Some Thoughts on Turkey and the Cuban Missile Crisis

12 November 2022, 2044 EST

Early accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, including Graham Allison’s canonical Essence of Decision, tend to represent it as a two-player game in which John F Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev went, in Dean Rusk’s memorable phrase, “eyeball to eyeball” until the Soviets backed down and the crisis was resolved. Although these accounts made clear that Krushchev was bothered by the Bay of Pigs and other attempted incursions against the Cuban Revolution, Cuba was largely represented as a pawn in the rivalry of the two superpowers. As Jutta Weldes and Mark Laffey pithily characterize many early representations of the crisis in an article on “decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis,” “simply put, Cuba did not matter in the Cuban Missile Crisis.” 

In the 1990s, this perspective was revised and decentered as oral histories and archival documents of the crisis emerged from the former Soviet Union and from Cuba itself. These accounts showed that Fidel Castro was a more important, and more aggressive, actor than previously appreciated by Western historians and political scientists; at one point he was pressuring the Soviets to undertake a first strike against “the imperialists” that would almost certainly have ended in the incineration of Cuba.

In this paper I suggest decentering our accounts of the crisis still further by paying attention to yet another actor hitherto treated as marginal: Turkey. How do various accounts of the crisis erase or marginalize Turkey, what does this tell us about postcolonial habits of representation, and how would we understand nuclear politics in the 1960s differently if we looked more closely at Turkey’s role in the crisis? 

In  case anyone is wondering why I am bringing up Turkey in this context, part of Krushchev’s motivation in stationing missiles in Cuba centered on a grievance that the U.S. had medium-range nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles at a NATO base in Turkey, 130 miles from the Soviet border. Capable of hitting every major Soviet industrial center within about ten minutes they were deployed despite warnings from General Lauris Norstad, the Supreme Commander in Europe, that they were provocative to the Soviets. Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon had said they were deployed in Turkey “because we had so many of them we did not know where to put them.”  They became operational a few days before the Cuban Missile Crisis. That crisis was resolved, as far as the public knew, by trading an agreement that the Soviets would withdraw their missiles from Cuba in exchange for a solemn promise from the U.S. not to attack Cuba. However, there was a secret addendum to the agreement, known to only nine people in the U.S. at the time, that the U.S. would withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey within five months. Incidentally, the nine people in the know did not include the Vice President, LBJ, and JFK deliberately lied to ex-presidents Eisenhower and Truman when they asked him if a side deal had been struck over the missiles in Turkey.

In the remainder of these remarks, I want to look at the erasure and misrepresentation of the Turkish dimension in accounts of the crisis. Scholarly and popular accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis have reduced it to a duel between the superpowers disembedded from a more complex web of relations and commitments in part by this erasure of Turkey’s role. If we look at accounts of the origins and resolution of the crisis, some of these, astonishingly, omit any reference to the U.S. missiles up against the Soviet border. Take this account from the popular website It makes no mention of the Jupiters and says that, by moving its missiles so close to the U.S., the Soviets were remaking the balance of power:

“For the American officials, the urgency of the situation stemmed from the fact that the nuclear-armed Cuban missiles were being installed so close to the U.S. mainland–just 90 miles south of Florida. From that launch point, they were capable of quickly reaching targets in the eastern U.S. If allowed to become operational, the missiles would fundamentally alter the complexion of the nuclear rivalry between the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which up to that point had been dominated by the Americans.”

Incidentally, the mention of U.S. domination of the U.S.-Soviet strategic relationship in this quote refers to the U.S. advantage in numbers of nuclear weapons.

And here is an account from an official navy website, which similarly fails to mention the Jupiters:

“In the fall of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever would to global nuclear war. Hoping to correct what he saw as a strategic imbalance with the United States, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev began secretly deploying medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Once operational, these nuclear-armed weapons could have been used on cities and military targets in most of the continental United States. Before this happened, however, U.S. intelligence discovered Khrushchev’s brash maneuver. In what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy and an alerted and aroused American government, military, and public compelled the Soviets to remove not only their missiles, but also all of their offensive weapons, from Cuba.”

Finally, here is an account from a school textbook

“In October 1962, President Kennedy learned that the Soviets were secretly building missile bases on the island. If the bases were completed, atomic missiles could reach American cities within minutes. Kennedy announced that American warships would stop any Soviet ship carrying missiles. The world waited tensely as Soviet ships steamed toward Cuba. At the last minute, the Soviet ships turned back. “We’re eyeball to eyeball,” said Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Kennedy’s strong stand led the Soviets to compromise. Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba. In turn, the United States promised not to invade the island.”

