For 13 days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in a perilous game of nuclear brinkmanship. The lessons learned 50 years ago from the military and diplomatic confrontation over Moscow's decision to install offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba still resonate today. Today the challenge is Iran's nuclear ambitions and the potential threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
Seeking to take advantage of a chastened President John F. Kennedy's bungled management of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the Soviet Union began constructing nuclear missile sites on the island nation a mere 90 miles away from Florida. The missile buildup was discovered by U-2 spy plane overflights of Cuba in mid October 1962, leading to Kennedy's confrontation with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. From Oct. 15 to Oct. 28, both leaders were torn by their inner councils, with some hawks urging open military conflict while others believed diplomacy was the only way to escape an escalating nuclear crisis bringing the world to the precipice of war.
Kennedy took a middle course of action. As an anxious world watched, Kennedy upped the ante, ordering a naval "quarantine" of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships carrying missiles and equipment from reaching the island. The blockade, combined with Kennedy's skillful use of the presidency's bully pulpit and intense back-channel diplomacy, eventually resolved the crisis with public pledges by the Soviets to remove the weapons, Kennedy's promise not to attempt another invasion of Cuba, and a secret agreement whereby the United States agreed to remove its own missile sites in Turkey and Italy.
Those 13 days so long ago offer a sobering blueprint for handling today's nuclear conflict with Iran. Nimble diplomacy will always trump emotional saber-rattling. Dealing directly and firmly with the major players involved in a crisis is crucial. And of all the voices raised during a White House crisis, ultimately the only one that counts belongs to the occupant of the Oval Office.