Today’s Hawkish Discourse Makes the Cuban Missile Crisis’s Nuclear Brinkmanship Seem Sane

In the 1962 US-Soviet nuclear showdown over Cuba, there was no shortage of voices calling for escalation or decrying “appeasement.” But there was always broad support for the kind of talks that ended up saving the world — something frighteningly absent today.

US United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin turn to look at a display of aerial photos brought into the Security Council by the United States on October 25, 1962. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

Sixty years ago today, the world breathed a sigh of relief after humanity’s closest call with nuclear holocaust ended peacefully. Over the thirteen days from October 16 to 29, 1962, the Cuban missile crisis graphically showcased how easily catastrophe could be triggered in the nuclear age.

Exactly sixty years later, the world is again at risk of nuclear “Armageddon,” according to US president Joe Biden, as the same two states again find themselves locked in conflict over a neighboring state. Over the past eight months, a pervasive narrative has emerged in public discourse about the war in Ukraine: Russian president Vladimir Putin is a Hitler-like madman bent on European, if not world, domination, so dialogue and negotiation are pointless. Putin won’t talk, Russian officials’ statements to the contrary are merely a ruse, and even if they weren’t, talks would be immoral — a “reward” to an aggressor state — and would actually make things more dangerous, just as appeasing Nazi Germany made war more likely. The only way to end the war is through “overwhelming power” on the military side, and to “humiliate” its leader, or even remove him from power.

To that end, diplomacy for the purpose of de-escalation and finding a way out of the conflict before it triggers nuclear disaster, has become a “quasi-thought crime” in Washington. When thirty House progressives recently signed a letter meekly urging the president to add “a proactive diplomatic push” to his war strategy, they quickly retracted it and called for military victory instead under a blizzard of attacks. The Biden administration said it was “reassured” by the withdrawal of the letter, and has spent the war avoiding talks with Russian officials, with the president most recently ruling out a meeting with Putin to discuss the war.

As both US foreign policy and its political climate come to resemble more and more the most dangerous and intellectually stifling years of the Cold War, it pays to look back at those thirteen fearful days sixty years ago and how that era’s media and political establishment experienced them. What lessons does it hold for us today?

Brinkmanship in the Fog

In October 1962, the United States and Soviet Union were caught in a conflict spiral. Years of rising confrontation and conflict reached a boiling point in the fall of 1962, as the two nuclear powers found themselves in a long-running standoff over the divided city of Berlin. Then, on October 15, the CIA produced photographic evidence of Soviet nuclear missile installations being built in Cuba, which had been moving toward an alliance with the Soviets since the 1959 revolution that brought the Fidel Castro to power. Suddenly the focus of United States–Soviet conflict had shifted to ninety miles off the coast of Florida. It was, incidentally, a month before the midterm US elections, and Republican leaders made it clear they would make the issue the cornerstone of their campaign.

The Soviet move, spearheaded by premier Nikita Khrushchev, was prompted by a number of motivations. In part it was an attempt to even the strategic playing field, giving the Soviets the capability to strike targets on their adversary’s home territory, something the US had long been able to do vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. A bigger consideration was to defend Cuba, which had already suffered an attempted invasion by US-backed forces a year before, and now faced a harsh economic squeeze, as well as a widespread destabilization and assassination campaign run by the CIA.

From the start, the Soviets’ armed support for Cuba drew condemnation for constituting a clear provocation to the United States. The New York Times’s Washington bureau chief James Reston admonished the Soviets for “not understanding the limitations of political debate in America,” where many leaders were far more hawkish than President John F. Kennedy, and only grew more so after Khrushchev, in their view, “sought to tip the balance of power.”

Adding to the danger, many of Kennedy’s hawkish advisors were convinced that the United States would win a nuclear war against the Soviets but remained unaware of key facts — for instance, that Soviet submarines in the Caribbean were carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes that could have done severe damage to US forces.

“I have confirmed some years ago from a source that they didn’t know Russia had this weapon,” says Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities.

