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9-08-2015, 22:43

THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, OCTOBER 1962

On Wednesday, 24 October 1962, some 500 miles from the shores of Cuba, two Soviet merchant vessels, the Gagarin and Komiles, escorted by Soviet submarines, were heading for the Caribbean island. At 10.15 a.m. precisely they encountered patrolling US warships. The Essex had orders to sink the Soviet submarine escorts if they should refuse to surface when challenged. Two days earlier President Kennedy had announced a naval blockade of Cuba after the discovery of Soviet missile sites on the island. On the US mainland, aircraft armed with nuclear weapons were on maximum alert. Special strike forces were readied for an invasion of Cuba. The world held its breath. Was civilised life on the brink of destruction, on the threshold of a nuclear holocaust? What if the White House or the Kremlin in this dreadful trial of strength miscalculated? That Wednesday morning the Soviet ships halted. The news was flashed to the White House. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, with evident relief, drew his own conclusion: ‘We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.’ People all over the world, anxiously watching their television sets, were no less relieved: the dramatic crisis was over. Actually it was not. The really serious danger of conflict occurred three days later. On Saturday, 27 October Kennedy only just drew back from ordering an air strike on the Cuban missile sites, to be followed by an invasion of the island. But when on Sunday morning, 28 October, the White House received the news from Moscow that Khrushchev had agreed to withdraw the missiles, the crisis really was over. Kennedy and his advisers in the White House and Khrushchev in the Kremlin acted in the knowledge that one false step could lead to a nuclear exchange and the end of civilisation. The strains on the two men were enormous. Neither wanted to risk starting a nuclear holocaust. The conflict was not exactly what the public thought it was about. By placing intermediate and intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, the Soviet Union would have given the impression that the military threat to the US had significantly increased. It was more a question of propaganda and prestige, of positioning in the global Cold War. The conflict turned on the Russian claim to an equal place in the world, to the right to compete with the US for influence anywhere in the Third World, in regions of Asia not under communist control, and in Latin America. The mere existence of Castro’s Cuba was, from an American point of view, a breach of the Monroe Doctrine. After the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs in the previous year, to accept tacitly the establishment of a Soviet military base on the island was unthinkable. It would raise doubts whether the US, when faced with an ultimate showdown, would have the toughness to meet resolutely and effectively such a communist challenge. If the US failed on its own doorstep, what reliance could there be placed on American readiness to defend Western interests in Europe or the Middle East or Asia? That is how the thinking ran in Washington during the autumn of 1962. For Kennedy, another defeat over Cuba would have been calamitous domestically to his standing as president. His opponents would have gone to town, charging him with being soft on communism. The stakes were high and Kennedy was fully aware of the implications. From a purely military point of view Kennedy agreed with his secretary of defence Robert McNamara that missiles placed in Cuba did not significantly add to a Soviet threat. Just a few months earlier, in March 1962, he had concluded that there was not much difference between missiles stationed in the American hemisphere and those positioned 5,000 miles away. During the October crisis later that year McNamara applied cold logic in analysing what the effect of having missiles in Cuba would be. Should the Soviets fire their limited number of Cuban missiles first, they would reach the US before any missiles from the Soviet Union and so act as a warning, leading to massive retaliation by the US, with its 1,685 nuclear warheads obliterating much of the Soviet Union. The injury to the USSR would be megatimes greater than the injury that forty-two Cubanbased nuclear weapons could inflict on the US. Kennedy had not been too greatly alarmed by Soviet support for Castro before September 1962. This did not mean he was soft on communism or prepared to tolerate a communist state in the Western hemisphere. In fact, the overthrow of Castro became an obsession. The ill-advised and in the end ineffectual policies pursued before and after the Cuban missile crisis were revealed only when Central Intelligence Agency documents were published in 1975 by the US Senate under the title Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. A counter-insurgency expert, General Edward Lansdale, had been instructed by Kennedy to recommend actions that would lead to Castro’s overthrow. In December 1961 with the backing of the president and his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney-general, Operation Mongoose was launched. The orders read, ‘No time, money, effort – or manpower is to be spared. We are at war with Cuba.’ With assassination seen as a legitimate option, the CIA hatched plots to ‘knock off Castro’. Every effort was made to isolate Cuba politically and economically; sabotage teams infiltrated the island early in 1962 to destroy strategic targets, including bridges and vital communications, oil refineries and sugar mills; there was even a plan to poison turkeys. Another crazy scheme, never carried out, was to ‘incapacitate’ with poisonous chemicals the farmers collecting the sugar harvest or, alternatively, to poison the sugar being sent to Russia in order to provoke a breach between the Soviet Union and Cuba. Intelligence was collected. The objective of all this was to create havoc and dissatisfaction in Cuba and so to incite a popular uprising. Consideration was given to the possibility that a revolt could then be supported by American armed forces, to avoid another Bay of Pigs fiasco. The results of so much activity were disappointing. Early in October 1962, a few days before the missile crisis, Robert Kennedy passed on new instructions from the president to escalate Mongoose, to increase the number of sabotage missions – results had to be achieved. That Castro should in the face of so much hostility have become paranoid himself is, therefore, understandable. He appealed to Moscow for help, believing an American invasion to be imminent. Khrushchev viewed this as a threat and an opportunity. Publicly he declared that the Monroe Doctrine had ‘died a natural death’. Little thought had been given in Washington to the likely reaction in the Kremlin to the threats against Cuba. Khrushchev was a curious mixture of dreamer and realist, cunning, trusting in his own abilities and his superior gamesmanship, ready to gamble on the inferior capacity of his opponent to respond. The US, he had concluded in the spring of 1962, was becoming too selfconfident and arrogant, and needed to be checked. Robert McNamara and other members of the administration had been openly boasting of America’s growing superiority in nuclear strength and its ability to deliver it and crush the Soviet Union. In March 1962 the Saturday Evening Post reported Kennedy referring to the possibility that circumstances could arise that might lead to a US first strike against the Soviet Union. Khrushchev knew that the Soviet Union was, indeed, hopelessly inferior in nuclear missile strength, that it was ringed by nuclear bases from Turkey to Western Europe and that American superiority placed him in a poor bargaining position over Berlin and other areas of conflict. Bluff was his answer. The Soviet Union would act like a superpower until it could catch up. Khrushchev had boasted that the march of communism in the world could not be stopped. Cuba was a test. The Soviet Union must be seen to stand by its only ally in the Americas. ‘Coexistence’ did not mean softness, as Mao was claiming. The crisis had its roots in April and May 1962. Khrushchev conceived of a ‘brilliant’ stroke. He would move missiles into Cuba. They would act as a deterrent, protect Cuba from invasion and help to even up the balance of power. Khrushchev rejected the misgivings of Foreign Minister Gromyko and the wily old Armenian Bolshevik Mikoyan. On 24 May the Praesidium approved the plan. Khrushchev was playing for high stakes, at home and internationally. Liberalisation in Moscow and the open access to US archives make it possible to reconstruct what went on in the White House and the Kremlin during the crisis. That the Soviet Union in 1962 was engaged in arming Cuba was no secret. The ships carrying missiles in their holds and under tarpaulins could not be made invisible on the high seas. The high-flying U-2 planes were able to spy on the island and photograph with great accuracy and detail what was going on. On 29 August a spy plane took pictures of Soviet technicians constructing a SAM (surface-to-air missile) launching pad. Four days later, Washington being a leaky place, a Republican senator raised the possibility that the Soviets might be stationing in Cuba short-range and intermediate missiles with a maximum range of 2,500 miles. That would enable them to reach Washington, New York and other US cities. Both Houses of Congress now passed resolutions authorising military intervention should that prove necessary. Kennedy had to do something, even though SAM missiles were clearly defensive, but he did not wish to provoke a crisis needlessly. He and most of his advisers did not think it at all likely that Khrushchev would be foolhardy enough to introduce offensive longrange nuclear missiles. Still, public apprehension and the demand for action required a weighty pronouncement. It came on 12 September. Kennedy held a news conference and declared that the US would do ‘whatever must be done’ to protect its security and that of its allies if any offensive base was established by the Soviet Union in the Western hemisphere. A crisis now became inevitable. How far Kennedy had changed his mind about the military significance of Soviet missiles in Cuba is not clear. What is certain is that the political fallout in the US would have been devastating had the administration just tacitly