A fascinating well-written article by George Perkovich chronicles the thought processes during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: what President John F Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara understood and what they didn't at the time, and the roles of Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The uncertainties, misjudgments and miscalculations, could have lead parties astray towards unnecessary escalation.
Most of us know the story: during the height of the cold war, US spy planes detected Soviet ships mobilizing missiles and nuclear materials into Cuba -- less than 100 miles off the coast of Florida. JFK responded by installing nuclear weapons to the US base in Turkey, right on the Soviet doorsteps. Then an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by Cuban anti-aircraft guns, with several others escaping intense enemy fire. Military leaders pressed the president to authorize an attack. JFK held still, and sent his attorney general brother Robert "RFK" Kennedy to a secret meeting with the Soviets. Lengthy negotiations eventually lead to both parties standing down.
What nobody -- not the Kennedys, not McNamara -- knew until recently, was terrifying, to say the least:
- Americans knew the Soviets were mobilizing weapons into Cuba, expecting eventually a handful intermediate-range ballistic missiles able to reach continental United States. But nobody knew the Soviets had already deployed more than 100 battlefield-ready tactical nuclear weapons in the island, and that local Soviet officers were pre-authorized to use them in the widely-expected Marine invasion.
- Furthermore, McNamara told Kennedy at the time that he believed there were 8,000-10,000 Soviet military personnel in Cuba. In 2008 it was revealed that the actual number was far higher at 42,000. Had JFK agreed with his generals to invade Cuba, the landing and subsequent ground war would have been unexpectedly lengthier, perhaps taking in much larger casualties, which may lead both sides to turn to their advanced weaponry.
- Finally, US envoy RFK pressed his Soviet counterpart to stop firing at American military planes. What he didn't know is that Khruschev never authorized such attacks, but Castro did. The Cuban dictator feared an imminent invasion, and would rather risk total annihilation over American troop presence in his island state. The Soviets agreed to RFK's demands, but had Castro kept his aggressive stance, this could have lead to mutual distrust and escalation.
It's important to note that we probably understand less about North Korea now, than we did about the Soviets back then. The possibility of miscalculations are enormous, the consequences apocalyptic. Some of these fallacies may include:
- Misjudging the effectiveness of our missile defense system. Technology has advanced since the Cold War, but these batteries have only been tested in isolated exercises. We don't know exactly how effective they would be in real-life war situations. Misplaced confidence on the defensive measures can lead to bad decisions.
- President Trump believes that China can coax North Korea to drop its nuclear ambitions. However, despite China's large economic contribution to North Korea, Kim Jong Un has pared down China's direct influence in his country. Pro-Chinese elements in his political circle have been purged, most notably his brother Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated (widely believed to have been perpetrated by North Korean agents) while in Hong Kong's protective asylum.
- Grassroot conditions are also a big question mark. We hear about massive drought affecting North Korean food supply, and crippling economic sanctions bringing about the prospect of a humanitarian crisis. But North Koreans are indoctrinated since early childhood; they learn to shoot rifles the same time they learn to read and write; they spy on their peers to identify moles and traitors; they venerate the Kim dynasty like a deity; and they despise America like the devil. Pentagon puts the number of troops under Kim at about one million, but determination may end up meaning more than sheer numbers. Just ask Americans about the Vietnam War.
- Defense Secretary Mattis proposes a limited strike on North Korean missile sites, just to give them a "bloody nose" and show them we are serious. However, this is a fallacy at best -- how can a nuclear-equipped adversary understand the attack's "limited" nature? During the cold war, the US military scrapped its low-yield strategic nuclear weapons program, because (i) with tensions running high, it's difficult for Russia to see the difference between "low yield" and "normal yield"; and (ii) even if they can, Russia may not be able to respond with a similarly-limited strike. Similarly in North Korea, Kim may see any attack on his country as an all-out existential threat worthy of highest possible retaliatory escalation.
What's the best policy recommendation in this case? I don't know, but the best argument I've read is to nuke Kim Jong Nam's presidential toilet.