Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

June 2000 (Vol. XXIV No. 3)


Deterrence and Nuclear Confrontations: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sino-Soviet Border War
By Rajesh Rajagopalan *


The first part of this study on the deterrent capabilities of Small Nuclear Forces (SNFs) had examined nuclear deterrence theory. 1 As had been suggested in that paper, there are obvious limitations to drawing conclusions about deterrence policies based purely on theories of deterrence. It is equally important to examine the validity of these theories on the basis of actual experience. Thus, the paper focuses on operation of deterrence, taking nuclear crises as examples of such an operation. Specifically, this paper focuses on the Cuban Missile crisis and the Sino-Soviet border skirmishes to see if any useful lessons might be drawn about the operation of nuclear deterrence with Small Nuclear Forces (SNFs).

Why focus on nuclear crises? The primary reason is methodological. It is notoriously difficult to show that deterrence has worked successfully in most cases, especially over a long course of time. For example, it is often stated that the nuclear deterrence prevented the cold war from turning hot during the half-century after the end of the Second World War. It might indeed have, but proving it would be an extremely difficult undertaking because it would involve demonstrating that one or the other superpower was intent on an aggressive war, which the presence of nuclear weapons alone prevented. 2 Examining crises in which deterrence is attempted is one way around this problem, since crises tend to be limited in time, and usually sharply focussed (in that it deals with a single, highly specific, and mutually recognised issue).

This does not entirely resolve the methodological problems, however. Even in a crisis situation, there can be differences in perception about attempts at deterrence which make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the operation of deterrence. A familiar (though non-nuclear) example was the American attempt to ‘deter’ an Indian attack on West Pakistan in December 1971 by dispatching the ‘Enterprise’ carrier battle-group to the Bay of Bengal. Henry Kissinger, then American National Security Advisor, would characterise the mission as a success because it deterred Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from refocusing Indian military forces against West Pakistan after the completion of operations in the eastern sector. 3 The problem, of course, is that there is little indication that there was any Indian plan to attack West Pakistan. India’s non-attack on West Pakistan could have been the consequence of a successful American deterrent threat, if, as Kissinger appeared convinced, India had planned to strike towards the West. But if there had been no such Indian plan, as all available evidence appears to suggest, then deterrence could not have worked because there was nothing to deter.

Additional methodological caveats are also in order. In this essay, only two Cold War nuclear crises, the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) and the Sino-Soviet border skirmishes (1969), both involving direct confrontation between nuclear powers, are considered. These were chosen because they were the only Cold War cases where there was direct confrontation between two nuclear powers in which nuclear weapons appear to have played a significant role. There have been numerous other instances when nuclear threats were made or implied, but where either only one nuclear power was involved, or if both were involved, the threats themselves were ambiguous, which makes it difficult to come to any judgements about the operation of nuclear deterrence. 4


The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962

The Cuban missile crisis remains one of the most closely examined episodes of the nuclear era. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even more historical material has become available for scholars to examine. 5 Though this now allows us to re-examine the crisis, most scholarly and popular accounts have only stressed how close the two superpowers came to a nuclear war. A more surprising outcome was that the nuclear deterrence worked, and that it worked in spite of considerable disparities in the nuclear arsenals of the two powers. Despite enjoying local and strategic superiority, and despite strong sentiment among President Kennedy’s advisors (which Kennedy appears to have shared at times) in favour of bombing the missile sites in Cuba, the US was deterred from going to war. What deterred the US was the certainty that some Soviet retaliation would take place. Though the Soviets might have suffered more, the fact that the US would not escape unhurt was sufficient to deter the US.

The decision to place Soviet missiles in Cuba was taken in late May 1962. 6 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s primary motivation appears to have been to defend Cuba against continuing American-sponsored attacks by anti-Castro forces and the very real possibility of an American invasion. 7 Hoping to present the US with a fait accompli, Khrushchev ordered that the mission be carried out in complete secrecy. 8 The extraordinary measures that the Soviet military took to conceal the operation, as well as some favourable weather, allowed the Soviet military to successfully conduct much of the operation in secret. Nevertheless, by the middle of October, American intelligence had begun to suspect that Soviet missiles might have been shipped to Cuba. On October 16, President Kennedy was informed that there was conclusive photo-reconnaissance evidence of Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba. Though originally contemplating an air strike, Kennedy eventually decided on a ‘quarantine’ of Cuba to prevent any more missiles going into that country, along with resolute demands that Moscow remove the missiles already in Cuba or face war. The crisis ended short of war, when Khrushchev decided to pull the missiles out of Cuba in exchange for an American undertaking to not invade Cuba, and to eventually remove American ‘Jupiter’ missiles from Turkey.


