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Nuclear Weapons i n the Cuban Missile Crisis I w h a t role did nuclear weapons play in the Cuban missile crisis, and what does the episode tell us about the broader problem of the political utility of nuclear forces? In 1983, a number of veterans of the Kennedy Administration were brought together to look back and reflect on the affair, and in their minds these questions had very clear answers. What the crisis showed, according to Robert McNamara, who had been Secretary of Defense at the time, was that America’s superiority in numbers of nuclear weapons “was not such that it could be translated into usable military power to support political objectives.”l Dean Rusk, the Secretaryof State under Kennedy, made an even stronger claim: “The simple fact is that nuclear power does not translate into usable political influence.”2 And indeed the argument is often made that the crisis demonstrates the political insignificance of the nuclear balance-or even the political irrelevance of nuclear weapons in general.3 On the other hand, there have always been those who maintained that America’s “overwhelming strategicsuperiority,” or simply the American willingness to risk nuclear war, had a good deal to do with the course that the The author wishes to acknowledge an extraordinary debt of gratitude to John Mearsheimer for all the help he gave with this article. Marc Trachtenberg is Associute Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. 1. Transcript of a Discussion about the Cuban Missile Crisis, June 28, 1983, pp. 1-2, Alfred Sloan Foundation, New York; hereinafter cited as ”Sloan transcript, June 28, 1983.”I am grateful to MI. Arthur Singer for allowing me to view the videotapes of these discussions. McGeorge Bundy, who in 1962 had been Kennedy’s national security adviser, elaborated the point: America ’s superiority, it was felt at the time, “was not a usable superiority in the sense that we would ever want to go first because if even one Soviet weapon landed on an American target, we would all be losers.” Sloan transcript, January 27, 1983, reel 6, take 1, p. 7. 2. Sloan transcript, January 27, 1983, reel 6, take 1, p. 40. 3. See, for example, the joint statement by six veterans of the crisis (McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, Sorensen, Gilpatric, and Ball) in Time magazine, September 27, 1982: “The Cuban missile crisis illustrates not the significance but the insignificance of nuclear superiority in the face of suMvable thermonuclear retaliatory forces” (Rusk et al., ”The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” p. 85). See also Walter Slocombe, The Political Implications of Strategic Parity, Adelphi Paper No. 77 (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, May 1971), pp. 18-20 (although his Appendix 2, where he sets out his argument in greater detail, is more modest in tone); and Benjamin Lambeth, “Deterrence in the MIRV Era,” World Politics, Vol. 24, No. 2 (January 1972), pp. 230234 . International Security, Summer 1985 (Vol. 10, No. 1) 0162-2889/85/0137-27 $02.50/1 0 1985 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 137 International Security I 138 crisis took.4Bernard Brodie, for example, took it for granted that America’s “nuclearsuperiority” had been crucialin 1962.It was, he said, “a mischievous interpretation” of the crisis ”to hold that its outcome was determined mostly by our conventional ~uperiority.”~ In the twenty years that have passed since the confrontation took place, claims about the Cuban missile crisis have played an important role in the discussion of strategic issues. Theories are tested by events, and people have looked to the sharpest crisis of the nuclear age for answers: how much of a political shadow do nuclear weapons cast? These debates, however, have always had a rather abstract and speculative character. But thanks to the release in the last few years of an extraordinary series of documents on the crisis, it is now possible to study these issues on the basis of hard empirical evidence.‘j What does the missile crisis tell us about the way nuclear weapons affect international politics? The problem will be approached here by examining three schools of thought-about the crisis...


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