I grew up during a rather intense phase of the Cold War, when much of the world seemed to be involved in a titanic struggle between the forces of freedom and democracy, led by the United States of America, and the forces of Marxist communism, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Of course, things were not really that simple, but that was a common way of thinking.
Even in small town America there was a constant undercurrent of fear of sudden destruction, of nuclear annihilation. We saw public service ads on TV based on the most chilling line of iambic pentameter ever uttered: "Your only warning is a flash of light." Then we would see windows shattering and a room filled with flying glass.
In his campaign for president, Senator John F. Kennedy played upon that fear most skillfully. When he told us, falsely, as it turned out, that there was a missle gap, with the Soviets having more than we had, we all trembled, and chose him to be our president instead of the less personable Richard Nixon.
In 1962, the Soviet Union installed missiles armed with nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, thus threatening military facilities and population centers on the U.S. mainland. During the crisis that followed, the actual use of nuclear weapons was a real possibility.
I remember drills we did in Junior High School. A warning siren or horn would go off and we would all file into the school's tunnel system and spend a few minutes with our faces to the wall, just in case the Russians hurled nukes at Southeastern Michigan.
I found a web page devoted to discussions amongst members of the Kennedy Administration that took place during the crisis. The site includes audio clips, but text summaries and highlights give us a good idea the kinds of attitudes that shaped the American response. Kennedy and most of his advisors were very definitely not itching for a fight, but they also understood the genuine dangers of weakness or the appearance of weakness. Plus, they understood the legitimate concerns of Cuba and of the Soviet Union. In 1961, the U.S. had encouraged a group of Cuban expatriots to invade the island. This led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, with many invaders being killed or imprisoned. Also, the United States had established nuclear missile bases in Turkey, as close to the U.S.S.R. as Cuba was to the U.S.A.
There was a certifiable right-wing whackjob in the Kennedy administration who apparently wanted to start a shooting war: U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay. According to a summary of a section of audio recording on the History Out Loud web site (same link as above),
Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay, argues forcefully that the blockade and the political talks without accompanying military action will lead to war. He concludes that the Soviets won't take Berlin if we act in Cuba but will take it if we fail to act.LeMay is quoted directly as saying, "This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.... I just don't see any other solution except direct military intervention right now."
Quite possibly we are here today because LeMay lost the argument. The crisis was resolved. The Soviets took their nukes back to Russia and the U.S.A. publicly agreed not to invade Cuba and secretly agreed to take its nukes out of Turkey. According to an undoubtedly somewhat biased web page titled Curtis LeMay - Demented Cold Warrior, the general regarded the relatively peacefull resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis as "the greatest defeat in our history." (For more info on LeMay, see General Curtis Lemay - father of the Strategic Air Command and the Curtis LeMay entry in "Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.")
I find two lessons in this little bit of history. First, "appeasement" isn't always bad. We "appeased" the Ruskies then they took their nukes out of Cuba. They did not decide we were "weak" and then go on and take all of Berlin or all of Western Europe. There is no single action in diplomacy or war that is right all of the time. Sometimes you attack, sometimes you defend, sometimes you retreat. In diplomacy, sometimes you threaten, sometimes you appease, most of the time you negotiate. Wisdom is in knowing when to do which. The war weenies who cry "Munich!! Munich!!" at every faint intimation of potential belligerence are the kind of people who lead nations into pointless wars.
The second lesson is: we need leaders who can act according to actual situations, not ones who keep saying the same thing over and over again like a wind-up army doll. Ronald Reagan could threaten and bluster when he saw fit. Then he could surprise the heck out of his right-wing fans (including me!) by signing a strategic arms limitation agreement. Kennedy certainly played a part in inflaming Cold War tensions, but he also prevented those tensions from leading to a nuclear war. In contrast, George W. Bush has needlessly gotten us into a war over "weapons of mass destruction" that did not exist.
According to Chomsky, the U.S.A. was afraid that a successful revolution in Cuba would inspire similar uprisings throughout South and Central America. And now we have the Bush administration, claiming that the transformation of Iraq into a democratic society will inspire similar transformations throughout the Middle East. This is all very interesting.
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