The Nuclear Balance and the Cuban Missile Crisis

One of the continuing areas of dispute about the Cuban missile crisis concerns the impact of the nuclear balance on the eventual resolution of the crisis. Did American nuclear superiority matter? Or, were nuclear weapons irrelevant? Was it Kennedy’s resoluteness and patience that was the critical factor? 9 What lessons can be drawn from the crisis about the general importance of nuclear balances?

There is now little doubt about the lopsided nature of the nuclear balance at the time of the missile crisis. Through the late 1950s, a section of the American strategic elite had worried continuously about advances in Soviet missile and bomber strength. 10 A classified RAND study suggested that American strategic forces, primarily the bombers of the Strategic Air Command, were vulnerable to a Soviet surprise attack. 11 The Gaither Committee, appointed by the Eisenhower administration to examine the issue of American vulnerability, supported the conclusion reached by the earlier RAND study. 12 But much of this concern was exaggerated, primarily because of lack of intelligence about the true strength of the Soviet strategic forces. 13 The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had deliberately exaggerated Soviet accomplishments, announcing repeatedly to Western journalists and leaders that the Soviet Union had built large numbers of strategic weapons. 14 By 1960, the existence of a ‘missile gap’ was an article of faith among both the American public and leadership and it was used to great effect by John F. Kennedy in his presidential campaign. However, though Kennedy used the missile gap issue to win the election, it became abundantly clear, within weeks of his inauguration, that no such gap existed, and the Kennedy administration officially and publicly debunked the ‘missile gap.’ 15 By October 1962, the US enjoyed at least a 17 to 1 superiority in strategic nuclear warheads, about 5000 US warheads to approximately 300 Soviet ones. 16 Even this appears to understate the American superiority, because it is likely that the Soviet Union had fewer than 300 warheads at this time. 17 As importantly, this was a superiority that the US as well as the Soviet Union were aware of and both knew the other knew.

But this overwhelming advantage played little part in the confrontation. 18 Then and subsequently, many participants believed that it was the threat of a nuclear war itself that deterred the US from acting on its superiority. Despite the American advantage, both superpowers were vulnerable to nuclear war. In Bundy’s words,

We had to assume that in any nuclear exchange, no matter who started it, some of these missiles and bombers would get through with megaton bombs. Even one would be a disaster. We had no interest in any nuclear exchange other than to avoid it. The fact that our own strategic forces were very much larger gave us no comfort. 19

Other participants have made similar observations. The irrelevance of the strategic balance is captured most aptly in a comment made by President Kennedy to his advisors at the height of the crisis: “What difference does it make? They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway.” 20

Of course, not all participants agreed on the irrelevance of the strategic balance in the crisis. The military, particularly those from the Strategic Air Command (SAC), were clear about why the Soviets “backed-down.” Years later, Air Force General Curtis LeMay would recall that “During that very critical time, in my mind there wasn’t a chance that we would have gone to war with Russia because we had overwhelming strategic capability and the Russians knew it.” 21 Some of the civilian participants, such as Paul Nitze (one of the three among Kennedy’s advisors in the Executive Committee), have also consistently maintained that the strategic balance was a critical factor. 22

But it is clear that for the critical participants, including President Kennedy, the more relevant issue was avoiding war itself. Nevertheless, even for those who argue that the strategic balance was a critical factor, what was important was the impact of the strategic superiority on Kremlin decision-makers. Khrushchev, according to this argument, backed down only because the US had both local conventional superiority and strategic nuclear superiority. 23 But ‘the dog that didn’t bark’ in the Cuban missile crisis was not Soviet restraint, but American restraint. Soviet restraint was understandable, considering their relative weakness. 24 The American restraint, despite their overwhelming advantage, is counter-intuitive and difficult to explain, except as the consequence of the fear of nuclear war itself. The American restraint becomes even more remarkable when considered in the light of new evidence that suggests that President Kennedy was willing to even make a public bargain of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey, if that was what it would take to resolve the crisis short of war. 25 In short, the new history of the missile crisis suggests even greater American restraint than was realised earlier, strengthening the proposition that the US was as deterred by the threat of war as the Soviet Union was, and was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the outbreak of such a war. The nuclear balance appears to have played little part in the crisis.

This is a lesson that has implications for SNFs such as the Indian deterrent force. A good part of the debate about the Indian nuclear deterrent has been focussed on the issue of numbers—what kind of weapons, and what quality of weapons, are necessary to ensure deterrence. 26 What the experience of the Cuban missile crisis suggests is that the numbers might not be a critical factor in achieving deterrence. If superiority and inferiority does not matter when dealing with nuclear weapons, then numbers and balances do not either.


