Why remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?
The Stalin Society does not commemorate historical events for the sake of it. We only do this when we are convinced that there are lessons to be learned of practical significance. The Cuban Missile Crisis (or the October Crisis as it is known in Cuba) is rich in such lessons.
Anyone tuning into the BBC coverage of the genocidal assault upon Gaza last week will have heard one very persistent subtext pounding through like a constant drumbeat, which we can sum up like this: “ If only the resistance would stop firing missiles at Israel, then peace would at once descend on the region.” Forget the fact that Palestine is fighting for her life, that Gazans are starved and incarcerated in one giant concentration camp. If only the victims would stop resisting, then the lion would lie down with the lamb and all would be well.
Back in 1962, siren voices insinuated the same seductive message. How arrogant and provocative of the Soviet Union and Cuba to plant nuclear weapons on Cuban soil, just ninety-nine miles from Miami! Could they not see that by defending the socialist camp in such an aggressive way, they risked plunging us all into nuclear Armageddon? And conversely, when the missiles were crated up and shipped back to the Soviet Union, we were all told to breathe a sigh of relief. Sanity had prevailed! The world was a safer place! Khrushchev’s U-turn and Kennedy’s iron nerve has saved the day! Such was the collective wisdom of the apologists for imperialism.
Yet fifty years on from those events, do we really live in a safer world?
Fifty years on
Fifty years on from the Cuban missile crisis, the world has become an even more dangerous place than it was then. Imperialism is plunging into the deepest and most pervasive overproduction crisis ever experienced, leading to austerity and political repression at home and criminal predatory wars abroad. Socialist countries like China, Cuba and the DPRK remain steadfast, serving as a bridgehead to the future for the ever-expanding ranks of those driven to anti-imperialist resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and all round the world. Decisions taken now about how best to resist and overcome imperialism will have incalculable consequences for mankind.
Conflicting opinions on the forthright approach of countries like the DPRK when it comes to struggling against imperialism carry an echo of the arguments fifty years ago over the best way for the Cuban revolution to resist subversion and invasion. The idea that the hasty removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuban soil by a rattled Khrushchev made the world a safer place does not bear analysis. Those who suggest otherwise should remember the cynical honesty of Madeleine Albright when she spelled out what she believed to be the reason Iraq was invaded and the DPRK was not: while Iraq did not possess WMD, the DPRK did. Today the readiness of the DPRK leadership to be forthright in defence of their socialist homeland, clearly identifying and countering the imperialist threat, is habitually presented in the West as the source of tension in the peninsula. Koreans know different however. Recalling the millions of comrades who sacrificed themselves in the victorious Great Fatherland Liberation War, they know well the real character of imperialism. They understand very well that the surest hope of peace is to be sought in the most resolute struggle against imperialism, not in the dream of permanent peaceful coexistence with the class enemy.
Yet on the British left, this is seldom understood. Needless to say, the anti-communist Trots simply repeat verbatim the venomous lies and ridicule heaped on the DPRK by the imperialist media. The revisionists are more slippery, giving lip service to the defence of socialism but coming out in a rash when the DPRK risks doing anything that might upset the West. A while ago, when the DPRK decided to launch a communications satellite, the prominent then CPB member and CND chair Kate Hudson denounced this in the columns of the Morning Star as “unnecessary and provocative”. She added that “ regardless of whether its intentions are peaceful”, this step “risks others seeing the launch as a threat to regional security”! This is how social pacifism serves the class enemy.
This issue of how best to tackle imperialist aggression was key to the positions taken by the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Cuba in 1962, and throws light on no less burning questions facing the masses today.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 did not come out of a clear blue sky. Ever since the Red Army had comprehensively beaten the Nazi war machine and led the liberation of Europe from fascist occupation, the West had returned to its primary obsession: rolling back the socialist camp. By the beginning of the ‘60sthat camp had come to include, as well as Eastern Europe and China, also socialist Cuba.
The Soviet success in ending the brief US monopoly on the atomic bomb meant that earlier Pentagon dreams of overcoming the USSR through outright nuclear aggression had to be shelved for the moment, giving way to a long-term race in nuclear missiles, accompanied by efforts to destabilise Soviet allies – most notably Cuba.
