Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Cuban missile crisis

(October 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.212, October 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For people who lived through it, the week of 20-27 October 1963 was the scariest they can remember. It was the closest the Cold War came to turning into a third, nuclear, world war.

American warships had surrounded the island of Cuba, intent on using force to stop any Soviet vessels going there. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine based missiles and 1,400 bombers were on alert. Scores of bombers were kept continuously in the air, each armed with several nuclear weapons ready to move to targets in the USSR the moment the order came. And in Florida, just 60 miles from Cuba, the US was assembling the largest invasion force since the Second World War – 100,000 troops, including 40,000 marines, as well as 90 ships, 68 squadrons or aircraft and eight aircraft carriers.

Right across the world people feared that a nuclear Armageddon was imminent. Workers clocked into factories believing they would never clock out again. Classes of children sat at their desks while their teachers counted down the hours until the two fleets clashed. In the US families began hoarding food, in Jordan in the Middle East panic buying forced up prices 30 percent overnight.

The US government of John F. Kennedy was behaving like this because the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev was secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. They would have provided the USSR with the same capacity to hit American cities that the US had to hit Russian cities from its bases in Western Europe and Turkey.

How close the world came to nuclear war was later revealed by the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy:

‘We all agreed, if the Russians were prepared to go to nuclear war over Cuba, they were prepared to go to nuclear war and we might as well have the showdown then as six months later.’

Now transcripts of the tapes of the secret US presidential discussions of that week have been published in a book, The Kennedy Tapes (edited by E.R. May and P.D. Zelikow, Harvard University Press, £23.50). They show the government of the world’s greatest power was indeed prepared to take steps it knew could lead to nuclear war with Russia.

Cuba itself was an emotive issue for the Kennedy government. The island had been a virtual satellite of the US until the Castro led revolution of 1959.

Virtually the first action of Kennedy as president in 1961 had been to give the go ahead to the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion. Its failure left the Kennedy brothers with a deep personal hatred of Castro, who they hoped to get rid of through covert ‘Mongoose’ CIA operations and assassination attempts.

The tapes clearly show how the US obsession with Cuba was connected to a much wider issue – the fear of any erosion of US global hegemony. Again and again the talk is of the danger of other governments in Latin America falling. But above all the argument centres on the question of influence in Europe. What, the president and his men ask, if the Russians use the new world balance of power produced by the Cuban missiles to threaten US influence over Germany?

They ponder a scenario in which Russian conventional forces move in to separate West Berlin from the American bloc. In the past the Americans would have been able to respond by threatening nuclear action against Russian forces in Europe. But now they might not dare to for fear of the Russian missiles in Cuba. US world influence would then suffer a shattering blow. Rather than risk this in future, they decide, it is necessary to face the strong possibility of war now. The only question open to debate in the presidential meetings was exactly how to take these risks.

Some, like airforce head Curtis LeMay wanted immediate bombing of Cuba followed by a massive invasion. Some, like UN representative Adlai Stevenson, favoured using the military threats to pressurise the USSR into negotiations. The Kennedy brothers wavered between the two positions, pushing ahead with the plans for bombing and invasion but then opting for a few days delay.

Yet by the Saturday of that week the option of further delay seemed closed. The Cubans had shown they could shoot down spy planes. This meant they could now hide the missiles, increasing the pressure for immediate US bombing to take them out. But the bombers themselves were vulnerable unless there was carpet destruction right across the island, which would kill Soviet personnel and force Khrushchev to retaliate.

This did not happen, not because of any doveish personnel in the US administration. It was because Khrushchev backed down at the last minute and agreed to withdraw the missiles – a decision which he only narrowly carried in the politburo and which antagonised the Cuban leaders.

Effectively, the majority of the Russian leadership had decided they could not challenge the existing partition of the world between themselves and American imperialism. For the next decade and a half ‘détente’ moderated the instability of the Cold War.

It did not, however, stop the piling up of ever more destructive weapons on both sides. Nor did it stop the same US team who had been prepared to risk nuclear war over Cuba going on to use ‘conventional’ weapons to kill more than a million people in Vietnam. Finally, it did not stop a resurgence of instability in the 1980s when a new range of weapons began to undermine the old balance between the two antagonisms.

It may all seem like history, now that the USSR has disintegrated and the Cold War is over. But US administrations have not abandoned their old desire to send in the bombers whenever their hegemony might be dented – as the cases of Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Libya, and above all the second Gulf War show. And Clinton is just as keen as Bush before him to keep developing more nuclear weapon systems to threaten any ‘rogue state’ which will not accept the American rules of the game.

It’s good to have a verbal record of what our political masters said to each other 35 years ago because it is important to see how readily they turn talk of peace and humanity into acts of war. That is not just a matter of the past but of the future as well.

Last updated on 21 December 2009