Tactical Nuclear Weapons and the Cuban Missile Crisis

One of the most surprising elements that has come to light in the new scholarship on the missile crisis is that the Soviet Union had sent tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to Cuba, and that these might have been available for use in the event of hostilities resulting from an American attack or invasion of Cuba. The presence of the TNWs was first revealed in 1992 by General Anatoli Gribkov, the man who oversaw the planning and deployment of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. 27 In all the Soviet Union dispatched 98 TNWs to Cuba (80 nuclear-tipped, 90 km-anti-ship cruise missiles, 6 atomic bombs for the specially-modified II-28 bombers and 12 ‘Luna’ [FROG in NATO designation] 40 km-range battlefield missiles). 28 Though some of the early sensationalist reports have been shown, in the light of subsequent documentary evidence from Soviet archives, to have been overblown, the presence of several dozen TNWs in Cuba and the lack of anything other than procedural obstacles to the release of these weapons have highlighted some of the unknown dangers of the crisis.

The presence of the Soviet TNWs had been completely missed by the extensive American intelligence effort, which was primarily based on low-flying U-2 missions. A U-2 mission on October 25 had spotted the dual-capable FROG missiles, and this information was passed on to the White House by the CIA in its daily estimate of the progress of the Soviet missile deployments in Cuba. 29 But this report reached the White House only on October 27, and even then there was no mention of the possibility that these missiles might be carrying nuclear warheads. Moreover, US intelligence remained completely unaware that there were more than 80 other TNWs on Cuba.

TNWs were included from the beginning in the package of forces sent to Cuba, mainly because it was believed that if the US did attack, the Soviet forces in Cuba would be cut-off, and that they would therefore be required to carry with them as much fire-power as possible. 30 But in September, after President Kennedy made a speech warning Moscow that the US would not tolerate Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, Premier Khrushchev personally expanded the TNW component of the force being sent to Cuba and speeded up their delivery. 31 The 12 ‘Luna’/FROG missiles and the 6 bombs for the IL-28s were added by Khrushchev to the original contingent which only included nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. 32

The most dramatic revelation made by General Gribkov, however, was that local commanders in Cuba had the authority to use these missiles, if the situation so warranted. Soviet military doctrine made clear distinctions between TNWs and strategic weapons, the TNWs were considered simply to be a more effective version of conventional battlefield warheads. Thus, in the early 1960s, standard Soviet procedure gave local commanders predelegated authority to use TNWs in the event of war. 33 Little thought appears to have been given to the impact that this would have on the nuclear escalation process.

However, this particular ‘revelation’ was later retracted. Though the evidence is somewhat confusing, it now appears that despite the fact that standard procedure would have given the local commander the authority to use these weapons, and despite specific orders drawn up in September (but apparently not initiated to the local commanders) to give the local commanders predelegated authority to use the TNWs to defend Cuba against any American invasion, no such authority was actually given to the local commanders. 34 Indeed, as the crisis began, Moscow further limited the authority of local commanders to employ the TNWs. Two new orders, the first given on October 22, and a reiteration of the same order on October 27, explicitly forbade the local commanders from employing the TNWs authorisation from Moscow. 35 In the event, the procedural limitations imposed by Moscow—the requirement of direct authorisation from Moscow for the release of all the nuclear weapons, including the TNWs—was a sufficient barrier to the misuse of these weapons.

There are useful lessons to be gleaned from the Soviet experience with TNWs in Cuba, lessons that are as applicable to SNFs as they were to the other nuclear powers. 36 Indeed, the Soviet leadership itself learned important lessons from the crisis. Fear of the threat of loss of control over the TNWs in Cuba was a significant factor both in further tightening up Moscow’s control over the employment of nuclear weapons and in Moscow’s refusal to permit its Warsaw Pact allies to have anything similar to the NATO ‘dual-key’ command structure for the use of nuclear weapons, despite great pressure from allied countries such as Romania. 37

The difficulties over command and control over TNWs are applicable also to SNFs. As was shown by the Cuban missile crisis, TNWs present different command and control difficulties as compared to strategic weapons. Unlike strategic weapons, which are normally deployed deep in the interior. TNWs, given their short range, have to be deployed close to the probable battle area. Moreover, such deployment will be meaningless unless accompanied by predelegation of launch authority, as the Soviets had considered providing their local commanders in Cuba. But predelegation raises the probability that these weapons will be used, because military commanders will face a strong ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma. Such pressures will be particularly acute when local commanders are operationally on the defensive, as the Soviet commanders in Cuba were.