They didn’t know that Soviet readiness to fire nuclear missiles at US cities from Cuba was far further along than they assumed, nor that nuclear cruise missiles were moved to within fifteen miles of the US base at Guantanamo. They didn’t know that Khrushchev was being pressured by his military advisors to “stand up to” the United States, or that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was urging him to carry out a preemptive strike.

“There was as much he didn’t know as what he did know,” says Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight. “I’m sure there’s a lot of things Biden doesn’t understand about what’s going on in Ukraine and about Russian preparations for escalation.”

After a nearly two weeks of agonizing tension, the crisis ended with an agreement: in return for a public declaration that the United States would not invade Cuba, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles under UN supervision. Kennedy also agreed to quietly remove nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles from Turkey (a fact that was kept secret for years after the crisis). For Kennedy, the takeaway from the episode was clear, as he outlined it in a speech months later: “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

“It’s Worth It To Win”

In the heat of the crisis — and lacking much information we now possess in hindsight — calls for a military response to Khrushchev’s stationing of missiles began immediately in October 1962. Much of these calls came from the Right, which claimed that the Soviet’s Cuban gambit was just be the start of a worldwide communist takeover.

“At this moment, there is only one way out of the Cuban fiasco and that is for the United States . . . to go into Cuba and to take it over, as we did before,” George Sokolsky, one of the era’s most virulent anti-communist voices, wrote on October 16. “The risk could be war with Soviet Russia . . . but it would seem to me that we have reached Armageddon and that we either do the job or make up our minds to lose Venezuela next: Brazil and Panama after that, and then witness a Fascist-Communist Revolution in the Argentine.”

Henry Luce, the influential media magnate who controlled Time and Fortune magazines, called for “a direct US invasion of Cuba,” a demand echoed in televised debate by National Review editor William F. Buckley. Republican Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, already a front-runner for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination (who believed military commanders shouldn’t need presidential authority to use nuclear weapons), pointedly borrowed Kennedy’s own words from the latter’s hawkish 1960 presidential campaign, asserting that “it is time for the United States to do ‘whatever must be done.’” Even the New York Times lent its voice in favor of “some overt action” against Cuba.

These calls, if anything, got more strident once the crisis became more clearly a nuclear one, with Kennedy revealing the existence of the missile sites to the public on October 22, and announcing a “quarantine,” or blockade, of Cuba as a response. Seen by turns as dangerously aggressive or a half measure, depending on who was talking, Kennedy made the move to buy time while avoiding more escalatory responses.

“If I judge American sentiment correctly, the nation is looking for further action by the president,” influential columnist Roscoe Drummond wrote a day later, “to eliminate by whatever means the offensive Soviet weapons now on hand.” The public weren’t “afraid of war,” he asserted, and “clearly accepts these risks.”

Arguments in favor of brinkmanship were common. “The die is cast” and the United States is now “committed to a course from which it cannot turn back,” stated one editorial, and “whether there will be a thermonuclear holocaust depends upon the Soviet Union.”

“No man on the planet can avoid being apprehensive in this showdown,” wrote the prominent editor of the Atlanta Journal, Eugene Patterson. “But this is not the time for public panic . . . or for sudden discovery of the terrors of nuclear war.” He insisted that other than “the occasional invisible man,” the US public would “close the door on fear” and “meet whatever obligation honor imposes.”

Columnists had some basis to say this. “It is impossible not to be deeply impressed when you hear a solid, hard-working family man pointing to his neat little house, and saying: ‘I know the policy I favor might mean an A-bomb right there. But I’ll risk that. It’s worth it to win,’” influential columnist Joseph Alsop had written earlier that month, after informally surveying a Los Angeles neighborhood, one of several newspaper surveys around the country that found ordinary Americans supporting stronger action. Yet while public opinion backed Kennedy’s blockade, polls showed it was overwhelmingly opposed to an invasion.

“Don’t Trust Any Damned Russian”

Calls for military escalation and a willingness to tolerate nuclear annihilation were paired with pessimism about the prospects for reaching an agreement to exit the crisis with the Soviet Union — a state seen as bent on the destruction of the United States.