The brilliant achievement of the Cuban people in 1961 at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) in repulsing the shambolic US-backed invasion staffed by counter-revolutionary expatriate scum rocked the US back on its heels. For a spell efforts to undermine the revolution were confined to the murder of revolutionaries, wrecking operations and the bribing of foreign suppliers to send faulty goods. But by 1962 the threats again became more overt. 40,000 US soldiers were sent out on a mock-invasion of an unnamed Caribbean island with the supposed aim of overthrowing a dictator codenamed Ortsac – i.e. Castro backwards. A top secret report in January prepared for Kennedy spelt out plans to infiltrate CIA agents to carry out sabotage and organise hostile radiobroadcasts, and in February a timetable was prepared for regime change, with plans to begin guerrilla operations in August and September, with the cherry on the fantasy cake in the first two weeks of October, “Open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime”.
What motivated the Soviet decision to seek Castro’s agreement with the deployment of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil is a complex question. Under both Lenin and Stalin, it had always been clearly understood that the defence of the Soviet Union and the advance of the world revolution were indissolubly linked. It would have been unthinkable for Moscow not to have extended fraternal support to a tiny socialist country under threat of subversion and invasion by its giant imperialist neighbour. And it is certainly the case that the sharp threats against Cuba were part of a much wider strategic struggle against the whole socialist camp, with the West constantly seeking to get enough of a competitive edge in the arms race to deter communist progress. In addition to its home-based nuclear arsenal, in 1958 Washington had already deployed Thor Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) in Britain; the deployment in 1961of Jupiter IRBMs to Italy and Turkey further increased the threat to Moscow. Moscow by contrast, whilst able to target US allies, could not get beyond Alaska on US soil at that early stage. The strategic advantage of missiles on Cuban soil, ninety miles from Miami, was self-evident. On the face of it, there was nothing obvious in Khrushchev’s decision which did not accord with Bolshevik practice. The defence of Cuba and the defence of the Soviet Union were two sides of the same coin.
Yet the dismal performance of Khrushchev as the crisis unfolded revealed just how much of a danger to socialist interests revisionism was proving to be. As Mao was to express it, under Khrushchev’s leadership the CPSU proceeded “from adventurism to capitulationism”.
Cuba agrees to missiles
Early in 1962 a group of Soviet military and missile construction engineers met with Fidel Castro, who welcomed the prospect of nuclear defences on Cuban soil. In July Khrushchev met with Raúl Castro and a secret agreement was signed. In the late summer Soviet engineers began work on a number of missile sites under the pretence of being irrigation and agricultural experts. Marshal Sergei Biryuzov, head of the Soviet Rocket Forces, returned from a fieldtrip to Cuba to tell Khrushchev that the missiles would be hidden under palm trees. On 8 September the first tranche of R-12 missiles arrived, then came a second on 16 September. Nine sites were under construction.
Given the heavy surveillance by imperialist espionage agencies and frequent violation of Cuban airspace by U-2 spy planes, it was surely predictable that the deployment would soon enough be rumbled. On 14 October a U-2 took photos revealing missile sites being built. Kennedy then ordered a blockade on Soviet shipping to put a halt to the transfer of missiles and warheads. (The blockade was rebranded as “quarantine” in an effort to skirt international law). Khrushchev responded on 24 October with a letter stating that the blockade constituted “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. On the same day he followed this up with an almost apologetic telegram, remonstrating with Kennedy that “If you coolly weigh the situation which has developed, not giving way to passions, you will understand that the Soviet Union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of the United States.”Meanwhile the tension ratcheted up as the US Navy received orders to open fire on Soviet ships that tried to break the blockade.
On 26 October Washington upped the readiness level of Strategic Air Command (SAC) forces to DEFCON 2, effectively the final stage before outright nuclear war. Twenty three nuclear-armed B-52s were sent to orbit points within reach of the Soviet Union and some 80% of SAC planes were ready for launch. Yet according to one source quoted by Wikipedia, General David Burchinal, “the Russians were so thoroughly stood down, and we knew it. They didn’t make any move. They did not increase their alert; they did not increase any flights, or their air defence posture. They didn’t do a thing, they froze in place.”