This review has implications for nuclear force planning in India. As in the case of the other nuclear powers, there have been calls in India for the development of TNWs. 38 What the experience of the Cuban missile crisis suggests is that far from providing any deterrent value, TNWs actually create escalatory pressures that call deterrence itself into question. In October 1962, the only way that Moscow could prevent the threat of escalation was by reassuring control over its TNWs in Cuba. But such central control also meant that the TNWs were essentially useless, since it was widely recognised, both in Moscow and among Soviet commanders in Cuba, that communications with Moscow would not survive the beginning of any American assault. In essence, so great was the threat of escalation, that Moscow was willing to ‘lose-them’ rather than ‘use-them’.


The Other Lessons of the Missile Crisis

Two more lessons can be derived from the Cuban crisis. First, it is clear that nuclear deterrence is far more than many scholars have assumed. If any crisis should have resulted in war, it was the Cuban crisis, because of the enormous complexities of the crisis, the trouble that both sides had in controlling their respective military forces, the difficulties that both leaders faced in convincing their colleagues that a less than honourable peace was better than war, and the communication problems that bedeviled proper negotiations between the respective leadership. That deterrence worked despite all these hurdles should be a cause for comfort, and suggest a different way to look at the crisis that the constant reiteration of how close the world had come to a nuclear holocaust.

Another lesson from the Cuban missile crisis is that aggressive nuclear declaratory policies should be treated with greater circumspection. In 1962, both sides had declaratory policies which, if they had been faithfully followed, would have resulted in a nuclear war. The changes in Soviet TNW release procedures have already been discussed. American TNW procedures had similarly been liberalised a decade earlier. 39 Moreover, as suggested earlier, much of the military, and the SAC in particular, was intent on carrying out the existing nuclear war plans. But despite their declaratory policies, what both sides did during the Cuban crisis was to follow what would subsequently come to be known as No-First-Use (NFU). Declaratory ‘first-use’ policies were too unrealistic to meet the challenge of crisis reality.


The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict

The end of the Cold War and the opening of the Soviet and East European archives have increased the understanding of the history of the Sino-Soviet rift. But, unlike in the case of the Cuban missile crisis, there is not very much more new information available as yet on the Sino-Soviet border skirmishes in 1968-69. Even the few new documents that have emerged, though interesting in themselves, only support previously available information. 40 Given our overall scant knowledge of many of the details of the border crisis, some of the conclusions drawn must necessarily be tentative.

Despite the fact that the Soviet Union was an early contributor to the Chinese nuclear programme, the Kremlin had become increasingly worried about the stability of China and the Chinese willingness to use its nuclear might responsibly. 41 Though a comprehensive and satisfactory history of the Sino-Soviet nuclear relations has yet to be written, it is clear that Mao expected the Soviet advances in strategic nuclear forces, and in particular the perceived Soviet advantage in inter-continental range ballistic missiles would be used for the general benefit of the socialist fraternity. 42 But Moscow worried that Chinese recklessness might lead to a direct nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US, a confrontation in which Moscow had little interest. 43 If Beijing was disappointed by Soviet pusillanimity, Khrushchev was alarmed by Mao’s refusal to understand the implications of a nuclear war. 44 Soviet unwillingness to back Mao in his conflicts with the US, which confirmed Mao’s long-held suspicion about the undependability of its ally, appears to have been at the root of the emerging Sino-Soviet rift.

The border dispute kept pace with the growth of the Sino-Soviet rift. Despite the existence of the dispute, China ‘acquiesced’ in maintaining the status quo on the border for the decade after 1949, but began challenging Moscow after 1959. 45 Between 1959 and 1966, China undertook an active and aggressive, but nevertheless non-violent, policy which included sending soldiers and civilians into the disputed areas. The policy changed in 1966, as Mao ordered that groups challenging Soviet presence in the disputed territories can, under certain circumstances, fight back. Moscow, on the other hand, alleged that Chinese “systematic provocations” began in June 1962, and reached crisis situation by 1967. 46 Through all these confrontations, both the Soviets and the Chinese imposed strict control on their soldiers and border troops, and limited the level of violence, which mostly included stick-fights or pushing and shoving each others troops from the disputed areas. On the other hand, negotiations, to solve the dispute were suspended in 1964, and contacts between the two countries on the border issue were limited to whatever exchanges took place between the troops on the border. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union also began augmenting its forces in the Far East, which increased from about 12-15 divisions to almost 30 divisions. In addition, the Soviet deployment now also included some forces deployed in Mongolia. More importantly, Moscow also now began inducting nuclear missiles in the area, mainly SS-4 and SS-5 MRBMs and SCUD and LUNA/FROG short-range and battlefield support missiles, which clearly had China as their target. 47

The border skirmishes, and larger scale clashes, appear to have begun in early March 1969. Most of the information that is available is only on two major clashes on March 2 and 15, both on the Zhen Bao/Amansky Island on the Ussuri river, mainly because both sides publicised the incidents. 48 To all appearance, China appears to have provoked the first fight on March 2, ambushing a Soviet patrol from tactically superior positions, killing a large number of Soviet soldiers. 49 The March 15 fighting appears to have been a Soviet retaliation though (because of the Chinese tactical advantages in the area) the Soviets also suffered considerable losses.

