Notes on the Cuban Crisis

Notes on the Cuban Crisis:

On the Importance of Overseas Bases in the 1960's
Offense-Defense Semantics
Keeping Open Possible Aid to Cuban Resistance

Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter


October 28, 1962

The following are extracts from a longer memorandum based exclusively on public sources. Some other parts will be sent later.

Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter


In arms control negotiations precipitated by the crisis it is very probable that overseas bases will come up for discussion. Détente, disengagement, etc., are natural psychological followers of a crisis in which an actual military engagement was threatened. One of the main goals of Soviet policy since this war has been the dismantling of the bases encircling them. Moreover, there is a good deal of confusion on our own side about the military and political role of overseas bases in the strategic situation of the 1960's. Some of the hawks as well as the doves on our own side tend to meet on common ground in their depreciation of overseas bases. Suggestions that modern developments in missilery make it unnecessary for us to have bases overseas might be quoted from surviving massive retaliationists, but also from The Liberal Papers.

Such suggestions are a vast oversimplification of the military implications of current and future states of the art on war. It is true that the deterrent function of some of our weapons in a big thermonuclear war was much more dependent on overseas bases when the predominant part of our forces was the short-legged B-47. However, thermonuclear war is not the only problem of national defense. Our defense programs have stressed more and more the threat of non-nuclear, conventional and unconventional warfare -- moreover, thermonuclear war itself is a lot more complicated than this depreciation of overseas bases suggests.

In brief, overseas bases have vital roles in the central war in the 1960's -- both for deterrence and for limiting damage in case deterrence fails. They do dilute and can dilute even more his offensive preparations by posing the need to set up a variety of defensive barriers. They are an important source of continuing information on the enemy. They can be made to complicate the design of his attack -- for example, with the extension of the bomb alarm system. Under several plausible contingencies of outbreak they can help spoil his attack.

All this for a thermonuclear war.

But even more obvious today, overseas bases have a dominant role in non-nuclear wars. They affect the speed with which we can react and the cost and size of our reaction to aggressions in remote parts of the world. The role of Japan in fighting the Korean war, the recent movements from various overseas stations in Thailand, and to take an example from today's headlines, the movement of weapons from Thailand in support of the Indians in their battle with the Chinese. The very engagement of U.S. forces in many parts of the world is an important hostage to allies and neutral powers and a demonstration of the credibility and likelihood of our response to Communist aggression.

It is startling that in spite of the explicit shift of government policy in the last two years to stress conventional and unconventional non-nuclear wars, the importance of overseas bases seems to be less and less understood.

Moves to disengage overseas might be encouraged by two sorts of statements that we have made recently. (a) Statements stressing (and overstressing) nuclear risks in the current case have been Russian as well as U.S., and (b) our recent stress on the offense-defense distinction which we have made and which Khrushchev carefully attributes to us. If "offensive" weapons are the problem, and if in fact we have been on the brink of nuclear war and almost out of control of developments, maybe we had better disengage our own offensive weapons overseas. Or more likely, maybe we had better phrase the issues more carefully.


The distinction made by the President between offensive and defensive weapons has served a purpose: it marked a limit, somewhat arbitrarily placed and hazy, but clear enough in the immediate circumstances, to indicate Russian strategic trespass. However, it would be a mistake to rely for delineating our interests in the immediate future on drawing lines with so broad a brush.

Not only Krushchev himself, but the unilateral disarmers and many neutralists have used the distinction to point out that if our protest is simply against placing missiles and bombers within reach of the United States, the Russians have parallel grievances against us. Illusions of detente and disengagement flourish in this haze.

In fact, there is no precise distinction between offensive and defensive weapons. An aggressor can limit damage to himself, among other subtler ways, by using surface-to-surface missiles or bombers to reduce our retaliatory forces before they take off, and after the launching of our retaliatory forces he can use active and passive defenses to reduce our retaliation further. Moreover, as Castro's surface-to-air missiles and fighters illustrate, active defenses can be used to prevent or make difficult surveillance and so help to cover the build-up of a force of surface-to-surface missiles and manned bombers.

