With the Russian missile transport ships holding on the border of the US naval blockade, and military alert at DEFCON 2, the Cuban Missile Crisis has the world balancing on a knife edge. Kennedy and Kruschev are deadlocked, each demanding the other back down and neither prepared to do so. In his 1962 August 26th message to the US, Kruschev advised Kennedy: "You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dreaded forces our two countries possess." How would it all end? Obviously there was a compromise. Which is why we're talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis rather than the Bombing of Havana or World War Three. Kennedy agreed to a US guarantee not to invade Cuba, and later privately agreed to remove 15 Jupiter missiles from Turkey; Kruschev withdrew all missiles from Cuba. On November 20th, Kennedy ended the US blockade, and everyone lived happily ever after. See how easy things are if we all co-operate?
Having brought the world to the brink of destruction, the two super-powers were finally forced to really think quite hard
about their nuclear weapons policy. A teleprinter hotline was installed between the White House and the Kremlin,
allowing the two nations immediate contact in the event of future disagreements, and in October of the following year
the Partial Test Ban Treaty - also known as The Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer
Space, and Under Water - came into effect. That one's pretty clear, I think?
Of course, you'll note it's not The Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons. Oh no. That would be quite, quite... MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction. The cornerstone of Cold War military strategy. Also known by those linguistically gifted Russians as "nuclear terrorization". The concept is simple - if two opposing powers have the capacity to utterly destroy each other, they'll never go to war. Fair go, it worked, but you can't help getting the feeling there's a gaping hole in the logic there somewhere. Perhaps it's me. The theory was largely developed by Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, who also worked tirelessly to bring us the idea of first and second strike
To have first strike capability would imply that a country could destroy the entire nuclear arsenal of another without retaliation. A nation with second strike capability can't defend itself from an attack, but will respond with equally deadly force. Much of the justification for the arms race stemmed directly from the fear, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that the enemy might achieve first strike capacity.
Such was the belief in MAD that in 1972, President Richard Nixon and Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, effectively halting the development of a strategic system of missile defence that would shoot down incoming ICBM warheads before impact.
Strategic defence has been a controversial subject throughout the history of the Cold War, and it's perhaps hard
to grasp why a program that aims to stop incoming nuclear missiles is considered more problematic than the
missiles themselves, which were still rolling out of factories by the truckload. However, the basic thinking behind
this comes down to first strike capacity again. Nuclear weapons were an existing technology, but ABMs and
strategic defence weren't, and with both sides now engaged in constant espionage it would have been impossible
to build and test such a system without the other getting early wind of it.
And if that had happened, then the balance of power would have been noticeably tipped, with the only option
being a massive pre-emptive strike from the opposing team. I say only option, obviously that's from the point of view of military strategy. Anyway, there it is. It's important to have a good understanding of this because next time we'll be focusing on my favourite period of paranoid nuclear history - the Reagan years!
It's also worth mentioning that although most of the really big stories in nuclear weapons development pertain to the two Superpowers, by the mid-sixties Britain, France and China also had the bomb, and the five would maintain their monopoly for some time, under the banner of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but again, we'll come to that next time.Oh, and just for the record, on December 13, 2001, George W. Bush gave Russia six months notice of the United States' withdrawal from the ABM treaty, their first withdrawal from a major international arms