“‘Co-existence’ is a dangerous illusion,” one editorial insisted, a widespread sentiment among hawkish voices. A number dismissed Khrushchev’s October 24 suggestion of a summit with Kennedy to resolve the issue. The October 22 view of National Review founder and prominent McCarthyite Ralph de Toledano prefigured what was to come: “War, as soon as possible, is the fixed policy of the Soviet Union,” and negotiations were just there to “lull the West.” “Whatever concessions the West makes . . . will make no difference,” he insisted.

“Khrushchev’s word has never been a guarantee. A Soviet promise usually is only a delusion and a cover-up,” read one editorial. “Stalin and Khrushchev have gained more from summit conferences than they have gained from conquests,” complained a Democratic congressman. Pointing to the Soviet premier’s infamous shoe-banging incident at the UN, the Chicago Tribune urged Kennedy not to “take another ride on the merry-go-round of UN futility or summit duplicity.” “In Cuba, Khrushchev has a gun pointed at our head,” wrote another. “At the bargaining table he would be asking for a reward for withdrawing the gun.”

When Khrushchev later floated a trade — withdrawing from Cuba for the removal of NATO bases from Turkey (not far from the eventual secret deal that would end the crisis) — former president Harry Truman weighed in: “Don’t trust any damned Russian.” Kennedy “quite properly” and “correctly” rejected the offer, said the press, since it would have let Khrushchev “make a profit.”

Beware the Bear

These views were driven by a distrustful, even paranoid view of Khrushchev, the Soviet leadership, and their intentions. The Soviets were thought disingenuous, conniving, and almost congenitally predisposed to aggression.

Of course, these views were partly based in fact. The Soviet leadership presided over a far more comprehensive system of dictatorship than today’s Russia, and in addition to Khrushchev’s often aggressive rhetoric, he had already once invaded a satellite state (Hungary) to put down a reformist uprising. In the United States, a vast system of domestic propaganda and self-censorship existed to keep these facts in the public mind, and the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s was just a few years in the past.

“Beware the Bear that Smiles,” warned the Philadelphia Daily News, which recounted a then recent anecdote about Khrushchev going to the opera to watch an American singer to charge he was “trying to appear reasonable and smiling.” It cast his conciliatory words (calling for a summit and affirming Russia would “take no rash actions” in response to the blockade) as a mere ruse.

Khrushchev’s actions in Cuba were depicted as part of a “vicious military trap” to “upset the existing balance of nuclear striking power.” He wanted to “use the missiles as a psychological weapon” at a planned December summit over the Berlin standoff. He was a “fanatic,” whose “phony-jolly professions of peaceful intent” were part of a “darkly Machiavellian scheme,” and it was “extreme gullibility” to believe any Soviet overtures were sincere, when Khrushchev was “topkick of the Communist conspiracy to put the world in chains.”

Back to 1938

Pro-war voices constantly invoked Adolf Hitler, Munich, and the notion of “appeasement” to justify escalation. This rhetorical strategy was echoed by US Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay — today remembered as one of history’s most dangerously reckless hawks — who privately told Kennedy a refusal to attack Cuba would be “worse than the appeasement at Munich,” a reference with particular emotional significance for the young president.

“As Sir Winston Churchill once said, surrender or unwillingness to fight for what is right when the military odds are in one’s favor leads eventually to a big war in which the risks are greater and the involvement is far more dangerous,” conservative US News & World Report publisher David Lawrence, who would go on to be one of the Vietnam War’s most prominent cheerleaders, wrote two days into the crisis. Hitting Kennedy for withholding air support from the Bay of Pigs invaders the previous year, Lawrence charged that there was “an appeasement faction in this country which has a considerable influence with President Kennedy,” which meant that the communist takeover of Latin America was effectively “sanctioned today by US policy.”

Lawrence wasn’t the only one to charge that US timidity had signaled weakness and emboldened Khrushchev. “Those who call for action against Castro are referred to as a ‘war party.’ Actually, such Americans are the true peace party,” wrote conservative radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn, who likewise invoked Hitler. “Our failure to enforce our rights in Cuba and Berlin has increased the danger of war. We prefer appeasement to running a risk.”