In the aftermath of these skirmishes, Beijing repeatedly rebuffed Soviet efforts to initiate a dialogue on the continuing clashes. The Soviets responded by increasing the military pressure on the border, apparently initiating skirmishes at many points on the border, including clashes as far away as in Central Asia. In these engagements, the Soviets ensured that they always had superior forces, including some armoured forces. They also suggested the possibility of further escalation, including that of nuclear attack. 50

The threat of nuclear escalation was never openly made. But Soviet, Chinese language radio broadcasts as well as newspaper reports pointed out the imbalance of nuclear forces between China and the Soviet Union and the possibility of the clashes bringing into play “lethal armaments and modern means of delivery.” 51 More ominous signs of the Soviet nuclear threat also appeared: Moscow sent letters to several communist parties in the West, warning of the possibility of an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities, 52 an article in the London Evening News by a Soviet “free-lance” journalist, considered to be spokesman for the Soviet government, which repeated the same warning of an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities; and a Soviet diplomat posted in Washington enquired of a State Department official what the US reaction would be to a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities. 53 The last mentioned was considered so serious that Henry Kissinger the US National Security Advisor, convened a meeting of the Washington Special Group, a group that dealt with contingency planning and crisis management, to prepare contingency plans for American policy in the event of Sino-Soviet war. 54 In late August, US intelligence also picked up signs of a ‘stand-down’ of the Soviet air force in the Far East, a procedure which allows all aircraft to be brought to a high state of readiness simultaneously, interpreted by the US as either the signs of preparation for a possible attack or, at the least, as a “brutal warning” to the Chinese. 55

Whether or not Moscow seriously contemplated an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities, the primary purpose of these repeated warnings appear to have been to threaten China with a nuclear escalation. And the policy of intimidation appears to have worked. By the end of July, Chinese military leaders were claiming that they had no interest in a war, a remarkable turn-around from the aggressive stance they had adopted in March. In September, China reluctantly agreed to talks, bringing to an end the series of violent clashes that began on March 2. Though there have been unconfirmed reports of further clashes on the border, these do not appear to have been extensive, serious or related to the March 1969 clashes. 56

What lessons can be learned from the events of the summer of 1969 on the Sino-Soviet border? What role did nuclear weapons, and more importantly, the nuclear balance between the Soviet Union and China, play in the crisis and its resolution? On the face of it, it is difficult to disagree with the predominant scholarly opinion that the Soviet Union succeeded in its policy of careful but determined coercion of China, a policy that included the implicit and explicit threat of use of nuclear weapons. 57 Richard Betts, in particular, has argued that it was the Soviet nuclear superiority that gave the Soviets success in their confrontation against China, even if its was only for a short time. 58

It is difficult to judge whether this is a valid conclusion in the absence of any evidence from the Chinese archives about Chinese deliberations during this time. Clearly, China was aware that it was being threatened—an official Chinese statement threatened war if a “a handful of war maniacs dare to raid China’s strategic sites.” 59 But there is little indication that China took the threats seriously. One way for China to have responded to these would have been to accelerate its nuclear and missile programmes to deal with the Soviet threat. But the evidence on this is mixed. Though the Soviet Union had clearly replaced the US as the primary focus of Chinese nuclear developments since the late 1960s, it is difficult to separate this change in focus from the overall realignment of Chinese foreign policy. 60

On the other hand, if the Soviet Union did contemplate a nuclear strike against China, or a strike against nuclear sites, the fact that it eventually decided not to undertake them might suggest that even the rudimentary deterrent capabilities of the Chinese strategic forces were a sufficient deterrent to the Soviet Union. The evidence available on these questions is too limited yet to make any final judgements on this score. We do not know, for example, how serious Soviet plans were, or whether there even were plans for a strike against Chinese facilities. Though some reports suggest that there were serious discussions at the highest levels in the Kremlim on such a strike, no documentary evidence has come to light to back it up. 61 But the relatively relaxed Chinese approach to the problem of deterring Moscow suggests that Beijing has not been particularly impressed by the nuclear threats.



