News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis for Today’s Crises

| November 2, 2012

In Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s view, “the significant unknowns” during the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly catapulted John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev into nuclear war.

Such unknowns, Allison said, remain as grave a risk for today’s world leaders as they were in October 1962 – especially in the evolving nuclear showdown between Iran and Western powers.

For former diplomat Nicholas Burns, the principal take-away from the Missile Crisis was the importance of giving an adversary a way out of a confrontation short of complete surrender. Burns said that lesson is equally relevant today for those trying to find a solution to the Iran crisis.

Allison and Burns were panelists on Oct. 14 at a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston to consider the modern lessons of the missile crisis. The event kicked off an intensive series of seminars and workshops for scholars from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs to mark the 50th anniversary of the missile crisis.

The moderator for the panel was Juliette Kayyem, Kennedy School lecturer in public policy, who reminded the audience that the missile crisis is often framed through the myth of the tough American president staring down the Russian foe and making him blink. Kayyem said that version fails to capture the nuanced secret diplomacy and the American concessions that made a deal possible.

Allison, director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, said the unknowns of the crisis were part of what he describes to his students as “the fog of life.”

For example, President Kennedy was considering an invasion of Cuba – but did not know that the Russians had deployed battlefield nuclear weapons that would have been used against U.S. ground troops, almost certainly triggering a wider nuclear war.

Allison said that similarly, the United States knows now about some Iranian nuclear sites where uranium is being enriched, and could target those in an air strike. But he said it is extremely implausible that the U.S. knows of every nuclear facility in Iran, and “one thing for sure is you can’t destroy any target that you haven’t identified.”

That heightens the need for a negotiated agreement that persuades Iran to stop short of building a nuclear weapon, Allison said.

Burns, the former under secretary of state for political affairs who now directs the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Project and the Middle East Initiative, said a core lesson of the missile crisis was that “unless you are trying to vanquish the other person, unless you want a 100-to-nothing victory, then you are going to have to make concessions.”

The lesson for those handling the Iran conflict, Burns said, is that “unless we are trying to destroy Iran, you have to leave your adversary some way to negotiate a way out.”

Allison said Kennedy drew that lesson clearly in his American University speech in June 1963, when Kennedy declared: “While defending our national interests, we must avert confrontations that force an enemy to choose between humiliating retreat or war.”

Absorbing their own lessons, after the crisis Kennedy and Khrushchev together established the “hotline,” agreed to a limited nuclear test ban treaty and to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Allison said the lessons today are germane not only for Iran but also for relations with China.

Kennedy recognized what he called “the precarious rules of the status quo,” Allison said. Unless the United States and China can work out their own precarious rules of the status quo, then the chances for confrontation in East Asia in coming years is significant, he added.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Smith, James F.. “Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis for Today’s Crises.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2, 2012.

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