EARLIER THIS year Pakistan and India came to the brink of war over their occupation of Kashmir. The possibility of nuclear weapons being used, killing millions, loomed large. Comparisons were made with the ‘Cuban missile crisis’ of 40 years ago. JANE JAMES looks at what happened in October 1962 and how close the United States and the Soviet Union then came to a nuclear war.
On the brink of nuclear war
ON THE 22 October 1962 the president of the United States, John F Kennedy, made a speech to the nation. Informing everyone of the build up of offensive nuclear weapons (supplied by the Soviet Union) in Cuba, he announced a blockade of ships carrying military equipment to Cuba. He demanded the Soviet Union withdraw these weapons and “to move the world back from the abyss of destruction.”
Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties Years of hope, days of rage and an anti-Vietnam War activist, recalls the following: “Kennedy gave his “quarantine” (better called by a less medicinal term, blockade) speech on Monday night, 22 October 1962. For six days, time was deformed, everyday life suddenly dwarfed and illuminated, as if by the glare of an explosion that had not yet taken place. Until the news was broadcast that Kruschev was backing down, the country lived out the awe and truculence and simmering near-panic always implicit in the thermonuclear age.”
Speaking of the official myth that it was the “steady hands” of Kennedy and co who averted such a nightmare, he concludes: “Another ending was possible, the ending of all endings, and then we would not be alive, most likely, to challenge the official myth.”
This event pushed many including the author to the left as he concluded: “The great powers could drag the world to the brink of annihilation whenever they damned well pleased.”
The cold war
THE BACKDROP to these events was the period following the Second World War known as the ‘Cold War’ when the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as two rival superpowers. One was based on capitalism and the other on a planned economy; two opposed systems and both had nuclear weapons.
Following 1945 when the US dropped two Atom bombs on Japan, the horrors of nuclear weapons were apparent. There were enough nuclear weapons in these two countries to destroy the planet.
However, throughout this period such a deadly scenario was unlikely. If one country launched these weapons, then the other would have immediately retaliated resulting in “Mutually Assured Destruction” or ‘MAD’ which contributed to an uneasy equilibrium. Also the strength of working-class organisations in the West at the time, with their democratic rights, acted as an obstacle to a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the ruling class.
Cuba and the US
IN HIS speech warning of a possible nuclear war, Kennedy stated the following: “Our history… demonstrates that we have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people.”
In fact, the US had actively intervened to overthrow the Cuban government ever since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. It was precisely the action of the US to stifle the revolution, by cutting supplies to ruin the economy, that led to Cuba’s dependency on the Soviet Union.
The overthrow of the US stooge, Batista, in Cuba and the coming to power of Castro eventually led to the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism. (See The Socialist 270) Even though Cuba is not a socialist country due to the lack of workers’ democracy, nonetheless a planned economy was implemented which meant the nationalisation of many subsidiaries of US companies.
The US was mortally afraid of what Cuba represented and the support it received. Not only did it have to contend with a planned economy in the Soviet Union but the fact that capitalism had been overthrown in a country so close to the US was a blow to US Imperialism.
It was especially fearful of the downtrodden Latin American masses following in Cuba’s footsteps.
On 17 April 1961 the US spy agency, the CIA, organised an armed invasion of Cuba known as the ‘Bay of Pigs’. 1,300 Cuban exiles, trained by the US, attempted to invade Cuba and rouse opposition to overthrow Castro.
The invasion was a disaster due the paucity of the exiles, lack of a coherent opposition within Cuba and no viable opposition leader.
A new invasion was planned the following year known as Operation Mongoose which would culminate in an invasion in October 1962.
A Memo from Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs (Martin) to Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson) on 12 October spoke of: “… providing the selected exile group with funds, arms, sabotage equipment, transport and communications equipment for infiltration operations in order to build a political base of opposition inside Cuba.”
In February 1962 the Kennedy administration announced a total embargo of trade with Cuba.
Between July and October the US were engaged in aggressive intervention in Cuba on a daily basis.
Shots fired from the US controlled Guantanamo Naval Base and other shootings by infiltrators regularly led to the death of Cuban citizens.
Jane French in her book Cuba and the US describes: “Hit and run attacks by boats along the coast and other constant violations of Cuban territory by boats and planes, that carry out espionage, sabotage, hijackings of boats, kidnappings and infiltration of CIA operatives.”
Sequence of events
BOTH CUBA and the Soviet Union knew of the planned invasion and in May Castro had accepted the offer of the Soviet Union to provide Cuba with nuclear weapons to defend their country and government from US intervention.
Of course Nikita Kruschev, leader of the Soviet Union, saw this as an opportunity to position nuclear weapons in America’s backyard and thereby increase Russia’s global power and prestige.
US spy planes flying over Cuba spotted the missile sites along with many Soviet forces sent to install the weapons and train the Cubans in their use.
There were frantic discussions once it was established that these weapons were nuclear and with an intermediate range could reach many key US cities.