The caveats stated at the beginning of this essay need to be reiterated when trying to draw conclusions from this review of the two crises and what they might mean for nuclear deterrence with SNFs. Indeed, additional caveats can also be introduced. Knowing the important role that President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev played in the Cuban crisis, it is difficult not to wonder about the role that personalities played in the successful resolution of these crises. Would the Cuban crisis have ended differently if Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan was the American President and Stalin the Soviet leader?

Nevertheless, it is important to draw some lessons from these crises. Several have been suggested in the course of the essay, and they bear repetition. Both the Cuban missile crisis and the Sino-Soviet border conflict illustrated the uselessness of nuclear superiority or the implications of nuclear inferiority. In the end, what mattered was the threat of nuclear war itself, and this was a sufficiently serious threat as to encourage caution from all the parties to the disputes. Nuclear numbers, in other words, are not very relevant to nuclear deterrence, which should be comforting for those depending on the deterrent capabilities of SNFs. The Cuban crisis also demonstrated the importance of central political control over nuclear weapons and the danger to such control that results from building TNWs. This also has implications for SNFs, who would not be able to afford the elaborate command and control infrastructure that the superpowers developed, and for whom the command and control issues would be even more serious. The crises also demonstrated the need for greater skepticism in examining nuclear doctrines—muscular nuclear doctrines might have some impact on domestic politics and military acquisitions, but are of little use in actual confrontations. Despite all the criticism of NFU policies. American strategy was implicitly an NFU strategy in October 1962—as was the Soviet strategy. Finally, deterrence was shown to be far more robust than most scholars and political leaders have assumed—it is not poised on any ‘knife’s edge’ nor was there any ‘delicate balance’ that the slightest tremor would upset. All this should induce greater confidence in SNFs than has hitherto been the case. 62



Note *: Research Fellow, IDSA  Back.

Note 1: Rajesh Rajagopalan, “Nuclear Strategy and Small Nuclear Forces: The Conceptual Components,” Strategic Analysis 23:7 (October 1999), pp. 1117-32.  Back.

Note 2: Some scholars have argued that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with ‘the long peace.’ See John Mueller, “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World,” International Security 13:2 (Fall 1989), pp. 55-79.  Back.

Note 3: Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1979), p. 913.  Back.

Note 4: For a similar exercise involving many of these other cases, see Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987). For a brief personal account of some of these crises, see Robert S. McNamara, Blundering into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987)  Back.

Note 5: Much of this new evidence, interpretations and controversies are presented in the various issues of The Cold War International History Project Bulletin (hereafter CWIHP Bulletin), available on the internet at <>  Back.

Note 6: Anatoli I. Gribkov and William Y. Smith, Operation ANADYR: US and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis ed. by Alfred Friendly, Jr (Chicago: edition q, inc, 1994), pp. 7-11.  Back.

Note 7: This had always been the Soviet argument. See Nikita S. Khrushchev, Krushchev Remembers: The Last Testament Transl. and ed. by Strobe Talbott (Delhi: Vikas Publishing House 1975), pp. 509-11. However, most American participants and scholars were, till recently, convinced that correcting the strategic imbalance was the primary Soviet motivation. Even as late as in 1992, Ray Cline, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Research and Analysis in 1962, would insist that correcting the strategic imbalance was the primary Soviet objective in putting the missiles in Cuba. See James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse (New York: Pantheon, 1993), pp. 127-28. See also, Alexander L. George, “The Cuban Missile Crisis” in Alexander L. George (ed.) Avoiding War: Problems of Crisis Management (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), pp. 223-24.  Back.

Note 9: Anatoli I. Gribkov, “The View from Moscow and Havana” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADYR, especially chps. 2&3.  Back.

Note 10: For a discussion of the merits of these opposing schools of thought, see Marc Trachtenberg, “The influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security 10:1 (Summer 1985), pp. 137-163.  Back.

Note 11: A.J. Wohlstetter, F.S. Hoffman, R.J. Lutz, and H.S. Rowen, Selection and Use of Strategic Air Bases (Santa Monica: RAND R-266, April 1954), as cited in Alain C. Enthoven & K. Wayne Smith, How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defence Program, 1961-1969 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 166.  Back.

Note 12: Strobe Talbott, The Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), pp. 66-68.  Back.

Note 13: Ibid; McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New Delhi: affiliated East-West Press, 1989), pp. 334-40.  Back.

Note 14: John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 240-44.  Back.

Note 15: Talbott, The Master of the Game, pp. 80-81.  Back.

Note 16: McNamara, Blundering into Disaster, p. 8.  Back.

Note 17: Gaddis, We Now Know, p. 262; and Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 448.  Back.

