Berlin and Cuba
Jim Broderick looks at the crisis management of two moments when the spectre of nuclear war shadowed relations between the superpowers.
The status of Berlin had been an ongoing problem to the Allies since the conferences of Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 when the ‘Big Three’ (Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union) had agreed to divide the defeated Germany into four occupied zones. They also split Berlin, which was located some 110 miles inside the Soviet zone, into four sectors each governed by a military commander from the respective victorious powers. But divisions among the Allies soon emerged concerning the future of Germany in general and Berlin in particular. Instead of treating Germany as a single economic entity – as decided at Potsdam – the Soviet Union governed its zone as if it were an independent unit and opposed Western moves for German reunification along democratic lines.
These disagreements led to the first of the Berlin crises, when in March 1948 the Soviet Union announced a series of measures aimed at curbing access to West Berlin, culminating in the suspension of all rail passenger and freight traffic on June 24th. The ostensible reason for the Soviet blockade was in response to plans for currency union in the newly merged Western sector, but its deeper purpose was to test the commitment of the US to West Berlin. In response, President Truman applied counter-sanctions to Eastern Germany and undertook a massive operation to supply West Berlin by air. The next few months witnessed futile diplomatic negotiations, but the airlift and counter-blockade did eventually cause the Soviet leadership to reconsider its strategy and on May 4th, 1949, after a series of secret meetings of their ambassadors at the UN, the two superpowers agreed to a mutual lifting of restrictions.
Nevertheless, Berlin remained a thorn in the side of US-Soviet relations and the next ten years witnessed an increasing isolation of the Eastern and Western sectors from each other. Then, suddenly in 1958, Soviet premier Khrushchev precipitated the second Berlin crisis when he demanded that a formal German peace treaty be negotiated which legitimised the permanent division of Germany and transformed West Berlin into a ‘demilitarised free city’. Moreover, he insisted that the transformation be completed within six months or the Soviet Union would seek an independent solution.
President Eisenhower rejected the demands, observing the United States did not recognise the Eastern German regime and, therefore, could not conclude any separate agreement with it; thus Allied routes and access to Berlin were still governed by agreements concluded at the end of the Second World War. In May 1959 the two sides met in Geneva to hammer out a compromise. However, a stalemate resulted in which the Soviet Union insisted that the Berlin question must be resolved within the next eighteen months. Already, it seems, the Soviet leaders were eyeing the prospect of a new, inexperienced president succeeding Eisenhower.
Having tied his personal prestige to removing this ‘splinter from the heart of Europe’, Khrushchev used his first meeting with newly-elected J.F. Kennedy at the June 1961 summit meeting in Vienna to restate his position on Berlin. On the second day, the Soviet leader told Kennedy a formal end to the Second World War was needed and recognition should be given to the existence of two separate Germanies. If the Allies could not agree to such a position, the Soviet Union would act unilaterally and sign a peace treaty with East Germany. This would mean an end to the state of war which still existed on paper, abrogating those commitments arising from the terms of the German surrender – including occupation rights, access to West Berlin and the use of land corridors through East Germany. Kennedy responded that Berlin was of the highest concern for the United States and a key national security issue. To lose the right of access would undermine the credibility of US commitments elsewhere and put an end to any hope of German reunification.
The tone of the Vienna summit sharpened considerably as attitudes on both sides hardened. Berlin had become a key test of the balance of power, as well as a battle of wills between the two leaders of the superpowers themselves. The conference broke up on a chilling note. Khrushchev repeated his view that any infringement of East German sovereignty would trigger a Soviet response and Kennedy restated the position that the US would not give up its right of access to Berlin, remarking ‘It will be a cold winter’.
But that summer proved to be one of the hottest so far in the Berlin saga. On June 15th, the Soviet Union issued an aide-memoire containing an ultimatum that the US must accede to its demands or it would act by the end of the year. Matters reached a flashpoint on August 13th, when, to the complete surprise of Western leaders, the East Germans suddenly began to build what was to become one of the most potent symbols of the Cold War – the Berlin Wall. At the time, the reasons for erecting this massive barrier were unclear. The East had long had a problem with the flow of refugees and escapees trying to cross from one part of the city to the other, but the speed and secrecy with which the wall went up caused consternation in Washington. If nothing else, it represented the severing of families and friends and the hemming- in of the East Berliners, separating them from their ‘free’ counterparts in the Western sector. It also provided concrete proof that the Soviet Union was intent on sealing off East Germany once and for all.
