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Columns

A fortnight on the brink of nuclear war, 50 years ago

KEEBLE McFARLANE

Saturday, October 20, 2012    

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SIXTY-SEVEN years ago, the United States introduced the world to mushroom cloud of the nuclear age when it dropped two bombs on Japan in August 1945, bringing down the curtain on the most murderous six years humanity had ever endured. Four years later the Soviet Union exploded its version of the first US bomb, and the arms race was on. As the years sped by, both countries built up support among like-minded countries and challenged each other in hot spots all over the world.

Then, 50 years ago, the world lived through what's generally conceded was the most dangerous period of the nuclear age. On October 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane operated by the American Central Intelligence Agency discovered, during a routine flight, evidence that the USSR was installing ballistic missiles in Cuba. That elongated island, stretching 1000 kilometres from Haiti to Florida, was a newcomer to the Soviet bloc, with the advent of an anti-Yanqui revolution led by an audacious radical nationalist, Fidel Castro.

We have to remember that the world was then in the throes of the Cold War - a chronic state of antagonism and menace between Moscow and Washington, cheered on by supporters in both camps. The factions diverted considerable chunks of their national economies to developing and producing fearsome weapons with which each threatened the other side. The one thing which held everybody in check was the knowledge that when you started lobbing nuclear weapons, nobody stood to win.

Just a couple of years before, the Americans were in the heat of an election campaign (as they are now), and were hearing much about what the politicians called a "missile gap". John Kennedy, who was running for president, claimed that the gap weighed heavily in the USSR's favour. That was, to put it most kindly, a gross exaggeration, since the Soviet Union had only about four inter-continental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching the US from their Asian bases. The Americans at that time had about 170 ICBMs, in addition to eight nuclear-powered submarines, each carrying 16 missiles with a range of 2300 kilometres. Because of their stealth, the submarines could launch the missiles at their intended targets anywhere.

The powers in the Kremlin felt threatened when they looked just outside their bloc and saw intermediate-range missiles planted in the territory of US allies like Turkey, Italy and Britain. But the Russians did have several hundred intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, did nothing to counter Kennedy's portrayal when he bragged to the world that his country was churning out missiles "like sausages".

This is where Cuba entered the equation. Castro's revolution triumphed on New Year's Day, 1959, and he and his bearded comrades began upturning everything they found. Cuba had a long and lopsided relationship with the United States, which, by its own anti-colonial history and rhetoric, couldn't make its island neighbour a de jure colony. But that didn't matter - instead, it co-opted the island's political system, stuffed its politicians into its pockets and swamped the island with US businesses.

After a number of incidents, badly handled by both parties, the US cut off relations with Cuba and mounted an invasion, using anti-regime Cuban exiles, at the Bay of Pigs, early in 1961. Castro turned his attention to the Kremlin, which was only too happy to find a toehold right in the US backyard. Khrushchev flooded the island with aid, much of it military. Arms, vehicles, aircraft and heavy weapons flowed in along with Soviet troops both to train the Cubans and to establish their own garrisons.

The US was aware of these activities and increased surveillance. The Kremlin upped the ante when it began installing two types of missiles in Cuba. Now, the balance was tipped towards Moscow - the medium-range missiles could strike Washington and other major cities in the south-eastern United States (not to mention parts of Colombia and Venezuela). The intermediate-range missiles extended the range to almost all major cities in the continental USA (and Canada).

The discovery of the missile sites set off what we knew as the October Crisis, and, to the Russians, the Caribbean Crisis. What followed were 13 days of the most intense tension many people had experienced. Kennedy had to fight off not only his opponents halfway across the world, but many hawks in his own camp. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the mighty US military machine unanimously recommended a full-scale invasion of Cuba. It was the only solution they saw, and they felt that the Soviet Union would not try to stop them.

The head of the US Air Force, General Curtis LeMay, a belligerent and much-decorated commander during World War II, clashed repeatedly with Kennedy and his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. He wanted to bomb the nuclear sites in Cuba, and opposed the solution Kennedy came up with, a naval blockade of ships transporting cargo from the Soviet Union to Cuba. When the whole affair ended, LeMay described the resolution of the crisis as "the greatest defeat in our history" and said they should invade Cuba anyway.

The confrontation ended on October 28, when Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement, with considerable help from the courtly, soft-spoken Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant. The public was told that the USSR would dismantle the weapons and ship them back home under UN supervision, in exchange for an American commitment never to invade Cuba. The US also agreed, secretly, to remove its missiles from Italy and Turkey.

Much has been made about Kennedy's firmness in staring down the Kremlin and his own hawks, but it's the quiet contacts behind the scenes that did the job. After the dust settled, the Americans and Russians established a hotline for direct contact to defuse further incidents.

Is the world any safer from nuclear warfare now than it was half a century ago? We can't be sure, but the game has certainly changed. In those days, the people at the top had first-hand experience of the carnage of the 1940s and the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh. There was a kind of balance, which acquired the name Mutual Assured Destruction (often compressed into its initials, MAD) which kept itchy fingers away from triggers. And the nuclear club was small - only the Americans, Russians, British, French and Chinese had bombs. Today, that club has expanded to India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran, as we keep hearing, wants to be let in, even though its leaders insist they just want nuclear-generated electricity. The volatility of the situation in western Asia causes many sleepless nights, and the rattling of sabres over Iran among Israeli and US politicians continues apace.

Fifty years ago, I was a rookie news editor at the newly established Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. Like everyone else at the time, I followed the events with heightened interest. One of my colleagues, the late Hu Gentles, got himself into some hot water at the height of the crisis. One evening he signed off his music programme with his usual thanks to his audience for tuning in and added, "Join me again next time ... if we are still here."

keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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