Note 18: Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis.” This early work has been largely substantiated by new research based on material released from American and Soviet archives about the events surrounding the 1962 crisis. A good synthesis of the new research is available in Gaddis, We Now Know, especially chapter 9, “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” pp. 260-80.  Back.

Note 19: Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 448.  Back.

Note 20: Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 148. See also, “Documentation: White House Tapes and Minutes of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security 10:1 (Summer 1985), pp. 164-203.  Back.

Note 21: Richard H. Kohn and Joseph P. Haraphan, “US Strategic Air Power, 1948-1962: Excerpts from an Interview with Generals Curtis E. LeMay, Leon W. Johnson, David A. Burchinal, and Jack J. Catton,” International Security 12:4 (Spring 1988), p. 94.  Back.

Note 22: Talbott, The Master of the Game, pp. 84-86.  Back.

Note 23: Ibid; and Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” pp. 137-38.  Back.

Note 24: Soviet restraint encompassed even alert postures. Throughout the crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was reporting to President Kennedy that no Soviet forces, either nuclear and conventional, were on heightened state of alert. Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” p. 157.  Back.

Note 25: Much of the early history of the Cuban crisis suggested that Kennedy had refused to make any such trade-off; even implicitly. New evidence shows the opposite. Not only was there a secret, implicit, trade-off between the Cuban and Turkish missiles, Kennedy had also attempted a back-channel to get the UN Secretary-General U Thant to suggest such a trade-off, which would then have been accepted (the proposal being presumably more saleable publicly if it came from the UN than from Moscow). The UN initiative, which was known only to the President, his brother Robert Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, was to have been activated if Khrushchev rejected the secret deal on the Jupiter trade-off. But Khrushchev accepted the secret deal, thus obviating the need for this initiative. Gaddis, We Now Know, pp. 271-72.  Back.

Note 26: See for example, Bharat Karnad, “A Thermonuclear Deterrent,” in Amitabh Mattoo (ed.) India’s Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond (New Delhi: Har-Anand, 1999).  Back.

Note 27: A series of conferences were held, beginning in 1987, that brought together scholars and the participants in the crisis. The Havana conference in January 1992 (where the TNW revelations were made) was the fifth in the series. See a report on the conference in Raymond L. Garthoff, “The Havana Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis,” CWIHP Bulletin I (Spring 1992), pp. 2-4. Edited transcripts of the Havana Conference, and in particular the section dealing with the TNW issue can be found in Blight, Allyn and Welch, Cuba on the Brink, pp. 61-71. See also Robert S. McNamara, “One Minute to Doomsday,” New York Times October 14 1992, and Thomas G. Weiss and James G. Blight, “When we teetered at the brink,” The Providence Journal February 2, 1991, both reproduced in James G. Blight, To the Brink of Nuclear Disaster: Nuclear Danger in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (Providence: Center for Foreign Policy Development, 1994).  Back.

Note 28: Gribkov in “The View from Moscow and Havana” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADRY, p. 27.  Back.

Note 29: See “Supplement 7 to Joint Evaluation of Soviet Missile Threat in Cuba, October 27, 1962” in Central Intelligence Agency, The Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Documents, intro. By Graham T. Allison (Washington D.C.: Brassey’s (US), 1994), pp. 323-25.  Back.

Note 30: Gribkov, “The View from Moscow and Havana” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADYR, p. 27.  Back.

Note 31: See Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “The Pitsunda Decision: Khrushchev and Nuclear Weapons,” CWIHP Bulletin 10 (March 1998), pp. 223-27.  Back.

Note 32: Raymond L. Garthoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev, Nuclear Weapons and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” CWIHP Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998), pp. 251-62.  Back.

Note 33: Mark Kramer, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Soviet Command Authority and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” CWIHP Bulletin 3 (Fall 1993), p. 42.  Back.

Note 34: The TNW controversy has taken several twists and turns over the last decade, ever since the original revelations about the presence of the TNWs were made in 1992. See, Garthoff, “The Havana Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis”, Kramer, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Soviet Command Authority and the Cuban Missile Crisis”; James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, “Kramer vs. Kramer: Or, How Can You Have Revisionism in the Absence of Orthodoxy?” CWIHP Bulletin 3 (Fall 1993), pp. 41, 47-50; Gribkov, “The View from Moscow and Havana” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADYR, pp. 5-7, 61-68; Fursenko and Faftali, “The Pitsunda Decision”; and Grathoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis.”  Back.

Note 35: The evidence of these new orders were first revealed in Kramer, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Soviet Command Authority and the Cuban Crisis.” See also, Gribkov, “The View from Moscow and Havana” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADYR, pp. 5-7; and Garthoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis,” p. 252.  Back.

