Next week marks 60 years since the Cuban missile crisis — the 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union widely regarded as the closest we ever came to global nuclear war. On this anniversary, as we veer terrifyingly close to the brink of Armageddon once again, we should look to that crisis to guide us in resolving our present one.
Last Friday, President Biden warned that in the Ukraine war, “for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons.” The warning is well founded. Top Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, recently wrote that Russia should consider “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.” Russian TV and military blogs echo such suggestions. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that he is willing to use “all means” in the conflict.
It’s impossible to know whether Putin is willing to follow through on his threat. Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew Bunn pegs the chances at about 10 to 20 percent. But we do know how to reduce the risk of catastrophe. The Cuban missile crisis proved that even in the face of potential nuclear devastation, de-escalation is possible and diplomacy can prevail.
Experts and scholars have relitigated the crisis for decades. But in recent years, archives and memoirs have clarified the picture of what happened during those 13 days starting on Oct. 16, 1962. The tale is clearly articulated in “Gambling With Armageddon,”a 2020 book by Pulitzer-winning historian Martin J. Sherwin that the New York Times declared “should become the definitive account” of the event. The book offers urgently relevant lessons — both about the circumstances that can bring humanity to the edge of annihilation and how we can step back from that brink.
Read the full piece in The Washington Post.