The Cuban Missile Crisis Could Happen Again

Oct 25, 2021. | By Will Hurd

JFK NYT Cuban Missile Crisis

Fifty-nine years ago this month, the world came the closest it has ever been to a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are learnings from this period that are applicable to situations in the world right now, but they aren’t being applied. During those 13+ days in 1962 when the U.S. became aware of the presence of Russian missiles on the island nation of Cuba that could strike any city in America:

  • The Cuban military shot down a U.S. surveillance plane killing the pilot
  • The U.S. amassed over 180,000 troops in Florida to prepare for an invasion of Cuba
  • The captain of a Russian submarine actually gave an order to launch a nuclear tipped torpedo at a U.S. Navy vessel (thank God the second in command talked the captain down from following through on this command)
  • All three countries had a significant number of senior leaders with itchy trigger fingers advising their heads-of-state to shoot first to maintain tactical advantage

The conflict was resolved when Bobby Kennedy passed a message from his brother - President John F. Kennedy - to the Russian Ambassador in the U.S., a response to a previous letter sent by Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Because of the lack of secure communications at the time, the Russian ambassador had to transmit this World War III-preventing message back to the Kremlin via Western Union – the most popular way in the ‘60s to send a telegram around the world. 

A seventeen-year-old employee of Western Union picked up the message which required a response within twenty-four hours - from the Russian embassy on his bicycle and pedaled it to the Western Union DC office for transmission to Moscow. Kennedy found out Khrushchev’s response over a radio broadcast in Europe.

One of the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that leadership matters.

What is mind-blowing to me is how three countries were making decisions that could have led to the destruction of life on Earth based on very imperfect information and a significant misunderstanding of the information that they did have. For instance:

  • America didn’t know nuclear weapons were already in Cuba and we significantly underestimated the number of troops both the Russians and the Cubans had on the island. 
  • The Cubans firmly believed that Kennedy was searching for any pretext for invading Cuba, but didn’t realize that after the Bay of Pigs debacle, which Kennedy inherited from his predecessor, Kennedy had zero interest in trying again. 
  • The Russians failed to realize the American nuclear weapons that were in Turkey, which the Russians thought were going to be used to attack Russia, were already set to be decommissioned. 

But the two craziest things for me are:

  1. This situation was deescalated via telegrams and radio broadcasts
  2. The two world leaders – Khrushchev and Kennedy—were able to overcome the inertia of groupthink by their advisors and be calmer and cooler than everyone around them to prevent a catastrophe. 

One of the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that leadership matters. Calm and cool leaders possessing integrity, who are unafraid of suffering the consequences that often come with doing the right thing, could be the only thing that separates us from armageddon and peace. 

In mid-October 2021, the Minister of Defense for Taiwan said the Chinese military would be able to easily invade and control Taiwan within four years

Another lesson is that countries need to make their foreign policy intentions clear to prevent misconceptions by allies or adversaries. Unfortunately, today, on this latter point the United States and Europe are doing a poor job when it comes to another island nation, one which  could be the tinderbox which once again threatens to ignite a hot war between two nuclear powers – Taiwan.

Red and Blue National Taiwanese Flag

Why should we care about Taiwan at a time when Americans are grappling with rising costs of everyday products from fuel to food, dealing with the constant impacts to supply chains from the COVID-19 pandemic, and worrying about whether their kids are getting the right education to be successful in a world that is becoming more interconnected and complex? We should care because all these issues will be made worse if China were to invade Taiwan, since Taiwan owns 64% of the world’s manufacturing capacity of semiconductors, the building blocks of the information revolution. Not only would this impact the ability of Americans to get phones, computers, cars, and domestic appliances like refrigerators, this would affect the American economy’s role as the most important economy in the world, impacting the purchasing power of Americans, our retirement accounts, and our kids’ ability to get good paying jobs. 

The Chinese government has made it clear they want to surpass the United States as the world’s superpower and they have been executing a plan to achieve this goal by striving to be the world’s leader in several advanced technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. What all these things have in common is that they need a whole bunch of semiconductors to work. 

In mid-October 2021, the Minister of Defense for Taiwan said the Chinese military would be able to easily invade and control Taiwan within four years, and we might not be able to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the U.S. fast enough. 

If we are going to prevent China from bullying the rest of the world and do it in a way that will prevent the kind of brinksmanship we saw fifty-nine years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis, then the United States is going to have to work double-time with our allies now to make the Chinese government understand the juice won’t be worth the squeeze. Otherwise, we better have a U.S. President that is calm, cool and with plenty of integrity who can deal with this quagmire in 2025 because this conflict is coming whether we like it or not.

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