Fifty years have passed since the Cuban missile crisis took place in 1962. A failure to diplomatically resolve the crisis, which lasted from Oct. 15-28, might have developed into a nuclear exchange that turned into a total nuclear war.
At that time the United States had about 27,000 nuclear warheads and the Soviet Union about 3,000. The crisis taught the international community an important lesson: It is extremely difficult to manage a crisis between countries if communication is lacking and a catastrophic development may ensue.
On Oct. 14, 1962, a U.S. reconnaissance plane detected the construction of sites for medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. On Oct. 22, U.S. President John F. Kennedy publicly announced the discovery of the sites. Faced with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s inflexible stance, Kennedy initially was inclined to attack the Cuban missile sites by air.
But acting on advice from experts in his administration, Kennedy eventually opted to establish a military blockade of Cuba to prevent the further entry of Soviet nuclear weapons into the island country. After the U.S. indicated through talks that it would not invade Cuba and secretly agreed to remove certain nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey, Soviet Premier Khrushchev announced on Oct. 28 that the Soviet Union would remove its nuclear missiles from Cuba, bringing the crisis to a close.
If Kennedy had carried out the air raid, the Soviet Union and Cuba could have retaliated with nuclear weapons. Such an act could have triggered a nuclear retaliation by the U.S. and led to a total nuclear war.
According to the late Robert McNamara, defense secretary of the Kennedy administration, during the crisis the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believed that nuclear warheads had not yet been brought into Cuba. But in 1992, a former Soviet military officer revealed that in fact 162 nuclear warheads were in Cuba at the time.
On Oct. 27, a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba. The U.S. regarded this as a provocation by the Soviet Union, but later it turned out that a Soviet missile crew had ignored an order by Khrushchev and shot it down. But Kennedy and Krushchev remained in communication and were able to reach an agreement that ended the crisis.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union subsequently agreed to establish a hot line to allow direct communication between their leaders with the aim of reducing the risk of a nuclear conflict.
Ten years ago, McNamara said that luck also played a role in averting a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. In a crisis situation, accidents, miscalculations and misunderstandings of the other party’s intentions can make a situation uncontrollable. This is an important lesson for any country, but especially for nuclear powers. The Cuban missile crisis shows that security based on nuclear deterrence is shaky and that a nuclear crisis can happen.
About 20,000 nuclear warheads still exist in the world. No efforts should be spared to reduce and eventually abolish all nuclear weapons. It is regrettable that Japan recently refrained from signing a statement submitted to the U.N. General Assembly, which referred to the “immense humanitarian consequences” of the use of nuclear weapons and called on all governments to “intensify their efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons and achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Japan and China, now involved in a diplomatic crisis over the Senkaku Islands, should take the lesson of the Cuban missile crisis seriously and make every effort to ensure that clear lines of communication exist, especially between two countries’ leaders.