Nearly a Nasty Nuclear 'Oops!'

WAYNE S. SMITH

January 31, 1992|By WAYNE S. SMITH

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- U.S., Soviet and Cuban delegations gathered in Havana January 8-12 for the fifth and final conference aimed at better understanding what brought their governments closer than the world has ever been to the brink of nuclear war. What made this conference particularly poignant of course was the participation of Fidel Castro, the only surviving chief of state involved in that most dangerous moment in history.

The conference produced a new (and chilling) perspective of the 1962 missile crisis and a new vision of the future.

Some pundits over the years have suggested that in fact there was little danger of nuclear war in 1962, that neither the Soviets nor the Americans would have been so foolish as to launch a first strike. And it is true, certainly, that neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev wanted a nuclear war. But just how close they came to losing control was revealed in Havana for the first time.

To the surprise of the Americans present, who thought there were no surprises left (it was, after all, the fifth conference!), the Soviets informed them that tactical nuclear launchers were on the ground in Cuba in 1962, along with warheads, and that Soviet commanders in the field had authorization to launch them at their discretion.

U.S. reconnaissance flights had spotted the intermediate-range missile sites and launchers. U.S. decision makers were also aware of the presence of tactical rockets. However, they were under the impression that none of the nuclear warheads had arrived, not for the intermediate-range nor for the tactical weapons. They thus believed it might be possible to take out the missiles without causing a nuclear war.

Had Khrushchev not agreed on October 26 to remove the missiles, a U.S. invasion would have followed within days, with conventional forces. The idea was to get in, blow up the missile sites, and withdraw. It would be bloody, yes, but U.S. decision makers thought it would not result in a nuclear exchange, given that the Soviets had no nuclear forces in Cuba and that the U.S. had an overwhelming advantage in intercontinental delivery systems.

How wrong they were! Faced with the massive U.S. invasion force (the United States had five full divisions poised for the first onslaught, eight carrier groups, and hundreds of land-based aircraft), Soviet commanders in the field almost certainly would have resorted to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. With equal certainty, the United States would then have brought to bear its own nuclear forces, and in the ensuing escalation, a global nuclear war would have become unavoidable.

How could Moscow have been so careless as to have left it up to the field commanders to start a nuclear war? Simple. As the Soviets saw it, the U.S. would certainly have launched a massive air and naval bombardment of Cuba prior to an invasion, and thus, they reasoned, their commanders on the ground might not be able to communicate. Hence, those commanders needed prior authorization to fire. Otherwise, why have the weapons there?

American participants at the conference were stunned. ''None of us knew just how close we came to a disaster for humankind,'' said one.

And yet, this latest revelation was but additional evidence of just how little each party understood what the other two were up to and why. As the former secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, put it: ''The more I have heard at these conferences, the more clear it has become to me that human beings are simply too fallible to have control of such terrible weapons. It is more important than ever to begin to reduce and eventually eliminate our nuclear arsenals.''

The Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding was also discussed at the conference.

Members of the Kennedy administration insisted that in their view there had been no binding U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba following the crisis, inasmuch as Castro had not permitted the U.N. inspection promised by Khrushchev.

Soviet and Cuban participants insisted just as firmly that as far as they were concerned, the commitment was binding. After all, the Soviets had permitted inspection of their vessels on the high seas in lieu of on-site inspection, and the U.S. had never said it had changed its mind, that the no-invasion pledge had $l loopholes.

U.S. participants pointed out that it was a moot point since the U.S. had no intention of invading anyway. Further, all sides agreed that whatever the ambiguities between 1962 and 1970, from the latter year forward a clear U.S. no-invasion pledge was stated by Henry Kissinger during the mini-crisis over a Soviet submarine base then under construction in Cuba.

In demanding that the base be withdrawn, he based himself on the Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding and affirmed that so long as there were no Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, the U.S. would not invade. That commitment is extant today.

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