Lies during the Cuban missile crisis: Column
By Rich Elfers
Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy lied about Soviet missile strength to win the 1960 election. This is the assertion that George Friedman makes in his February 26, 2019, Geopolitical Futures article entitled, “Putin, Khrushchev and the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Democrat John Kennedy wanted to make the Eisenhower administration look weak in relation to Soviet nuclear missile strength. He portrayed the Soviets as having nuclear missile equality, or even superiority.
JFK thought it would win him the election against Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who was Kennedy’s Republican opponent. Democrats had a difficult time looking tough enough against Communists during the Cold War. By exaggerating the nuclear danger of the U.S.S.R., he hoped to “out-tough” the Republicans. This lie led to a very different interpretation of the danger of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 than was actually the case.
Here’s Friedman’s proof: In 1960, the U.S. had a substantial nuclear missile advantage over the U.S.S.R. It was also developing submarines capable of carrying nuclear missiles. The number and quality of B-52 bombers far exceeded the few Bear strategic bombers Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev possessed.
By 1960, the U.S. could gather more satellite images of the U.S.S.R. in a day than the entire U2 spy plane program produced. (Richelson, Jeffrey T. editor. “U.S. Spy Imagery 1960-1999”)
Theoretically, the U.S. could launch a first strike on Soviet missiles and destroy all or most of them. Khrushchev would be forced to surrender. Knowing this, Khrushchev decided to level the playing field by secretly placing medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Friedman calls this plan “harebrained” because it was premised on the belief that American intelligence could be kept in the dark until the missiles were fully operational. In actuality, U2s were photographing every square foot of Cuba on a regular basis. It was also very risky because the U.S. response to missiles in Cuba was entirely unpredictable. In addition, it overlooked Kennedy’s failed invasion of Cuba using Cuban refugees, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in early 1961. The president was not likely to trust U.S. intelligence again. The political risks were too high for a first strike on the U.S.S.R.
Kennedy portrayed the Cuban missile crisis as a contest between equals. In reality, the Russians were outgunned from the start, both in nuclear missile capability and strategic location, and they knew it. They tried to sneak the missiles into Cuba because they had a weak hand. The image Kennedy and his advisers portrayed was that Khrushchev had to back down just before the U.S. was ready to invade Cuba. The reality was that Khrushchev was defeated when Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba after photos of the missiles were sent to the media in October 1962.
Khrushchev did win a concession from Kennedy in making a secret deal to remove obsolete missiles from Turkey, but this was not revealed until much later.
Khrushchev also gained three major victories from the missile crisis, according to Friedman: The American public would force caution on U.S. politicians. Second, European allies would question the U.S. capacity to protect them from a supposedly strong Soviet military threat. Third, Soviet citizens would see their nation as a great empire, equal to the U.S. Even though Khrushchev conceded and backed down, it increased the prestige of Russian military prowess and the prudence of the Soviet leadership in a crisis.
Donald Trump is not the only American president to create both imaginary successes and imaginary threats that have no basis in reality. It is a long tradition that has changed the course of history since the end of World War II.
Vladimir Putin, the master of portraying Russia as a great power when it’s not, understands the lessons from Khrushchev. He recently stated that if the U.S. military put intermediate ballistic missiles in eastern Europe it would provoke another Cuban missile crisis. It’s still all about image and perception and gullible public opinion both in Russia and the U.S.
Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.