads? My God!"

My amiable coffee in Moscow happened more than 23 years after the missile crisis, so any secrets from that episode were no longer operational but archival in nature. (Our conversation occurred about as long after that crisis in 1962 as the crisis itself came after the start of World War Two, or as the Soviets called it, the Great Patriotic War). Nonetheless, the lesson about the rich possibilities of miscalculation remains relevant now.

Why was McNamara so upset? Until that meeting in 1992, he had been unaware that the Soviets already had 90 tactical nuclear warheads stationed in Cuba (though U.S. intelligence had discovered delivery systems for tactical warheads). He was upset because one "option" seriously considered by the President's special "executive committee" was an invasion of Cuba. Preparations were being made. When the crisis was settled, the planned invasion was only a couple of days away.

Dean Acheson, who had been a distinguished Secretary of State under Truman and who as an elder was invited into U.S. deliberations during the Cuban missile crisis, called the outcome "pure dumb luck." But if JFK had followed Acheson's advice, and that of several members of his inner circle, top military leaders, Senators, and others--to attack as many of the known missiles as possible and then to invade the island--and if the Soviets had fired even some of the tactical nuclear weapons they had (including one aimed at the Guantanamo base), where would a nuclear exchange have stopped?

Luck was also invoked by McNamara, who favored the blockade or "quarantine" adopted by JFK, and who like Acheson did not then know about the Soviet tactical nukes. In "The Fog of War," slashing his hand at the camera, McNamara says, "it was luck [pause] that prevented nuclear war." Holding his index finger a quarter inch from his thumb, he added, "We came that close."

The point for today is that, when nuclear weapons are involved, we are one step away from irreparable consequences. A friend of mine defines humans as "quasi-domesticated primates with power tools." As Jonathan Schell warned us in The Fate of the Earth as long ago as 1982, the tools now include a collection of nuclear missiles capable of casting into the shadows even World War Two and the events of those years.

A mythology grew up about JFK's crisp performance as a crisis manager. The dominant lesson learned by the "best and brightest" was that in a crisis, you should show some restraint: don't pull down the temple (in McNamara's phrase) or tug on the ends of a rope in which the knot of war has been tied (Khrushchev's). Instead, consider your options carefully and offer the other side an acceptable deal.

At the end of the Cuban missile crisis, the way out was a U.S. initiative, an agreement under which the Soviet missiles would be swiftly removed from Cuba, in return for a U.S. promise not to invade that island and a secret and oral promise that U.S. would withdraw missiles from Turkey in 4-5 months. Since the latter missiles were old-fashioned and vulnerable anyway, the U.S. considered that it had prevailed. As McNamara reported in "The Fog of War," he took the joint chiefs of staff to the White House where JFK told them our side had won (but they were to be tactful and not claim victory).

Perhaps if JFK had not allowed the prior Bay of Pigs invasion to be launched and then aborted, and if he had not permitted Khrushchev to treat him roughly at the 1961 Vienna summit, Khrushchev might have hesitated ever to send nuclear weapons to Cuba. In that case, there would have been no crisis to manage.

A nuclear war represented by what Khrushchev called a "knot" would have meant destruction for both superpowers (and for places where they had military forces), and probably "nuclear winter" as well. According to McNamara, it was barely untied, that knot.

Apart from the necessity to have cool heads during a crisis or to pick the option that works, what is the lesson of McNamara holding his fingers barely apart and saying, "we came that close" to nuclear war? Will good "crisis management" and "luck" be enough in the long run?

In financial analysis, "black swans" have become a popular metaphor for dangers that are very high in negative consequences, even if they seem vanishingly low in probability. For example, in terms of the behavior of big banks, the economic crisis of 2008 (and beyond); in terms of nuclear power, Chernobyl; in terms of storms, the effects of Katrina; in terms of deep sea drilling, the BP geyser in the gulf; or in terms of rocketry, Challenger (which had happened in the year when I first visited Moscow). These crises share a theme: the very low estimated probability of their happening. Obviously, they did happen. But has this lesson been learned? In the documentary about him, McNamara remarks that he knew of three situations that nearly ended in a nuclear exchange.

Since the years after 1991, the U.S. has preened itself as the sole remaining superpower, but the world is still full of nuclear weapons, including warheads in the hands of enemies of each other (India, Pakistan), a potential rival of ours (China), what is called a rogue state (North Korea), plus the core of the former USSR (Russia), European allies of ours (France, Great Britain), and Middle East states (Israel and perhaps in the near future Iran). Apart from their existence, at least some of these warheads and many nuclear materials are ill-guarded and, in any case, subject to the kind of secrets and miscalculation that occurred in the Cuban missile crisis.

In a subsequent article, I plan to consider what can now be done.