10/26/2012 08:25 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Fifty Years Since the Missile Crisis: We Avoided Armageddon Not Once, But Twice


Fifty years ago this weekend -- there is no better way to put it -- "all hell almost broke loose." Downtown Manhattan and the Mall in Washington, D.C., were almost hit by a nuclear warhead 60 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A massive strike against the Soviet Union would have followed, more than 150 million people would have been killed and an ensuing "nuclear winter" would have caused mass species extinctions. Today is a good day to reflect on our good fortune that Western civilization survived that day half a century ago.

On this anniversary of the missile crisis, we have been hearing the story of the dramatic "13 days" told again and again. But the world escaped Armageddon again two decades later -- a second Armageddon averted that has for the most part been forgotten, taken for granted. That event was the spectacularly nonviolent collapse of the Soviet empire, which was backed by the largest and most powerful military and repressive apparatus of any state in history. An empire with thousands of nuclear weapons dissolved with no missiles launched, no troops engaged, no bullets fired against its adversaries in the West. There was also no great storming of the Kremlin to seize power, no cries of "death to the tyrant" by armed rebels fighting for democracy -- no martial law, no mass killing of its own people. As Serge Schmemann has written, "regime change came with a whimper."

Strangely, these two historic events came together in Moscow in 1989 at the unprecedented, first face-to-face meeting of the key living veterans of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded in real time against the background of the collapse of the Soviet empire. I was fortunate to be present with former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob McNamara and former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the legendary "Mr. Nyet," the man whom Stalin sent to Washington, D.C., in 1949, who had spent his career building Soviet power. There was Sergei Khrushchev, who knew the contents of the secret memoirs of his father Nikita Khrushchev, together with a top Cuban Politburo member and Army General and later we would be joined by Fidel Castro.

It was a moment when great history was being told and made at the same time. As we sat in Moscow, listening to the lessons seared in the minds and hearts of those who stood on the brink, Gorbachev was taking steps that would lead, largely inadvertently, to the second great victory for nonviolence -- the collapse of the Soviet empire. He was in fact himself on the on the brink of losing his own political power. The first day of our meeting on the missile crisis in Moscow, Gorbachev publicly made a call "to draw lessons from the event that put the world on the edge of the nuclear abyss." He used the story of the successful step back in 1962 as an example to promote negotiation with the West and an end to the Cold War. He took steps to release the Eastern European satellite states from the Soviet empire, abandoning the "Brezhnev Doctrine" that kept small states like Poland and Czechoslovakia in the grip of Soviet military force.

But events moved faster than Gorbachev expected, slipping out of his control -- and to a second slip to the edge of Armageddon. Just months after our Moscow meeting, crowds in East Germany started to use sledgehammers to knock down the Berlin Wall. Though Gorbachev had at his command the feared and still very loyal five-million-man Soviet army, not a shot was fired. For decades, we had seen images of Warsaw Pact soldiers shooting dead those who tried to climb the wall and run to freedom on the other side, their lifeless bodies tangled in barbed wire.

When asked by a close personal aide why he did not respond with an iron fist as Soviet power dissolved, Gorbachev replied that he could not bring himself to use violence. He was a man who, together with many of his top advisers, had grown up remembering the brutal end to the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks and troops killed peaceful protesters. That event would profoundly affect the lives of millions. In the brief window before Soviet forces crushed the reform, a young Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became the "poet president" of the Czech Republic, managed to make it to New York City, to experience the excitement on the streets, the anti-Vietnam war peace movement. He saw the rock musical Hair, characterized as "a celebration of life, a love letter to freedom, and a passionate cry for hope and change." Havel became an advocate of nonviolence (and lifelong fan of rock music), writing a profound essay, "The Power of the Powerless," which played a major role in catalyzing a nonviolent moral revolution, largely invisible to the West, that reached beyond Czechoslovakia to inspire leaders of the Solidarity movement in Poland, and many in Russia. A young Gorbachev had visited Prague shortly after the hopeful reform was crushed. Many of Gorbachev's advisers were working in Prague at the time.

