THE CONFRONTATION BETWEEN the U.S. and North Korea has cooled off slightly with Kim Jong-un’s announcement that, at least for the time being, he will not attack Guam with an “enveloping fire.”
So since we have a small breather before Armageddon, let’s take the time to understand what this conflict is all about.
A good place to start is with the repeated comparisons U.S. politicians have made between the situation with North Korea and the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
For instance, Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, recently said, “This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis.”
According to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., “It represents the greatest crisis … undoubtedly since the Cuban missile crisis.”
Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts calls it a “modern-day Cuban missile crisis.”
Former CIA director Leon Panetta believes it’s “the most serious crisis involving a potential nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis.”
Gorka, Issa, Markey, and Panetta are, in fact, all correct: This is quite a lot like the Cuban missile crisis. However, it’s not for the reason they appear to think, which is something like “we again face a crazy adversary that is willing to blow up the world and we should all be terrified.”
Here’s the real similarity:
The “crisis” then and now was created by the refusal of the U.S. to live under the same threat to which we subject others.
John F. Kennedy had claimed during his 1960 presidential campaign that the U.S. faced a terrifying nuclear “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, which was poised to overwhelm the homeland at any second. As Kennedy likely knew, this was exactly the opposite of reality. The Soviets had a few dozen unreliable intercontinental ballistic missiles, while the U.S. had several hundred of much higher quality. When America’s nuclear-armed bombers and submarines were added, the U.S. had about 10 times as many nuclear warheads as the Soviets.
Soon after Kennedy took office, the U.S. stationed medium-range nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles in Italy, and placed more in Turkey in April 1962. ICBMs launched from the U.S. would take perhaps 30 minutes to reach the Soviet Union. The Turkish missiles were about 2,000 kilometers from Moscow and therefore could strike the Soviet capital with almost no warning.
It’s still not clear how much of a role the Jupiter missiles played in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to deploy Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba, starting in the summer of 1962. Khrushchev apparently first discussed doing so after being briefed on the missiles in Turkey, and later said the missiles in Cuba “equalized what the West like to call ‘the balance of power.’” However, another part of the Soviets’ motivation was to deter the U.S. from launching an invasion of Cuba – something which was a real possibility, given the Bay of Pigs attack the previous year and the CIA’s ongoing Operation Mongoose.
In any case, Khrushchev was correct that all that the missiles in Cuba did was level the playing field: Washington D.C. was about 2,000 kilometers from Cuba, and could be obliterated in a matter of minutes, just like Moscow could be obliterated in minutes with the U.S. missiles in Turkey.