accepted a Soviet missile base in Cuba. Kennedy’s mistake had been to trust Khrushchev. The warning came too late. Long- and medium-range missiles were already on the island and more nuclear missiles were on the way. Khrushchev, in his ignorance of the US political climate, had grossly miscalculated the likely reaction of the president. With the congressional elections looming, Khrushchev thought that Kennedy would hide the fact that missile bases were being constructed in Cuba if he found out about them. Such a cover-up was possible in the Soviet Union but not in the US, where political opponents and a free press could not be silenced. Kennedy could not afford another defeat over Cuba. He had allowed the Russians to send large quantities of military equipment to Cuba after the Bay of Pigs and could do little to counter Khrushchev’s boast of defending Cuba. But he could not allow his position to be publicly undermined any further. He could not, of course, reveal his own secret plans to get rid of Castro; Operation Mongoose would have given the lie to assertions that he was soft on communism, but public knowledge would have caused an international outcry. During the crisis itself credit must go to Kennedy for keeping options open and for not reacting in haste. He received much conflicting advice. Even his brother Robert Kennedy, the attorney-general, had swung from hawkish to dovish moods during the crisis days. Most of the military advice was for getting on with the job and striking at Cuba; the military were chafing at the bit. Perhaps in the end there was one good thing that came out of the previous year’s Bay of Pigs disaster: Kennedy was not going to be pushed again and his innate conservatism and caution prevailed. After the crisis was past, he showed commendable restraint in not trying to exult. The drama of the days of crisis and confrontation can now be briefly told. On 14 October 1962, a U-2 spy plane took photographs of possible missile construction sites. Interpretation of these photographs was not easy, but assistance was received from an unlikely source, from Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet spy then in Moscow, who was passing information to Western intelligence services. (He was later caught and executed by the Russians.) The president was first shown the photographs, now interpreted on the morning of 16 October. They provided incontrovertible evidence, he was told, that the Russians were constructing offensive missile bases. That was the start of the emergency; the White House, where suspicions had been aroused, was nevertheless surprised by the incontrovertible facts. The US experts on the USSR, on whose advice Kennedy had relied, were taken unawares. Indeed, before September, Washington’s worries had been focused on Soviet threats against West Berlin rather than Cuba; in the previous year Washington had even feared it might be faced with having to abandon Berlin to the Russians or go to war. The thirteen days of crisis that followed the discovery of the sites were punctuated by intense debates among the inner circle of advisers. They were constituted as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or Ex. Comm. for short. From the first meeting on 16 October until the end of the crisis the assumption was that the US would get the missiles out of Cuba by diplomacy or force, whatever the risk. Throughout those tense days there were continuing rounds of freewheeling discussion: all possible options were examined. These ranged from what was referred to as a ‘surgical air strike’ against the missile sites, to proposals for a naval blockade, an air strike on the missile bases and an all-out invasion of Cuba. The military favoured an air strike on the missile bases. Robert Kennedy, who also at first had suggested creating a pretext for attacking Cuba, later opposed this option; he then likened such a surprise raid to the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet Kennedy and his advisers felt themselves to be under inexorable pressure of time. A decision would have to be reached. If allowed to continue undisturbed, US intelligence calculated, the Russians would complete the installation of the missiles and be able to arm them with nuclear warheads in fourteen days. In the end a majority of Ex. Comm. favoured the naval blockade as a first step. The final decision could be made only by the president. By 21 October Kennedy came down in favour of the blockade option. Up to this point the proof of the installation of missiles had been kept a secret in Washington, as had the discussions in the White House about how best to deal with it. The missiles would soon be ready for firing: decisions had to be reached. No one in Washington knew whether they were equipped with nuclear warheads, but it was thought safer to presume that some warheads had already reached Cuba. In fact, Soviet archives later revealed that some forty-two nuclear warheads were on the island but under exclusive Soviet control. Khrushchev did not allow Castro to have his finger on the trigger. An argument against an air strike was that possibly not all the missile sites had been located. On the next day, 22 October, the president delivered a sombre television broadcast to the American