There is only one thing worse than destroying the world, and that’s destroying the world for no good reason. For 13 days in October 1962, the world hovered at the brink of nuclear annihilation for no good reason.
Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, most commentators still gloss over this unsettling truth. They focus on how President Kennedy “managed” the crisis and ultimately obtained the removal of Soviet missiles. But they seldom ask why it was so urgent to achieve this goal.
The unspoken assumption is that the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba posed an unprecedented threat to the security of the United States. But that is simply not so. The Cuban missiles were no more dangerous than those already aimed at the US from Soviet territory.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara knew this. “A missile is a missile,” he is reported to have said during a strategy meeting on the crisis. “It makes no difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.” Was it really worth risking nuclear war for something that made no difference?
President Kennedy himself put the chance of war at “between 1 in 3 and even.” The Strategic Air Command upped its readiness to DEFCON 2, one notch short of imminent nuclear war. A U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba; another strayed into Soviet airspace and was chased by MiGs, prompting the SAC to scramble American fighters armed with tactical nuclear missiles. A Soviet sub challenged by American destroyers in the Caribbean weighed using its nuclear-tipped torpedo but held back.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to US intelligence, the Soviets not only had ballistic missiles on Cuba but some 100 smaller tactical nuclear weapons ready for use in case of attack. According to crisis expert Graham Allison, the “U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.”
In the face of such unfathomably high stakes, the human mind rebels against the idea that a conflict could erupt for no good reason. It is hard to admit that, as Stanford theorist René Girard emphasizes in his classic study Violence and the Sacred, “violence operates without reason” (p. 46). Violence has its own logic; once unleashed, it can spiral out of control, no matter how insignificant the initial cause of a dispute or war may be.
In Battling to the End (MSU, 2010), Girard quotes the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz: “Between two peoples and two states there can be such tensions, such a mass of flammable material, that the slightest quarrel can produce a wholly disproportionate effect – a real explosion” (p. 9). This is not a bad description of the situation prevailing between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
Yet the missile crisis was not just a showdown between two peoples or states but between their respective leaders. For Clausewitz, “War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.” The missile crisis never escalated to full-scale war; it played out as a duel between two men: Nikita S. Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy.
In a letter to President Kennedy, Premier Khrushchev reacted to the naval blockade and the demand that he remove Soviet missiles from Cuba by saying, “Mr. President, you have thrown down the gauntlet.” Of course, from Kennedy’s point of view it was Khrushchev who had thrown down the gauntlet by stationing missiles off the coast of Florida. But in another letter, Khrushchev reminded his rival that American missiles were stationed “right next to us” in Turkey.
“The aggressor has always already been attacked,” observes Girard in Battling to the End. “Why are relations of rivalry never seen as symmetrical? Because people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack” (p. 18). Too often, the result is a dangerously escalating chain of reprisals.
Fortunately, Kennedy and Khrushchev never launched a battle to the end. They both shrank back from the threat of an atomic Armageddon. As French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy suggests, the specter of nuclear war sometimes functions as a modern equivalent of the primitive sacred – a form of violence so transcendent that it keeps ordinary human violence in check.
Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba; Kennedy pledged not to invade the island and secretly agreed to withdraw the missiles from Turkey, which he regarded as obsolete and had been planning to remove anyway.
All’s well that ends well… Or much ado about nothing?
When the crisis was over, the President explained to a U.S. television audience that the Soviet missiles in Cuba would have appeared to alter the balance of power –“not that they were intending to fire them, because if they were going to get into a nuclear struggle, they have their own missiles in the Soviet Union.”
And, he might have added, it makes no difference whether you are killed by a missile fired from the Soviet Union or from Cuba.
Mark Anspach is an anthropologist and the editor of Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire by René Girard (Stanford, 2004). He is a contributor to Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion edited by Scott R. Garrels (MSU, 2011).
 Ronald Steel, “Endgame,” in The Cuban Missile Crisis, ed. Robert A. Divine, Chicago, Quadrangle, 1971, p. 217.
 “The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50,” Foreign Affairs, July/Aug. 2012.
 Divine, The Cuban Missile Crisis, p. 113.