A Lesson from the Cuba Crisis — If you keep a big, scary dog around, it will eventually bite you

Map showing reach of Soviet medium- and intermediate  range ballistic missiles if launched from Cuba.

Map showing reach of Soviet medium- and intermediate range ballistic missiles if launched from Cuba.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Cuba crisis, the 13 days, three-way show-down between Cuba, the United States, and the Soviet Union, that moved the world onto the very brink of destruction.

On this day, October 23rd in 1962, after the signing of Proclamation 3504 by United States President John F. Kennedy, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba, the United States naval forces moved into place around Cuba, and Soviet submarines threatened the quarantine by moving into the Caribbean area. Soviet freighters bound for Cuba with military supplies were stopped dead in the water, but the oil tanker Bucharest continued to steam towards Cuba, ostensibly forcing the United States to intercept and board or, alternatively, sink a ship that it knew was probably not carrying anything related the actual crisis. In the evening Robert Kennedy, the brother of the United States President and a member of the Kennedy administration, met with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States.

Thirteen Days, directed by Roger Donaldson, is an excellent movie about the event, clearly showing the immense stress that Mr. Kennedy, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was under after Mr. Khrushchev had made the near-fatal mistake of thinking that the youth and inexperience of the Kennedy administration would make it a push-over.

With the recent release of the Kennedy White House tapes, however, we have learned new details that provides a lot of new perspectives on the action inside the White House.

Curtis LeMay – A dog of war

For anyone who has studied the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, one of the most interesting new perspectives on the Cuba crisis is the extent to which General Curtis Emerson LeMay, the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and the driving force behind the organization of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) into an effective instrument of nuclear war, advocated a preemptive strike on Cuba on the basis of his belief that the Mr. Khrushchev would blink and not retaliate.

Curtis LeMayMr. LeMay was without a doubt the toughest, most belligerent, brutal, and determined officer to ever rise to the very top of the United States Air Force.

Having designed and implemented the strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II — what is perhaps the most brutal bombing campaign ever — Mr. LeMay was no stranger to exceptional violence and mass killing, and he would, without a doubt, go eyeball to eyeball with the Devil if it was necessary.

Moreover, however much you may be horrified by Mr. LeMay’s position on killing, he had a knack for putting his position in way that made it difficult to argue with him. Consider, for instance the simplicity with which he explained the very essence of war:

“You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough they stop fighting.”

And in case you thought that you could argue that firebombing 100,000 civilians in one night was somehow immoral:

“We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?”

And just in case you thought that discriminating between civilians and combatant was a moral imperative:

“There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

In a nutshell, although he was uncompromising and aggressive, Mr. LeMay was also a very smart man, courageous in that he never shied away from danger — be it political or physical — if he felt that his actions could save American lives, and a tireless advocate for a justified pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union simply because the lesson that he had drawn from World War II was that striking at an enemy with overwhelming force, killing enormous amount of its citizens, can save the lives of an untold number of your own citizen.

In a sense Mr. LeMay has gotten a bad rap in history, being mostly viewed as a war-monger that were consistently advocating pre-emptive strikes and civilian killing as the resolution to political crisis. While Mr. LeMay certainly was a proponent of strategic bombing, including, if necessary, mass killing of civilian, he was never an advocate for pre-emptive strikes, rather he was an advocate for justified pre-emptive strikes — something completely different.

As Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Mr. LeMay continuously clashed with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who incidentally had worked for Mr. LeMay during World War II as part of the team that designed and implemented the Pacific bombing campaign,) Air Force Secretary Eugene Zuckert, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Maxwell Taylor, and Mr. John F. Kennedy, and, in spite of Mr. LeMay’s obvious competence, one would be justified in wondering why the Kennedy administration would keep him around, rather than get rid of him.

The answer, of course, is that regardless of how belligerent, aggressive, scary, and uncompromising Mr. LeMay might have seemed to the Kennedy administration, this paled in comparison to how belligerent, aggressive, scary, and uncompromising he seemed to the Soviet leadership, who was very well aware that LeMay was itching to bomb them into submission. Fully aware of this fact, Mr. Kennedy kept LeMay around as the biggest, scariest watchdog.

