Nukes of Hazard: Q&A with Jeffrey Sachs

A conversation with Jeffrey Sachs on JFK, the Cold War, and “the most dangerous moment in human history”



“The Cuban Missile Crisis showed how matters could very quickly escalate to the brink of nuclear war,” says Dr. Sachs. “It was the instinct to take a moment to think, to let alternatives percolate, to discuss, to remember the horrid lessons of war throughout history that compelled Kennedy to look for a different approach.”
(Photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari)


For thirteen days in October of 1962, a few dozen men in Moscow and Washington D.C. negotiated over the lives of approximately two hundred million human beings. Partly in response to the presence of U.S. nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey (aimed at Russia), Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The historian Arthur Schlesinger described the ensuing face-off as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

President John F. Kennedy’s first impulse was to follow the near-unanimous counsel of his advisors and launch a military air strike on the Soviet installations. Were he to have taken this course, it may very well have triggered nuclear war. We now know – from White House tape recordings released three decades after the crisis – that Kennedy himself put the odds of a nuclear war at “somewhere between one out of three and even.”

Large swaths of the populations of Cuba, Russia, and the U.S. Eastern seaboard were moments away from annihilation. Yet, the Cuban Missile Crisis claimed but a single life, that of an American spy, whose plane the Soviet military shot down over Cuba on the penultimate day of the crisis. In the darkest hour of the Cold War, cool heads prevailed and the crisis was peacefully defused.

2Dr. Jeffrey Sachs is the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals. His latest book, To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (Random House, 2013), is a celebration of diplomacy teeming with lessons for contemporary politicians and policymakers.

I recently spoke with Dr. Sachs by phone about some of the issues raised in the book. What follow is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

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David Kortava: Conventional wisdom has it that what kept the Cold War cold was a “stable balance of terror.” What do make of this doctrine of mutually assured destruction?

Jeffrey Sachs: Well, there was nothing stable about the “balance of terror.” The world veered towards total catastrophe at least once and, arguably, on a few occasions. The Cuban Missile Crisis showed how matters could very quickly escalate to the brink of nuclear war. The idea that we had a stable balance of terror that prevented war is an optimistic ex-post reading of an extraordinarily dangerous situation. It was a situation that actively needed to be defused, and fortunately Kennedy took important steps to do just that.

In the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and almost all of his advisors favored a military air strike on the Soviet installations, which may very well have led to nuclear war. How did Kennedy come to change his mind? 

The main thing that saved Kennedy from taking the decision to strike, which he indeed initially favored, was simply the self-discipline to wait. He believed that wars are caused by mistakes, by accidents, and that time is a crucial factor for avoiding them. Very early on Kennedy eschewed the idea of shooting and came to the notion of a naval quarantine of Cuba. Many of the military advisers were rather aghast at this and were still pushing very hard for a military strike, but Kennedy’s caution prevailed, thank God. It was the instinct to take a moment to think, to let alternatives percolate, to discuss, to remember the horrid lessons of war throughout history that compelled Kennedy to look for a different approach.

You write that, in having negotiated their way back from nuclear abyss, “[Kennedy] and Khrushchev saved the world.” But is it not true that the Cuban Missile Crisis was also largely a crisis of their own making?

Absolutely. Both leaders stumbled towards a war that neither one wanted, and that’s really my point in answering your last question: these things happen not because of diabolical leaders intent on first strike against an opponent, but through bad judgments, through mistakes, through misinterpretations of the actions on the other side.

Kennedy had plenty to account for. The Bay of Pigs in his first year of office was a debacle. And the initial build up of arms was provocative, as was the placement of intermediate short-range nuclear missiles in Europe and Turkey. All of this meant that Kennedy came to be seen as a hardliner from the Soviet side. And Khrushchev’s actions were also reckless. Placing the missiles in Cuba, we know, was a political move. He viewed it as a political equalizer, a kind of coup de grâce that would help to reestablish Soviet power at a time when the US was utterly dominant in its ability to deliver nuclear weapons. The last thing on his mind was to start a war, but, as we know, that’s what nearly happened.

