The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington is reminds us that President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize in large part because of his stated intentions concerning nuclear non-proliferation.
The one nuclear proliferation crisis everybody likes to cite to illustrate the benefits of anti-proliferation is Cuba 1962, when America’s Best and Brightest under Jack Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev and his attempt to position strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba.
Let's look at it another way: as the time the Soviet Union tried to beat (or at least match) the US at its own global nuclear hegemon strategy and failed miserably (fundamental contradictions need a good deal of experience, skill, strength, and luck to keep papered over, none of which Khrushchev had); a cautionary tale that allies and proxies don't rate quite the same nuclear umbrella as the hegemon's homeland (Japan and South Korea take note); and anitproliferation is expensive, difficult, dangerous, and involves plenty of knock-on consequences (North Korea, of course).
Kennedy understood that standing up to the Soviets over Cuba--antiproliferating--was more a matter of US (and his) credibility and a reflection of US determination over Berlin than an issue of US national security. From the beginning of the crisis, his advisors are unambiguous in their analysis that the missiles in Cuba, when operational, would not effect the strategic balance.
The most interesting element of denuclearizing Cuba is that the United States didn’t think that the Soviet Union had any operational nuclear weapons capability in Cuba when it decided to go public and issue the ultimatum to Khrushchev.
The part about the strategic missiles not being operational was something of a lucky guess.
For the Soviet Union, a dismal botch that helped cost Khrushchev his job and, coming on the heels of the China debacle, pretty much put paid to Soviet overseas nuclear junketeering.
While the Soviet Union was out of the proliferation game, the US went all in on nukes as a geostrategic asset, not only maintaining its nuclear edge through technological improvements and integrating nuclear weapons into its security architecture in Asia as well as Europe, but also by antiproliferating, by seeking to deny new aspirants, allies as well as adversaries, entry to the club through suasion, sanctions, and even war.
In an interesting way, the US is now somewhat recapitulating the Soviet endgame in Cuba, with elements in Japan and the Republic of Korea becoming more vocal about their desire to control their own nuclear destinies rather than rely on the United States, thereby challenging the US nuclear weapons monopoly and the Asian security architecture which it underpins.
The forces advocating for nuclear proliferation are many; the US, while not standing alone as an anti-proliferater, is perhaps alone in its depth of conviction, interest, and determination. This creates challenges for President Obama as he tries to universalize the internationalized NPT legal regime and wean the United States from unilateral anti-proliferation and its occasional resort to violations of sovereignty to achieve its objectives.**
What about Cuba? What would have happened if the USSR, instead of putting its own nukes on Cuba, had just given Cuba some nukes? Or, in a strikingly plausible scenario, let Castro keep the tactical nukes after the Soviets withdrew? How would US relations with Cuba and the rest of Latin America evolved?
**There was no basis under international law for the unilateral US blockade of Cuba in 1962. The legal recourse for the US would have been to obtain a 2/3 vote from the Organization of American States authorizing a blockade against a member state, something that the US wasn't willing to wait for. The legal end-around was to call it a "quarantine".