Patience, restraint, and nerves.

In October 1962, the world came close to annihilation.

This isn’t hyperbole.

For thirteen harrowing days, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense political and military standoff over the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from American shores. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, was the closest the Cold War ever came to erupting into full-scale conflict. But disaster was ultimately averted, thanks to leaders' restraint, clear thinking, and good judgment.

The roots of the conflict trace back to the ill-conceived, irresponsible, and wildly botched Bay of Pigs invasion a year earlier, a covert U.S. attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro using Cuban exiles that ended in utter failure. Embarrassed by the fiasco and fearing another U.S. invasion, Castro turned to the Soviets for protection. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was happy to oblige his new communist ally while gaining a strategic foothold in America's backyard. In great secrecy, the Soviets began shipping nuclear missiles, bombers, and 40,000 troops to Cuba.

When American U-2 spy planes discovered the missile sites being built in Cuba in mid-October, officials were outraged. President Kennedy and his advisors had previously stated that Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba would be unacceptable. Now, America's credibility and resolve were being directly challenged.

Would Kennedy back down or escalate?

At first, the president was inclined to launch air strikes to take out the missiles, which the hawkish Joint Chiefs strongly advocated. But Kennedy hesitated, fearing a forceful preemptive attack could spiral into a full-blown war with the Soviets.

Instead, the president opted for a dual-track approach: a public "quarantine" of offensive weapons bound for Cuba and backchannel diplomacy with Khrushchev to negotiate a peaceful settlement. It was a huge gamble. The naval blockade skirted the edge of war and relied on Moscow not further escalating. And there was no guarantee private appeals could cut through the bluster and bellicosity between the superpowers.

For the next thirteen days, the world held its breath. American warships intercepted Soviet freighters steaming toward Cuba. Castro mobilized his forces, fearing imminent invasion. Khrushchev blustered about "dire consequences" if Soviet ships were boarded. The U.S. military went to DEFCON 2, one step short of all-out war. As Soviet ships approached the quarantine line, no one knew if they would try to run the blockade, precipitating war. Then, at the last minute, they stopped dead in the water. The immediate risk of confrontation was defused, but tensions remained sky-high.

Behind the scenes, frantic negotiations played out between Washington and Moscow. Messages flew back and forth, as each side sought to stake out positions and divine the other's intentions. Kennedy made a public offer to end the crisis by pledging not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn. Khrushchev countered by also demanding the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The tense talks culminated in a dramatic moment on October 27th, when a U.S. U-2 was shot down over Cuba, sparking fears of an imminent attack.

But patience and restraint prevailed. Bobby Kennedy met secretly with the Soviet ambassador and conveyed a new offer: the U.S. would remove the Jupiters in a few months if the deal were kept secret. Khrushchev, looking for a face-saving way out, agreed. On October 28th, he publicly announced the missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba, ending the crisis as suddenly as it began.

Kennedy’s restraint held back the unthinkable despite all the fear and anxious uncertainty. Nuclear catastrophe was avoided, and some sanity was restored to the superpower rivalry. We'll never know just how close we came to Armageddon. But it's safe to say things could have gone very differently without level and respectful decision-making, patience, empathy, and open communication.

The world came through the Cuban Missile Crisis by the skin of its teeth, thanks to the good judgment, steady nerves, and calm of those at the helm. Le Cran, France’s commander in chief Joffre might have called it, in the exhausting days of August 1914 - the guts.

Every generation since has been faced with a sobering question: In a similar situation, would the leaders they have chosen exhibit that same prudence and composure?

Or would they give in to bluster, fear, panic, and violence?

We live in a time when rash tweets can move markets and spark international incidents. The rhetoric between nations is increasingly heated, and the geopolitical landscape is more volatile. And hovering over it all is the specter of nuclear weapons in unstable hands. It's a recipe for catastrophe unless our leaders can show the same restraint as Kennedy and realize that in a crisis, you don't win by scoring points or proving your resolve but by finding face-saving solutions.

Supporters of Trump would do well to study the Crisis closely. Their chosen candidate’s last Presidency was a roller-coaster of "fire and fury" bluster toward North Korea and Iran, which came perilously close to painting the US into a nuclear corner.

His transactional, zero-sum view of diplomacy left precious little room for empathy or nuance. We can only hope that if another Presidency and another crisis comes, Trump will surround himself with clear-eyed advisors who can rein in his worst impulses and help him see the big picture. Considering his treatment of his previous advisors, that seems unlikely.

The Cuban Missile Crisis should (should is doing a lot of lifting here) be an evergreen lesson - that whether you sit in the White House or the Kremlin, whether you're a capitalist, communist, or autocrat, we all share the same small, fragile planet. There is no "them," only "us." And the instant we forget that essential truth is when we seal our own doom.

@Westenberg logo
Subscribe to @Westenberg and never miss a post.