I think that both leaders had responsibility in part for bringing the world to the brink, and they both deserve credit for pulling the world back from the brink. Nobody comes out with a perfect record in this.

What lessons can our contemporary politicians and policymakers draw from Kennedy and Khrushchev’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis?  

The lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in my opinion, are to take a breath and to try to view confrontations through the eyes of a counterpart or an adversary or a foe. Kennedy really was a master of that. He intuited what Khrushchev was facing, and I would say Khrushchev too had an appreciation of what Kennedy was facing. They both understood that each was surrounded by hardliners. Another lesson was that the personal correspondence the two had, the back channel, was very important. It humanized each leader vis–à–vis the other. We have far too little of the direct discussions that we need today. Somehow these meetings are still viewed as great prizes rather than as a normal part of holding the world together.

There are all of these lessons, but in my view they all have to do with essentially respecting the counterpart, which is not a popular notion in times of confrontation, and with searching for mutual benefit from peaceful outcomes, which is of course the essence of the whole story. I hope that the legacy of all this will continue in less direct ways by showing how two countries at the height of their confrontation, just short of war, could find a way reaching agreements.

Today the nuclear powers still retain vast arsenals and the nuclear club continues to grow. What then was the significance of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that Kennedy and Khrushchev helped to pass?

Well, what is the true counterfactual? Had the treaty not been passed, by now two or three dozen countries would probably have acquired nuclear weapons. Certainly the capacity for that existed. This treaty had a very powerful effect on slowing nuclear proliferation, though it didn’t end it.

It’s worth remembering that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the last of the absolutely dangerous showdowns between the two sides up to the early Eighties (at which point there was one more very dangerous round with Reagan). By showing that both sides could reach agreements and that both sides would follow those agreements, the treaty held the worst of the impulses at bay.

Furthermore, it laid the groundwork for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, and this was part of Kennedy’s specific plan. Now, that treaty has played a tremendous role. Although it is an imperfect treaty because, as you mentioned, several countries – Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and possibly Iran sometime in the not too distant future – have become nuclear powers despite it.

You write that the Cold War was not the only factor driving nuclear proliferation. What other variables were at play?

To this day both the United States and Russia have powerful lobbies that build weapons systems, profit from weapons sales, and – either by dint of their commercial interests or by the coincidence of their ideologies – believe that we should constantly be preparing for the worst. We spend fortunes around the world on the global military establishment, something on the order of 1.7 trillion dollars. These are very powerful incentives for businesses and ambitious politicians, and these domestic constituencies definitely played a role. It’s difficult of course to decipher ideological confusions, as I regard them, from lobbying and commercialization of war, but whenever we move to détente, you see the recrudescence of these hardline voices spurring another round of confrontation.

The subtitle of the book is JFK’s Quest for Peace. How do you reconcile this with the Kennedy Administration’s escalation of the US intervention in Vietnam? 

This has been one of the cottage industries of debate among foreign policy analysts for decades. I come down on the side that Kennedy would never have led the US into the debacle that Johnson – who lacked Kennedy’s more subtle and stronger capacities in foreign policy – created.

Kennedy was not interested in fighting Vietnam. He had served in the Pacific during the Second World War, had nearly died there, and knew that this was not a place where Americans should be or were likely to win any land wars. But he was also not interested in losing Vietnam to communism, so he was delaying. It’s true that he committed advisers, which were partly Special Forces, but he never succumbed to the very constant importunings of many military and political advisers for putting troops in Vietnam. The US Army and Marines would only go into Vietnam in March 1965.

Kennedy had told [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara and others that he wanted to start withdrawing the Americans from Vietnam, but he would do it presumably after the 1964 election. He wanted 1,000 advisers out of Vietnam by the end of 1963, and a national security memorandum was issued to that effect. Kennedy said that it should be secret however. He wasn’t ready for tackling the politics of this, especially with essentially a year to go until reelection. And, of course, the next month he was assassinated.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2013 print edition of The Morningside Post.

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David Kortava is a Russian-American writer currently based in New York City. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

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