Note 36: Because the US had not detected the presence of TNWs in Cuba, no TNW operations were planned in OP PLAN 312, the US plan for the invasion of Cuba. However, the US did have some contingency plans for responding to Soviet TNWs. On OP PLAN 312, see William Y. Smith, The View from Washington” in Gribkov and Smith, Operation ANADYR, pp. 121-25, 171-75.  Back.

Note 37: Mark Kramer, “The ‘Lessons’ of the Cuban Missile Crisis for Warsaw Pact Nuclear Operations,” CWIHP Bulletin 5 (Spring 1995), pp. 59, 110-15, 160.  Back.

Note 38: Brahma Chellaney, “Tactical Nukes,” The Hindustan Times, January 27, 1999.  Back.

Note 39: Peter J. Roman, “Ike’s Hair-Trigger: US Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60,” Security Studies 7:4 (Summer 1998), pp. 121-64.  Back.

Note 40: Christian F. Ostermann, “New Evidence on the Sino-Soviet Border Dispute, 1969-71,” CWIHP Bulletin 6-7 (Winter 1995-96); and Chen Jian and David L. Wilson, “New Evidence on Sino-American Rapprochement: “All Under the Heaven Is Great Chaos”: Beijing, the Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, and the Turn Towards Sino-American Rapprochement, 1968-69,” CWIHP Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998), pp. 155-75.  Back.

Note 41: Bundy, Danger and Survival, pp. 526-31.  Back.

Note 42: For some of the newly available documentary evidence on the early period of the Sino-Soviet rift, see, CWIHP Bulletin 6-7 (Winter 1995-96), CWIHP Bulletin 8-9 (Winter 96-97), CWIHP Bulletin 10, (March 1998).  Back.

Note 43: Rosemary Foot, The Practice of Power: US Relations with China Since 1949 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 123-31.  Back.

Note 44: Gaddis, We Now Know, pp. 249-53.  Back.

Note 45: Arthur A. Cohen, “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969,” in George (ed.), Avoiding War, pp. 270-76. See also Keesing’s Research Report, The Sino-Soviet Dispute (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969).  Back.

Note 46: Thomas W. Robinson, The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict,” in Stephen S. Kaplan et al, Diplomacy of Power: Soviet Armed Forces As A Political Instrument (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1981), pp. 267-69.  Back.

Note 47: Harvey W. Nelsen, Power and Insecurity: Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, 1949-1988 (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1989), pp. 69-71.  Back.

Note 48: The Soviet Union had publicised its version, and recently declassified documents from East European archives reveal that there was little difference between what Moscow was claiming publicly and what it was telling its allies in confidence. See Ostermann, “New Evidence on the Sino-Soviet Border Dispute, 1969-71.” The Chinese case is presented in Neville Maxwell, “The Chinese Account of the 1969 Fighting at Chenpao,” The China Quarterly 56 (October-December 1973), pp. 730-39. Maxwell’s account is marked by several inconsistencies, which are highlighted in Cohen, “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969,” pp. 278-79.  Back.

Note 49: Additional, though circumstantial, evidence that China was the initiator of the March 2 clash comes from the account of the Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko, who recounts the shock that the clash caused among the highest levels in the Kremlin. See, Arkady N. Shevchenko, Breaking with Moscow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), pp. 163-68.  Back.

Note 50: Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance, pp. 79-81.  Back.

Note 51: Ibid. For other similar warnings and statements issued by Moscow, see also Kissinger, The White House Years, pp. 183-84.  Back.

Note 52: Harry Gelman, “The Soviet Far East Buildup and Soviet Risk-Taking Against China,” RAND R-2943-AF (August 1982), as cited in Cohen, “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969,” p. 285.  Back.

Note 53: Kissinger, The White House Years, pp. 183-86.  Back.

Note 54: Ibid. The increasing concern in the White House about a Soviet attack was the subject of a Washington Post, story, which cited intelligence officials. See Cohen “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969,” p. 286-87.  Back.

Note 55: Kissinger, The White House Years, p. 183.  Back.

Note 56: Robinson, “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict,” pp. 283-84. Back.

Note 57: Robinson, “The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict”; and Cohen “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969.”  Back.

Note 58: Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance, p. 218.  Back.

Note 59: As quoted in Cohen, “The Sino-Soviet Border Crisis of 1969,” p. 288.  Back.

Note 60: Chong-Pin Lin, China’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy: Tradition Within Evolution (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1988).  Back.

Note 61: Shevchenko, Breaking With Moscow, pp. 164-65.  Back.

Note 62: There are exceptions. See Jordan Seng, “Less Is More: Command and Control Advantages of Minor Nuclear States,” Security Studies 6:4 (Summer 1997), pp. 50-92.  Back.