John Lewis Gaddis
The Cold War

Historians assumed, for many years, that it was this—having his Potemkin facade ripped away—that drove Khrushchev into a desperate attempt to recover by sending intermediate- and medium-range missiles, which he did have in abundance, to Cuba in 1962. 'Why not throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam's pants?' he asked in April, noting that it would take a decade for the Soviet Union to equal American long-range missile capabilities.56 It is clear now, though, that this was not Khrushchev's principal reason for acting as he did, which suggests how easily historians can Jump to premature conclusions. More significantly, the Cuban missile crisis also shows how badly great powers can miscalculate when tensions are high and the stakes are great. The consequences, as they did in this instance, can surprise everyone.

Khrushchev intended his missile deployment chiefly as an effort, improbable as this might seem, to spread revolution throughout Latin America. He and his advisers had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Never mind that Marx himself would never have predicted this—there being few proletarians in Cuba—or that Fidel Castro and his unruly followers hardly fit Lenin's model of a disciplined revolutionary 'vanguard.' It was enough that Cuba had gone communist spontaneously, without assistance from Moscow, in a way that seemed to confirm Marx's prophecy about the direction in which history was going. 'Yes, he is a genuine revolutionary,' the old Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan exclaimed, after meeting Castro. 'Completely like us. I felt as though I had returned to my childhood!'

But Castro's revolution was in peril. Before it left office, the Eisenhower administration had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, imposed economic sanctions, and begun plotting Castro's overthrow. Kennedy allowed these plans to go forward with the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs landing of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, an event that gave Khrushchev little reason for complacency or congratulation. Rather, as he saw it, the attempted invasion reflected counter-revolutionary resolve in Washington, and it would surely be repeated, the next time with much greater force. 'The fate of Cuba and the maintenance of Soviet prestige in that part of the world preoccupied me,' Khrushchev recalled. 'We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.'

The United States could hardly object, because during the late 1950S the Eisenhower administration—before it had convinced itself that the 'missile gap' did not exist—had placed its own intermediate-range missiles in Britain, Italy, and Turkey, all aimed at the Soviet Union. The Americans would learn, Khrushchev promised, 'just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we'd be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.'

But Kennedy and his advisers knew nothing of Khrushchev's reasoning, and those who survived were surprised to learn of it a quarter century later when the opening of Soviet archives began to reveal it. They saw the missile deployment in Cuba—about which they learned only in mid-October, 1962, from the new mission the U-2s had been given of overflying the island—as the most dangerous in a long sequence of provocations, extending all the way back to the Kremlin leader's threats against Britain and France during the Suez crisis six years earlier. And this one, unlike the others, would at least double the number of Soviet missiles capable of reaching the United States. 'Offensive missiles in Cuba have a very different psychological and political effect in this hemisphere than missiles in the U.S.S.R. pointed at us,' Kennedy warned.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.