Perhaps this appalling picture of military paralysis, if it is to be credited, is evidence that Khrushchev was allowing his revisionist illusions in permanent peaceful coexistence to colour his judgement at this crucial juncture. Having invited Cuba to put its very existence on the line in the name of socialist solidarity, having raised the stakes so high by going head to head with Kennedy on the issue, it was the Soviet leader’s clear duty to see the struggle through. Weakness at such a moment was infinitely more dangerous than standing firm. Yet it seems that Khrushchev preferred to place all his reliance on trying to cobble together a get-out deal via back-channel communications.
The KGB Station Chief in Washington, Alexander Feliksov (alias Fomin) contacted a journalist on ABC News, John Scali, to ask him to sound out his State Department contacts to see if they would do a deal: the Soviet Union would pull the missiles out of Cuba if the US “promised” not to invade Cuba. Five hours after the two men met, a long letter started coming through the wire. It was a personal plea from Khrushchev offering the same capitulationist deal, a deal that depended entirely on Kennedy’s word of honour not to invade!
The letter said: “ I propose: we, for our part, will declare that our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments. You will declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its troops and will not support any other forces which might intend to invade Cuba. Then the necessity of the presence of our military specialists in Cuba will disappear. ” Elsewhere in the letter, Khrushchev tries to coax imperialism over to the virtuous path of peaceful coexistence, in the process merely tying himself up in knots and presenting Kennedy with an open goal. He pleads, “Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose. Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”
…then wobbles again
The next day, 27 October, Khrushchev abruptly changed his tune again, this time having his new, tougher message broadcast publicly on Radio Moscow. The message ran like this: “You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is ninety-nine miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But… you have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Italy and Turkey, literally next to us… I therefore make this proposal: We are willing to remove from Cuba the means which you regard as offensive… Your representatives will make a declaration to the effect that the United States … will remove its analogous means from Turkey … and after that, persons entrusted by the United Nations Security Council could inspect on the spot the fulfilment of the pledges made. ”
This proposed deal seemed more concrete, demanding the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey. But Kennedy chose simply to ignore the tougher-sounding new proposal, instead responding to the earlier capitulation. The only “improvement” was to be an unwritten “understanding” that the missiles in Turkey and Italy would “voluntarily” be removed after some unspecified period had elapsed. The letter from Kennedy oozes cynical condescension, reflecting the propaganda humiliation to which Khrushchev’s prevarications had needlessly exposed the mighty Soviet Union.
“As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposals – which seem generally acceptable as I understand them – are as follows: 1) You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safe-guards, to halt the further introduction of such weapon systems into Cuba. 2) We, on our part, would agree – upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect and (b) to give assurances against the invasion of Cuba. ”
Khrushchev’s response, broadcast on Radio Moscow on 28 October, was craven in the extreme, stating that “the Soviet government, in addition to previously issued instructions on the cessation of further work at the building sites for the weapons, has issued a new order on the dismantling of the weapons which you describe as ‘offensive’ and their crating and return to the Soviet Union”.
The 42 missiles were loaded onto eight Soviet ships. The ships had to run the gauntlet of US observers, their hatches left open so they could make sure the missiles were really going.
Needless to say, US imperialism was cock-a-hoop at this outcome, recognising it as a splendid propaganda victory which revisionist vacillation had handed to it on a plate. As for Washington’s “pledge” to “respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty”, its “pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, ” we need only ask the Miami Five how faithfully this pledge has been observed ever since!
As it turned out, Washington decided to get rid of the near-obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy the following year, arguably giving Khrushchev’s diplomacy a theoretical victory on points. However, this did nothing in practice to diminish the damaging effects of Khrushchev’s vacillation and public retreat. We can only imagine the shame and disgust of the Soviet engineers, who had seen it as their internationalist duty to go to Cuba to help defend socialism, when they were then ordered to dismantle their handiwork, crate it all up and send it back to the Soviet Union under the baleful gaze of the Yankee pirates. Both the Soviet Union and Cuba deserved better than Khrushchev.