Since June, both sides had been increasing their level of military preparation and Kennedy immediately authorised the dispatch of 150,000 troops to West Berlin. He also sent Vice President Lyndon Johnson and General Lucius Clay to the city to demonstrate American resolve and to reassure West Berliners that the US was not going to abandon them. The next few months were highly tense, with a number of stand-offs taking place; including, at one point, American and Soviet tanks facing each other in a dangerous game of brinkmanship. According to the testimony of his closest advisers, the American President openly wondered when the ‘moment of truth’ would come, but the final catastrophe never materialised. The December deadline for American decision passed without the Soviet Union signing a treaty with East Germany and with no denial of land access to West Berlin. Imperceptibly, the sense of crisis ebbed, leaving a shaky and uncertain stand-off between the two military giants.
Throughout 1961 and most of 1962, Berlin remained the central topic of correspondence between Khrushchev and Kennedy, with the USSR constantly probing American intent. But October of that year saw the eruption of an even greater crisis, one that brought the two superpowers terrifyingly close – as close as they would get – to nuclear confrontation.
Cuba had been a particularly irksome problem for the United States since 1959 when the Communist Fidel Castro had come to power. Kennedy had already suffered a humiliating setback by failing to unseat Castro with the American-sponsored ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion in April 1961. Later that year he authorised a programme of covert action to destabilise the regime, including various schemes to assassinate Castro. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Cuban leader was expectant of a second American-led invasion and looked to the Soviet Union for support against the intentions of American imperialism.
Khrushchev himself had his own problems. Not only had he failed to instigate American withdrawal from Berlin, but US intelligence reports in 1961 and 1962 had finally convinced American leaders that the feared ‘missile gap’ was an illusion: Soviet nuclear capability, previously thought to be superior, was in fact vastly inferior to that of the United States. Furthermore, it rankled with Khrushchev that the US could ringfence the Soviet Union with American military bases and place Jupiter missiles in Turkey (these became operational in early 1962) just across the Soviet border. During the spring and summer of 1962 it was decided that a way to offset American nuclear superiority, put pressure on the US over Berlin and provide for Cuban defence would be to station intermediate and medium-range Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. Formal orders were issued to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to proceed with deployment on June 10th, 1962.
In late August, American U-2 high-level reconnaissance planes detected the construction of missile sites in Cuba. However, worried about the deteriorating situation in Europe and South-East Asia, the administration made the erroneous assumption that the purpose of these bases was to bolster Cuban defence. Reconnaissance missions were increased in September but, surprisingly, no new evidence was uncovered to convince Kennedy that the bases were other than defensive. This misjudgement was compounded by the fact that (unlike the United States) the USSR never before had sought to station its missiles outside its borders, while signals from the Soviet side were designed to encourage the view that it had no intention of doing so. On September 11th, the Soviet news agency Tass stated:
There is no need for the Soviet Union to shift its weapons for the repulsion of aggression...to any other country, for instance Cuba.
Such signals were further reinforced at the highest diplomatic levels. On September 4th, and again on September 6th, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, called on the US Attorney General, the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, with personal messages from Khrushchev. The thrust of these messages was that the Soviet Union had no intention of creating trouble for the United States prior to the upcoming congressional elections (scheduled for November) and that no action would be taken which would ‘complicate the international situation or aggravate the tension in relations between our two countries’. Although Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev was that the US would not tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba, it was clear that, so far, Soviet strategy was working and the US remained unaware of the audacity of Khrushchev’s nuclear adventure.
The crisis proper erupted on October 15th, when Kennedy was presented with photographic evidence from a U-2 fly-over which showed irrefutable proof that the Soviets were constructing what could only be nuclear missile sites a mere 90 miles or so from Miami. Shocked and furious, close associates remember Kennedy bursting out ‘How could he do this to me!’. The President assembled a team of fifteen of his closest advisers. Known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), this small group functioned as the innermost council on national security for the next thirteen tension-filled days.
