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Flashback: Cuban missile crisis, October 1962

MR josseBy MR Josse

KATHMANDU: Last week Fidel Castro who ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 49 years died. This column is not focused on Castro’s life and times. It is more narrowly framed around one of the momentous geopolitical events of the 20th century in which he played a seminal role: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
At the time, the actions of the Soviet Union, Cuba and the United States propelled them to the verge of a global nuclear holocaust – the only time that such a ghastly prospect had stared the world in its face since the dawn of the nuclear age at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.
How did the ‘crisis’ erupt and how was it defused? Are there any geopolitical or other lessons to be imbibed?
“The crisis began when the Soviets moved nuclear missiles and bombers to Cuba – secretly and with the clear intent to deceive – in the summer and early fall on 1962. The missiles and bombers were to be targeted against cities along America’s East Coast. Photographs taken by U-2 reconnaissance aircraft on Sunday, October 14, 1962 brought the deployments to President Kennedy’s attention.” (vide former US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara’s, ‘In Retrospect: The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam’).
That, as American historian William R. Keylor recalls, “provoked an American rejoinder of such unyielding firmness as to preclude whatever high-level horse-trading or strategic gains the Soviet leader may have had in mind…President Kennedy flung down the gauntlet to Khrushchev…announced his intention to impose an air and naval ‘quarantine’…to prevent the arrival of additional armaments in Cuba…He demanded the prompt removal of the missile sites already completed or in the process of construction. After obtaining the unanimous support of America’s allies in NATO and in the OAS, Kennedy ordered the naval blockade into effect on October 24…
image0011“Suddenly, after a decade of careless rhetoric about ‘massive retaliation’ in Washington and ‘winnable nuclear war’ in Moscow, the two superpowers appeared poised for an epic confrontation from which neither seemed able to back down…Confronted with the genuine possibility of all-out nuclear war, the Soviet leader capitulated to the Kennedy ultimatum on the basis of a single condition: The missile installations would be dismantled and returned to Russia in exchange for an American promise not to invade Cuba…
“The Soviet Union which could easily have blockaded Berlin in revenge for the American blockade of Cuba, refrained from even the slightest provocation in that region of maximum American vulnerability…The Kremlin gamely attempted to put the best possible light on its humiliating setback in Cuba in order to reassure allies and prospective clients alike of its reliability as a patron: By extracting a no-invasion pledge from Kennedy, Khrushchev had rescued Castro from a terrible fate…”
Before moving on to the ‘lessons’ that can be drawn from the Cuban missile crisis, it may be instructive to take cognizance of its nexus with the then brewing Sino-Soviet dispute which, less than a decade later, formed the foundation of the breakthrough in Sino-American relations – a dramatic development that truly shook up the then existing world order.
As Henry A. Kissinger reveals in his opus, ‘On China’ – “Referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mikhail Suslov, a member of the Politburo and party ideologist, accused the Chinese of aggression against India at a moment of maximum difficulty for the Soviet Union: It is a fact that precisely at the height of the Caribbean crisis the Chinese People’s Republic extended the conflict on the Chinese-Indian border. No matter how the Chinese leaders have tried since then to justify their conduct at the time they cannot escape the responsibility for the fact that through their actions they in effect aided the most reactionary circles of imperialism.”
Another absorbing angle to the missile crisis, as indicated by Kissinger in ‘World Order’, is this: “Except for the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when a Soviet combat division was initially authorized to use its nuclear weapons to defend itself, neither side approached their use, either against each other or in wars against non-nuclear third countries.”
image003Another lesson about nuclear weapons/ war, according to former US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, is embedded in his appraisal of President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “During his presidency, the Soviet Union became a thermonuclear power, China became a nuclear power, and there were calls for preventive nuclear war against both; the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that he use nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam; there were several crises with China related to Taiwan; a war in the Middle East; a revolution in Cuba; and uprisings in East Germany, Poland and Hungary. And yet, after Eisenhower agreed to the armistice in Korea in the summer of 1953, not one American soldier was killed in action during his presidency.” (vide ‘Duty’).
Let me summarize the four key McNamara conclusions, based on several meetings over the years between high-ranking Soviet, Cuban and American participants in the decision relating to the missile crisis. They are: “1. Before Soviet missiles were introduced into Cuba…the Soviet Union and Cuba believed the United States intended to invade the island in order to overthrow Castro and remove his brought government. We had no such intentions. 2. The United States believed the Soviets would never base nuclear warheads outside the Soviet Union, but they did…3. The Soviet Union believed that nuclear weapons could be brought into Cuba secretly, without detection and that the United States would not respond when their presence was disclosed. Here, too, they were in error. 4. Those who were prepared to urge President Kennedy to destroy the missiles by a U.S. air attack…were almost certainly mistaken in their belief that the Soviets would not have responded militarily…”
In other words, “It had become clear that the decisions of all three nations, before and during the crisis, had been distorted by misinformation, misjudgment, and miscalculation.”

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