While the distinction between first and second strike capabilities is an important one, it's rather subtler than its recent bowdlerized popular form. It is first of all a question of the performance of the system as a whole, rather than a characteristic of individual vehicles. Moreover, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have a pure second strike capability, though it is somewhat easier to get a capability which has only a first strike utility against a strong, intelligent opponent. Nonetheless, even here the problem would have to be judged in terms of the system for retaliation as a whole, rather than in terms of one part of it located in a single spot. All of this, while sketched only roughly, is a somewhat more refined set of distinctions than is likely to be immediately intelligible in international discussions in the next period.

There are some immediate pragmatic considerations in connection with such distinctions. (1) As we have formulated the issues so far, the confusion is likely to generate or assist in generating a lot of vaguely wishful talks about symmetry and justice in the disarmament field. (2) Khrushchev can be counted on to exploit the anomalies for all they are worth in his campaign to make his actions in Cuba seem a contribution to world disarmament. (3) It is not in the interests of the United States to make the limitation on the Cuban build up solely in terms of the piling up of surface-to-surface missiles and bombers: there are limits we should set to a build up of active defenses beyond which, we should make clear, their implications are taken by us to be "offensive."

Khrushchev has been elaborately finical in handling the offense-defense distinction. He repeats again and again, "the weapons you refer to as offensive." Perhaps we should accept the gambit, raise the discussion to the next higher level, and make clear that indeed it is not just bombers and surface-to-surface missiles that concerns us. manned fighters, etc., which would permit the covert build up of offense, or the greatly inflated ground forces the Cubans label defensive, which might be used in offensive fashion in the Western Hemisphere trouble us, too.


The President has undertaken firm assurances against invading Cuba as well as removing the quarantine in return for the removal of weapons and a halt on any future build up. How much will this limit our action now and in the future? Is there an expiration date on this assurance about invasion from outside Cuba? More important, how does it restrict us from aiding internal resistance?

Khrushchev in his message of October 27 asked us to "declare that the United States of America would respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty," and "take the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves, and not permit their territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba and ... restrain those who plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from U.S. territory or from the territory of other territories neighboring to Cuba." Mr. Kennedy's response spoke more sparsely of assurances by the United States not to invade and expressed the belief that similar assurances by other governments in the Hemisphere would be forthcoming. This does not explicitly rule out action by exiles and it does not explicitly exclude support of an internal resistance. it is important for the President to keep this assurance so limited.

The President has made clear on many occasions since the attempted invasion in April 1961 that we do not intend to abandon the Cubans to Castro and the Communists. His speech on October 22 was carefully phrased to indicate that we were interested not in preserving in peace the Castro government, but in giving the Cuban people an opportunity for independence and free choice -- something different from and probably incompatible with saving the present government. Have these commitments been qualified by the subsequent statements offering assurance against invasion? We think it is extremely important that future statements of guarantees against invasion be so formulated as to leave us free to help internal resistance. And we expect internal resistance will grow.

Assume that events proceed on their present course, that in fact Khrushchev verifiably removes the offensive weapons as the result of U.S. pressure. (Or assume we destroy the bases ourselves, with proper political warning to the Cuban people.) We believe this development will intensify the already large strains on the Castro regime and make much more likely a crack. It is above all extremely important that we plan for this contingency. And that we not limit our considerations simply to the narrow more technical problems involved in coups or a military occupation with a semblance of native dress. So far as anticipating unrest, resistance or rebellion in the Communist countries, the West has had a depressingly bad record, starting from the European satellite rebellions in the summer of 1953 through the recent Chinese exodus. We seem perpetually surprised and, worse, embarrassed by them. We should be able to do something more than help our opponents put down a rebellion; or stop an exodus; or stand passively by while they do it themselves.

