For sixty years, the Cuban missile crisis has been shorthand for staring down the barrel of nuclear oblivion. For much of the postwar period, it seemed to be as close as the world would ever get to annihilation.
With his warning that nuclear “armageddon” is possible over the war in Ukraine, just as it was in that confrontation in 1962, Joe Biden has shattered that view of history.
The showdown over nuclear weapons in Cuba has endlessly been studied to glean insights into how better to behave in a crisis. Yet what is going on in Moscow today has little in common with the Cold War era.
Instead, it more closely resembles the fears of the post-1989 world that an unstable autocrat might secure a bomb and use it to terrorise their neighbours.
Nuclear-tipped rhetoric was hardly absent in 1962: Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, repeatedly threatened annihilation in public and in private, but his pronouncements were caveated by an insistence that it was the United States that would trigger any war.
Despite all the misunderstandings, miscalculations and poor communication, neither side in the Cuba stand-off wanted war.
Kruschev had ordered missiles into Cuba in part for the simple reason that, despite Kennedy’s claims on the campaign trail that the Soviets had more and better missiles than the US, in reality, Moscow lacked sufficient capability to strike the US mainland from Russia.
Caught in a similar situation five years earlier, the Americans had placed medium-range missiles in Turkey, which bordered the USSR, providing Khrushchev with another reason to act.
Khrushchev faced a young, inexperienced president that he had bested just a year before at the Vienna summit, where Kennedy admitted the Soviet leader “beat the hell out of me” in failed negotiations over West Berlin.
Khrushchev miscalculated, but a nuclear stand-off was never his intention.
Some in Washington were unperturbed. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s secretary of defence, opined early in the crisis “they’ve got enough to blow us up anyway”. Yet, politically, Kennedy could never allow the missiles to stay and for several days the US military’s preference for a strike against the Soviet facilities appeared set to prevail.
That fighting didn’t break out was in part down to luck, but also thanks to the reluctance with which each side contemplated nuclear conflict.
In 1962, the main fear was that US action might lead to a direct war between the superpowers.
That fear still exists, yet today the primary worry is that Putin might genuinely believe he can “escalate to de-escalate”, that is, deliver a small nuclear strike in order to finally convince the West to abandon Ukraine and give him what he wants.
Washington, having learnt from the communication failures in 1962, has reportedly made clear to the Russian president quite how devastating their response would be.
Nevertheless, there exists a huge amount of uncertainty as to what would happen next. After the immediate shock of a targeted nuclear strike on a military target, would global outrage be sustained or might it dissipate when confronted with an escalatory spiral?
To not react would be to end the nuclear taboo in place since 1945 and invite nuclear proliferation across the globe. Biden only need look to Barack Obama’s failed red lines over chemical weapons in Syria to see what damage empty threats can do. Yet with Putin having already pressed the button once, nobody can know for certain what would happen were the West to retaliate militarily.
Kennedy and Khrushchev did not understand each other, but ultimately they both faced a rational man operating within similar moral constraints. It’s doubtful that Biden can say the same.