Steven Pinker is wrong about the Cuban Missile Crisis

For the most, I really like Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature. People who talk about how awful the modern world is are generally just ignoring how much worse the past was. Pinker does a great job of showing this with numbers on how violence has, on the whole, declined over the past several thousand years. It’s not a straight-line decline. Things sometimes get worse in the short run. But the long term trend is very positive.

But–and this is a big but–as I’ve looked more into Pinker’s discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the more I’m convinced that Pinker is just wrong about that. The issue with the Cuban missile crisis is that a sophisticated critic of Pinker can say, “maybe the median amount of violence at any one time has declined, but the risk of rare but huge conflagrations of violence–like nuclear war–has gone up. The Cuban Missile Crisis shows how much danger we’re in of something really catastrophic happening.”

Here’s what Pinker has to say about that. He describes the de-escalation of the crisis, and cites political scientist John Mueller to argue that the de-escalation was not just “an uncanny stroke of good luck.” Pinker writes:

Mueller reviewed the history of superpower confrontations during the Cold War and concluded that the sequence was more like climbing a ladder than stepping on to an escalator. Though several times the leaders began a perilous ascent, with each rung they climbed they became increasingly acrophobic, and always sought a way to gingerly step back down.

I bought a copy of Mueller’s book Retreat from Doomsday to see what it had to say. I was actually disappointed by how short the discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis was. The book is mostly about the broader question of the decline of “Great Power war” (think the Napoleonic wars or the two World Wars). “How big was the risk of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating into nuclear war?” only gets a few pages discussion.

Mueller’s basic argument is simple: war was unlikely because neither side wanted war and both were working hard to prevent it. That much is consistent with other things I’ve read, at least when it comes to Khrushchev and Kennedy. But I still think Mueller’s claim that the risk of nuclear war was “next to zero” ridiculous.

Focusing on the top leadership ignores the possibility that the top leadership could have lost control of the situation. More broadly, it ignores the possibility that other people could have been in power when the crisis, or a similar crisis, unfolded. Would Eisenhower, or Johnson, or Nixon, or for that matter Barry Goldwater have been as cool headed as Kennedy was?

I’ve read Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir Thirteen Days, and watched documentary The Fog of War, which consists of interviews with Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense during the crisis. Both emphasize Kennedy’s exceptional leadership during the crisis, and how he reigned in US military leaders who initially wanted to attack Cuba. Furthermore, McNamara revealed that:

It wasn’t until January, 1992, in a meeting chaired by Castro in Havana, Cuba, that I learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, were on the island at the time of this critical moment of the crisis. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and Castro got very angry with me because I said, “Mr. President, let’s stop this meeting. This is totally new to me, I’m not sure I got the translation right.”

“Mr. President, I have three questions to you. Number one: did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two: if you did, would you have recommended to Khrushchev in the face of an U.S. attack that he use them? Number three: if he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?”

He said, “Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khrushchev, I did recommend to Khrushchev that they be used. Number three, ‘What would have happened to Cuba?’ It would have been totally destroyed.” That’s how close we were.

If Castro and the US joint chiefs of staff had been calling the shots, we easily could have had a nuclear war. Mueller claims that the Soviet leadership had issued a secret directive not to go to war even if the US invaded Cuba. However, according to the website of the JFK Presidential Library, a local commander had been authorized to use nuclear weapons if the US attacked. (It’s possible that both of these things were true–what if the first order was given, but it never reached the local commander in Cuba?)

And about the possibility that Kennedy and/or Khrushchev could have lost control of the situation–during the crisis, Robert Kennedy warned the Soviets of a risk of a coup against the President, and Robert Pastor, McNamara’s son-in-law, has claimed that the younger Kennedy brother wasn’t bluffing–that some of the commanders involved in the crisis had been insubordinate. On the Russian side, naval officer Vasili Arkhipov had to convince the captain of the submarine he was on not to launch a nuclear warhead after they lost radio contact with their superiors.

Arkipov’s heroic action happened fifty-three years ago today. So take a moment to think about how close we close we came to destroying the world that day. Tensions have been rising lately in Eastern Europe. I only wish I knew what I could do to reduce the risk of existential catastrophe from nuclear weapons.

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4 thoughts on “Steven Pinker is wrong about the Cuban Missile Crisis

  1. The big problem (it seems to me) is each side not having perfect knowledge of what their enemy is doing. Even if neither side intends to start a war, what happens if one side erroneously believes the other is attacking or is about to attack?

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