Global Viewpoint

Professor Ned O'Gorman examines the Cold War and the standoffs with the Soviet Union and now, Iran

Craig Chamberlain
10/8/2012  8:00 am

Nuclear war seemed a very real possibility 50 years ago this month, as the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union over its placement of nuclear missiles in communist Cuba. In fact, the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 is cited often as the point when the world came closest to a nuclear exchange. Why did it happen? And does it have any relevance today in the standoff with Iran? Ned O’Gorman, a professor of communication affiliated with the U. of I. Program for Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, examined the strategic Cold War thinking of key U.S. leaders during the decade prior to the Cuban crisis in his recent book “Spirits of the Cold War.” O’Gorman discusses the two confrontations, past and present, in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

How is it that we reached such a point of brinksmanship and danger at that moment?

This is what can happen when nations try to equal each other in military might, not the least when they have nuclear weapons. The fact is that in 1962 the United States had far more nuclear weapons than the Soviets, and moreover the U.S. and its allies had nuclear weapons in Europe relatively close to the Soviet border. The Soviets, on the other hand, had a small number of nuclear weapons – about 20 – all of them within Soviet territory and incapable of an all-out assault on North America. The Soviets were way outmatched, and they knew this.

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro in Cuba was feeling justifiably insecure – the U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 had put him on notice. He requested defensive help from the Soviets, who ended up giving him more than he really seems to have wanted: nuclear-armed missiles. The Soviets knew this was a risk, but the pressure to balance the scales of nuclear power seems to have pushed them to it.

The U.S. would not tolerate this. So we ended up very much on the brink of war, most likely a nuclear war.

How did ideas and rhetoric about nuclear deterrence figure into the crisis or its aftermath?

Well, the strategy of deterrence holds that the best way to discourage an opponent from aggression is to threaten the opponent with intolerable retaliation. In this way we get something like security and stability. On the surface of things, this seems to be a common-sense conclusion. As advocates of deterrence like to say, this is why we have police patrol our streets – as a threat to those who might break the law. And this common-sense element makes deterrence, even nuclear deterrence, compelling not just to military strategists, but also to the broader public.

The Cuban missile crisis, however, was a product of deterrence thinking. The Soviets, the record shows, were trying to assure their own security by attempting to better balance the nuclear equation. Their pursuit of deterrence, however, created an inordinately unstable and dangerous situation. The destabilizing potential of deterrence is something its adherents tend to neglect.

What lessons were learned, if any? How have they been applied, rightly or wrongly, since?

It would be nice to say that we do, indeed, learn from history. I am not so sure that we usually do. The supposed security brought by a policy of nuclear deterrence, as I said, was seriously disrupted in the Cuban missile crisis. We really did come perilously close to nuclear war, and had it happened, we would not be having this conversation today. But nuclear deterrence remains an incredibly powerful idea today – few nuclear states, no matter what the historical lessons, are willing to abandon it. My colleague at Illinois, Kevin Hamilton, and I have been looking at the myriad ways nuclear weapons bring power and prestige to states. Deterrence does more than offer a hard, cool strategic logic to justify this pursuit of power and prestige, but it does do that.

Do you see any parallels in the current standoff with Iran?

The Iran crisis shows that we are still living with the bane of nuclear deterrence, even while we are also living with the bane of nuclear weapons. For within the logic of nuclear deterrence, Iran can be said to be behaving quite rationally. They know their enemy, Israel, has nuclear missiles. They, like the Soviets in 1962, want to bring some balance to the nuclear equation – no question. They also seek the power and prestige that comes with being a nuclear nation.

All this said, we cannot be sure any nuclear state will always behave rationally, or that some state leaders won’t think that a nuclear attack is the “rational” thing to do. We know, again from history not theory – I want to emphasize that – that numerous state leaders have seen the use of nuclear weapons as within reason.

But, as we saw in Cuba, seeking to balance the nuclear equation can cause tremendous insecurity and instability. I think we are moving that direction with Iran. Clearly, a military assault on Iran, by Israel and the United States, would be in the short term, and likely in the long term, a major destabilizing influence. But, at the same time, if Iran goes unchecked and develops a nuclear arsenal, this too will have significant destabilizing effects in the Middle East, potentially opening the door to widespread nuclear proliferation in an area that few would disagree is already politically volatile.

In my view, the Obama administration is doing generally what it should be doing with Iran: using political and economic pressures rather than a military assault to bring Iran to the negotiating table. In fact, this is the basic course (President John F.) Kennedy took in the Cuban crisis. Rather than resorting to an invasion of Cuba, he chose a blockade, together with intense diplomatic negotiations with the Soviets, and so avoided what could have been an absolutely devastating war.