The Cuban Missile Crisis (A Rashomon exercise)

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By Arturo López-Levy

“When I saw the rockets being fired at Mario’s house, I swore to myself that the Americans would pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: The war that I am going to wage against them. I know that this is my real destiny”

Fidel Castro wrote these words to his confidant Celia Sanchez in 1958, the decisive year of his guerrilla war against Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mario was a peasant of the Sierra Maestra, whose house was victim of the bombardment of the U.S. equipped regime air force. In Latin America, Washington’s support for dictators such as Batista was the norm, not the exception. Not only the communists but most types of nationalisms were stigmatized as “fellow travelers” through Washington’s Cold War lens.

In January 1959, the revolutionary army entered Havana and Fidel Castro became the most popular Cuban leader in history. The new government mobilized workers, peasants and a significant segment of the middle classes to launch campaigns against illiteracy, extreme poverty and for land reform. By early 1960, Fidel Castro and the most leftist among his followers, his brother Raul and  Che Guevara, were already in contact with the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain, particularly China and the USSR. In September, during the sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev went to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem to give Fidel Castro a bear hug.  Khrushchev declared to the press that he didn’t know whether Castro was communist but he himself was a “fidelista”.

By June 1960, President Eisenhower ordered CIA to start supporting Anti-Castro groups in the Sierra Escambray, in the center of Cuba. Few days before John Kennedy became president, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. The CIA was already training an expeditionary military Cuban exile force in Guatemala. In spite of some of his most brilliant political advisers’ opposition to the military course (Arthur Schlesinger favored a coordinated international effort to pressure Castro in favor of democratic elections in Cuba but his advice was rejected because of Castro’s popular appeal), Kennedy allowed the CIA to go ahead and the invasion landed in Bay of Pigs. In less than 72 hours, Fidel Castro and his followers defeated the U.S. trained force, supported by U.S. planes.

By the end of 1961, Castro’s only choice was to prepare for a fight against an invasion of American troops. Fidel convinced Nikita Khrushchev of the necessity to commit Soviet troops in the defense of Cuban territory. Khrushchev doubled down on Castro’s petition and proposed the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba as a way to change the global nuclear balance and prevent any United States military “adventure” against Cuba.

American hubris was matched by Russian arrogance. Instead of accepting Raul Castro’s objection against the possibility of a secret nuclear military buildup in the island, the Soviets insisted on installing the missiles and announce it later as a fait accompli[1]. Those actions involved false guarantees to the President of the U.S that those “offensive” weapons will never be installed on the island. President Kennedy committed his reputation and declared that the United States would not tolerate any action of this kind in the Western Hemisphere.

At that moment, the nature of the conflict changed. From aggressor against a smaller neighbor, the U.S became the victim of a snake Soviet plan to install nuclear weapons only ninety miles from its shores in secrecy. Confronted with this reality, President Kennedy was forced to choose between appeasement and resisting the menace. As Donald Kagan has stated reputation and honor have a place in calculations of national power[2]. More than a change on the military balance, the U.S was facing a challenge to its commitment to the defense of its Western hemisphere and European allies.

The specter of Munich 1938 was present on the analysis of all policymakers. President Kennedy and his team, many of them veterans of World War II, were concerned not only with the Cuba issue but also with the impact of the crisis in the other theaters of the confrontation with the Soviets, particularly Berlin. Premier Khrushchev, a soldier of Second World War, had also a critical view of the appeasement policies of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

By the end of the crisis, Premier Fidel Castro made clear that Cuba had also the Munich analogy in mind. He told UN General Secretary U Thant: “The road to the last world war was the road that included toleration of German imperialism’s annexation of Austria and its dissolution of Czechoslovakia-that is what led to war. These dangers are a warning to us…In our own case we can foresee the course the United States wants to follow…What interests us most is not paying whatever price to achieve peace today. Cuba is not Austria or Czechoslovakia or the Congo. We have the firmest decision to defend our rights and surmount all the difficulties, all the risks…”[3]

Castro’s rational calculation from a Cuban perspective against a course of appeasement towards Washington’s aggressive behavior is probably the most underestimated factor of his behavior during the crisis. Even prestigious scholars, such as James Blight, had appeared in a video psychoanalyzing Fidel and presenting his attitude as a crazy continuation of a children’s game of crashing bikes against a wall that it is said Castro had played in his years at a Jesuit high school.

