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DC at Night

Monday, October 22, 2012

Armageddon Avoided

Anyone still alive today who was of age in 1962 probably has some extremely vivid memories of that frightening October 50 years ago. But no matter how scary those memories are of that period - which has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis - they may not reflect just how close the world as we know it came to annihilation.

"We came within a hair's breath of the destruction of the world," says Janet Lang, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. "We look back on the Missile Crisis and it was peacefully resolved. But we didn't know at the time how it was going to turn out."

Lang and her husband James Blight, chairman of the the International Affairs department, appeared recently at the National Archives to discuss their new book The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Kruschev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The authors are also responsible for an interactive website on their project which you can access by clicking here.

Blight agrees with his wife's terrifying assessment. "If you don't believe in divine intervention, this (piece of history) will really test you. We are fortunate to be here today and having this discussion," he contended. "It shows that a nuclear was is possible even if no one wants it."

The story involves 3 countries - the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba - and their 3 leaders at the time - John Kennedy, Nikita  Khruschev and Fidel Castro.

Blight said that while many people focus on 13 unbelievably stressful  days in October, 1962, the story actually begins 18 months earlier. Kennedy was then the new American president. He carried through with the authorization of a previously planned private attack on Cuba and its Communist leader Castro. That invasion, known as the Bay of Pigs, was an utter fiasco. However, it convinced Castro that Kennedy was intent in taking over his tiny island. And so he turned to his most powerful Communist ally, Russian Premier Khruschev. Khruschev ordered that nuclear missiles aimed at the United States be secretly installed and sent 43,000 Russians to Cuba to handle that task.

And it is really Castro and Cuba who drive the near-Armageddon tale. "Cuba's often overlooked, but it was the mouse that roared," Blight said. First, Castro was really wrong about Kennedy's intentions. Privately, the president was saying after the Bay of Pigs that he would never undertake any military operation against Cuba (even though there were many covert plots to kill Castro). And, for his part, while Khruschev wanted to back Cuba - which at the time was considered the crown jewel in the Communist empire since it was located only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland - he certainly didn't want to start a war with America.

But once America discovered the Soviet missiles, a showdown was set. In America, on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Kennedy delivered what Blight termed "the scariest speech that any president has ever given." Kennedy  ordered a blockade of Cuba, saying that if Soviet ships bound for the island didn't turn back and the missiles already on the island weren't removed, America would take action.

While Americans of all ages nervously awaited what would come next, low-level surveillance flights over Cuba continued. Cubans were convinced that such flights signaled an immediate American attack. In his mind, Castro was prepared for the inevitable, even if it meant possible world destruction.  He would allow Cuba to become a martyr for the socialist cause. "Cuba will matter. Cuba will make a difference," Blight said of Castro's thoughts at the time. The Russians had ordered no action taken against the planes. However, besieged by his people, Castro, after witnessing one of the ear-splitting jet flights in person, issued the  fatal order - shoot the planes down. The 43,000 Russians in Cuba were convinced that they would never return home, dying when the island "went up".

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khruschev, when he was notified of Castro's intention, exploded. "This is insane. Castro is trying to drag us into the grave with him," he was to have said.

Finally, after days of negotiations, the Soviet ships turned around and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The options may have been few, but the right ones were chosen to avert a nuclear war. However, the mere fact that it didn't happened, doesn't diminish the fear that all should continue to hold, both professors maintained. "You take Kennedy out and put someone like Lyndon Johnson in and we're not here today," Lang said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Blight and Lang believe a study of the Cuban showdown has 3 major implications for today's world.

  1. Armageddon is possible. "You don't have to go to science fiction, you can just go to history," Blight says.
  2. Nuclear war is possible even if no one wants it.
  3. Big powers, for their own good, must empathize with smaller countries.
However, even if you heed these lessons, there are still inherent dangers in any nuclear showdown. "You can't prepare. There are simulations, but in real life people can crack and crumble under such pressures. You can only do something like this once," Blight says. 

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