The Duck of Minerva

On the Legitimating Effects of Brinksmanship

30 October 2022

This post is the first in a four part symposium on the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the the most studied cases of IR. With the release of documents in recent decades, historical revisions have challenged the received wisdom informed by mainstream approaches to nuclear strategy and a US-centric perspective. However, these revisionist accounts are not well incorporated by IR narratives of the crisis. Sixty years later, a revisiting of the legitimating role that the missile crisis plays in theories of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation is overdue. The main concern of this symposium is to question the lessons of this crisis for nuclear nonproliferation/deterrence studies, and to ask what happens when we decenter the US and Soviet narratives of this iconic event. It gathers postcolonial, critical, and feminist experts—Itty Abraham, Lorraine Bayard De Volo, and Hugh Gusterson—to explore what it would mean to decolonize our knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Revisionist accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis have demonstrated that a missile trade played a key role in resolving the crisis, yet this information has yet to be taken up and fully incorporated by political scientists. Major datasets of international crisis outcomes, including the Militarized Interstate Disputes dataset and the International Crisis Behavior Project, code the Cuban Missile Crisis as a victory for the United States. Yet, historians have long argued that the outcome was not so clear cut. 

Rhetorically, the interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis of a US victory plays an important legitimating role for theories of nuclear deterrence and especially for proponents of nuclear superiority Matthew Kroenig, for instance, depends heavily on a standard American interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis to connect the results of his statistical analysis to his larger theoretical point that nuclear superiority offers a decisive advantage in nuclear brinksmanship. In Kroenig’s narrative, US President Kennedy was able to stand at the brink of nuclear war, bolstered by his knowledge of US nuclear superiority, until the Soviets backed down and withdrew their missiles from Cuba. However, the details of this account are hotly contested among historians and there is an alternative narrative about how the Cuban Missile crisis was resolved that is considered more credible by many historians. In that narrative, the US and Soviet Union engage in an act of “exchange” in which the US quietly removes missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing its missiles from Cuba. 

On October 14, 1962, U-2 surveillance photos revealed that the Soviet Union had located nuclear capable missiles in Cuba. This development, while shocking was not truly surprising. US President Kennedy had been concerned that the deployment of fifteen nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to Turkey would elicit a Soviet response in Cuba. The decision to forward deploy US missiles to Europe had been made by the Eisenhower administration in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, which demonstrated their superior accomplishment in utilizing space technology. Thus, it was a time of trepidation over US capabilities and whether or not NATO allies were confident in the US commitment to extended deterrence. 

Upon securing NATO consent to the deployment of missiles in Europe only two members, Turkey and Italy, would accept them. Although meant as a confidence building measure in terms of the US relationship to NATO, the IRBMs, known as Jupiters, sent an aggressive signal to the Soviet Union. The Jupiters would really only be valuable as part of a nuclear first-strike capability because the liquid-fueled IRBMs would take hours to fire, were quite inaccurate and very vulnerable. Therefore they would not be able to withstand a Soviet first-strike attack. Even though their presence in Turkey and Italy had the desired effect of securing relationships with non-nuclear allies, they were not consistent with a defensive extended deterrent posture. 

After he took office, President Kennedy proceeded with the Eisenhower administration’s plan and deployed the missiles, but was interested in finding an alternative, such as deploying a nuclear-armed Polaris submarine instead, because of the possibility that the Soviets could respond with basing nuclear capable bombers or missiles less than one-hundred miles from the US homeland in Cuba. The revelation that Soviet deployments to Cuba had begun and that they were planning to deploy nuclear-armed missiles was a shock, but what had prompted it was well understood (Bernstein, 1980Brown and Marcum, 2011Nash 1997). 

The Kennedy administration’s public response to the Soviet’s actions in Cuba included all the hallmarks of brinkmanship, including a military stand-off in the form of a blockade to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional military hardware to Cuba. However, behind the scenes President Kennedy was also working to strike a deal with the Soviet leader, Premier Nikita Khrushchev. That deal consisted of a trade. If the Soviets would halt their deployment of missiles to Cuba, the US would agree not to invade Cuba and remove its Jupiters from Turkey and Italy. 

The negotiations were held close. President Kennedy secretly sent his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to meet with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at the Justice Department on October 27th, the same day that the Soviets made a public declaration that the US remove its missiles from Turkey, and what would become the last day of the crisis. Subsequently declassified materials reveal that at that meeting Robert Kennedy pledged the removal as long as there would be no public announcement of the plan. A few months later, the US quietly removed the missiles.

The existence of a missile trade to resolve the Cuban missile crisis was hotly contested for many years. Principal actors involved in the crisis, including Robert Kennedy, denied that any such agreement existed, which makes sense given the importance placed on reputation in the practice of deterrence. It was not until archival documents began to be declassified decades later that suspicious of a trade were confirmed and the historical record reflected the full scope of behaviors supporting the mutually agreed upon outcome. 

The literature on nuclear strategy has largely dismissed this bargain as playing a minor role in resolving the crisis. In the absence of a theory, or “model” of nuclear weapons as a political object, political scientists lacked the conceptual tools with which to make sense of this bargain. However, viewed through a critical post-colonial lens, one could argue that this failure to incorporate the idea that JFK and Khrushchev resolved the crisis by making what they perceived to be an equitable exchange (notwithstanding the advantage that accrued to JFK in reputation effects), has more to do with creating and sustaining desire for nuclear weapons as a source of power and domination. It is through the legitimating effects of stories like Kennedy’s brinkmanship that nuclear weapons become valued. As Shampa Biswas and I have argued, seeing the weapons as fetishized objects of exchange calls into question the inevitability of deterrence, along with the idea that nuclear weapons are inherently valuable.