Robert S. McNamara, of Vietnam War fame, was also one of the main participants in the Cuban Missile Crisis, serving as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy Administration. In a C-Span interview, replayed on the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis this past October, he said that at that time the United States had about 5,000 nuclear warheads to the Soviet Union’s 350, but even then, the United States considered a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union unacceptable. It was thought at the time that about 15% of the Soviet nuclear arsenal would survive even if the United States struck first, which meant that some 50 nuclear warheads would be able to counterstrike. The placement of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba in 1962 would not have changed that reality; much less would it have given the Soviet Union a first strike capability.
What makes this relevant today?
When the Soviet Union placed intermediate range nuclear armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the U.S. political leaders considered it unacceptable. Now, in a reversal of history, Russia considers it unacceptable for the United States to put interceptor missiles on its doorstep, as the Bush administration planned to do with its defense shield in Central Europe. The military balance, it seems, was not the main issue in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is it the main issue with regards to Russia today?
The Bush administration said the missiles were intended solely to counter the threat of attack from a nuclear-armed Iran and that the planned installations in Poland and the Czech Republic were no match for Russia’s huge and sophisticated missile arsenal. Amassing an immense stockpile during Cold War, Russia still possesses thousands of missiles and nuclear warheads that would have no trouble, the administration alleged, in overwhelming the interceptor missiles and radar installations that were to be put in place in those countries.
As was the case in 1962, it now appears that the military balance would not fundamentally change to the detriment of Russia as a result of the missile shield installation. This argument is in fact what the Bush administration used and which on the face of it seems unassailable. But even the most superficial reading of recent and not-so-recent history would make it clear that a missile shield put on Russia’s doorstep would be seen by Russia as a very provocative act, since Russia has considered that part of the world to be in its immediate sphere of influence. Therefore, the importance of the act resides in its symbolic nature, since it would not really diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrence. Just as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the symbolic nature of the act becomes the substance of the act, in this case signaling to the world Russian weakness.
In 1962, the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles in Cuba was akin to adding insult to injury: a country located in U.S.’s backyard goes Communist, and then, the Soviet Union places missiles on its territory. Before the Obama administration changed plans, nations that were once part of the Warsaw Pact were going to house a nuclear missile shield in Russia’s backyard. Perceptions can be as important as reality, and if the perception of the Soviet Union’s act was of U.S. weakness, that could have had grave consequences for the U.S. in a world of realpolitik; likewise for Russia at present.
Of course, the proponents of the shield have said that the reason for putting the missile shield in Central Europe was only to deter Iran’s budding missile and nuclear capabilities, never mind Russia. In a reversal of Bush administration policy, last October the Obama administration announced it would install a sea-based missile shield to protect against a possible threat from Iran. It believes that this arrangement is suitable both in the near and medium term, with the added advantage that it could be deployed much faster; in the long term, the decision to install a defense shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), similar to the one that was planned in Poland and the Czech Republic, could be revisited.
But what is certain is that Russia retains the capacity to substantially affect the United States’ vital security interests, from the war in Afghanistan, to energy, and nuclear non-proliferation; whereas the threat from Iran, as far as ICBMs are concerned, is hypothetical and years into the future. Therefore, the Obama administration’s much-criticized decision to reverse course on the installation of the missile shield appears to be farsighted, insofar as Russia’s capacity at present to adversely affect U.S. interests is concerned, not least of which is U.S. interests with respect to Iran.