A Tale of Two Crises

On its 60th anniversary, the Cuban Missile Crisis has been evoked in the media with regards to the danger of the use of nuclear weapons over Ukraine. Both crises include indirect and direct threats to do so. Both have the real possibility that escalation, miscalculation or mistakes could trigger a nuclear exchange between the world’s largest nuclear powers, an existential threat to life on Earth. In both crises, the US and Russia (then USSR) face off over a third country with a passionate, patriotic and wildly popular leader. Both leaders are under intense domestic political pressure. Luck played a critical role then, and we will need it now.

Those are the similarities. The differences between these events are important and not particularly comforting:

In 1962, there was time for both sides to think things through without the scrutiny of a 24-hour news cycle. President John F. Kennedy was able to keep the crisis secret long enough to deliberate the American response. Kennedy himself said in a broadcast that if he’d had to make the decision in the first days of the crisis, things would have turned out badly. The main players involved (Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev) had a direct channel of communication via their "Pen Pal" letters. The two nations had robust diplomatic relations. Both men had firsthand experience in war. Kennedy had the secret Executive Committee or "ExCom" of the National Security Council to help him through each step. One adviser in particular, Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, was able to help Kennedy develop "strategic empathy" in order to understand the Russian position that Khrushchev believed missiles in Cuba were equivalent to NATO missiles near the Soviet border. Thompson persuaded the President that the Soviets would agree to remove the missiles in exchange for a non-invasion agreement. Kennedy, and a small group of his advisors, including Thompson, added a secret promise to eventually remove NATO missiles from Turkey as a backstop. Dialog, diplomacy and compromise defused that crisis.

For Ukraine, the primary option the combined minds of the US, EU and UK have come up with, since sanctions don’t seem to be having much of an effect, is a military one, more armament, money and military training into a country already wracked by what promises to be – at best – a long, slow war and – at worst – the death of the planet. How would the Cuban Missile Crisis have ended if we had forgone diplomacy and placed more and more in missiles along the Soviet border instead of removing those in Turkey?

Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that "Someday they (America and Russia) will collide, and then we will see struggles of which the past can give no idea." Are we at that point, or can we step back from the brink? Looking down from Space, one astronaut said he was filled with sadness by the contrast of the vicious coldness and emptiness of Space and the warmth of our little planet, which we seem bent on destroying in one way or another. Do we really want to risk becoming some dead rock floating through Space because we couldn’t find a mutually acceptable off ramp in Ukraine?

Jenny and Sherry Thompson are the co-authors of The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn E. Thompson, America’s Man in Cold War Moscow.