60 years is nothing (II)

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American Cold War literature on the missile crisis mimics a fantasy zoology textbook. It is then that terms such as falcons, doves and owls were invented to characterize political tendencies, especially in the face of major national security crises.

the falcons identified with the option of launching an immediate airstrike against the island, followed by an invasion, to neutralize what was perceived to be the Soviet plan to wipe out major American cities with a nuclear first strike. In that cage were the former dean of the Harvard Humanities School, McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to JFK; Republican businessman John McCone, director of the CIA; General Maxwell Taylor and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. When Kennedy asked them what the Soviets would do in the face of an attack on Cuba, Air Force Chief Curtis Lemay replied that “nothing, because they knew the United States had more missiles” than them.

the doves proposed a naval blockade of the island, with 240 warships and the closure of its airspace, a resolute military measure, but which gave the Soviets time to reconsider and cancel the construction of bases on Cuban territory . These included former Ford Motors Chairman and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and JFK speechwriter and personal adviser Ted Sorensen. Proposals emerged among them to negotiate with the Soviets, offering them the dismantling of American missiles in Turkey, even the Guantánamo naval base.

the owls later joined this political ornithology, which, learning the lessons of this Crisis, argued the need to avoid them through dissuasive actions, because once unleashed, they risked being caught in a spiral of inconvenience and deadly traps. Like when the first Soviet ship approached the quarantine line, and the commander of an American destroyer considered firing his guns into the air, at the ship, as a “warning signal.” Or when a strategic bomber feigned in the direction of Leningrad and the city’s radars registered it as an aborted combat mission. Or when a Soviet officer in charge of an anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile battery in Holguín asked command by telephone if he would fire on a U-2 that entered his area, he received no response. and decided to shoot it, October 27, later remembered as Black Saturday.

Interestingly, in those days of the Cold War, the enemies of the United States were not considered different species of birds, but only ferocious beasts: the grizzly bear (the USSR) or the dragon (China ). In a memorable sentence, General Lemay put forward the idea of ​​attacking Cuba in the following way: “in wanting to set foot in the waters of Latin America, we caught the Russian bear in a trap, and now he had to be cut to the hilt. Or better yet, cut his balls off immediately.

With bosses like the one in charge of the Air Force, and faced with this anarchic escalation, JFK became so concerned that he dispatched his brother Bobby to meet with the top KGB officer in Washington, and search quickly, through a hidden channel of its senior officers, for an agreement with Khrushchev, even if it means secretly granting him the withdrawal of the American missiles stationed in Turkey, as well as the public renunciation to invade Cuba and to oppose its veto to its conventional military collaboration with the island.

Aerial photo of the military base where the missile silo is located, in San Cristóbal, Cuba.

On the same Black Saturday night, thanks to providence and this hidden channel, Nikita would respond through the formal channel to his famous proposal to withdraw the missiles, reacting to the offer of negotiation received from JFK. Within minutes, however, another letter would arrive, signed by Khrushchev himself, in which he reaffirmed that the missiles would not be withdrawn, as they were not offensive, etc. JFK publicly responded to the first letter and pretended the second didn’t exist. To put it in crisis animal language, instead of laying his testicles on the table or threatening to rip them off the bear, the troubled owl made the wise decision to respond to the negotiating bear and ignore the other.

The non-aligned countries – Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, North Korea, Algeria, Cuba – were not identified in this political zoology, as if they were spectators who neither pricked nor cut. Their images, those of howling minor creatures, have indeed spread in the graphic speeches of the press, caricatures and posters of commercial or political propaganda, well before the cold war. But no more than that.

“Just in case”, German cartoon from 1962.

The Gray Tyrant and the Names of Crises

In the Moscow of 1989, where the winds of the end of perestroika were blowing, we Cubans, invited for the first time to the Tripartite Conference on the Crisis, had what the poet Roque Dalton called “the tour of the offended”. . During the last session of this meeting, where mainly doves assisted, some already transferred to owlsas well as any number of bear, of various colors, I was the designated hitter for the Cuba team. I share here my comments from then.

As we were there to begin to understand each other, I said that I wanted to introduce them to a Cuban bird called the pity (gray wireworm). Considerably smaller than all those mentioned, this bird was distinguished by certain qualities. He had a characteristic voice that was heard everywhere. It took a long time to get used to being in a cage. And most importantly, he was able to defend his territory against larger birds, regardless of the consequences. There, I explained to them the meaning of the peasant expression “it fell like a pitirre on the buzzard”, how much I had to earn the hatred of the translators.