The solution to the crisis adopted by Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world from a nuclear cataclysm. It was not a 100 % U.S victory- as some devoted to American maximalism like to forget- but the result of a negotiated arrangement.  Kennedy preserved the unity of the Atlantic Alliance and the prestige of the United States while containing the military threat. Khrushchev’s flexibility contributed significantly to the settlement. The Soviets accepted to remove their nuclear weapons from Cuba. The U.S committed itself not to invade Cuba and offered a gentlemen agreement to retreat later its Jupiter missiles out of Turkey and Italy without establishing a direct link with the ones in Cuba or failing to its commitment with its NATO allies. Berlin was preserved.

The crisis marked a watershed in the Cold War. Détente and engagement appeared as fresh concepts that avoid appeasement but also confrontation. Kennedy’s speech on the American University, the establishment of the phone red line and the relaxation of the tensions in Berlin were a demonstration that real leadership was taking the world to safer stages.

One of the central lines of President Kennedy’s speech of October 22, 1962 stated that the United States “have no desire to dominate or conquer any other nation or impose our system upon its people”. Kennedy was establishing distance (at least rhetorical) from the policy towards Cuba initiated by the Eisenhower Administration and followed by his own administration. JFK recognized that Castro was authoritarian and communist but also a Cuban nationalist, never a Moscow puppet. In the aftermath of the crisis, there are plenty of evidences that JFK began to explore secret channels of communications with Castro. After JFK’s death, his brother Bobby advocated an end of the travel ban against Cuba because it was a major deviation of “our libertarian values”.

Fifty years later:

Fifty years after the missiles crisis of 1962, the end of the Cold War between Cuba and the United States is unfinished business. Fidel Castro is a retired head of State. Cuba is immersed in significant economic reforms and steps towards a political liberalization of its one party system. The Obama administration has taken some minimal engagement steps but the necessary presidential leadership has been absent from the Cuban issue. It was Obama who predicated a policy of dialogue with Raul Castro and other adversaries not as appeasement but as a proper tool to promote American interests in the world. Nothing positive can be expected from Governor Romney whose policy towards Cuba can be resumed as kowtowing to the property claims’ narrow interests of a hard right wing segment of the Cuban exile.

If blessed with a second term, President Obama should pay attention to Ted Sorensen’s assessment of Kennedy’s long view about Cuba: “Kennedy opposed Communism in the Western Hemisphere, but he was not obsessed with hatred for Castro personally. Gradually, he acquired a grudging respect for Castro, in whom he discerned remarkable qualities of leadership.  He and Castro, despite the ideological gulf between them, would no doubt someday have enjoyed a personal dialogue, in which private mutual admiration might well have played a part”. Kennedy began to explore an accommodation with Cuban nationalism if the Cuban revolution accepts not to ally with the enemies of U.S. world leadership. Can Obama do it? Nobody knows but it is worth remembering that his 2008 campaign slogan was “Yes, we can”.

[1] Khrushchev described the process of consults with the Cubans in his memoirs “and we argue and argue and finally Fidel gave up”. For the Cuban purposes, the most important thing was the delivery of military technology and the presence in Cuban territory of about 40 000 Soviet troops as a way to transmit the Americans the political risk of a direct military attack to the island and the killing of so many soviet citizens.
[2] Donald Kagan. Our interests and our honor. Commentary. April 1997.
[3] Quoted by Tomas Diez Acosta. The Missile Crisis as seen from Cuba. Ed. Pathfinder. New York. 2002. p.266.