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Cuban missile crisis, 50 years later: Lessons for Israel

JFK courted nuclear war with the Soviets, now Israel is courting a confrontation with the Iranians. But how can Israel contemplate starting a war against another country, a war that will not be negligible and could be devastating, for doing the same thing that it has been doing for over 40 years?

I love it when people say there’s no comparing a nuclear Iran to a nuclear Soviet Union because, after all, the Soviets weren’t really a threat to blow up America, people weren’t afraid they would just go crazy and push the button – they weren’t religious fanatics like the Iranians, they were a stable, rational regime. Definitely. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened 50 years ago this week. I was 11, and one night towards the end of it, when the U.S. had blockaded Cuba and was threatening to invade if Russia didn’t take down its nuclear missiles in that little Commie country “90 miles off our coast,” the topic of conversation among the kids on my block was the possibility of nuclear war. Growing up in the early 1960s on that block in Los Angeles, there were only two news events big enough to warrant our attention: the Kennedy assassination and the Cuban missile crisis. During that last week of October 1962, we were too young to be really afraid of a nuclear war, but the fear in the country was so intense that it trickled down to us; we were giddy with excitement over this real-life Twilight Zone drama.

So please don’t anybody tell me that Americans weren’t scared shitless of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Yet we survived, thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I see no reason why nuclear Israel can’t survive a nuclear Iran the same way.

I’m sure that if Americans of mainstream political views were reading this, most of them would say: you just disproved your point. America almost didn’t survive the Soviet Union’s nuclear power during the Cuban missile crisis – do you want to take that sort of chance again with a nuclear Iran?

But this is the thing most Americans don’t know – it wasn’t Russia that was threatening war 50 years ago, it was the U.S. People in America believed their country was acting in self-defense. The Russians wanted to point nukes at us from 90 miles away, and we had to stop them. And that’s what Kennedy did – he gave Khrushchev an ultimatum. Khrushchev “blinked,” took down his missiles in Cuba and the world was safe again.

In fact, though, the U.S. already had nuclear missiles pointed at the Soviet Union from just across the border in Turkey, and within striking distance from Italy; Khrushchev just wanted to level the playing field, so to speak. And America was prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union over it. (The crisis ended on October 28 when Kennedy finally agreed to Khrushchev’s deal: the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba and the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey and Italy – but only after Khrushchev agreed that the American “concession” not be made public, and be carried out a few months after the Soviet climb-down in Cuba to avoid the appearance of linkage, of a quid pro quo. If there was a fanatic in this whole episode, it was America.)

There are a couple of resemblances between the American attitude to the Soviets 50 years ago and the Israeli attitude toward Iran today. Israel also thinks that if it attacks – with or without the Americans – it will be doing so in self-defense. The difference is that while Americans at large didn’t know about U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy (though some Americans obviously did), all Israelis know now that Israel has lots of nuclear weapons. How can they contemplate starting a war against another country, a war that will not be negligible and could be devastating, for doing the same thing, building nukes, that Israel has been doing for over 40 years? Why does Israel insist that either Iran backs down or it will strike, just as America did with the Soviets 50 years ago? As Noam Chomsky said of the Kennedy administration’s thinking in his recent  TomDispatch article on the golden anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, it is the belief that “we are Good.”

That’s it. We are Good, we mean well, we want peace, so we have rights that do not accrue to those others, those Evil ones. And if they try to claim the same rights we have, we are entitled – nay, we are duty-bound – to use military force to stop them. We are Good, so we can point nukes at the Russians, and if they try to point nukes back at us, we can attack them because they’re Evil. We are Good, so we can build all the nuclear bombs we want, and if the Iranians try to build just one, we can attack them because they are Evil. It’s not that might makes right, but that right justifies might. We start the war, but it’s not a war of aggression, it’s a war of self-defense – always. By definition.

This ideological disorder didn’t begin with America in the Cuban missile crisis, of course, and it won’t end with Israel in Iran (if we end up in, or over, Iran.) But this week, and particularly on Monday when Obama and Romney try to out-tough each other in their foreign policy debate, it’s worth remembering where that disorder nearly led the world in late October 1962, especially since so many Americans and even more Israelis are still afflicted by it.