people at 7 p.m. He announced his decision to impose a blockade around Cuba as an initial step and coupled it with the demand that the missiles had to be removed. He also explicitly warned the Russians not to attempt a countermove against West Berlin. The broadcast was very dramatic. He warned that Soviet nuclear missiles and bombers based on Cuba were ‘an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas’, and added that the Soviet Union had no need of missile sites outside the Soviet Union. Finally, he accused the Soviet leaders of deliberate lying when they had assured him that no offensive weapons would be based on Cuba. That they had been lying was true. The missile threat appeared real enough. No wonder the American people felt threatened when maps appeared with arcs showing that missiles launched in Cuba could reach most of the US. The Soviet gamble was presented as pointing a dagger to the heart of America. Kennedy’s first countermove was the naval blockade, proclaimed on 23 October after OAS approval. This less aggressive option was in line with the advice given by the British ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, a close friend of the Kennedys. Ormsby-Gore, moreover, contributed the suggestion that the line of blockade be set up not 800 miles, but 500 miles from Cuba, so as to give the Kremlin more time for reflection. Thus the die was cast. US forces, including B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons, were put on alert. How would the Russians react now? On 24 October, as has already been related, two Soviet ships reached the blockade and halted. During the next five days, oil tankers and ‘inoffensive’ Soviet vessels were allowed through. The crisis, however, was far from over. The missile sites in Cuba were still being feverishly prepared. Kennedy insisted that they should be dismantled. A new crisis loomed. Soviet intentions were dangerously unclear in Washington. The missiles had been placed in Cuba to deter. Khrushchev was determined to defend Cuba; like Castro, he expected the Americans to invade unless effectively deterred. But deterrence was bluff. The long-range missiles would not have been fired. The defence of Cuba was not worth the destruction of the USSR. On 25 October at the United Nations Adlai Stevenson worsted the Soviet delegate with dramatic proof of Russia’s deception, and television pictures of the UN confrontation were shown all over the Western world. The following day, the possibility of a deal was first suggested by the Soviet side. Alexander Fomin, counsellor at the Soviet Embassy but, according to US intelligence resources, in reality a KGB colonel, asked John Scali, a journalist, to lunch with him at the Occidental, a restaurant close to the White House whose well-known advertisement ran, ‘where statesmen dine’. The agent outlined the deal: if the US undertook not to invade Cuba now or later, then the Russian missiles would be removed. When Secretary of State Rusk was told, he accompanied Scali to the White House to inform the president. That same evening a long rambling letter from Khrushchev, confused but friendly in tone, reached the White House. The most important passages suggested that the Soviet Union would not carry arms to Cuba if the president would give an assurance that the US would not attack Cuba. It was much vaguer than Fomin’s proposal, but it likewise seemed to indicate the beginnings of a deal. Scali was instructed to meet Fomin again and to assure him that the US saw possibilities in the deal but that there was little time left. To the present day we do not know whether Fomin was acting on his own initiative, but in Washington his proposal was regarded as emanating from the Kremlin. It lent more substance to Khrushchev’s own vague proposals. The following day, Saturday, 27 October, another letter was received from Khrushchev, sharper and more definite. This time he undertook to remove the offensive missiles from Cuba, but he added that to emphasise equality he required the removal of American missiles from Turkey. It was a face-saving device and nothing illustrates the military unreality better than the fact that the US regarded the old Jupiter missiles in Turkey as useless anyway and had wanted to remove them in 1961. But now they could not openly agree without appearing to give Khrushchev a justification for having sent missiles to Cuba. As Kennedy and his advisers were debating how to react to Khrushchev’s two letters, the news reached the White House that a U-2 plane over Cuba had been shot down by a surface-toair missile, killing the pilot. The atmosphere entirely changed. It was mistakenly assumed that this was a deliberate Soviet escalation. In fact, the Soviet commanders in Cuba had acted on their own initiative, stretching the authority to defend themselves. The US chiefs of staff, who had been urging stronger action than a naval blockade, now pressed for an air strike and the launching of an invasion. Kennedy, too, asked how U-2 planes could any longer be sent to observe what was going on if the pilots’ lives were thereby exposed to danger. ‘We are now in an entirely new ball game.’ The final escalation of the crisis appears to have been prompted by the kind of accident Kennedy had always feared could lead to fatal miscalculation. Another U-2 plane had accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace over Siberia and had been damaged by a missile (it made it back to its base in the US). But the next ‘accident’ might prove more serious and the chances of it happening would increase the longer the crisis lasted. It is significant that Khrushchev avoided making any public military preparations in the Soviet Union, though in fact the Soviet armed forces had been placed in full preparedness. Khrushchev was anxious not to raise the temperature further. Then news reached the Kremlin that an American U-2 plane had been shot down over Cuba. Khrushchev rightly feared that the confrontation could slip out of his and Kennedy’s control. In the White House, meanwhile, Kennedy cautiously pulled back from ordering immediate armed action against Cuba and the Soviet installations. Everything was to be thought through again and another message conveyed to the Kremlin. Kennedy was rightly convinced that the Russians did not want to fight any more than the Americans. The president asked his brother to arrange an immediate meeting with the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. Dobrynin hastened to the Justice Department within half an hour of receiving the telephone call. Though Robert Kennedy later denied it, the message he gave the ambassador was practically an ultimatum. He told Dobrynin that by the following day, Sunday, the Soviet Union would have to agree to remove the bases and missiles or the US would remove them. That was the stick. The carrot was that the Jupiter missiles would be removed from Turkey later, but not under Soviet threat. On the suggestion of McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser, no reply was sent to Khrushchev’s second message; it was simply ignored. Instead, the proposal contained in the first was accepted: if the Soviets removed their missiles, the US would undertake not to invade Cuba. These represented the maximum concessions the president was willing to make. That same Saturday evening, after Robert Kennedy returned to the White House, there was considerable gloom. Would Khrushchev yield? The president ordered the military to be ready to invade Cuba. The decision about an air strike was to be reviewed on Sunday. As everyone dispersed that Saturday night they wondered whether they would wake to a peaceful morning. In Moscow Khrushchev was spending Saturday night in his dacha. Kennedy’s reply reached him there on Sunday morning, 28 October. He summoned the Praesidium, which agreed to issue a positive response to be broadcast immediately, since every minute’s delay was considered to be dangerous. Later that morning, the State Department received the message over Radio Moscow that Khrushchev had accepted the US proposals. The ‘offensive’ missiles would be removed under UN supervision in exchange for the American undertaking not to invade Cuba – to which Khrushchev had added: nor any other nation of the Western hemisphere. Kennedy’s response was conciliatory. He praised the Soviet leader’s ‘statesmanlike decision’, but would not help him to save face by making public the US promise to remove the American missiles from Turkey. The missile crisis was over. But tension lingered on for some weeks. The Americans were also demanding the removal of Soviet bombers. The Russians gave way on that issue only late in November. Castro, who had not been consulted, was in a rage. Feeling that he had been used, a pawn in the American–Soviet confrontation, he called Khrushchev a son of a bitch, Mao Zedong stepped in to increase his rancour. Castro refused to cooperate with the detailed procedures for removing the missiles, but the Russians honoured their undertaking to remove them. Kennedy then lifted the quarantine of Cuba and, exploiting Castro’s lack of cooperation, watered down the US commitment not to invade Cuba by writing to Khrushchev, ‘there need be no fear of any invasion of Cuba while matters take their present favourable course’ (italics added). No treaty was ever concluded between the Soviet Union and the US formally setting out what had been agreed, but both countries have, for the last three decades, acted as if there had been one. What then was the significance of the Cuban missile crisis? What were the lessons drawn from it by contemporaries and what assessment can be made with hindsight? How near had the US and Soviet Union come to war, how near to the brink of a nuclear holocaust? Recent evidence reveals they were much closer to catastrophe than was thought earlier. While Kennedy had to assume some missiles and even a few nuclear warheads could have reached Cuba before the blockade was in force, the Pentagon had badly underestimated the Soviet military presence on the island. What might have happened if Kennedy had given the final order to invade Cuba on 28 October? That could have brought into play another catastrophic risk the Pentagon knew nothing about at the time. Not only were eighteen medium-range missiles (1,050 miles) and twenty-four intermediate-range missiles (2,100 miles), with some nuclear warheads which were kept at a separate location, already on the island, but in addition the Soviet commanders in Cuba had available