National Security Archive: The Cuban Missile Crisis @ 60: Postmortems

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Khrushchev: “We were truly on the verge of war”

Left in the dark about missile exchange, Pentagon study drew wrong conclusions

Castro: “A great indignation”

By Peter Kornbluh

Washington, D.C., December 13, 2022 - In the immediate aftermath of the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev met with the Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader, Antonín Novotný, and told him that “this time we really were on the verge of war,” according to minutes of their October 30, 1962, meeting posted today by the National Security Archive. “How should one assess the result of these six days that shook the world?” he pointedly asked, referring to the period between October 22, when President Kennedy announced the discovery of the missiles in Cuba, and October 28, when Khrushchev announced their withdrawal. “Who won?” he wondered.

To “assess the result” and the implications of those dangerous days when the world stared down what Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen called “the gun barrel of nuclear war,” the National Security Archive is posting a final collection of postmortem documents, concluding its series on the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition to the summary of the Khrushchev-Novotný meeting, the selection includes correspondence from Khrushchev to Castro, Castro’s own lengthy reflections on the missile crisis, a perceptive aftermath report from the British Ambassador to Havana, and a lengthy analysis by the U.S. Defense Department on “Some Lessons from Cuba.”

From the Cuban perspective, the outcome of the Crisis de Octubre was the worst of all worlds: a victory for the enemy and a betrayal by the ally that had installed the missiles to defend Cuba. Instead of relief that a massive U.S. invasion had been avoided, along with nuclear war, the Cubans felt “a great indignation” and “the humiliation” of being treated as “some type of game token,” as Castro recounted at a conference in Havana 30 years later.

In his conversation with Novotný, the Soviet premier declared victory. “I am of the opinion that we won,” he said. “We achieved our objective—we wrenched the promise out of the Americans that they would not attack Cuba” and showed the U.S. that the Soviets had missiles “as strong as theirs.” The Soviet Union had also learned lessons, he added. “Imperialism, as can be seen, is no paper tiger; it is a tiger that can give you a nice bite in the backside.” Both sides had made concessions, he admitted, in an oblique reference to the missile swap. “It was one concession after another … But this mutual concession brought us victory.”

In their postmortems on the missile crisis, the U.S. national security agencies arrived at the opposite conclusions: the U.S. had relied on an “integrated use of national power” to force the Soviets to back down. Since knowledge of the missile swap agreement was held to just a few White House aides, the lessons learned from the crisis were evaluated on significantly incomplete information, leading to flawed perceptions of the misjudgments, miscalculations, miscommunications, and mistakes that took world to the brink of Armageddon.