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    1. Richard Witty

      The United States was threatened only by a nuclear threat in 1962. The US is huge physically, and was not surrounded by Soviet proxies.

      The Soviet Union was also huge, and although there were bases adjacent, in no way could one accurately argue that the Soviet Union was surrounded.

      The cold war was scary. There were repeated large proxy wars fought on others’ soil, or dual proxy/independent wars. The United States executed stealth and very visible regime change operations numerous times in states within 800 miles of US borders.

      Israel is surrounded by Iranian proxies, that have already undertaken remote terror on Israelis and the terror of random military actions (rockets, mortars).

      That Hezbollah in some association with Syria continues to fight a terror-oriented civil war in Lebanon and Syria, is itself a large real threat.

      The facts are similar and not.

      If they are similar, and that the Iranian logic is similar to the Soviets, then in some effect you are arguing FOR the Netanyahu demand that a red line be established for some military action. The military action that the US undertook relative to Cuba is impossible for Israel or even the US. (So that is not and cannot be parallel.)

      Again, my primary criticism of your thesis is of the thesis of MAD. I don’t believe that it is a functional reasoning. It is different than the Dahiyya reasoning, which is “hit them so hard, even excessively, so that they will never hit us again”.

      That has “worked” relative to Hezbollah and Syria, and not worked relative to Hamas.

      But MAD is different. MAD is, with the use of nuclear weapons, “kill them all after they kill us all”.

      A humane state would not undertake a second nuclear strike. They would not say that the first genocidal wrong justifies a second.

      If known or even suspected, the war game breaks down, the logic does not apply. It only applies if the threat “if you target us, we will kill all of you” is reiterated. And reiterating it, stimulates the presumption that it is already occurring, and then justifies a first strike.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        “But MAD is different. MAD is, with the use of nuclear weapons, “kill them all after they kill us all”.”
        A grave misconception. Iranians are anything but mad.

        What in fact makes Cuban missile crisis totally unfamiliar to Iranian nuclear crisis is the fact that ways of deploying the nuclear charge are totally different.
        Iran has no strategic bombers, hardly any suitable missiles, however it does not actually needs it to deliver nuclear charge to any given location.

        How one would ask?
        Obviously it’s not a problem since nothing stops drug dealers from trafficking tons (literally) of drugs across the globe.

        Reply to Comment
      • sh

        @Richard Witty – “It is different than the Dahiyya reasoning, which is “hit them so hard, even excessively, so that they will never hit us again.
        That has “worked” relative to Hezbollah and Syria, and not worked relative to Hamas.”

        It hasn’t even “worked” relative to Hezbollah. A Lebanese political system that distributes power in a way that sidesteps demography is what stays Hezbollah’s hand while Hamas locked in Gaza has nothing to lose.

        Simply put, so far, the “Dahiyya doctrine” (and identical, for some reason never-named doctrines that preceded it) has never really worked. Even Syria got bits of its territory on the Golan back through negotiation and probably would have got more, if…

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Witty

          I regretfully believe that the Dahiyya doctrine has worked, though not perfectly by any stretch.

          Again, I truly believe that the MAD doctrine does not work with any society that can be called civilized and rational, which we all pride ourselves on.

          There are views of justice, right-wing views, that declare that punishment for crimes must be handed out so that everyone knows that crimes do not go unpunished, and then not done.

          So, extended to the national sphere, that might describe the “duty” to annihilate an attacker.

          Crimes have been done against me, even repeated, and I had opportunity to hold them accountable (by lawsuit in my case). I chose not to pursue it, for the chain of second pains.

          Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      “Yet we survived, thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I see no reason why nuclear Israel can’t survive a nuclear Iran the same way.”

      You see no reason because you are comparing incomparable.
      There is nothing even remotely similar to this cases.
      Even nukes and missiles are different.