Conservative radio broadcaster Henry J. Taylor blasted the “small-time Neville Chamberlains” whispering in Kennedy’s ear. “With Nazi and Communist history so easy to see,” he wrote, it was clear that “appeasing Khrushchev 90 miles from Florida” was “exactly the political weakness that . . . would have cost England her life and soul.”

A Balance of Terror

Alongside these arguments for military escalation and against diplomacy, a number of voices expressed confidence — misplaced, it would later turn out — that the danger of war, and particularly nuclear escalation, was low. So, the reasoning went, the United States could afford a more aggressive posture to force a Soviet back-down.

“There will be no nuclear holocaust as long as we maintain our deterrent capability and as long as the leaders of the Kremlin know we mean what we say,” Iowa Republican senator Jack Miller wrote on October 20.

Such statements underestimated the risk that accidents and misunderstandings could trigger inadvertent escalation — as in fact happened on October 27, a moment viewed by historians as the most dangerous day of the whole crisis. The Soviets’ shooting down of a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, not authorized by Khrushchev, very nearly triggered a US military response, and came on the same day that a different U-2 plane strayed into Soviet airspace, sending Soviet MiGs in pursuit and causing both sides to fear the other was deliberately escalating the crisis. Hours later, US attempts to surface a Soviet submarine were interpreted by its exhausted captain as the start of the war above ground, and he had to be talked down from launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo — only the most dangerous of multiple similar incidents.

“In the end, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev completely controlled their own forces,” says Dobbs.

On that very day, David Lawrence argued that the nuclear balance of terror “restrains the two major powers from destroying one another,” so that there was little chance of a mistake triggering catastrophe.

“It takes more than one man to make a decision of such importance, either in Moscow or in Washington, and the people who surround any commander-in-chief nowadays know the consequences if a mistake is not prevented,” he wrote.

Ignoring this danger of accidental escalation, many voices at the time claimed that because Cuba was relatively peripheral to Soviets’ interests, there was little danger that war would be triggered as a result of the confrontation over the island. “If he will stall over such a vital problem as Berlin,” wrote columnist Ray Tucker, alluding to Khrushchev’s failure to follow through on a 1958 threat over the city, “it is not believed that he will invite nuclear destruction through love of Castro.” The world was not on the edge of war, a political science professor told an audience in Chicago, and “Khrushchev will not fight over Cuba.”

And with key elements of the ultimate agreement hidden from the public, many observers took away the lesson that Kennedy’s “firmness” alone led to the peaceful outcome, ignoring the contribution made by his willingness to offer the Soviets inducements. The fact that Kennedy quietly fed the press a false story after the fact, casting Adlai Stevenson as a weak appeaser — which belied the reality that he’d asked for and followed the UN ambassador’s advice to defuse the crisis almost to the letter — added to this perception.

“When confronted with the high resolve of US policy, supplemented by Russian intelligence which showed that the United States was prepared to attack, Khrushchev backed away,” the Des Moines Register told its readers.

Today, officials and some experts are similarly reassuring the public there’s little chance of Putin using a nuclear weapon over the Ukraine war.

Diplomacy Not a Dirty Word

A lot of this might sound familiar to observers of the current moment. But what’s remarkable about the public discourse of 1962 compared to that of today is the relative diversity of debate, as well as the positive coverage of, and steady drumbeat for, diplomacy — even as Kennedy and Khrushchev lobbed threats at each other and a platoon of armchair Cold Warriors lashed out at “appeasers.”

As the furious reaction last week to congressional progressives’ push for diplomacy shows, the idea of dialogue to de-escalate and resolve the current crisis in United States–Russia relations has become nearly taboo in today’s environment, in both the United States and Europe. Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas has deemed any call for talks over the Ukraine conflict “very dangerous,” while Finland’s young, progressive prime minister rejected the idea of an off-ramp for Putin, saying that “the way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine.” French president Emmanuel Macron has been repeatedly criticized for backing talks and warning against humiliating Russia, while fellow NATO member Romania’s defense minister was recently forced to resign for saying that the “only chance for peace may be negotiations with Russia.

