Analysis & Opinions - Arms Control Today

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 60: Six Timeless Lessons for Arms Control

| October 2022

October marks the 60th anniversary of the most dangerous crisis in recorded history. In October 1962, U.S. President John Kennedy faced off with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, each with his nation’s nuclear arsenal in hand. In the midst of the crisis, in a quiet aside with his brother, Kennedy offered his estimate that the risks of nuclear war were between one in three and even. Nothing that historians have discovered in the decades since has lengthened these odds. Had this crisis ended in nuclear war, hundreds of millions of people in the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe could have experienced sudden death.

As the best documented major crisis in history, in substantial part because Kennedy secretly taped the deliberations in which he and his closest advisers were weighing choices they knew could lead to a catastrophic war, the Cuban missile crisis has become the canonical case study in nuclear statecraft. Over the decades since, key lessons from the crisis have been adapted and applied by the successors of Kennedy and Khrushchev to inform fateful choices. Of the many lessons from this nearly apocalyptic episode, six offer timeless insights for arms control.

First, to survive in a world of mutually assured destruction or MAD, a nuclear power must constrain itself and find ways to persuade its nuclear adversary to constrain itself. MAD is the acronym used by Cold War strategists to capture the essence of objective conditions in which a nuclear power cannot attack an adversary that has a robust nuclear arsenal without triggering a response that destroys itself. Thus, even if country A can destroy country B totally, it cannot do so without B responding with an attack that destroys itself. A nation’s choice to attack an adversary that has a reliable second-strike nuclear arsenal is therefore functionally equivalent to a choice to commit national suicide. In these conditions, a nation’s survival requires it to coexist with its adversary since the alternative is to co-destruct.

Second, from the brute fact that “a nuclear war cannot be won” because at the conclusion the attacker would also have lost their own society, U.S. President Ronald Reagan drew a large categorical imperative: a nuclear war “must therefore never be fought.” Reagan’s often-repeated one-liner, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought,” almost says it all.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“The Cuban Missile Crisis at 60: Six Timeless Lessons for Arms Control.” Arms Control Today, October 2022.