Cuban missile crisis has crucial lessons for modern leaders

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, author and professor David Welch looks at what today's leaders could learn from the crisis in an exclusive interview with CBC News.
The personalities of the leaders involved can have a huge impact on how an event such as the Cuban missile crisis unfolds.

"The Cuban missile crisis was the most dangerous event in human history," writes David Welch at the beginning of his book on the events of 1962.

Welch, a University of Waterloo political science professor and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) chair of global security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, is co-author of The Cuban Missile Crisis: a Concise History.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day that U.S. president John F. Kennedy first informed the American public that there was photographic evidence that the Soviets had set up missile installations on the island of Cuba.

Welch says the Cuban missile crisis continues to have lessons for leaders of the modern world.

Cold war tensions

David Welch, co-author of The Cuban Missile Crisis: a Concise History. (CBC)

The Cold War was a period after the Second World War marked by nuclear tests and high anxiety as the two super powers, the United States and U.S.S.R., played a deadly game of chicken vying for world supremacy. 

When Kennedy discovered that the U.S.S.R. had been secretly amassing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba he was livid. Khrushchev had assured him that the weapons were strictly defensive in nature. 

When he found out Khrushchev had misled him, Kennedy reportedly said "How can he do this to me!"

In 1962, as the young, untested new President of the United States, Kennedy had a lot to prove about his ability to stand up to communism.

Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, a seasoned warhorse, was 'a feisty World War II vet known as a risk-taker and a gambler who seems to have gotten the idea that he could push the U.S. around. Khrushchev had a policy of bluster and bravado.'—David Welch, author

His Soviet counterpart, Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, was already a seasoned warhorse, described by Welch as, "a feisty World War II vet known as a risk-taker and a gambler who seems to have gotten the idea that he could push the U.S. around. Khrushchev had a policy of bluster and bravado."

Kennedy had to show just the right mix of strength and diplomacy not just to Khrushchev, but to his own country.

"Kennedy had to figure out a way to appear tough to the Soviets but non-provocative. It was a very fine line for him to try to walk," Welch says, "… never trying to seriously risk the kind of escalation that would tip into world war three."


Leadership in any crisis can make all the difference, but in a nuclear crisis the fate of the world is literally on the line.

"A leader with a particular kind of personality can have a very powerful effect in the chain of events," Welch says.

The missile crisis in 1962 brought the super-power nations to the brink of war. (CBC)

He speculates that the world should be grateful that it was Kennedy who was president during the Cuban missile crisis, and not someone like Richard Nixon who "was far more willing to use the military tools at his disposal than President Kennedy was. Certainly, it’s much easier for me to imagine the missile crisis getting out of control if Richard Nixon had been in the White House." 

On the other hand, he argues, it was a mistake for Kennedy to take the world so close to the brink of a nuclear world war. 

Kennedy had been sending signals prior to the crisis itself, that made the Cubans and Khrushchev feel insecure, says Welch, including his general anti-Castro stance and the attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

"It’s hard for Americans, even Canadians, to understand this. We don’t think of our own governments as aggressive and offensive, but other countries sometimes do … and it’s a big part of the reason why the Soviets did something as dangerous and as risky as try to sneak strategic missiles into Cuba. They felt very threatened."

President John F. Kennedy had to play a dangerous balancing act in his dealings with the Russians and Cubans. Pictured here, he addresses the nation in his famous televised speech on Oct. 22, 1962. (CBC)

In the 1960s, says Welch, there was also a lot of mutual fear, dislike, hatred and  misunderstanding.  President Kennedy describes this reality in a television interview after the crisis was defused:

"The Soviet Union and the United States are far separated in their beliefs - we believing in an independent sovereign, diverse nation; they believing in a monolithic, communist world. And when you put the nuclear equation into that struggle, one mistake can make this whole thing blow up. The communists have a completely twisted view of the United States and we don't comprehend them. That's what makes life in the 60s hazardous."

Welch says it was a period of history we were lucky to survive.  "It’s almost amazing that we got through it without something really horrific happening."

Hazards in 2012

The 1960s missile crisis has important lessons for world leaders 50 years later.

Today's military nuclear threats are not nearly as imminent as the very real and present hazards of 1962, but Welch says there is perhaps even more fear, dislike, hatred and misunderstanding in the world. "If I were leaders in Iran today I might think, based on what I see, that Israel and the United States were bent on destroying me and that it doesn’t really matter what I do … so I might as well go ahead with my nuclear program."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel shows a simple illustration outlining Iran's progress on atomic bomb technology during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Welch hastens to add that this would be an incorrect point of view, but perspective is everything.

"For the same reason, we’re really not comfortable with North Korea having nuclear weapons … because you just don’t know whether they’ll be calm enough and sensible enough not to do stupid, crazy, irrational, suicidal things with them."

And he notes that the problem is that small countries can end up dragging nations into a fight with a big country. The history that led up the Cuban Missile Crisis goes back to what Welch calls Yankee paternalism and Yankee imperialism and the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept Cuba's revolution in 1959.

"If it weren’t for that small country’s history of difficulty with a large country, the Soviets wouldn’t have had the opportunity to put nuclear weapons there in 1962. Small countries can catalyze, they can trigger, even if all by themselves they can’t do much in the way of destruction."

And there are small countries that are at the centre of conflict in today's world that can become catalysts for bigger arguments, he adds, from North Korea to Iran and Israel.

"In the Middle East, any serious attack on a small country called Israel almost certainly would bring very large countries into conflict with one another, including but not just the United States."

Lessons from the brink of nuclear war

Welch argues that there is more mutual understanding in the world of 2012 than there was in 1962, but still plenty of room for misunderstanding. And it's the misunderstandings that are particularly dangerous.

U.S. president Barack Obama's foreign policy strategy today is remarkably similar to the approaches taken by John F. Kennedy. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

The No. 1 lesson of the missile crisis for today's leaders, says Welch, is don't provoke animosity. "Be careful what you do because other people will sometimes read what you do differently from the way you intend it."

Lesson No. 2 is to cultivate empathy. "If you don’t cultivate the empathy, which is an understanding of how someone else sees the world … you won’t be able to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and you won’t be able to anticipate what they’ll do. And so you’ll find yourself just being wrong."

If Kennedy were the President today and dealing with Iran or North Korea, speculates Welch, he’d probably be doing a lot of what President Obama is doing:

  • Not drawing a clear red line, but hinting strongly that there might be one out there.
  • Indicating that he’s not shy of using military tools if necessary. 
  • Making sure that there are non-military options on the table and turning to them first.
  • Trying to provide some kind of incentive for the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear aspirations.
  • Trying to make sure that the international community is on side with his policy.

Welch says the Kennedy playbook was pretty sophisticated but pretty consistent. It included always having sticks to brandish in the background, while trying to avoid pulling them out too often or too obviously, and making sure there are carrots on the table to encourage the kind of behaviour that you want.

"He did that over and over again — Berlin twice, Laos, did his best in Vietnam to do that, did it with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  That was the Kennedy style."

The ultimate lesson of the Cuban missile crisis, he says, was that rather than starting a battle that might be impossible to contain, two adversaries reached a peaceful resolution through threats of military action together with diplomacy.