Counterfactual files: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated?

Story highlights

  • The Cuban Missle Crisis might not have ended peacefully
  • President John F. Kennedy chose the best course of action

Tim Naftali, a CNN presidential historian and NYU clinical associate professor co-authored "One Hell of a Gamble:" Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964, with Aleksandr Fursenko.

(CNN)The Cuban missile crisis, recalled Robert F. Kennedy, was "a confrontation between the two giant atomic nations, the US and the USSR, which brought the world to the abyss of nuclear destruction and the end of mankind."

Kennedy would know.
    Over the course of 13 days in October 1962 he watched and counseled his brother, the president, as John F. Kennedy wrestled with what to do about the fact that the Soviets had placed nuclear-tipped missiles on Cuba, minutes away from American population centers.
    Could we and the Soviets have really fallen into that yawning abyss? As RFK understand, although the placement of these missiles actually did not eliminate US nuclear superiority in the Cold War the stakes were very high because Cuba had become an issue in the midterm election of 1962. As happens so often in American history, domestic politics drove foreign policy.
    A missile battery, Cuba, circa 1965. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    To show strength, and fend off Republican charges of weakness, JFK had issued statements in September vowing never to permit the Soviets to put "offensive weapons" 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy had drawn that red line because he was convinced that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, for all of his characteristic bluster, would never be so foolhardy as to do it. And the Kennedy White House was not alone in assuming that it: The top analysts at the CIA agreed; the Russian experts in the State Department and key members of the National Security Council thought drawing a red line did not involve much of risk.
    Armament deployed during the missile crisis of 1962 is displayed at Morro Cabana complex.
    But then the Soviets did it. In fact, as the US government was mulling over the possibility of a Soviet missile installation in Cuba, Soviet ships were carrying 41,000 troops, 42 medium range ballistic missiles, each capable of carrying a one megaton nuclear warhead, 12 tactical nuclear weapons, 80 nuclear-armed cruise missiles and a force of Il-28 bombers with nuclear bombs. When Kennedy found out, thanks to pictures taken by a U-2 spy plane, he realized, that he had no choice but to act tough. "I would have been impeached," Kennedy admitted to his brother, if he didn't do something.
    The US military gave Kennedy three options:
    a) a limited air strike;
    b) a big air strike;
    c) an invasion of Cuba.
    Initially, Kennedy was more of a hawk than a dove. He had drawn a red line; Khrushchev had crossed it, and he wanted the Soviet leader to pay. Until October 20, five days after he learned of the missiles and started meeting secretly with his top national security advisors to figure out what to do, Kennedy wavered between launching an air strike or proceeding with the blockade.
    His brother Bobby was the most effective advocate of not using force, arguing that it would make the United States no better than Imperial Japan, which had notoriously launched a surprise air strike on Pearl Harbor 20 years earlier. But President Kennedy was not convinced. He believed the American people would not understood if he didn't remove the missiles. The turning point came at a special briefing prepared at his request on what an air strike would look like.
    The US government assumed that 16 of the medium range missiles were operational. When the US Air Force could not assure him that that was all the Soviets had on the island and that even what they had might not be taken out in an air strike, Kennedy realized that the cost of miscalculation -- a sudden Soviet decision to launch whatever nuclear missiles they had left -- was to high to consider an air strike as the opening move in this game of Cold War chess.
    Reluctantly, Kennedy endorsed a fourth option designed by his advisors, a group known to history and later Hollywood as "the ExCom." Kennedy would institute a naval blockade -- called a quarantine -- and insist that Khrushchev remove all of the offensive weapons already on the island. Some in the ExCom saw the blockade as a first step to negotiations with Moscow; others as the initial move before an attack, if Khrushchev refused to back down. On October 22, when Kennedy revealed what he knew of Khrushchev's plan in an ominous speech to the world, no one, including Kennedy knew which road he would take.
    As we would learn only a little over a decade ago, Khrushchev was ready to give up within a few days into the crisis; but he did not know how. Even in the days when both sides were looking for a way out, there were so many moving pieces that despite the most peaceful intentions, unintended war might have broken out. Not only had the Soviets sent more nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba than US planners had found but they had armed their submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Just implementing the blockade, an act that was to delay the approach of war, actually involved the possibility of nuclear confrontation because the US Navy had no idea it was playing a cat and mouse game with Soviet sub captains who had nuclear weapons.
    On Friday, October 26, fears of a US invasion were so great that Cuban leader Fidel Castro ordered US reconnaissance planes to be shot down. Although lacking authorization from the Kremlin, Soviet commanders on the island, who controlled the powerful surface-to-air defensive missiles ringing the island agreed to do the same. The stage was set for the shootdown of an American U-2 spy plane the next day. That coupled with the inadvertent violation of Soviet airspace by another US spy plane put pressure on both Khrushchev and Kennedy to find a quick way to end this crisis before it barreled completely out of control.
    The end game came in the form of a public US promise the next day not to invade Cuba and a private -- long denied -- promise to remove US missiles from Turkey in return for a Soviet promise to pull out their nuclear missiles from Cuba. Unknown to the United States, the Soviets had intended to leave tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba; but when Fidel Castro so misbehaved toward the Soviets after they backed down, Moscow decided it could not trust the Cuban regime with weapons as powerful as these. By December 1962, they were all gone.