      Both USA and USSR could’ve sustained up to 20-30 direct hits until total annihilation.
      How many hits exactly could sustain Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Aaron Gross

      1. Who cares whether it was the US or the USSR that started it? Analogously, who cares if it will be Iran or Israel that starts the next one? The risk is the same either way.

      2. The important thing about the Cuban missile crisis is that it almost led to nuclear war and could have led to nuclear war. One official who was involved in the crisis later said there’d been (this is from memory) about a five percent chance of nuclear war. Those are terrifying odds.

      3. You don’t run foreign policy based on some universalist idea of rights (who has a “right” to nuclear weapons and who doesn’t), as if states were natural persons living together in some community.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      My prediction for +972 and all other political commentators: If Iran gets the bomb, you’ll see left and right rhetoric swap places.

      All of a sudden, the left will be talking about how dangerous the situation is with a nuclear Israel and Iran, how we better be careful, reduce our weaponry, ect., or we’re going to have a nuclear war. We better work for nuclear disarmament because the situation is so dangerous.

      The right will take over the position espoused by Derfner and other leftists now. MAD worked for half a century, Iran won’t respond with nukes to our conventional operations, etc.

      You read it here first, folks.

      Reply to Comment
    5. This too is from memory, but I believe Kennedy had actually already ordered the removal of missles from Turkey and, during the crisis, was surprised to find them still functioning. The Air Force had held up the order, internally. During the crisis, Kennedy ordered the navy to allow the USSR ships to approach closer to give Khrushchev more time to decide. At first, the navy ignored the President’s order; for it would mean contracting the navy quarantine, exposing US ships to possible shelling from Cuba. Kennedy discovered the military had a mind of its own. The Turkey missles were removed as you say, but it meant nothing to Kennedy, for he had ordered their removal earlier.

      This is not really pertinent, but during your 73 war the US went to DEATHCOM 3, which placed nuclear bombers in flight. The Soviets announced they were going to send paratroopers to divide Israeli and Egyptian forces; they backed down when the US effectively said that would lead to world war. I have had occasion to ask a very few Israelis if they knew of this; the answer was always no.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        It’s DEFCON (defense [readiness] condition), not DEATHCOM (death commandments? rofl)
        Lowest – 5, highest – 1. Highest being used is 2, during Cuban Missile crisis. Went to 3 two times – during Yom Kippur war (for USSR was well-known for never calling off their “peace-making” forces) and during 9/11 (just for the fun of it I guess)

        And yes, this fact is unknown to Israelis in wide, however I guess it’s as widely unknown to Americans or Russians as well.
        After all, DEFCON 2 is still state of peace.

        Reply to Comment
        • My ability to correctly spell, based on sound and memory, is truely horrible. However, “death commandment” isn’t so far off the mark.

          No, most Americans have no clue. Nor do politico junkies, I suspect. It’s old old news. I only remember because I was about 16, watching the strategic bombers taking off on the evening news, wondering what the hell the US was going to do. But it is interesting for those who say Israel is always alone. It wasn’t back then, at any rate.

          Reply to Comment
    6. The Trespasser

      “But it is interesting for those who say Israel is always alone. It wasn’t back then, at any rate.”

      Israel is alone is sense that it has no “friends” only geopolitical allies, however pretty much the same could be said about almost any country.

      Reply to Comment
      • I can honestly say that there is a significant portion of the US which is enamored of Israel, and this goes well beyond any “American Jewish lobby.” The policy elite are less so, but you have seen how Israel is used during Presidential politics. The closest direct criticism of Israel in any Administration I have noticed is Hilary Clinton’s “worry for Israeli democracy.” What I say on this site will not do me well in much of the US.

        In 1973 DEFCON 3 was no joke. Back then, there really was worry of an uncontrolable escalation. And I think DEATHCOM would be a better name.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          It’s a bit reassuring, to know that somewhere Israel is actually liked just for being what it is (semi-sarcastic)

          DEFCON is actually fine, even DEFCON 5

          What is way more scarier is Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)

          From 1961 to 2003 it was aimed against USSR and than Russia. It would be very interesting to know by what plan it was replaced, however I wouldn’t look into it even if such chance given…

          Reply to Comment