What If the Cuban Missiles Hadn’t Been a Secret?

Last week, after a Havana screening of the Kevin Costner movie Thirteen Days, I saw Fidel Castro pull out a file of top-secret Cuban documents. Castro said the documents showed that, prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cuban government had (unsuccessfully) urged the Soviets to tell the world that it was placing nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. Castro didn’t let anybody copy the documents, but he did say that he would release them in time for next year’s 40th anniversary of the crisis. If Castro follows through on that pledge, Slate will link to them here.

As director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, I usually wait until I have a document in hand before I assess its significance. But I was able to read enough of the sheaf over the Commandante en Jefe’s shoulder to conclude that there’s probably something to Castro’s claim. Let’s assume that the Cubans really did want to make public the missiles’ existence. Then let’s imagine that the Cubans had talked the Soviets into it. How might events have unfolded back in October 1962, with John F. Kennedy learning of the missiles’ presence not via U-2 photographs, but from the Cubans or the Soviets themselves?

“The real stupidity,” Castro said in Havana, “was to do it [i.e., install the missiles] secretly.” Waving a page in the air for emphasis, he continued, “Here, [Cuban officials] Che [Guevara] and [Emilio] Aragones went to Moscow, Aug. 27, 1962, with our proposal, with amendments to the draft defense agreement between us, and our proposal to make it public, to announce they were putting the missiles in Cuba.” Castro and Aragones had mentioned this before, at a conference in 1992, but had never before brandished documents. At a 1987 conference, a Soviet official had asked former Kennedy aides what the U.S. reaction might have been had the Soviet Union announced prior to the crisis that it would defend Cuba with nuclear missiles. Kennedy’s special counsel, Theodore Sorensen, responded, “I think it certainly would have made it more difficult for us.” Even more than the presence of the missiles, it was the Soviets’ secrecy and lies that gave Kennedy the moral high ground during the crisis. Kennedy wrote Khrushchev afterward (November 6, 1962): “what actually happened in this case was not simply that the action of your side was secret. Your Government repeatedly gave us assurances of what it was not doing; these assurances were announced as coming from the highest levels, and they proved inaccurate.”

According to Castro,

We accepted the missiles not to defend Cuba–we would have preferred to struggle on our own against the U.S. invasion plans–and we did not want to give the impression of being a Soviet base … . But the Soviet Union needed to have a balance of power against the U.S., against the similar U.S. missiles in Turkey and elsewhere, and we agreed, out of internationalist feeling, and because the Soviets had supported us against the American blockade. But we said: Do it openly. But Khrushchev said no, it must be confidential. We were naïve. We saw the Soviet Union as a superpower. They had beaten Hitler, they had entered Berlin, they had a revolution that already lasted 45 years. We thought they knew what they were doing.

Would there have been a missile crisis at all if the deployment had been presented openly to the international community as the Soviet deterrent to U.S. missiles in Turkey? Maybe. Remember, the political pressures on Kennedy were already very great, and the Cold War was at its height. Perhaps Kennedy would have responded with more pressure to deter the missiles from coming (an easier proposition than forcing their withdrawal once they were in place). Perhaps Kennedy would have moved more quickly to the secret Turkey-for-Cuba trade that resolved the missile crisis ultimately. Then again, without the shock of discovery, neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev might have felt the sense of events spiraling out of control that led both to risk humiliation rather than Armageddon.

To see the National Security Archive’s Web page on the Cuban Missile Crisis, click here