nuclear short-range (31 miles) Luna missiles. Soviet commanders were debarred from using them. The orders to fire them were secret, locked in a Kremlin safe. But Soviet commanders had been given the freedom to use non-nuclear missiles if attacked. What if they were confronted with a large seaborne invasion and found themselves in a predicament to defend themselves? They might as well have fired the nuclear Luna missiles and decimated the invading force. There would not have been time to wait to find out what the Kremlin had decided thousands of miles away. War would then have been certain. Khrushchev must have been terrified at this point that he would lose control, especially after a commander in Cuba had already shot down a U-2 plane. Most attention has been paid to Kennedy’s handling of the crisis, less to the clever way Khrushchev extricated the Soviet Union. He held a weak hand of cards. The crisis had to be diffused quickly. But Khrushchev did not capitulate in panic. He extracted the valuable concession that the US would not invade Cuba and extinguish communist rule by military force, in return for the removal of the missiles. That at least had fulfilled part of their purpose. The removal of the US missiles in Turkey later on was an additional face saver. How should Kennedy be judged? The memoir literature of participants and the outpouring of academic work reveal a wide variety of views. Broadly speaking, the almost wholly favourable view of Kennedy’s handling was popularised by his brother in his book Thirteen Days, the theme of which is that Kennedy’s flexible responses and careful handling won for the US all its essential interests – forcing the Russians to pull back from challenging the US in the Western hemisphere, and convincing them that the US had the courage to stand up to nuclear blackmail. This positive assessment has been challenged by Republicans and revisionist historians. Nixon in 1964 blamed Kennedy for having ‘pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory’. In other words, Kennedy had the opportunity to call the Soviet bluff and to overthrow Castro; instead, Castro became secure. Kennedy had, in fact, appeased. Crucial was Robert Kennedy’s role, based on his brother’s trust. His frequent meetings with the Soviet agent Georgi Bolshakov conveyed confidential information of the president’s views and soundings for terms of a diplomatic settlement. The romantic Camelot representation of Kennedy was not sustained in later years. There is much that can be criticised in the handling by the US of relations with Cuba. Operation Mongoose was misconceived and a failure. But to Kennedy’s credit a close analysis of the crisis itself does not support the charge that he tried to enhance his macho image. The evidence indicates a cautious president weighing up all the possible consequences of every move. Kennedy avoided driving Khrushchev into a corner from which there was no escape, and the world was able to breathe a sigh of relief that the leaders in the Kremlin had proved, not fanatical ideologues, but rational pragmatists. The US in the 1960s remained in a position of overwhelming nuclear superiority. But the creation of a Soviet base with nuclear-armed missiles and bombers close to the US would have been seen as a Soviet advance into the Western hemisphere and would have supported Khrushchev’s boast that the Monroe Doctrine was dead. Although there was much criticism among NATO allies of America’s failure to consult adequately during the crisis, had the US hesitated to accept so direct a challenge to what it regarded as its own vital interests (even though there were many who criticised the current US interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine), doubts would have been raised about its readiness to defend Western Europe in the face of a Russian threat with nuclear weapons out of fear that this could have led to a nuclear attack on the US. As we now know, Kennedy did not always retain his cool judgement during the crisis, and his nerves were at times stretched taut, but he always regained his balance in time. He did not jump to hasty conclusions, did not surround himself with men who would tell him only what he wanted to hear. On the contrary he encouraged free discussion of all the different points of view, an exploration of every option, while reserving to himself the final decision. His handling of his colleagues was skilful, as he took care to extract every piece of information that might be important in his decision-making. He did not allow himself to be rushed into overreaction. While it is true that the roots of the crisis must be attributed to Washington’s handling of Castro since 1959, the immediate cause was Khrushchev’s decision to challenge US dominance in the Caribbean. Had he succeeded in that challenge, what would he have tried next? He would certainly have been encouraged to ‘rectify’ Soviet weaknesses elsewhere, for instance in Berlin. The crisis was followed by a reassessment of nuclear-war theories. McNamara became a convert to the view that nuclear weapons could not be used in limited war; indeed, they were not weapons that could be used at all except as a deterrent to starting a war; and so the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) was developed. According to this theory, peace between the Western and Eastern alliances, could be preserved provided each side knew that it could not knock out the arsenal of an opponent’s nuclear missiles in a first strike; in other words, a sufficient number of missiles would survive a hostile first strike and would be used in a counter-attack to destroy the opponent’s country. An important lesson learnt from the crisis was that the ‘game’ approach to handling international relations was far too dangerous in the nuclear age. Rusk’s ‘they blinked first’ conclusion is more appropriate to the era of the Hollywood Western than to a nuclear showdown. One significant result of the crisis was the establishment of a ‘hot line’ between the Kremlin and the White House in 1963 in an effort to avoid any future possibility of miscalculation. It was not actually a telephone link but a simple teleprinter. This was later improved and by 1983 maps and other data could be rapidly transmitted. The two superpowers had discovered common interests. The most important was that ‘surprises’ were exceedingly dangerous in the nuclear age. There was also an urgent need to prevent more and more nations from acquiring the capacity to make their own nuclear weapons: control should be retained in the hands of the superpowers. Two agreements were concluded in the next five years, designed to inhibit development by other nations. In August 1963 the ‘limited’ Test Ban Treaty was signed. This forbade testing in the atmosphere, in outer space and underwater; but, because the Soviet Union and the US wanted to develop their weapons further, testing underground was permitted. That was one serious flaw; another was that no nation could be forced to join. France and China continued to test their weapons in the atmosphere. The second treaty, which was expected to be more significant, was the agreement on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, signed on 1 July 1968. This bound its signatories not to transfer their nuclear weapons to non-nuclear nations or to help them to manufacture their own weapons. The Soviet Union had already recognised its common interests with the US by withdrawing all assistance from China. Just as important as the bombs were the missiles that delivered them. Britain was a third signatory to these treaties of the ‘nuclear club’; it made its own hydrogen bombs but needed US missiles to deliver them. When Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Kennedy met at Nassau in the Bahamas in December 1962, the Anglo- American special relationship was sufficiently intact for the US president, who held the avuncular Macmillan in high regard, to promise to provide the Polaris missile for British submarines. The Soviet Union and the US, with Britain as a junior partner, thus tried to provide a lead, performing a policeman’s role, in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, though at the same time they themselves were updating and increasing their own arsenals. The efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the world were doomed to failure. The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an unprecedented nuclear-arms race between the Soviet Union and the US. They trusted each other no more than before, despite their shared interest in making the world a less dangerous place by not placing control of nuclear weapons in the hands of other states. This did not prevent the Kremlin from stationing nuclear warheads and missiles under Soviet control in Poland and East Germany, any more than it prevented the US and Britain from doing the same in West Germany and Italy. The US–Soviet detente of the 1960s and 1970s coincided not only with huge military expenditure but also with acute rivalry in the Third World. The most uncomfortable truth learnt from the Cuban missile crisis was that the decision to inflict or not to inflict radiation poisoning on much of the world lay in the hands of potentially unpredictable leaders in Moscow and Washington. In both the democratic and the communist states, the crucial decision-making depended on a handful of men, on their judgement, stability and good sense as they operated behind closed doors. The US president informed the Western allies, even conferred with them, but in the end he made his own decision. The Kremlin is unlikely even to have consulted allies. It was comforting, however, that the West was evidently not dealing with fanatics of Hitler’s kind. For the Kremlin leadership the mercurial temperament of Khrushchev posed too great a danger, and the risks he took during the missile crisis contributed to his fall in 1964. Turning to US policy in the hemisphere, its efforts to line up all Latin America against Cuba after the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco was not an unqualified success. Cuba was expelled from the Organisation of American States in February 1962, but the countries of Latin America refused to follow the US in imposing a general trade embargo. Nor was the US able to stop trade between its NATO allies and Cuba. Canada, for example, became an important exporter to, and importer from, Cuba. The loss of the US market for Cuba’s sugar, its main export earner, threatened enormous dislocation