Gorbachev refused to resort to violence, dissolving the Warsaw Pact, expecting that the U.S. and its allies would dissolve NATO and create a joint security organization. But we kept the Cold War symbols, pocketed our gains and pushed NATO to the Russian border, what the most senior American Soviet expert George Kennan predicted would be "most fateful error of the post-war period," a move that would

"inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking."

Many chastise Vladimir Putin for his authoritarian management of Russia. But Putin was elected promising to "lift Russia from her knees." What we did to Russia was a milder version of what we did to Germany in Versailles after WWI. We helped create Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin. I learned a great lesson in college from systems thinker Dana Meadows: When we look at a problem, we always tend to place ourselves outside the system. But we are part of it. If we embrace this truth, we are much less likely to want to cast the proverbial first stone (and we are more likely to find a long-term solution rather than someone to condemn). If we embrace this truth, we -- God forbid -- might have to embrace The Sermon on the Mount.

Gorbachev did not intervene that year in Eastern Europe, even though the fall of the Berlin Wall radicalized the situation and created forces that directly threatened the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Gorbachev could have employed the full force of the USSR's repressive military machine to keep the Soviet Union together. He could have imposed martial law and brought the tanks into the streets. But he remained committed to what he had seen in the hopeful Prague Spring, and in Khrushchev's reforms in the early 1960s -- a "socialism with a human face." There were many flaws in Gorbachev's vision for reform at the level of socioeconomic policy; the point is that it was human. He showed a humanity that transcended politics and personal political power. This should be honored, especially at a time when we have seen Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria use the full force of their repressive machines to try to crush internal dissent and cling to power.

But the nonviolent collapse of the repressive Soviet regime also holds profound lessons for the rebels. Many have taken it as a given that armed overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Arab Spring was justified in an effort to bring democracy. In Libya, an estimated 30,000 people died, there were 10,000 NATO air strikes and tribal politics and militias have filled the power vacuum. The war in Syria is portrayed by fighters seeking to oust Bashir Assad as a heroic struggle for democracy; but for many it is a battle for sectarian revenge by the majority against the Alawite ruling minority.

The collapse of the Soviet empire has given us a lesson that we must not forget: revolutions can be "velvet." In the case of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the impossible happened. Seemingly unshakeable pillars of political power -- a government supported by an army of soldiers, secret police and bureaucrats -- collapsed without violence. It was not military power that decided the outcome. Force was not the "ultimate arbiter." Like a fairy tale, Vaclav Havel the playwright became president in the ancient Prague Castle. He refused to seek vengeance against those who had persecuted and imprisoned him. In this case, it was the meek who inherited the earth.

On this anniversary of the missile crisis, we seek to learn from history. Let us focus not only on the lessons of 1962, but equally -- or more so, right now -- on the lessons of the second great Armageddon averted in 1991. We need only look at the violent breakup of little Yugoslavia to imagine how terrible the collapse of the Soviet Union might have been had Gorbachev not been at the helm. History tells us that "revolutions eat their children." Most violent revolutions -- whether France in 1789, China in 1911, Russia in 1917, or Iran in 1979, resulted not in democracy but in strongmen and more state control.

This 50th anniversary of the missile crisis is a good day to pay tribute to those who stood then and who stand now for nonviolence. In 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev stepped back from the brink. In 1991, Gorbachev could not bring himself to use the repressive military machine at his fingertips. The world needs more heroes who pursue deep and lasting social change through nonviolence, empathy and humility (who actually believes that they can control events and avoid unintended consequences in this complex world of modern warfare?). Today is a good day to honor the spirit of Vaclav Havel, and also of Mahatma Gandhi, of Martin Luther King. At times these days it seems we have forgotten them. They showed that there are alternatives to violence. Those who have gone before have shown the way, bequeathed us lessons. This is their gift to us today.