What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated into nuclear war?

Nuclear war

The following is an excerpt from our full interview with Dr Swedin in issue 2 of All About History, on sale Thursday 25 July 2013 from the Imagine Shop, Great Digital Mags and all good newsagents.

Swedin bio imageInterviewee
Dr Eric G Swedin is an associate professor in the History department at Weber State University in Utah, USA. He is the author of numerous books including When Angels Wept: A What-If History Of The Cuban Missile Crisis, which won the 2010 Sidewise Award in Alternate History, and Survive The Bomb: The Radioactive Citizen’s Guide To Nuclear Survival. He also teaches a number of courses on both modern and historical civilisation.



So what would have happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated?

I think that if the US had chosen to bomb and invade Cuba, it would not have worked out how they expected because there were tactical nukes on the island that they weren’t aware of. It looks like, historically, the Soviet commander [on Cuba] had launch authority, and he probably would have used those and that would have shocked the Americans. That could have escalated into an exchange of weapons. The only thing that could have stopped this is if the Soviets realised how completely small their strategic forces were, weapons they could hit the US with. The US had an enormous arsenal of weapons that could be used.

Hopefully sanity would have prevailed, but often people get caught up in this situation and I think they could easily have gone on to a general war. In a general war the Soviet Union would have been obliterated. I mean strategic forces on the side of the US were so strong, so I think the US would have survived the war. Now I’m only talking about 1962; if this war had happened several years later then the US would not have survived as a viable entity, because one of the consequences of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that the Soviets enormously increased their strategic forces and within a decade were on parity with the US.

What was the major turning point in the crisis?

From the revelations after the fall of the Soviet Union with historians being able to look at Soviet military records it’s apparent that, as soon as Kennedy announced the quarantine [naval blockade of Cuba on 21 October 1962], Khrushchev immediately started taking steps to back down. He immediately stopped the ships that were carrying the missiles towards Cuba, so they did not push on and go ‘eyeball to eyeball’. The Americans didn’t realise that at the time because they weren’t getting good intelligence on where exactly the ships at sea were. So Khrushchev really started to back down, but it could easily have still stumbled into war because they didn’t have a good mechanism for communicating; the hotline [installed between the two leaders’ offices after the crisis] didn’t exist.

What would have happened at the outbreak of war?

I think that they would have been stumbling into war in gradual escalation. In this scenario, the US not only bombs Cuba but it invades. That’s exactly what the military leadership in the US wanted to do. And if they invaded they would have been hit by a tactical nuke from the Soviets, which would have killed tens of thousands of Americans. At that point the invasion [of Cuba] is defeated, the Americans are stunned, and that would have required a response from the US. There would also have been a substantial amount of uncertainty and fear about what the Soviets already had on the island, and I think the US would have felt justified in using both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and they would have unfortunately obliterated Cuba.

How would the war have played out?

Soviet forces had about 100 tactical nukes, and I think that once [Cuba had been destroyed] the Soviet Union, in order to maintain their international prestige, would have wanted to retaliate. They could have done this by taking Berlin with conventional forces, or they could have prepared to attack Europe or other places where there was tension. And this tit for tat – this unwillingness to be seen as compromising or backing down and trying to force the submission of the foe – would have been even more reckless.

People’s emotions get caught up in these things, they don’t always make rational choices, and they don’t always back down even if that’s in their own best interests. [One such scenario could have been] that one of the Soviet light bombers drops a bomb on New Orleans where there was an infantry division embarking on the invasion of Cuba. With an American city destroyed at that point the world would sort of teeter [on the brink of war] and the Soviets recognised very well that they were completely outgunned. Their number of strategic weapons was dramatically less than the Americans had and they would see the need to go for it, because they’re not going to get any blows if they don’t [attack] immediately.

Image courtesy of Bethsoft