The current or recent estimates that resistance in Cuba, though widespread, is passive rather than active, are off the point. The events of this crisis are sure to have a large effect inside Cuba in the next months and we would conjecture that the effect will favor the possibility of overthrowing Castro, with our aid, or alternatively will offer a significant chance that there will be an unsuccessful attempt without our aid. This last could hurt us badly.

First, the recent events will shake Castro's hold. Khrushchev is agile, rational, able to stand a considerable comedown. He is clever enough at maneuver to make it possible for him to salvage quite a bit from the crisis, especially if we play our cards badly.

For Castro the objective situation is more serious, and subjectively more serious, too: a comedown is much harder for him to take. His regime is in serious economic difficulties, and he has been under severe strain in his inner party struggles. To compensate partially for these frustrations he has had the grandeur of increasing military power, intimate association with one of the greats, and successful defiance of the other. Now he is losing these. In the whole week of crisis he was not an actor in the drama, not even a very audible chorus. President Kennedy talked to Premier Khrushchev and Khrushchev to Kennedy. Even U. Thant and Bertrand Russell seemed in closer communication with one or both of the principals.

Castro's character is quite different from Khrushchev's, and very far from the Bolshevik model of discipline and emotional control as analyzed by Nathan Leites. There are large ingredients or irrationality, impulsiveness, impatience, guilt, and pride. He is much less able to stand public humiliation. For Khrushchev it was an important sideshow, for Castro it was the main event. Castro cannot back away or easily find alternatives. He has no canal to seize, like Nasser. Unlike Khrushchev, he doesn't have other parts of the world to turn to. (His adventures in South America at any rate don't look immediately promising enough to compensate.)

He is not likely to be good at accepting decisions imposed from without for dismantling, removal, or inspection, but will rather reassert himself by complicating the arrangement. "We shall see," he has just announced, "who has the right to shout." But it is doubtful that any concessions we or Khrushchev might make would be enough to satisfy him or his feeling that the sovereign independence of Cuba has been violated. He cannot help but notice that he and Cuba are being used as pawns in the game, not just by Kennedy, but also by Khrushchev. Khrushchev's offer to trade Cuban for Turkish missile removal could not have sat well with Castro. Furthermore, the abrupt notice of withdrawal, evidently without a publicly acknowledged personal message to Castro, is not likely to have been softened much by Khrushchev's request for an American promise not to invade. Nor by Mr. Kennedy's response. "Mr. President," says Premier Khrushchev, "I trust your statement." For Fidel, however, "the guarantees of which President Kennedy speaks against the invasion of Cuba will not exist," without the elimination also of all commercial and economic pressures, all subversive activities, pirate attacks, violation of air and naval space, and without withdrawal from Guantanamo. As Raul has put it, now that the Americans have promised not to invade, Cuba will be twice as alert. Which suggests they don't regard the promise as worth anything like what it is exchanged for.

It is likely that Khrushchev and Castro have had troubles before this. Castro does not just take orders and Khrushchev has made remarks to visitors about Castro's unpredictability. Castro's probable feelings of being used, abused, betrayed, will not help future relations between them. His history of defiance of big powers, first Batista, then the U.S., suggests that the big powers may now include Khrushchev, and lead him back to the "Frente a Todos" stand which he adopted in 1955.

However, we must not forget another aspect of Castro's character. He delights in tricking or outwitting an enemy. (See, for example, his evident delight in deceiving the American press in the Sierra Maestra, his personal participation in flushing out resistance groups, in uncovering the Dominican plot, etc.) Under these circumstances he can tolerate waiting to spring the trap. Against the Northern colossus Castro would not hesitate to cooperate in a program of deception with the Russians for a camouflaged military build-up.

