The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went with little fanfare.
The event that captivated the nation – and the world from Oct. 16-28, 1962 – is one that many recall as a time when the world came the closest of any time in memory to all-out nuclear war.
But it was maybe not all it was cracked up to be if Cheney resident Steve Schwalbe is correct. And given his background there’s no reason to doubt his take.
Schwalbe is not just the average pundit or scholar. His resume is impressive, most notably in the area of the former Soviet Union where he served as the lead analyst for Soviet General Staff-directed military exercises in the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1980s.
Add to that duty as assistant defense intelligence officer for the Middle East and Terrorism; air attaché to Korea; air attaché to Jordan; and Chief of the Air Force Military Assistance Program in Jordan. He’s an Air Force Academy grad, has multiple masters degrees and a doctorate earned in 2006 in Public Policy from Auburn University.
So at a recent luncheon presentation to the Rotary Club of Spokane, it may have come as a surprise to those present when Schwalbe downplayed the events surrounding, and the impact of the Soviet Union attempting to place medium-range ballistic missiles 90 miles away from U.S. shores a half century ago.
Schwalbe contends – and has the proof to back up his claims – there have been a number of other times when the two super powers nearly came even closer to exchanging nuclear blows.
Those will be explored in the next segment of this two-part story series.
Schwalbe told the full house at the Spokane Club how nations have gone to war over the past 100 years and events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t all fit the criteria.
In World War I mass troop mobilization was the precursor to war. During Cold War times the path to war was called a Strategic Military Exercise and involved both military and political leaders. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just the political element to it.
“The Secretary General (Nikita) Kruschev decided he needed to make a play against the United States,” Schwalbe explained. “He thought if I can put medium range missiles in Cuba we will be in a strong position and I will be a hero.”
That meant missiles just 10 minutes away from Washington, D.C., — a real big threat to the U.S. — so the reaction here was fast, big, and very scary too.
Problem was, Schwalbe said, “He didn’t clear that with the Politburo, he didn’t clear that with the Red Army.”
The Red Army had no idea what was going on in Cuba.
Unfortunately, another intelligence failure was taking place and that was here in the U.S. where no one seemed to notice the Red Army was at its everyday level of readiness.
“The intel community should have been able to tell whether the Soviets had done any preparation for war. There were lots of intelligence failures,” Schwalbe said when asked if the U.S. knew Kruschev was essentially on his own in his ploy.
“Meanwhile the United States went to Defense Condition One – we couldn’t have been higher – within an hour of launching an attack,” Schwalbe said.
That Kruschev never had approval from the Politburo is mostly conjecture. “That’s analysis, not fact,” Schwalbe said. “We can’t know that, we didn’t have anyone sitting there, no notes, no ‘here’s the minutes of the last meeting,’” he added with a chuckle.
Schwalbe, who’s had access to the most secret Soviet facilities as a boots-on-the-ground inspector for the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty Inspection team, was not aware of the release of further classified documents that spoke to some of the behind-the-scenes activities from those tumultuous two weeks.
Schwalbe actually sought out real answers by writing both former Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
“Those were registered letters so I know they got them, they were never returned, they were just not answered,” he said.
Crisis or not, one major improvement and deterrent to mutual assured destruction (MAD) came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the installation of the hotline, a dedicated telephone line which linked the Kremlin and White House so that the first buttons pushed would be those on the phone and not missile launch codes.
Schwalbe retired from the Air Force in 2007 as a colonel after 30 years of active duty service. His last Air Force assignment was as a professor of International Security Studies at the Air War College. Currently he teaches online courses at American Military University and American Public University.
After growing up in Los Angeles and serving in some of the biggest population centers around the world, Schwalbe, his wife and daughter live on a chunk of secluded property outside Cheney.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.