How Mao Zedong Benefited From the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Chinese role in Cuba during the Cold War paid dividends domestically for Mao Zedong.

How Mao Zedong Benefited From the Cuban Missile Crisis
Credit: Library of Congress photo via Wikimedia Commons

Though they might not appear to be connected at first glance, the Cuban Missile Crisis coincided with the end of the long Sino-Soviet break during the early years of the Cold War. China and the Soviet Union had sparred ideologically since the mid-1950s, and the Soviets had broken off much technical, military, and economic support by the early 1960s. Chinese and Soviet proxies waged a brutal ideological war for the soul of the international Communist movement.

Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, China developed a critique of Soviet foreign policy that suggested the unfitness of Moscow for leadership of the socialist sphere. The Russians, enjoying the security and comfort of their position atop the Communist bloc, would not take the risks necessary to winning the war against the capitalist West. Soviet caution in Europe and in the developing world tended to support this critique. In particular, the Soviets showed little interest in stirring up genuine revolution in European colonial possessions and third world client states, whereas China could play a key leadership role in this area.

New research in the Chinese archives by Enrico Fardella tends to confirm that fractures in the Chinese leadership helped drive the Maoist critique of the Soviet Union. The apparent failure of the Great Leap Forward, coming at the same time as the withdrawal of Soviet economic and technological experts from China, drove a wedge between Mao Zedong and practical-minded leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.  Mao sought to associate the practical faction with the Soviet revisionism of Nikita Khrushchev, especially on the foreign policy front. The more practical factions sought to avoid confrontation with either Washington or Moscow, especially during China’s period of acute weakness.

Cuba provided an ideal arena for sparring between Moscow and Beijing. In a developing country long under the thumb of the United States, the Castro brothers’ revolution accorded perfectly with Mao’s vision of conflict between the capitalist and socialist blocs. But China lacked the military and economic power to support the Cuban Revolution; only the Soviets had the means to protect the Castro regime.

Moscow and Beijing nevertheless jockeyed for support in Havana. Indeed, the Soviets may have committed to delivering missiles less out of fear of a U.S. invasion than of a Cuban shift towards the PRC. As the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, a Chinese critique emerged of Soviet weakness and perfidy. The eventual withdrawal of missiles, seemingly as part of a deal between the United States and the Soviet Union, demonstrated the Maoist point perfectly; the Soviet Union was willing to compromise the interests of revolution in the developing world in order to avoid conflict with the United States. Indeed, Chinese rhetoric probably pushed the United States and the USSR to treat each other more cordially than would otherwise have been the case.

Combined with the short, quick victory of Chinese arms in the Sino-Indian War, the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis strongly supported Mao’s foreign policy argument, and consequently his position within domestic politics. Over time, Mao would capitalize on this victory to restore his pre-eminence within the Chinese Communist Party.