Cuban Missile Crisis no morality play

Even after 50 years, the story most people think they know about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is not exactly right.

Carolina political science professor Timothy McKeown has devoted much of his career to fixing that, one misperception at a time.

The biggest error, perhaps, is to view it as a 13-day morality tale of virtue triumphing over evil, the stuff that makes for good Hollywood movies. Sure, McKeown acknowledges, even the movies had many of the facts right, but they failed to see – or show – the bigger picture.

“The 13-day narrative is so deeply entrenched in most people’s imaginations, but that narrative is limited, too, because there was so much going on that the story failed to capture,” McKeown said.

Amazingly, most scholarly work also has left out that context, he said.

Another problem with tucking the story into a 13-day span of high drama during October 1962 is that it leaves out much of the vital historical framework needed to explain how and why the crisis started, and equally importantly, how and why it actually ended. Through this wider prism of history, any notion of a neat morality play also falls apart.

If it were a dastardly act for the Soviet Union to position nuclear missiles in Cuba to threaten the United States, then it would be no less reprehensible for the United States to position nuclear weapons at the doorstep of the Soviet Union.

But that’s exactly what the United States did when it positioned short-range ballistic missiles in Turkey in 1960–61.

The positioning of Soviet missiles in Cuba came a year after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in which a CIA-trained group of Cuban exiles invaded southern Cuba.

In fact, McKeown said, it was that half-hearted invasion that convinced Soviet leaders that the United States would invade again, and that the second attempt would be far more serious.

A reasonable argument could be made that the Soviets sent missiles to Cuba to prevent such an invasion from happening, McKeown said. And in a roundabout way, it succeeded.

Read more from the University Gazette article.

Read “Some Serious Shenanigans,” the Endeavors article about the wacky schemes and a new wrinkle on the Bay of Pigs dug up by professor Lars Schoultz.

Published October 8, 2012.