From adventurism to capitulationism
It is possible that part of Khrushchev’s motivation for embarking so light-mindedly on so serious a course of action was to give the lie to Chinese criticisms of revisionist passivity in the face of imperialist aggression – notably the refusal to assist China in developing her nuclear capability. In point of fact, however, the humiliation and dangers to which this zigzagging revisionist leadership exposed the socialist camp only served to confirm the Chinese comrades’ worst fears.
The October Crisis happened at a moment when fraternal relations between China and the Soviet Union were reaching breaking point, and Mao’s Marxist Leninist characterisation of Khrushchev’s handling of the crisis as moving “from adventurism to capitulationism” really hits the nail on the head.The criticism is not that one should never retreat – Lenin’s insistence on signing the very painful Brest-Litovsk Treaty with German imperialism wascorrect, and Trotsky’s preferred position of “neither peace nor war” was a disaster. The criticism is that, once so serious an undertaking as confronting US imperialism with nukes 90 miles from Miami was embarked upon, it needed to be followed through to its necessary consequences. Contrary to the view that Khrushchev’s retreat was a statesmanlike tactic which enabled Kennedy to pull back from the brink, the reality is that the combination of light-mindedness and cowardice, of adventurism and capitulationism, actually emboldened US imperialism, making the world a more, not less dangerous place. We should ask ourselves: if Kennedy had met a sterner rebuff from Moscow over Cuba, would he have been so ready to launch the genocidal war in Indochina which cost so many Vietnamese lives?
Che: “We shall fight with what we’ve got”
Just how imperfect Khrushchev’s spirit of internationalism really was comes out big time in the way that Cuba was treated. Castro was not a party to the Soviet decision to pack up the missiles and go home. Indeed, he only heard about the decision when it was reported on the media. Yet his agreement to host the missiles on Cuban soil had been won by an appeal to socialist solidarity!
Khrushchev’s attitude contrasts starkly with the assessment Castro made the other day when considering the fiftieth anniversary of the October crisis. “When Khrushchev proposed the installation here of medium range missiles similar to those the United States had in Turkey – far closer to the USSR than Cuba to the United States – as a solidarity necessity, Cuba did not hesitate to agree to such a risk. Our conduct was ethically irreproachable. We will never apologize to anyone for what we did. The fact is that half a century has gone by, and here we still are with our heads held high. ”
For nearly thirty of those years Soviet assistance helped keep their heads above water, standing up for Cuba at the UN and assisting economically by trading oil for sugar (though this continued dependence on sugar monoculture was a mixed blessing, be it said). That this fraternal assistance was offered to Cuba and to other progressive countries was important and should not to be discounted, indicating as it does just how robust a Bolshevik legacy of internationalism was inherited from the days of Lenin and Stalin, a legacy which took fully three decades to be finally eaten away by revisionism.
Aware that the Cubans were fed up with his cavalier behaviour, excluding them from the negotiations and presenting the retreat as a fait accompli, Khrushchev thought to mend fences by encouraging them to hope that a hundred tactical nuclear weapons which had somehow escaped US attention could remain in Cuban hands to assist in the defence of the homeland. Yet this just repeated as farce what began as tragedy, as the revisionists again got cold feet, scared of what use Cuba might see fit to make of the weapons, and Mikoyan withdrew the offer again on 22 November – this time even without the excuse that Kennedy was breathing down their necks. In December these weapons too were crated up and returned to sender.
On 26 October, as Khrushchev was busy sending out mixed signals as regards Soviet intentions, Castro wrote him a letter which spelt out in plain terms what should be the communist response to US aggression. “I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defence, however harsh and terrible the solution would be. ”
As the October Crisis unfolded, Che Guevara asserted that “Direct aggression against Cuba would mean nuclear war. The Americans speak about such aggression as if they did not know or did not want to accept this fact. I have no doubt they would lose such a war.”
And in November, looking back on the crisis, Che told the London Daily Worker, “If they attack, we shall fight to the end. If the rockets had remained, we would have used them all and directed them against the very heart of the United States, including New York, in our defence against aggression. But we haven’t got them, so we shall fight with what we’ve got. ”
With such inspiring leadership, it is clear why socialist Cuba yet stands defiant whilst the Soviet Union, for so long so ill-served by revisionists, though enduring as an unquenchable flame in the hearts of progressive humanity, sadly is no more there.
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