By Jonathan Power*
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is well remembered, even by those not yet born when it happened. The word has been passed down the generations and probably always will be. It was the first and only time, say many historians and political scientists, that the world faced the likelihood of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the USA.
For my part, I find it impossible to forget.
I was chairman of Manchester University’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Within four hours after the BBC reported the beginnings of the crisis, we had organized a massive march. To my knowledge, we were the fastest off the block of any organization, deserving a mention that evening on the main BBC news.
Of course, being students, we assumed it was the US that was in the wrong. In fact, the USSR was equally wrong.
Moscow had deployed nuclear missiles in communist Cuba within a minute’s flying time to Florida. The US, said the military, must be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union unless they were removed. President John Kennedy was alone among his advisors in thinking confrontation could be avoided. Premier Nikita Khrushchev, although he started the ball rolling, came to realize he had to back down if he were to save the world from catastrophe. Another US or Soviet leader may not have been so mentally supple, given the pressures both faced, in particular from their military who thought they could conduct a nuclear war and win.
One can’t start to understand how all this came about until one investigates the so-called Bay of Pigs invasion. Its 60th anniversary was on April 17.
Thankfully, Kennedy had his fingers burnt with its failure. He spent nearly all the subsequent day on the phone to his father, Joseph, the oligarch who owned the New York Herald Tribune and had been the war-time US ambassador to Great Britain. The president was a shattered man, his face blanched, almost tearful in front of his wife, and needed the cool paternal mind to help him sort a way out of the political mess the aborted invasion of Cuba had brought about. Kennedy took to his bed, his ailments including chronic debilitating back disease, flaring up. He was both mentally and physically in pain. His wife, Jacky, said she’d never seen him so depressed.
Not least of Kennedy’s problems was how to deal with the US military who had conceived the whole operation and had egged him on. At that time the military had more independent power. When the Cuban missile crisis flared up six months later up he had to remind the military every few hours to hold their fire. He didn’t trust them to obey orders. With the Bay of Pigs, they’d already precipitated one dangerous event. In fact, Khrushchev gave as his reason for deploying nuclear-tipped rockets in Cuba was because of the Bay of Pigs and the threat to Communist Cuba.
The Bay of Pigs invasion plan was conceived by Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. The idea was for the CIA to arm and supervise a group of dissidents to overthrow Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro. Kennedy was advised soon after he took office that the CIA plan was slipshod, incomplete and unprofessional. Nevertheless, Kennedy didn’t want to be accused of chickening out.
On April 15, just two months after he took office, eight B26 bombers attacked Cuban airfields The CIA had painted them with Cuban markings and the pilots were loyal to Cuba’s predecessor, the fascist dictator Fulgencio Batista. But the American press quickly uncovered their CIA sponsorship. Two days after Cuban opposition militias tried to land at the Bay of Pigs and were immediately captured by Fidel’s troops.
The hierarchy of the CIA had believed that if anything went wrong the President would unleash whatever military support was necessary. The entire operation was designed to “entrap” the president, according to Thomas Hughes, the assistant secretary of state for intelligence.
According to Walt Rostow, Kennedy’s closest foreign policy aide, “All my friends and colleagues were having nervous breakdowns. They were in terrible shape. Literally, they could not function.” As for Kennedy, he observed, “You always assume that the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals”.
He didn’t make that mistake again. And that was the reason, more than his advisors, that kept him so balanced during the Missile Crisis when all of them, including the military, were tying themselves in intellectual knots during hundreds of hours of often convoluted debate at the White House.
He allowed his staff to debate what to do for 12 days. One meeting went on for over six hours. Kennedy never said much and often absented himself. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, later observed, “The president had been seized with the idea of trading US missiles based in Turkey for Cuban missiles. He seems to be the only one in favour of it”.
Yet it was obvious. The Turkish-based nuclear missiles, so close to Soviet territory, were as much a threat to Moscow as the Cuban missiles to the US. Why his advisors did not recognize the appeal of such a trade baffled Kennedy. He felt he was negotiating with his advisers as well as Khrushchev. He overruled them, insisting he writes to Khrushchev and says, “he was willing to negotiate the issues related to Turkey while there is a sort of standstill in Cuba.”
Kennedy insisted the UN be brought in, in particular its secretary-general, U Thant. According to Martin Sherwin, who wrote the best book yet on the crisis, “Gambling With Armageddon”, “The secretary-general’s involvement was not unlike that of the moderator in an atomic reactor: the medium that slows down the actions of the neutrons and keeps the pile from going critical”.
While all this was going on there was nearly a Soviet launch of a nuclear missile from a submarine off the coast of Cuba. The number 2 on board was Captain Vasily Arkhipov. While surfacing it was attacked with machine gun fire—against orders—by US planes and depth bombs dropped by destroyers. Altogether there were 9 destroyers and an aircraft carrier on site. A delay in getting the sub to dive, followed by Arkhipov’s prudent effort to counsel the commander not to fire prevented the nuclear retaliation that the angry commander at first wanted. Arkhipov persuaded his superior to rescind the order to ready a nuclear torpedo.
Without Eisenhower, it can be said to be certain there would have been no Bay of Pigs. Without its failure, Kennedy may not have been wise enough or determined enough to stand up to his advisers and the generals who were ready for a military solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is often said that we became a hair’s breadth away from a nuclear war. Setting the incident of the Russian submarine aside, that is an exaggeration. Kennedy would never have countenanced it, and probably neither would have Khrushchev. But it was a lesson about the futility of intervention, one that has not yet been fully absorbed, witness Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next time there is the temptation to do another Bay of Pigs, Iraq or Afghanistan let’s insist that is not the way to go. And let’s remember without Kennedy there might have been a nuclear war. And if he had lived longer there probably would have been more rapid progress on nuclear disarmament and no build up of American forces in Vietnam. But his murder by an assassin’s bullet cut him down in his prime.
* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com