The first task of the ExComm was to decide on what options were available to the US. Six alternatives were suggested, ranging from doing nothing to a full invasion of Cuba. However, American strategy quickly boiled down to two main responses; either a ‘surgical’ airstrike on the bases themselves, or a blockade of the island. The airstrike option was subject to a number of problems, not least that the military could not guarantee that an attack would be ‘surgical’. While the sites could be destroyed, the air force could not be sure that the Soviet Migs and Ilyushin bombers stationed in Cuba could be prevented from launching counterattacks against the US mainland. Nor could the destruction of all nuclear missiles be assured by a small operation. In order to ensure complete destruction of the bases an operation of over 500 separate sorties would have to be initiated: in other words, a massive, rather than ‘surgical’, attack which risked inflicting up to 20,000 deaths on the Russian personnel at the sites and among local Cubans. In fact, the number of Russians deployed in Cuba was seriously under-estimated; more recent figures suggest that up to 42,000 Soviet military personnel were stationed on the island. Clearly, such an attack could not be disregarded by Moscow. Also, the airstrike would have to take place without warning which, for a country that had itself suffered a devastating surprise attack at Pearl Harbor would be hard to stomach.
As deliberations continued, the blockade option became increasingly attractive. It would prevent any further deployments by the Soviets, signal American commitment to having the missiles removed and place the burden of making the next move squarely back on Khrushchev’s shoulders. Kennedy stated his intentions on October 22nd. The President announced to the public the discovery of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, declaring his intent to impose a ‘strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba’ which was to go into effect on October 24th. If any Soviet vessel resisted orders to stop, US ships were to fire upon them. He also announced that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded by the US as an attack from the Soviet Union itself and he demanded that the USSR remove all offensive weapons from Cuban soil.
Over the next few days U-2 reconnaissance flights were increased to one every two hours and Soviet ships carrying more men and material sailed ever closer to the island. On the 25th, Kennedy raised the level of military stand-by to DEFCON 2 – one step short of war. The two superpowers, it seemed, were on a collision course. However, on October 26th, a secret and impassioned letter arrived from Khrushchev to Kennedy. The Soviet Premier wrote:
If you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more we pull, the tighter the knot will be tied.
What Khrushchev proposed was a deal in which the Soviet Union would withdraw all its missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American guarantee that it would not invade the island.
But the worst day of the crisis was yet to come. On October 27th, as the ExComm were trying to draft a response to the Soviet premier’s letter, Radio Moscow began to broadcast a second Khrushchev letter to Kennedy. This message was far harsher and stated that removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba would be dependent on the US removing its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev had suddenly raised the stakes. The ExComm’s problems were exacerbated when it was informed that a U-2 reconnaissance plane had been shot down over Cuba. Kennedy told his fellow ExComm members: ‘Now it can go either way’. All this time the Soviet navy was drawing closer to the blockade line, increasing the likelihood that a military confrontation would occur.
Time was running out. Throughout the day the ExComm sought a way of resolving the crisis politically without using armed force. In the afternoon Robert Kennedy finally came up with a risky plan. He suggested that the President ignore the second letter and contact Anatoly Dobrynin to tell him of US agreement with Khrushchev’s first message. This gamble came to be known as ‘the Trollope ploy’ after the novels of Anthony Trollope in which his young heroines take ‘a squeeze of the hand as a proposal of marriage’. Kennedy dispatched a letter outlining US agreement with Khrushchev’s proposals but also included a dire warning that a continuation of the threat would be a ‘grave risk to the peace of the world’. After all, the quarantine was only a first step and the airstrike option was ready to go in only forty-eight hours should the Soviet Union continue to build its bases.
The answer came on the next day. In response to Kennedy’s shot in the dark, Radio Moscow broadcast a statement from Khrushchev. In exchange for American assurances on Cuba, the Soviet government ‘has given a new order to dismantle the arms which you describe as offensive...and return them to the Soviet Union’. Although the dismantling was to take some time, and despite the United States’ continuing difficulties with the Castro regime, the Cuban crisis had been defused.
An obvious legacy of the management of these crises, which is surprisingly easy to overlook, is that I am alive to write this article and you are alive to read it. One cannot under-estimate the stakes for which the US and USSR were playing during this period. The nuclear force posture of both superpowers at this time was extremely inflexible. There was scant room between the initiation of conventional hostilities and escalation to total nuclear conflagration.