However, when the Cuban crisis came around Mr. Kennedy learned the lesson that if you keep dogs of war around you are sure to get bitten.

The dog bites

From the taped conversations between Mr. LeMay, relentlessly advocating the bombing of the nuclear missile sites in Cuba, and Mr. Kennedy, constantly attempting to find a solution that would not lead to a further escalation and assured mutual destruction, it is clear that Mr. LeMay knew exactly how to bite Mr. Kennedy and enjoyed seeing Mr. Kennedy squirm.

On the tapes we hear Mr. LeMay digging at Mr. Kennedy, telling him that any appeasement with Cuba and the Soviet Union would, ultimately, lead to war in the same way that the 1938 appeasement to Germany had led to World War II, the largest and most expensive conflict in the history of mankind.

Mr. LeMay was clearly attempting to stick a knife in Mr. Kennedy with this comment, knowing very well that Mr. Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., as United States Ambassador to Britain has been a staunch advocate for appeasement, and also knowing that the 1938 appeasement had effectively destroyed the legacy of its architect, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. By comparing Cuba with Munich, Mr. LeMay not only stabbed at Mr. Kennedy, but actually aimed at the heart.

Mr. LeMay was also a man who did not ever back down, even if his enemy was beaten and, importantly, a man who thought it important to let his beaten enemy know that he had been bested and, so, it is not surprising that he immediately after having struck at Mr. Kennedy’s heart, attempted to again stick it to Mr. Kennedy, applying the you-not-we approach mixed with a good old-fashioned act of lèse-majesté, to the point that Mr. Kennedy, who clearly cannot believe his ears, in an incredulous voice asks LeMay to repeat what he just said, before his points out that this is one situation where there truly is no possible you-not-we scenario:

Mr. LeMay: “In other words, you are in a pretty bad fix at the present time.”

Mr. Kennedy: “What did you say?”

Mr. LeMay: “You’re in a pretty bad fix.”

Mr. Kennedy: “You are in there with me [slight laughter, a bit forced.] Personally.”

The recently released tapes can be accessed at the web-site of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Postscript — the danger of being to good at keeping secrets

As it happens, Mr. Kennedy was able to, in conjunction with Mr. Khrushchev, engineer a compromise that allowed for rapid de-escalation and the avoidance of a pre-emptive strike on Cuba, which was fortunate, for, as Mr. McNamara would later learn, the Soviet field commanders in Cuba had been given authority to launch in precisely such an event and had up to twenty nuclear warheads ready to go in their R-12 Dvina ballistic missiles as well as nine tactical nuclear missiles — the only recorded case of nuclear exchange authority having been granted to field commanders by the Soviet Union, except the borderline case of nuclear weapon equipped submarines.

Interestingly, this is one case where the Soviet Union’s outstanding ability to conduct maskirovka, denial and deception operations, honed to perfection during and after World War II, came close to costing it everything. By denying the United States information on the actual state of deployment of the missiles and the weapons free command, the Soviet Union inadvertently came close to trigger nuclear war.

Let me say this again, because there is a very important political, military, and business lesson here:

The world almost came to an end because of the ability of one group to keep secrets and mask their true capabilities and intent

To me, that probably is the most important lesson from the Cuba Crisis (and, yes, there are many very important lessons) — translating into the very down-to-earth business-lesson that excellence at your job can get you fired.


The Soviet Union and the United States would both draw important lessons about the danger of information asymmetry in a nuclear scenario, and in June of 1963, they would agree to establish a direct communications link between Moscow and Washington D.C. A full-time duplex-wire circuit was established via London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki, with a fall-back reserve radio link put in place via Tangier.

Although referred to a the red phone, a term that was at first applied to the Soviet side of the communications link, terminating in a specialized situation room located under the Kremlin in Moscow, the first hotline was actually teletypewriter based, and it was not until the 1970’ies that the red phone actually was implemented as a telephone and later the communication was, of course, satellite based. Today, fiberoptic cables are the primary channel for the red phone.

Incidentally, President Jimmy Carter did call Premier Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 on the red phone to ask if the Soviet Union was planning to invade Afghanistan, and, according to accounts, Mr. Breznhnev denied that such plans existed. Subsequently, in December of 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

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