Cuban Missile Crisis: Lessons for Iran?


Fifty years ago millions of people around the world expressed their fear – well merited — that nuclear war would erupt between the US and USSR over Soviet missiles placed in Cuba. Many Americans have the idea that a crazy Fidel Castro wanted to launch them at US targets because he hated our country At that time, the United States was preparing an invasion of Cuba following a Kennedy-authorized terrorist war against the island, which included assassination plots.

As the debate evolves over what to do about the mere possibility that Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon, it appears that few have learned from the countless books and documents published about the frightening episode of October 1962.

Some causes of the crisis get ignored by historians and the media. In August 1961, four months after Kennedy suffered a humiliating defeat of CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, and in the midst of daily raids by US-based CIA agents against Cuban people and property, Castro sent Che Guevara to Uruguay to meet Richard Goodwin, Kennedy’s Latin America adviser. At this secret session, Che told Goodwin that he “must understand the Cuban Revolution. They intend to build a socialist state, and the revolution which they have begun is irreversible. They are also now out of the US sphere of influence and that too is irreversible.”

In the Goodwin memo Che says Cuba “would like a Modus Vivendi” with the United States and is prepared to offer certain policies to please the US administration. 1. “they could not give back the expropriated properties—the factories and banks…..but could pay for them in trade.

2.They could agree not to make any political alliance with the East–although this would not affect their natural  sympathies.”

(White House, Memorandum for the President Conversation With Commandante Ernesto Guevara of Cuba, August 22, 1961)

As his sign of friendship Che gave Goodwin a gift for Kennedy, a box of Montecristo #1 cigars, JFK’s favorite brand.

At the debriefing session, Kennedy lit a cigar saying, “You know Goodwin, I should have had you smoke the first one,” apparently referring to the CIA’s poison cigar plot aimed at killing Fidel. Goodwin concluded that Che’s offer spelled “weakness” and suggested that Kennedy “turn up the heat.” So, following Cuba’s peace offering Kennedy ordered increased numbers of terrorist attacks against Cuba. Fidel Castro, taking these actions as Kennedy’s response, accepted the Soviet offer to place nuclear missiles on the island.   Castro assumed the US would know about this new weaponry in Cuba – including tactical nuclear missiles designed to deter an invasion of US ground forces, and understand its deterrent effect. Instead, the US remained ignorant of the tactical missile placement and continued its terrorist war against the island while building up its terrorist war and expanding its regular a military force, which Cuba interpreted, logically, as an invasion threat.

From the Fall of 1961 through the end of summer 1962, Soviet missiles and then medium range bombers arrived on the island. Finally, in September 1962, US satellite photos identified the larger, not the tactical missiles and the Missile Crisis began. The US public, like most of the sane world trembled as Soviet ships approach a US military fleet in the Atlantic that nuclear war could easily erupt. Indeed, US military chiefs advocated attacking, and even annihilating Cuba.

Kennedy, more thoughtfully, feared that a nuclear war would end badly for mankind and sought a diplomatic solution, which he achieved when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in Cuba in return for the US removal of missiles from Turkey and a pledge not to invade Cuba.

The two leaders played a dangerous game with the lives of millions of people, but it worked successfully. Ther US remained ignorant of the tactical missies and Khrushchev had to twist Castor’s arm and finally unilaterally withdraw them.

What lessons can we learn from the dangerous back and forth tactics of Kennedy and Khrushchev, neither of whom wanted war?

Sergei Khruschev, Nikita’s son, concluded: “we were very lucky that the two leaders were balanced and reasonable and their policy was not shoot first then think, but first think, then, second time, think and maybe don’t shoot at all,”

A Moscow Times editorial pointed to the differences between the 1960s and 2012. “An increasing number of unpredictable states demand a presence and voice in the global arena at a time when the United States, and all the more so Russia, are unable to control their activities as they once did during the Cold War. It is unclear whether these new players understand what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy did 50 years ago: that there is a line in global affairs that it would be unthinkable to cross.”

One thinks of Iran, which has done nothing to imperil US national security. Nevertheless, the national security mavens inside the government and major media pundits have decided that if Iran succeeds in building a nuclear weapon, US security would be threatened. Some want to bomb Iran to prevent – or at least delay – that process; others think that punishing Iran through sanctions will succeed in forcing Iran’s leaders to the table at which they will shuttle their nuclear ambitions.  All sectors of the discussion, however, should begin their reflections by returning to the lessons of the 1962 misssile crisis.

Graham Allison offered his wisdom: “The implication of where we stand with Iran today, if you look at attacking Iran and the consequences of that, they look pretty ugly,” he said. “And if you look at acquiescing to Iran becoming a nuclear-weapon state and the consequences that will have in the very volatile region of the Middle East — and likely trigger further proliferation in other states like Saudi Arabia — that looks pretty ugly.”   Allison advised the Obama administration to search for a third option, as did President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sergei, however, had a different view: “We have to negotiate with Iran, not threatening them with different sanctions,” he said, “but negotiate on the highest level, American president with Iranian president,” said the  former Soviet Premier’s son. “And I don’t think that President Kennedy loved Khrushchev more than President Obama loves President Ahmadinejad, but they understood — Kennedy and Eisenhower — that you have to talk with them, because if you are talking with your enemy, you can influence them and you can better understand them.”

President Obama might well apply this advise to Cuba policy as well, and begin talking to Havana as well as to Teheran.

Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens n Oct 24 at the Vermont International Film Festival.

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