Letter: The crisis created by Khrushchev and Kennedy

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The Independent Online
Sir: Phillip Knightley and Peter Pringle have had a good look at the 1962 'Cuba missile crisis' (5 October), but something remains to be said about its build-up and its long-term consequences.

According to Mr Knightley and Mr Pringle: 'The mystery of the crisis is: why did Khrushchev initiate it?' No mystery, really. For the previous nine months or more, the US administration had been working on a new nuclear strategy to go with the vast number of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles Kennedy had begun ordering in 1961. This was in spite of his knowing from U-2 overflights that the Soviet Union had very few weapons that could reach America: that there was absolutely no 'missile gap'.

On 16 June 1962, the then US Secretary for Defense, Robert McNamara, announced that the US would soon have a 'second strike counterforce' capability against the Soviet Union. What that meant was that US missiles would ordinarily be targeted on every Soviet missile, and that even if the Soviet Union attacked first, the US could, having absorbed that attack, respond in a 'second strike' and destroy not only any unused Soviet missiles that were left, 'but . . . an enemy's society' also.

Examining this most explicit speech, Khrushchev and his aides could hardly fail to understand that the 'second strike counterforce' capability necessarily included a 'first strike counterforce' capability with which the US could destroy all Soviet missiles - and all Soviet society - out of the blue. Absurdly, McNamara hadn't at all meant it that way: he just thought it was sound deterrence.

But the chief element in a 'stable deterrent balance' was not for one side to be left behind in a position where his opponent could wipe out his retaliatory forces and his whole society in one blow. At the time, in July 1962, I wrote in a column in the Guardian about this speech of McNamara's: 'The (US) build-up looks like a first strike posture; the speech sounds like a first strike speech'; and I said that Khrushchev would have no alternative but to respond in kind. The world, I thought, was likely to be a more dangerous place. (That winter, I got a message through Cecil King from Khrushchev saying I had got it right.)

By putting short- and medium-

range nuclear missiles into Cuba, Khrushchev did, indeed, respond in kind: he set out to muddle the calculations for any existing first strike plan the US might have (and the Strategic Air Command did, in fact, have one) while he rushed to build up the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear forces so that the US would never again be able to take them out. He and his successors bankrupted the Soviet Union in the process. Ronald Reagan, in an equally successful retaliatory build-up later on, then more or less bankrupted the United States.

Yours sincerely,


House of Lords

London, SW1

6 October