Nuclear War Averted, 50 Years Ago This Week

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Fifty years ago, the world came to the brink of nuclear war.

On October 14, 1962, U.S. policymakers learned that the Soviet Union was building missile bases in Cuba, which would have allowed Moscow to attack anywhere in the continental United States within minutes. An international crisis followed, and while the crisis did not end in a nuclear exchange, it is important that U.S. policymakers never forget lessons the crisis taught us.


The most important one is that it is very difficult to manage allies once they are nuclear-armed.

Nuclear-armed allies are one thing; nuclear-armed enemies are another. As Iran builds its nuclear capability, the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis resonate in a fresh way.

Today, The Heritage Foundation looks back at that crisis of 50 years ago with a blog series on its lessons for missile defense, presidential leadership, crisis management, and avoiding escalation.

In this morning’s first installment, Heritage experts Michaela Bendikova and Baker Spring remind us that “Fidel Castro and Che Guevara encouraged the Soviets to use ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba to attack the U.S.”

Peter Brookes and Audrey Beck will examine President John F. Kennedy’s leadership during the crisis, “a prime example of strong leadership—under intense pressure—that may have avoided an apocalyptic nuclear war.” This serves as a sober reminder that such crises fall on the shoulders of Presidents.

While schoolchildren were being taught to “duck and cover” in the case of an attack, the Cuban Missile Crisis “inculcated among two generations of American policymakers a concern about the potential for inadvertent escalation and accidental war,” as Dean Cheng will explain.

The U.S. faces a number of crises around the world right now. From Syria and Turkey to Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran, “the Obama Administration’s policies for nuclear arms control, disarmament, and limited defensive capabilities are inadvertently serving to undermine the NATO security umbrella and increase the appetite for nuclear weapons in allied countries,” Bendikova and Spring note.

Though 50 years may have passed, there are many dangerous similarities between then and now. As Ray Walser warns:
The toxic mix of nuclear weapons, rage against the U.S., and a readiness to embrace martyrdom for a cause—either sacred or secular—represents a danger in the world of October 2012 just as it did in October 1962.

Reflecting on the crises we have weathered provides key lessons for handling today’s crises and evaluating our country’s leadership. As JFK observed, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”