Khrushchev could, of course, attempt to restore his previous relations with Cuba by (a) massive program of economic aid, or (b) a large military program of a purely "defensive" type, or (c) an attempt to build up an offensive capability, not simply by surprise and speed with only the preparatory steps concealed, as in the past few months, but this time more slowly and entirely under cover. However, what may make any of these moves less likely is precisely the difficulties and unpredictabilities of the Cubans and the fact that Khrushchev has already been burned. Even if he does essay a vast economic program, it will take a very considerable length of time to overcome the spreading economic deterioration in Cuba. Of the economic aid that Khrushchev has so far supplied, a good deal was wasted by Cuban incompetence and some of it was fictitious. (Reports from refugees suggest that Russian promises for factories have not been fulfilled.) And if Castro is a great problem to Khrushchev, instead of winning him with carrots, Khrushchev may have to try the opposite -- of starving him out to bring him to heel. Whichever happens, however, it seems unlikely that in the next year economic conditions are likely to improve sharply. And they may get worse.

The large scale entry of the Russians onto the scene and now their possible withdrawal are likely to have had great political effects on the Cubans. They must sometimes be puzzled as to who is in charge. Castro's relations with the Communist apparatus have oscillated. There was a period culminating in the winter of 1961, which was marked by Castro's sloughing off of Fidelismo and by his ardent espousal of Marxism-Leninism. This was followed in March by a denunciation of the Communist official Escalante and of the sectarianism of the Cuban Communist apparatus. Then the increasing Soviet presence in the summer and fall. And now a possible Soviet withdrawal. Power relations have been shaken several times.

The political and economic uncertainties are likely to grow in the next months, and with them, opportunities for resistance. It is by no means inconceivable that there will be splits in the leadership as well as a growth of active popular resistance. Suppose there should be fighting and widespread guerrilla action, establishing a substantial foothold -- perhaps controlling a province. Should we be passive in such an event?

It seems clear that we should prepare now for such eventualities. The formal assurances against invasion given by the President so far do not exclude help to Cubans. However, they should clarify current government policy. They should make that policy more clearly depend, if Castro is to be overthrown, on the Cubans themselves and on our assistance to them. Much of the discussion today fluctuates between the extremes of an invasion regarded as a technical military problem and the tendency to regard any use of force as self-defeating, leading to our own Algeria, etc. The world of possible actions is a lot richer than these two alternatives, as the last week has suggested. We can expect accumulating domestic pressures in the next period for our taking some active role in displacing Communism in Cuba. It is important therefore to consider some of the effects of last week's events on a somewhat longer term than the next week.

In a future stretching into months we suspect that some things can be done. Aside from future cracks in the regime, there is a future to be affected for the young -- the 15 to 25 year olds who form the mass basis for Castro's support. It is important to address them. They are the ones who are likely to take to the hills. While we may be supporting several groups today, it is clear from the public evidence that our main emphasis has gone to the Cuban Revolutionary Council. It deserves some support, but it is unlikely to have any appeal to the young Cubans in or out of Cuba. The Council, on their view, stands essentially for a return to pre-Batista Cuba without economic or social change. In effect it has rested on the hope of an American invasion to accomplish a purely constitutional change and the political transfer of power. We need to broaden the basis of our support to include stronger emphasis on the groups who, while anti-Communist, are for economic and social change. And we should encourage the formation of concrete programs, political, economic, and social, for a post-Castro government. There are a number of things that could be done here, including for example, help for some of the young Cubans not identified with any specific group, who are interested in putting out a periodical in which such programs might be debated and crystallized.

One of the paradoxes of our recent policy is that we seem to have given our principal emphasis to the Cubans who typify the groups we find are a principal obstacle to the Alliance for Progress program in the rest of Latin America. It would be an irony to help reinstate by force in Cuba the very ones who oppose the changes we consider essential.

In sum, in giving assurances against invasion,

  1. We should avoid offering any guarantees whatsoever against our helping Cuban resistance in and out of Cuba.

  2. More than that, we should reiterate that we strongly support independence and freedom for the Cubans.

  3. We should anticipate and plan to assist by appropriate means a possible growth of resistance in the next six months.

  4. In line with the at least temporary renunciation of U.S. invasion and the expectation of aid to internal resistance, we should broaden the base of our support among the Cubans.

  5. List of Wohlstetter documents