How Soviet and American leaders coped with this danger lies at the heart of the concept of effective international crisis management in the Cold War. During both crises, Kennedy in particular was faced with extremely stark choices. Returning from the Vienna summit in June 1961, he reviewed NATO contingency plans in regard to West Berlin. To his shock the plans called for armed convoys to travel overland through East Germany to liberate the city. Once they encountered resistance, the planners envisaged a rapid escalation to nuclear war. Such plans gave the President practically no room for manoeuvre. Instead, he tried to build in a measure of flexibility, while still demonstrating commitment, by extending his conventional options. This meant the tripling of draft calls, extended enlistments, the mobilisation of some 250,000 reservists and National Guard, the mobilisations of two full US divisions and fifty-four air and naval squadrons at a total cost of US$3.2 billion.
The same thinking motivated Kennedy during the Cuban crisis. Full invasion of the island was rapidly ruled out and the airstrike option put on hold as the President struggled to find the middle ground by resorting to a ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. As in Berlin, this went against the planning of the military specialists. The civilian members of the ExComm were amazed that their military counterparts seemed to give so little consideration to the consequences of the actions they were advocating. On the final day of the crisis the President remarked:
An invasion would have been a mistake – a wrong use of our power. But the military are mad. They wanted to do this. It’s lucky for us that we have McNamara [Secretary of Defence] over there.
Indeed, on October 28th, the day when the crisis seemed over, General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief of Staff, suggested to the President that ‘we attack Monday in any case’.
The need to resolve these conflicts short of force should not be confused with simple appeasement. Superpower decision-makers had to moderate the scale of their competition because uncontrolled escalation ran the risk of incurring vast, punishing nuclear strikes against their homelands. However, when not engaged in near-nuclear confrontation, decision-makers in the US and USSR were not averse to engaging in ‘warlike’ policy, as the Vietnam war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 bear witness.
Furthermore, to be seen to be ‘giving in’ to the opposition was also intolerable and problematic. An irony of the Cuban crisis is that Kennedy had instructed the military in August 1962 to remove the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey but this had not been done. He was, therefore, doubly shocked to realise on October 27th, 1962, that not only had someone failed to carry out his orders to remove the missiles, but they were now a central component in a deadly game of cat and mouse. He could not now publicly remove them because that would be seen as giving in to Soviet nuclear blackmail.
What Berlin and Cuba demonstrated to US and Soviet leaders was that strategic nuclear deterrence had to be rethought. The strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which governed how nuclear weapons would be used was clearly of little help to superpowers locked in confrontation. One immediate consequence of the events of 1961 and 1962 was a re-evaluation of the use of these weapons and much interest was shown in developing a ‘flexible response’ strategy which envisaged the use of tactical battlefield weapons in a limited nuclear war. Fortunately, even these more limited approaches were never put to the test during confrontations such as the Middle East crisis of 1973.
More importantly, what arose from these crises was a realisation that US-Soviet competition had to be controlled. A shocking lesson of these crises was that, in an age of telecommunications, intercontinental ballistic missiles and space exploration, there was no means of direct communication between Washington and Moscow. Khrushchev had to resort to broadcasting on Radio Moscow to get messages to Kennedy and diplomatic communication still meant handing written messages to ambassadors acting as go-betweens. Hence, following Cuba, Washington and Moscow set up the famous ‘hotline’. Yet, even this mode of ‘direct’ communication was by teleprinter, not direct speech.
Other controls soon followed. The experience of these crises, when the world came the closest it had ever been to nuclear war, caused a renewal in superpower diplomacy and the later 1960s saw the signing of a number of treaties to try and set limits on the scale of nuclear competition. These included: the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Ban on Nuclear Weapons in Outer Space in 1967 and the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.
The crises also spurred a tacit recognition that each superpower had its own ‘sphere of influence’. For the rest of the Cold War, the USSR was allowed more or less a free hand with its East European counterparts. West Berlin stayed a Western enclave and Western Europe was accepted as part of the Atlantic security system.
Yet, as we move into a post-Cold War world, the longer term implications of these crises are less clear. The bi-polar, nuclear-armed competitive relationship between the US and the Soviet Union has disappeared to be replaced by far more uncertain and subtle problems. The crisis management techniques which evolved from Berlin and Cuba may be of little use for a state faced with the threat of international organised crime and drug trafficking, by small states seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, by terrorist bombings, and by a new range of cross-border problems such as acid rain.
Jim Broderick is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology