History Note: Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis On The 53rd Anniversary

I am writing this on October 22, the fifty-third anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the day when President John F. Kennedy made a speech to the nation announcing that the US had detected Soviet missile bases being constructed in Cuba – and demanding that they be removed. A US naval “quarantine” was imposed on the island, and the world held its breath as World War III hung in the balance.

Watching Kennedy’s televised speech brings back memories, none of them good. In those days, “duck and cover” air raid drills were part of our routine at school, although at my school in suburban Yorktown Heights they eventually resorted to simply sounding the rather frightening air raid alarm and trooping us all out onto the playground – presumably so we could all die in the open air.

The specter of nuclear war was an integral part of my childhood: the science fiction stories I read and watched on television were obsessed with the subject, projecting visions of nuclear devastation and the mutant world that would emerge from the rubble. Who can forget Zsa Zsa Gabor in “Queen of Outer Space,” when she drops her mask to reveal a face hideously distorted by nuclear radiation? Us kids used to play a game, “let’s pretend there’s been an atomic war”: as we hiked through the abundant woodlands that then surrounded Yorktown Heights, we would come across the remnants of abandoned shacks, only their concrete foundations evident through the undergrowth of weeds: “Oh look,” we would cry, “they must’ve been quite advanced, these earthlings! But why did they destroy their civilization?”

Why, indeed.

For weeks after Kennedy’s speech we were scared out of our wits, convinced that our childish games were about to become reality. Air raid drills in school assumed a somber air. Little did we know that President Kennedy, while not quite lying through his perfect teeth, was speaking disingenuously when he said:

“For many years both the Soviet Union and the United States … have deployed strategic nuclear weapons with great care, never upsetting the precarious status quo which insured that these weapons would not be used in the absence of some vital challenge. Our own strategic missiles have never been transferred to the territory of any other nation under a cloak of secrecy and deception; and our history, unlike that of the Soviets since the end of World War 11, demonstrates that we have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people. Nevertheless, American citizens have become adjusted to living daily on the bull’s eye of Soviet missiles located inside the U.S.S.R. or in submarines.”

While it is true that US nuclear missile weren’t stationed on foreign territory “under a cloak of secrecy and deception,” the truth is that they were quite openly deployed not only in Europe but also in Turkey, where an array of Jupiter missiles jointly controlled by Washington and Ankara were aimed at targets in the USSR.

And of course, even as President Kennedy spoke, this nonsense about the US having “no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people” was being disproved in Vietnam, where the US was flying combat missions, spraying Agent Orange on defenseless civilians, and American “advisors” were accompanying South Vietnamese troops as they attacked and slaughtered villagers in Viet-Cong-controlled areas.

The official story out of Washington was that the Cuban missile crisis was resolved due to a brilliant tactic by President Kennedy – a pledge not to invade Cuba in return for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles. This explanation, provided by Kennedy’s hagiographers, was the conventional wisdom for decades – until the private conversations of Kennedy and his advisors were declassified and made public.

We then discovered the truth: that Kennedy had agreed to withdraw US missiles from Turkey as part of the deal. As the tapes of a meeting between Kennedy and his advisors reveal:

“Under Secretary of State George Ball declared that approaching the Turks on withdrawing the Jupiters ‘would be an extremely unsettling business.’ ‘Well,’ JFK barked, ‘this is unsettling now George, because he’s got us in a pretty good spot here. Because most people will regard this as not an unreasonable proposal. I’ll just tell you that.’ ‘But, what ‘most people,’ Mr. President?’ Bundy asked skeptically. The president shot back: ‘I think you’re gonna have it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba … when he’s saying, ‘If you get yours out of Turkey, we’ll get ours out of Cuba.’ I think you’ve got a very tough one here.’”

The question that arises in any reasonable mind is: why keep this a secret for so many years? Why was it inadmissible that the US treated the Soviets as equals? After all, the presence of US missiles in Turkey since 1959 was a danger to the Soviets equivalent to that posed by the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The answer is that the cold war atmosphere didn’t allow for any considerations of fairness or equivalency. It was always necessary, for propagandistic purposes, for Washington to play a game of one-upmanship with Moscow. It was a matter of prestige, of macho-ness, to show that we were stronger, bigger, more intimidating – that is, Number One in the world.

George Ball’s question to Kennedy, “But what ‘most people,’ Mr. President?” says it all: being reasonable had nothing to do with the making of US foreign policy during the cold war years – just as it doesn’t today, with Cold War II upon us. It didn’t matter that our wise rulers in Washington were playing a game of Russian roulette, with nuclear bombs in the place of bullets. What mattered was the demonstration of American dominance in all circumstances – even if it meant the end of human civilization.

What we are seeing today is the return of that same cold war mentality, in Ukraine and in Syria. Just as the placing of nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey represented a threat to Russian national security in 1962, so today the arming of Islamist crazies by the US in Syria is a dagger pointed at Russian central Asia. And the willingness of most of the major American presidential candidates to confront Russian fighter jets in the skies over Syria by declaring a “no fly zone” is a reenactment of the same Russian roulette that brought us to the edge of catastrophe in 1962.

With a second cold war all but declared by politicians of both major parties, the risk of another US-Russian confrontation – just as dangerous if not more so than the Cuban missile crisis – is almost inevitable. It won’t be long before schoolchildren are subjected to air raid drills, and “duck and cover” is once again a subject taught alongside math and history.

Speaking of history, we never do learn from it, do we?