The 1958 installation of missiles in Italy and Turkey provided compelling evidence, for the Soviets, of the USA’s malign intentions. Khrushchev resolved to remove the American missile threat to the USSR’s existence. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 provided an opportunity for a ‘reciprocal’ missile site adjacent to the USA. The USA’s attacks on Fidel Castro meant he was eager to cooperate with the USSR. A horrified President Kennedy flailed around hoping to avoid nuclear war. He finally accepted Khrushchev’s solution. That solution was the Great Compromise whereby both the USSR and the USA would dismantle their missile sites. Khrushchev provided Kennedy with a diplomatic coup by dismantling the Cuban site first and allowing the Italian-Turkish sites to be secretly dismantled. This gave Kennedy an enormous political victory as the West believed that the USSR were ‘climbing down’.
Eisenhower’s siting of missiles on the USSR’s doorstep happened, through a freak of political coincidence, immediately prior to Fidel Castro’s triumph in Cuba. The USA reacted to the overthrowing of the dictator Batista with assassination attempts; the Bay of Pigs (1961), being the most egregious. American regime-change attempts were farcical but demonstrated to Castro that Cuba needed a super-power ally. The Italian-Turkish missile crisis was manna from Heaven for Castro. Cuba is the geopolitical mirror image of the USA’s Italian-Turkish missile bases and Khrushchev made the obvious connexion.
Eisenhower’s decision became a military nightmare for Kennedy. Uniquely the USSR could have offensive nuclear weapons sited a few miles from the US mainland creating a tangible threat. Nuclear war was now a reality for the American population. A population who’d never suffered invasion or devastation and who believed that the Soviets were aggressive enemies.
In 1956 John Foster Dulles asserted the plausiblity of using nuclear weapons. His theory was that the USA’s nuclear weapons would, as a matter of fact, be used should the USA judge it to be appropriate. This policy is called brinkmanship. In October 1962 Kennedy wasn’t debating brinkmanship he was applying the concept in full view of the world. Military and diplomatic ‘hawks’ had the future of the world in their hands and both Kennedy and Khrushchev knew that the outcome could well reconfigure humanity itself.
In the brief period between the identification of the Cuban missile sites and the escalation of military action* both Kennedy and Khrushchev had to rationalise their use of nuclear weapons. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction was well understood and both knew that an open-ended use of nuclear weapons would bring Armageddon. The intellectual seeds of compromise were born.
Both Kennedy and Khrushchev had direct experiences of war**, which informed and coloured their response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps their wartime experiences tempered their judgement? (Khrushchev had also survived the blood-soaked Stalinist Great Purges of the 1930s.) Both men had the emotional intelligence to understand the position of the other. Khrushchev understood and appreciated Kennedy’s political position. Both men had to face down hawkish advisors and both political heavyweights able to initiate and see through the Great Compromise.
The Great Compromise of 1962-3 was the two phase dismantling of the Cuban missile sites and, subsequently, the Italian-Turkish sites. Khrushchev dismantled the Cuban missile sites first. This provided a great political victory for Kennedy. A year later the Italian-Turkish missile sites were quietly dismantled, the deal was fulfilled and Khrushchev’s diplomacy was vindicated. Armageddon was avoided and the Cold War warriors were marginalised. This was a victory for men who had been tested in the cauldron of war over the shallow certainties of desk-warriors.
*July 1962- October 1962
** Recent- post 1992- presidents Clinton, Bush and Trump are commonly thought of as ‘draft dodgers’ as they pulled strings in order to avoid entering the US military. They are all bellicose and may well have reacted differently in 1962 if they had, hypothetically, been the principal decision-makers. The author of brinkmanship, John Foster Dulles, didn’t serve in the US armed forces either. Compare this
“All organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds”.