On 4 October 1962, a U-2 reconnaissance mission flying over Cuba discovered Soviet SS-4 short-range ballistic missiles and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Inclement weather prevented any reconnaissance flights for a confirmation of the discovery of the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil until 14 October that year.
On 16 October 1962, the Central Intelligence Agency delivered a message to the State Department and the White House about the findings of the U-2 flights. Located 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the intermediate-range ballistic missiles posed a mortal danger to the population of the United States.
John F. Kennedy, the then President of the United States, convened an Executive Committee of the National Security Council to discuss the probable modalities for the removal of Soviet missiles. Consequently, US forces around the world were placed on alert. Four tactical air squadrons were readied for air strikes over Cuba, with missile sites, airfields, ports and gun placements as their potential targets.
Additionally, more than 100,000 troops were sent to Florida for a possible invasion of Cuba. The navy dispatched 180 vessels into the Caribbean for a planned amphibious exercise involving 40,000 marines. B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons were in the air at all times.
The members of the Executive Committee discussed a number of possible responses: 1) do nothing; 2) take the issue to the United Nations and the Organisation of American States; 3) offer to remove US missiles in Turkey if the Soviets removed the missiles in Cuba; 4) send secret envoys to negotiate with Castro; 5) blockade Cuba; 6) strike Cuba by air; or 7) invade Cuba.
Several arguments were put forth by the committee in deliberating over the options. For instance, among the Executive Council members, Option 5 for a blockade seemed to be the appropriate response. However, the option had to be dismissed since a blockade was tantamount to a declaration of war.
On 18 October, Kennedy and Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko (Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union) had an 'open dialogue' to discuss the placement of offensive weapons in close proximity to the territory of the US; and, Gromyko denied the accusations by asserting the 'weapons in Cuba were by no means offensive' in nature.
As the preparation had begun for a naval blockade, the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for an airstrike (Option 6) and an invasion (Option 7).
On 22 October, Kennedy addressed the nation and sent a clear and direct message to the Soviets. In essence, Kennedy declared a 'naval quarantine' since a blockade would be tantamount to a declaration of war and effectively prevent any offensive weapons shipment destined for Cuba.
Kennedy warned that "any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere was an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Kennedy reminded the nation of the gravity of the situation and the danger the threat posed to the nation and to the world – concluding, "the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing."
The third week of October witnessed several ships being turned back by the quarantine, the Pentagon planning an invasion and air strike, the presentation of proof to the United Nations, and evidence suggesting ongoing construction of the missile sites in Cuba.
On 26 October, a conciliatory note from Gromyko suggested the Soviets were keen on a peaceful outcome. Gromyko requested assurance from the President about the 'quarantine to be lifted' and that the US will not invade Cuba; and, in reciprocity, the removal of the missiles may be given due consideration.
Finally, after some deliberations and exchange of notes between Kennedy and Gromyko, a quid pro quo arrangement seemed to be acceptable that would make the removal of the missiles from Turkey contingent upon the removal of the missiles in Cuba; and, balancing the threat of US invasion of Cuba with a counter-threat of the Soviets invading Turkey.
On 20 November, Kennedy 'instructed the Secretary of Defense to lift our naval quarantine' upon being 'informed by Chairman Khrushchev that all of the IL-28 bombers in Cuba will be withdrawn in 30 days.' Subsequently, 'the United States dismantled several of its obsolete air and missile bases in Turkey.'
Present day: Of similarities and differences
In comparison, the current conundrum over the use of battlefield nukes in Ukraine possesses several similar and dissimilar characteristics. Both of the incidents occurred in the month of October; both involve the US and the Russian Federation (former Soviet Union); both involve escalation into a devastating nuclear war among top military powers; both occurred during the US midterm election campaign of the President representing the Democratic Party; and both involved a third party – a client-nation (Cuba and USSR) and (US and Ukraine).
Inconsistencies and dissimilarities of the nuclear escalation of the Russian Federation over Ukraine and the Cuban Missile Crisis are obvious as well. First, the dialogue was ongoing throughout the Cuban crisis between the US and the Soviet governments. However, now, no dialogue is going on between the two governments and there is the exchange of 'hot' words and 'provocative' rhetoric - warnings to the adversary by both sides of the consequences, contributing to ratcheting up of tensions.
Secondly, the U-2 photographs for presentation to the United Nations by US Representatives. There's no such proof or any such evidence to suggest that the Russian Federation (RF) is moving or deploying nuclear weapons to the battlefield over Ukraine.
Thirdly, there's an explicit threat in the words of the Russian President during the crisis in Ukraine, while no such statements were made by the Soviet Union back in 1962.
At the same time, in the case of Ukraine, Putin's threat carried an element of a bluff. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat was without any bluff. However, covert warfare rather than overt hostilities existed in the relationship between the rival powers - the US and the USSR in the Cuban missile crisis; and, in the Ukrainian crisis, overt hostilities dominate the European theatre.
Moreover, safeguards under the Soviet Union are more reassuring than the safeguards under the Russian Federation in the prevention of any nuclear escalation.
Moreover, the Cuban crisis involved strategic nuclear weapons of medium-range and intermediate-range missiles and the crisis over Ukraine involves or may involve tactical nuclear weapons.
As mentioned earlier, there were other viable options under active consideration by the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, that is not the case now. Moreover, the US and NATO are not quite explicit about the kind of response Russia will have to face in the event of the use of nukes.
The nuclear escalation is bound to impact primarily the population of Ukraine and secondarily the neighbouring nations of Europe - the EU, UK, Ireland and the Baltics. The nuclear escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the population of the US. Now, the US remains relatively out of range and not under any direct threat from the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
And finally, the Cuban crisis occurred during the Cold War and the Ukrainian crisis is perhaps the most provocative conflict that rival powers are facing during the post-cold war period.
What remains to be seen is whether President Putin is going to buy into the language of the liberal democracies and do a cost-benefit analysis before embarking on escalating the war, or will he continue his aggression against Ukrainians with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. A careful evaluation is likely to discourage the Russian president from making any irrational moves.
Joe Biden, President of the United States, has upgraded the threat level by referring to an "Armageddon", which will probably deter Putin and make him take into account the American and NATO nuclear capability, and the willingness to use it, before going down the dreaded path of the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Sheikh Rahman specialises in National Security Policy and is an alumnus of Dhaka University Department of International Relations.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.