The Cuban Missile Crisis a miraculous 50 years

Nora Connolly

CND image

Image copyright history workshop online

According to Chris Mullin lying deep beneath the Ministry Of Defence is a nuclear bunker, containing the post apocalyptic residence of the Prime Minister and his family.  Entrance to this gruesome abode is accessed via a security pass embossed with a gold star, and Mullin further informs us that after touring the building, the Blair`s, seemingly unimpressed with the design on the wallpaper in their quarters instructed immediate redecoration. The Blair’s highly developed sense of the aesthetic appearing undiminished, despite the context of nuclear Armageddon. Reading the diaries reacquaints the reader with New Labour`s obsession with interior design but Labour`s previous wallpaper stories do not have the earth shattering significance of Chris Mullin`s grim bunker tale. It reminds us that Labour government`s have since 1945 held firm to a post-war consensus rooted in nuclear defence. It is true that Labour opted for unilateralism in opposition during the 1980s a stance dishonourably exploited by the Conservatives which encouraged Labour to ditch their nuclear free policy a politically astute if morally flawed Labour response.

Recently Professor Chomsky reviewed the inheritance that his generation was leaving to his grand-children. With “grim shadows that hover menacingly over thoughts about our legacy.” The Professor focussed on the threat to humanities survival from nuclear war.  Chomsky in a pessimistic analysis commented that the life span of a hundred and forty thousand years is the average for any species “which is rather ominously about how long it’s been that homosapians have been on earth.” Chomsky thinks it miraculous that a nuclear war has not occurred although the USA is the only country to have deployed such weapons in anger – against a non-nuclear combatant.

Ronald Reagan`s tenure in the Whitehouse Chomsky contends increased tension in 1983, when the USA began probing Soviet defence systems triggering a “major war scare.” However the Professor explains that there are many hundreds of cases where automated systems were minutes from launching a nuclear war in error only to be stopped at the last minute. This chilling analysis is all the more foreboding given the measured and calm way Chomsky delivers this warning.  In John F Kennedy`s Inaugural Address January 20, 1961 he also highlighted the potential for military error encapsulated in nuclear weapons. However, Kennedy in the midst of soaring oratory severely raised the potential threat of war and fed anti-communist hysteria rather than calming it.

In the course of Chomsky`s lecture he reminds us that fifty years ago this week the world held its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the USA and former Soviet Union came close to a nuclear engagement over the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba just ninety-miles from the USA an event Arthur Schlesinger describes as “the most dangerous moment in human history”.  Given that Schlesinger was the hagiographer-in-chief of Camelot this appraisal of the crisis is all the more revealing.

Kennedy had fought the 1960 election on an anti-communist ticket criticising the Republicans for a lacklustre response to communism which allowed a `missile gap` to emerge permitting the Soviets to get ahead in the nuclear arms race. A bogus agenda which Robert McNamara as Kennedy`s Defence Secretary recognised immediately when he assumed office. Kennedys` election campaign largely ignored domestic policy a complacent stance given the need for executive action to address the lack of civil rights for African-Americans.

Kennedy brazenly applied the logic of Joe McCarthy during the 1960 election, replacing the `loss` of `China` with that of `Cuba` after the corrupt Batista regime was overthrown by Castro in 1959. The idea that either Eisenhower or his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles were soft on communism was absurd given the policy of `rollback`, `brinkmanship`, `the new look` and Eisenhower`s threat to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War . Eisenhower was the architect of the `domino theory` which gave credence to USA military intervention in the underdeveloped world a strategy ultimately leading to war much later in South-East Asia.  Eisenhower`s mournful analysis on leaving office warning of a voracious `Industrial Military Complex` perhaps illustrates how bad things were. Kennedy ignored his predecessors valedictory address and instead massively spent on defence, the only `gap` visible was within JFK`s policy.

Once Kennedy took office he put into action an ill conceived plan to invade Cuba which ended in the fiasco on the Bay of Pigs 1961. Cuba thus became an area of heightened tension and in October 1962 the world drew close to Nuclear War.

It is to be expected that the hagiography that surrounds Kennedy`s stewardship of the Cuban Missile Crisis will resume during this anniversary week, a fact noted in Chomsky`s lecture. But as he points out JFK`s inflated reputation amongst academics is unjustified.  Given that Kennedy took the USA perilously close to an all out nuclear war and deployed NATO jets to fly to Moscow which brought conflict very near.

As Chomsky points out the Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev offered to withdraw from Cuba if the USA removed their missiles pointing at Russia from Turkey. These missiles argues Chomsky were to be removed anyway and due to be replaced by invulnerable Polaris’s Submarines. But Kennedy had become a victim of his own ant-communist logic and needed to maintain the notion that Russian arms remain in their own borders and sphere of influence, “While the USA must retain the right to have them anywhere it wants.”  As Chomsky informs us it was unknown in 1962 that an island close to China had USA missiles pointing in a Chinese direction. This was somehow permissible but similar weapons in Cuba so near to mainland USA was not, a brand of hypocrisy that brought the world to the brink of war but luckily Khrushchev backed down. The threat of war by error today is very real and perhaps it is time to consider recasting that old CND slogan that adorned thousands of badges in the 1980s and let us ban the bomb before it’s too late.


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