until the Soviet Union filled the breach. Up to the 1990s, Castro became dependent on Soviet largesse to bolster Cuba’s failing economy as well as on ill-advised loans from Western banks, which are unlikely to get their money back. Sabotage efforts directed from the US against vital Cuban targets, such as sugar mills, electric power stations and communications centres, continued until President Johnson ended them in April 1964. American policies deeply injured Cuba, but the objective of getting rid of Castro and his communist regime, at first through military and economic means and later by economic and diplomatic isolation, demonstrably failed. For the first time since 1898, Cuba’s powerful neighbour no longer controlled the island’s destiny. Cuban national pride is one reason why Castro had survived for half a century. The redistribution of income in favour of the poor and from the cities to the agricultural regions gained him solid support among the peasantry. Better health care and education were genuine achievements of the revolution. The poor, during the early years, became ardent adherents of the revolution. But Cuba has suffered from the inefficiencies of its socialist policies and command economy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the future for the people of Cuba looked grim. The American trade embargo was designed to bring about Castro’s fall and the end of the communist regime after intervention by force was abandoned after the missile crisis. Castro’s authoritarian rule and human rights abuses have prevented the regime’s full acceptance by the West. By 2005 Castro had become the longest surviving head of state. The majority of the Cuban people have known no other leader; a kind of national monument in the new century. For a number of reasons the justification for not normalising relations with Cuba has become increasingly less persuasive. The continuing US trade embargo injuring Cuba fails to serve any good purpose. In any case it has become a sieve, loopholes allow US companies to export food to Cuba and tourism flourishes. Some forty per cent of its trade is conducted with the European Union alone. Realities have encouraged both the US and the European Union to open diplomatic missions in Cuba. In Latin America during the last half century human rights abuses were committed by governments, recognised and even supported by Western countries including the US, with records worse than Cuba’s. Castro will not live forever. Change will inevitably come to Cuba in the twenty-first century, but it will be brought about not by foreign intervention but by the masses discontented with their low standard of living and repression. Once the immediate crisis was over in 1962, the rest of the world debated a new question: was it really safe to rely on the Soviet Union and the US in relation to questions vital to the superpowers’ own security and well-being? Indeed, would the US and the Soviet Union, whatever they said, really risk a holocaust of their own peoples for the defence of others? Two nations, China and France, openly defied the superpowers and built up their own nuclear-missile forces. Neither accepted the policeman role of the USSR and the US in the world; Mao sought to develop independent Asian policies, and de Gaulle to construct a European role while he denounced US dominance. Britain was punished for its pretensions and its ‘subservience’ to the US by de Gaulle’s veto of its application to join the European Common Market. But successive British governments have essentially followed de Gaulle’s nuclear policy by insisting on the preservation of an independent nuclear-strike capacity, even though it has relied on US missiles. There was much national posturing, but NATO continued to be regarded as essential for Western defence. In fact, only the Soviet Union was able to block nuclear proliferation – among its own Warsaw Pact allies. West Germany and Japan did not attempt to join the race. The spread of knowledge could not be prevented and the profit motive ensured that ‘peaceful’ nuclear reactors were exported from the advanced nations to the Second and Third World. Plutonium for weapons could be made by these reactors, as India demonstrated when it exploded a bomb in May 1974. West Germany has supplied reactors to Brazil; the US has supplied them to Egypt and Israel; France to South Africa, Iraq and South Korea; Canada to the Argentine. There is no certainty how many countries, besides the core nuclear-weapon nations – the US, the USSR, Britain, France and China – plus India, Pakistan, South Africa (which has given them up) and Israel (which has not yet tested any) are able to make their own. Nations with the capacity include Chile, North Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Israel and, until the second Gulf War, Iraq. Nuclear non-proliferation has failed, and there are many fingers on the nuclear trigger now. The certainty that these terrible weapons cannot be used without risk of self-destruction has so far preserved the world. The forty-year threat of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union was finally lifted by the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

 

 

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