A US intelligence document of the time states the following:- Analysis of SAM (Surface to Air Missile) sites: “…accepted range of SS-4 missile: includes – Phil-adelphia, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth – Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Mexico City, all the capitals of the Central American nations, the Panama Canal and the oil fields in Maricaibo, Venezuela. The presence of operational SS-4 missiles in this location would give the Soviets a great military asset.”
Robert F Kennedy, Attorney General, understood the threat from nuclear weapons so close to the US: “And the fact that you got these things in the hands of Cubans, here, and then… some problem arises in Venezuela you’ve got Castro saying, ‘You move troops down into that part of Venezuela, we’re going to fire these missiles’.” Of course “some problem” refers to possible workers uprisings in Venezuela!
The Kennedy administration discussed many possible options. They could bomb the missile sites before they were operational and then invade Cuba. Or, blockade Cuba and stop ships coming from the USSR with weapons parts. Alternatively, they could negotiate with the USSR and perhaps give up Berlin or withdraw nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy.
Kruschev himself had raised the accusation of why was it all right for the US to have nuclear weapons in European countries next to the USSR but not USSR weapons in the Western hemisphere.
A Telegram from the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the US Department of State reported Krushevs’ complaints: “US has bases in countries neighboring USSR, such as Turkey, as well as Greece, Italy, France, West Germany, and Pakistan. But USSR does not attack these countries. If US thinks it has right to do as it likes about Cuba, why hasn’t USSR right to do as it likes about Cuba, why hasn’t USSR right to do as it likes about these countries?
“USSR does not recognise right of US to be everywhere in world and to rule everywhere. It was one thing when US was very powerful, but now there is a force as great as yours.”
The US was blatant in wanting a regime change in Cuba and piled pressure on the UN and pro-US Organisation of American States to win their support for an attack.
The true objectives of the US were revealed in the following document:- “McCone (Director of Central Intelligence) stated that we must all bear in mind that we have two objectives, one, disposing of the missile sites and the other, getting rid of Castro’s Communism in the Western Hemisphere.”
Eventually a decision was made to put into operation a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent the delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba. Yet even this option held fears of a reaction from the USSR if their ships were intercepted.
On the other hand if the missile sites were bombed, many USSR soldiers would be killed and again provoke a reaction from the Soviet Union.
The US had to weigh up the likely response from another superpower which could escalate into a nuclear world war.
On 24 October six Russian ships on course for Cuba turned back rather than run the blockade and by the 26 October negotiations between the Soviet Union and the US were underway.
The agreement reached on 28 October was that the Soviet Union would dismantle the weapons in Cuba and the US would pledge not to invade Cuba.
In fact behind the scenes Robert Kennedy had delivered a message to the US Soviet Ambassador saying that US Jupiter missiles would be removed from Turkey if the Soviets removed theirs from Cuba. (In March 1963 the Turkish missiles were withdrawn.) The missile crisis was over.
ALTHOUGH THE incident was named the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba itself was just a pawn.
Kruschev and his Stalinist regime saw the opportunity of getting nuclear weapons in the Western Hemisphere right under the nose of the US. This would increase their potential power and prestige, far more important factors for them than the interests of ordinary workers and peasants in Cuba. Castro was not even consulted by Kruschev about the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba. Most of the negotiations were between the two superpowers.
40 years on in an interview with ABC, Castro says that Kruschev aggravated the stand-off by insisting to Kennedy that there were no nuclear weapons on Cuba and that all Soviet activity was defensive.
The US too were prepared to barter their allies to get the weapons removed and directly defend the interests of US capitalism. Berlin, which was divided up between the powers after the Second World War and was inside Soviet controlled East Germany, could have fallen to the Soviet Union. They were also prepared to remove their nuclear weapons from some European countries.
The US was well aware that Cuba was a beacon to the workers and oppressed in Latin America and any strengthening of Cuba or the Soviet Union could give confidence to those struggling against capitalism.
The threat today
TODAY, NUCLEAR weapons are in the hands of much more unstable regimes such as Pakistan, India, North Korea and are present in a large number of countries. And since the collapse of the planned economy in the ex-Soviet Union there is not a counter-power to rival the US. The attempts by imperialist powers especially the US to dominate regions of the world is fomenting nationalist, religious and ethnic violence, civil wars and wars.
Moreover, following 11 September, the US has announced its intention to launch pre-emptive nuclear attacks against other countries.
The Cuban missile crisis still resonates today. George W Bush invoked it last week to justify pre-emptive action against Iraq.
Yet, throughout the world, opposition to the US administration is growing not just against its war aims but also its capitalist globalisation policies and its damaging environmental practices. Any “limited” use of nuclear weapons would not just result in millions of deaths but create huge protests around the world.
As our forerunners did in the 1960s, so the Socialist Party opposes nuclear weapons and continues the struggle to replace capitalism with a socialist society thereby wresting control of weapons of mass destruction from the present powers and creating a world free from the horrors of war.