Yet we have ample evidence that, in provoking the crisis, Krushchev was deeply bothered not only by the U.S.’s numerical superiority in weapons, but the Jupiter missiles up against his border. “What would Americans think if the Soviets set up bases in Mexico or some other such place?” he had asked US ambassador to Moscow, Averill Harriman. On one occasion, visiting the Black Sea, he had handed binoculars to an associate and asked what they saw. Nothing, they replied awkwardly. He replied, “I see U.S. missiles in Turkey aimed at my dacha.”  On another trip to the Black Sea, he said “the Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing but giving them a little of their own medicine.”

This matters not just because so many accounts omit, or downplay, one source of the crisis but because, acknowledging Soviet grievances about the Jupiters changes the whole complexion of the crisis. JFK himself recognized this quite clearly. After the Soviets broadcast a suggestion on Radio Moscow that the U.S. trade its Jupiters for the Soviet missiles in Cuba, JFK remarked to the ExComm: “we can’t very well invade Cuba with all this toll and blood it’s going to be, when we could have gotten them [the Soviet missiles] out by making a deal on the same missiles in Turkey. If that’s part of the record, then I don’t see we’ll have a very good war.”  

In other words, the Jupiters changed the U.S. position in the Cuban Missile Crisis from one of insisting on balance and restraint (let’s all keep our deterrent forces at a distance) to one of reckless hypocrisy: we will threaten to kill millions of people if you do what we are already doing, and we will risk millions of lives to establish that we have the right to put missiles against your border but you do not have the right to put missiles against our border. This takes us a long way from the heroics of high shool textbook accounts.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that JFK was in a minority on the ExComm in seeing the hypocrisy of the U.S. position as a problem and in being willing to trade in the Jupiters. Maybe, you say, the others on the ExComm saw the Jupiters as vital to strategic objectives. However, when a week into the crisis JFK asked how many Jupiters were in Turkey, no-one on the ExComm could answer him. And it was widely accepted within the ExComm that the Jupiters – liquid fueled and of low accuracy – were becoming obsolete at the new Polaris submarine-based missiles were being deployed. It was also widely accepted on the ExComm that, if the Cuban Missile Crisis turned to war, the Jupiters would be among the first Soviet targets, so they would soon be gone one way or another. If the ExComm discussed Turkish casualties in such an attack, I am unaware of that.

In the end the crisis was resolved with the aid of a secret side agreement to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey within 5 months. In closing, it is worth noting the way this side agreement is discussed by historians. Whenever the subject of the Jupiters came up in ExComm discussions throughout the thirteen days of the crisis, there were vague references to trouble it might cause with NATO or with Turkey to bring the Jupiters into the field of tradeoffs. In the end, however, when the Kennedy brothers crafted the language of their offer to Krushchev, they treated the Jupiters as pieces on a chess board, and showed little concern about the sensitivities of Turkish policy-makers. Reportedly, the Jupiters mattered deeply to Turkish defense officials as tokens of U.S. commitment to Turkey and as points of connection with the NATO apparatus. Not only was that of no consequence to the Kennedy brothers, but it seems also to have been of no consequence to Western historians, whose accounts are largely bereft of this angle. Even if we take an account as superb as Martin Sherwin’s recent magisterial retelling of the Crisis, Gambling With Armageddon, one finds not a single Turkish voice in the 576 pages of the book. (I’m sorry to speak ill of the dead, but I know he would have welcomed a debate on this issue and am sad that I will never know how he would have replied). 

We are striving to decolonize our discussions of nuclear weapons. At a moment when it seemed there might be nothing new to say about the Cuban Missile Crisis, maybe looking at the crisis with Turkey nearer the center offers us a chance to rethink the crisis some more. Why were so many on the ExComm indifferent to the double standard the Jupiters embodied?  Why could no member of the ExComm say how many Jupiters were in Turkey?  How well did members of the ExComm understand what the Jupiters represented to Turks?  Why, one week into the crisis, had no-one in the U.S. government begun talking to the Turkish government about the Jupiters?  And why were more members of the ExComm prepared to lose the Jupiters to a Soviet nuclear strike than to negotiate them away?