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The real lessons of the Cuban missile crisis


CHICAGO - The showdown with Iraq coincides with the 40th anniversary of another confrontation that even today has the power to induce chills.

The Cuban missile crisis was the one time during the Cold War that the United States and the Soviet Union strode right up to the brink of nuclear holocaust. We are told it holds a valuable lesson for how we approach Saddam Hussein, though not everyone agrees on what the lesson is.

Conservatives pay homage to President John F. Kennedy for acting forcefully to eliminate a nuclear threat rather than sitting by while an enemy proceeded to arm for our destruction.

Liberals, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, say it proves the value of vigorously pursuing diplomatic solutions instead of rushing to war.

But both sides of the Iraq debate have missed something important about the nearly catastrophic confrontation that took place in October 1962, and which has some relevance today: We nearly plunged into war over something that had no effect on the security of the American people. The Cuban missile crisis came about because the Kennedy administration overreacted to a move that didn't alter the military balance.

The crisis erupted when the United States discovered that the Soviets were placing nuclear missiles in Cuba - missiles capable of reaching Washington. The administration took that as an intolerable provocation, and many of President Kennedy's advisers urged an immediate air strike or invasion. He ultimately imposed a naval "quarantine" on Cuba while demanding removal of the missiles. For 13 excruciatingly tense days, the two sides contemplated steps that might lead to nuclear war. Finally, the Soviets complied.

The fear in Washington was that the missiles were the prelude to a Soviet nuclear attack. What is forgotten today is that, as some people in the government recognized, the weapons were almost entirely irrelevant. The Soviets already had nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities. If they wanted to incinerate millions of Americans, they didn't need to go through Cuba to do it.

"A missile is a missile," said Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the administration's internal deliberations. "It makes no difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba."

Robert F. Kennedy said later, "They weren't posing any threat, really. I don't see what the problem was."

The missiles gave the Soviets no offensive capability that they didn't already have. What they had at the time, in any case, couldn't come close to matching our nuclear arsenal, which dwarfed theirs.

Missiles based in Cuba could hit their targets in America much quicker, but that had no real significance. It didn't change the important thing: The Soviet Union lacked the firepower to take out our entire nuclear force in a surprise attack. So if they used nukes first, they would be inviting us to incinerate their entire country.

The Cuban missiles had no bearing on that fundamental fact of life. If deterrence would prevent the Soviets from launching missiles based at home - as it did - it would prevent them from launching missiles based in Cuba.

Yet the Kennedy administration portrayed the deployment as part of a "vast plan of piecemeal aggression" and "a grave threat to the Western Hemisphere and to the peace of the world," in the words of our United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson. In fact, it was neither.

The Soviets had two understandable reasons for deploying missiles in Cuba. One was that the United States already had missiles at the Soviet doorstep, in Turkey. Another was that Fidel Castro wanted to discourage an invasion aimed at toppling him from power - something we had already supported in the Bay of Pigs debacle.

Even after that, the U.S. government made plans for getting rid of Mr. Castro. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later wrote that his only purpose was to protect Cuba from us.

President Kennedy felt the Soviets had broken a promise not to install offensive weapons on the island. But from their point of view, these were defensive weapons, aimed at preventing a U.S. invasion - and that position was more than plausible.

So what are the true lessons that can illuminate how we handle Saddam Hussein?

The first is that we shouldn't exaggerate the danger posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of hostile regimes. The second is that those governments may want such armaments for self-preservation rather than aggression. The third is that we shouldn't go to war to address a danger that we can easily suppress with our nuclear arsenal. All three undermine the case for attacking Iraq.

During the Cuban missile crisis, a president put American lives at risk to banish a phantom threat to our security. History sometimes repeats itself.

Steve Chapman is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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