Bee snipe.
Bee snipe.

Finally, in the same line of discourse analysis, I commented on my thesis on the names of the Crisis:

In the United States it was called the Missile Crisis, because in no other case did Americans feel so exposed to nuclear weapons that they perceived an imminent danger. However, Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s adviser present on the spot, had confessed to me a few years earlier, in Havana, that the psychological component of being located “in the heart of an area of ​​vital interest prevailed over their real military threat. for the United States”, that is to say here in Cuba. The decision to impose a naval and air quarantine had responded to this psychological factor, nearly two weeks before the Pentagon had a quantified assessment of the extent to which strategic firepower had skewed in favor of the USSR. As the author of the assessment himself, Raymond Garthoff, later revealed, the United States had continued to exceed Soviet nuclear power by 15 times, even with their missiles in Cuba.

In the USSR, where he was called the Caribbean Crisis, it was confined to the category of a regional conflict, which would not escalate to the global level, such as the Korean War (1950-53), the Suez Crisis (1956), or later, Vietnam (1965 -75). In 1989, I heard Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister in 1962, say again that the brink of thermonuclear war had never really been reached. Nothing in the Pravda the news sounded like the alarm sounded in the American press at that time. Thus, while ordinary Americans were forever marked by the prevailing panic, the Soviets carried on with their lives as if nothing had happened, ignoring the seriousness of what was happening.

For their part, since 1960, Cubans had become accustomed to living with crises. That is to say between states of alert, bombardments of fields and cities, warships of the American Navy visible from the Malecón, civil war with armed groups in all the provinces, infiltrations and landings of enemy forces, militia mobilizations, maneuvers and navy war games in the Caribbean and the Guantánamo naval base. After the Bay of Pigs, the idea of ​​a direct American invasion remained a daily notion. The 1962 October Crisis, as it was called in Cuba, only pushed this certainty to the extreme. But even its outcome did not close the possibility of a conventional war, nor ensure security for Cuba and Cubans.

In 1965, 42,000 Marines landed in the Dominican Republic, 500 kilometers from us, and the full-scale invasion of Vietnam began. In neither of these cases, nor in other Cold War military interventions, had they used nuclear weapons. But in the war of attrition against Vietnam, they applied a scorched earth strategy equivalent to the destructive power of several atomic bombs. In fact, the thousand conventional bombers that were ready to attack the island during the 30 days of military mobilization in 1962 could have devastated it as much if not more than a nuclear attack. As we know, the emergency plan to invade us was not a paranoia of Fidel Castro, since it existed long before the Soviets appeared in Havana with the proposal of their missiles, in April 1962.

Thus, when a historian of the stature of Arthur Schlesinger, opposed to the blockade and supporter of normalization, asserts that “the United States never intended to attack Cuba”, and mocks “the Cuban litany on the CIA conspiracies”, as “a means of distracting attention from the real problems of the country”, one wonders if falcons, doves and owls really learned nothing from the missile crisis.

60 years old no es nada (I)

What is the importance of intention in politics, compared to the deliberate application of an escalation aimed at achieving the breaking point? Or with the perpetuation of hostility? What does it mean, politically speaking, that Dove presidents have decided to change the regime of relations with Cuba, if the geopolitical logic and the undervaluation of the pitirres continued to fuel hostility and left the door open to other possible crises?

I have always been struck by remarkable films about Vietnam such as Revelation now Where Section devoted themselves to portraying the war solely as an American tragedy, where Vietnamese fighters are barely seen. The Cubans also do not appear in those devoted to the missile crisis, not even when low-level flights could clearly represent them. It’s as if they were strictly speaking forest birds, birds populating the landscape.

Missile crisis game.
Missile crisis game.

Years later, I learned that the pitirre is an emblem of Puerto Rican national pride. Reclaiming this category, vilified as a bunch of troublemakers, populists, hypernationalists, immature, emotional, ideological hotheads, would require knowing who were Ho Chi Minh, Tito, Yasser Arafat, Omar Torrijos, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, and update their legacy.

I also wondered why the same images of the missile crisis are still broadcast on Cuban television, with the same explanations and ideological reasoning, narratives and military speeches. Why neither the press nor the schools explain the exciting vicissitudes of this drama, its problems and its political lessons, nor show the photos taken of the RF 101 fighters flying low over San Cristóbal, nor explain how heck he was suspended. Understanding this context, that of the conflict with the United States and that of our complex relations with the USSR, requires us to go further. To do this, you need to go back.


Rafael Hernandez

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