But in 1962, there was nothing unusual about world leaders calling for diplomacy. “Talks on such problems are better than fight,” German foreign minister Gerhard Schroeder said on October 18. The Associated Press reported that Latin American government ministers expressed “grave fears” after Kennedy’s speech on October 22, and felt it must “inevitably lead to a summit meeting” — the same day the Senate Democratic leader expressed support for the idea. There were “worldwide appeals for negotiation,” the New York Times reported on October 26, including from the Pope, the UK, Canada, and Japan. This was certainly not a unanimous feeling, but neither was it considered out of bounds. Nor was the anti-diplomacy position the default.

The press likewise wasn’t monopolized by anti-diplomacy voices. The Washington Post’s Karl E. Meyer mocked “General Luce and his battalion of editorial rough-riders” for demanding Kennedy invade Cuba. “If the Russians are seeking a way out of Cuba, the US can do no less than look equally hard for the means of getting them out without too great a loss of face,” the Iowa City Press-Citizen editorialized in the wake of the blockade. European newspapers greeted news of talks with hope and relief. As late as the peak of danger on October 27, Walter Lippman and the Christian Science Monitor’s William Frye called on both Kennedy and Khrushchev to look for avenues to talks.

More than that, newspapers reported regularly and in detail on diplomatic overtures between the two governments, with talks carried on throughout the crisis. Kennedy’s decision to send word to Khrushchev that he was willing to have an informal discussion with the Soviet premier when he visited the United States was front page news all over the country on October 19, a day after Kennedy met with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko for an ultimately fruitless dialogue lasting hours. “Prospects of a Kennedy-Krhushchev meeting next month grew in strength,” the Miami News reported on October 21 after Khrushchev met with the new US ambassador to Russia, Foy Kohler.

This happened throughout the crisis, as with the US draft resolution for the UN that called on the two governments to “confer promptly” on resolving the crisis; or with Khrushchev and Kennedy’s indirect communication via the intermediary of antinuclear campaigner Bertrand Russell, with the letters from all three men reported on extensively; or Khrushchev’s October 26 acceptance of UN-mediated talks involving Cuba and the United States.

Speaking of Khrushchev, throughout the crisis, newspapers reported both his and his lower-ranking officials’ statements making clear their openness to talks, despite the Soviet leader’s consistently negative portrayal. As early as October 18, the fact that Khrushchev felt positively toward talks was widely reported, a trend that continued throughout. October 24 reports that the Soviet representative to the UN was “talking ‘negotiation’” were likewise widely printed.

It’s a very different story today. If any diplomatic engagement is happening between the US and Russia today, then unlike in 1962, it’s happening under the most ironclad secrecy, and in fact multiple sources are saying there is no engagement between the two sides. And today’s Western news consumers have been kept largely uninformed about diplomatic developments, including the Ukrainian president’s once-frequent calls for diplomacy and Western involvement in it, while public statements that suggest Moscow would be willing to negotiate are routinely ignored by US commentators. While Biden officials are reportedly looking for an off-ramp for Putin, it’s unclear if the political space exists to pursue it.

Unlearning Lessons

Sixty years on from the Cuban missile crisis, we have ended up with the worst of all worlds from that episode. The then widespread cries of appeasement and calls for military escalation over dialogue are now even more widely voiced than they were six decades ago, with today’s liberals and progressives sounding almost indistinguishable from that era’s hawks and reactionaries. At the same time, the quieter, underlying consensus in 1962 among both political leaders and the press, which held that dialogue was needed to prevent disaster, has, at least until the House progressives’ letter recently sparked some conversation, largely vanished in public discussion throughout this war.

Yet decades on, we know the hawks and those echoing their arguments were wrong: the Soviets were ready to take risks of nuclear war over Cuba; the prospect of accidental escalation was dangerously high; and the gestures of compromise that ultimately helped end the crisis didn’t encourage more Soviet aggression. If those calling for an invasion had been listened to, the result would almost certainly have been catastrophe. The very course they denigrated as “appeasement” that would make war more likely was, in the end, what saved the world.

“The lesson is the risks were far higher than we believed. We were closer to nuclear war than we thought,” Stephen Young, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says today.

What’s most shocking isn’t that decades later, we’re repeating history. It’s that today’s political leaders and media establishment seem determined not to learn from it.