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Americas Now 10/22/2012 Edge of annihilation

10-22-2012 12:05 BJT

Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 at the height of the Cold War.  He quickly became a formidable force on the world stage. The United States was determined to prevent Communism from taking a foothold in the Americas. In 1961 President Kennedy tried to orchestrate "regime change" by backing an ill-fated invasion called the Bay of Pigs.

It was to push Fidel Castro firmly into Moscow's arms. President Khrushchev, who was experiencing his own tensions with the U.S. over Communism, was angry that the US had placed nuclear missiles in Europe and particularly Turkey on Russia's doorstep. He saw Cuba as a way of getting even. It was a gamble that once discovered almost led to World War three.

"I think the crisis was a very dangerous moment for all of humanity”, says Tomas Diez,a Cuban historian who has spent years researching the crisis and has written 6 books on the subject. “It was 17 years since the end of world war two and although there were omens, international events from 1946 to 1962, they were as dangerous as this. Here the conflict wasn't being settled with conventional weapons but with nuclear arms."

Mr. Diezoffered to show me what's left of the missile sites captured by the Americans on film. He says that the idea of putting missiles in Cuba was not Castro’s; it was Khrushchev’s:

“This was Khrushchev's idea. When he proposed installing these missiles to the Cubans, Fidel Castro’s first response was to say they we didn't need them; a treaty saying that any attack on Cuba would be an attack on the Soviet Union would have been enough. But the Soviets insisted, insisted until it went through”.

Tom Putnam, director of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston which has recently released thousands of declassified documents relating to the period, contends that the USSR did not have to take the step of putting nuclear missiles in Cuba.

"That's the gamble that Khrushchev took, he thought he could put the missiles in there, he thought he could do it without the US finding out, and he thought that, once he did find out, Kennedy would do nothing about it."

But Kennedy did find out.The missiles were discovered and what followed was one of the most highly-charged foreign policy debates in the hemisphere's history. President Kennedy spent almost a week in lockdown with his crisis team deciding the course of his action. It was on October 22nd that he informed the world of the prospect of nuclear confrontation.

Michael Dobbs, one of the leading American experts on the crisis and author of One Minute to Midnight, explains:“Well the US had nuclear superiority at the time. But the question was: even if a single Soviet Missile had gotten through and hit an American City, how many Americans would have been killed  And the answer was: about half a million”.

President Kennedy had been under intense pressure from the military and others to go for a direct armed intervention. Instead he chose a naval blockade in the hope that diplomacy could be made to work. But it was a close run call.  A new exhibition at the National Archives in Washington; displaying images and documentation, and newly released audio recordings from the crisis, shows just how close it was. President Kennedy had even prepared an alternative Television address announcing an invasion of Cuba.

There was another deadly secret, though, which remained hidden from the spy planes.  As well as warheads for ballistic missiles, the Soviets had also shipped small tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.

"We only found out about these tactical nuclear weapons 30,40 years in advance”, says Dobbs.“Kennedy didn't understand this at the time".

Tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipeout an American invading force.
It has since emerged that Fidel Castro had written to Khrushchev urging that in the case of an attack on Cuba, and then they should use these tactical nuclear weapons.

Tomas Diez was 16 back then and already part of a militia. He says that most Cubans were not afraid of nuclear disaster. “No really we weren't afraid. We were accustomed to aggression. We were mobilized during the Bay of Pigs invasion, we had already fought against armed counterrevolutionary groups, and there was a fighting spirit amongst the people in defense of the revolution”.
Elsewhere many feared that the world was about to end. “In general, the higher you were up, the more worried you were”, says Dobbs. “The president estimated that the possibility of nuclear war was 1 in 4, or even 1 in 2. By black Saturday, October 27, arrangements were made to evacuate the White House, to fly the President to an underground, secure location in the hills of West Virginia. People were telling their families to get out of town. To load up the family station wagon and drive as far away from Washington as possible”.

In the end nuclear war was averted, President's Kennedy and Khrushchev had been engaged in secret back channel diplomacy. The Soviets agreed to take all their nuclear missiles out of Cuba. In return, the US promised not to invade plus a private commitment to remove US missiles from Turkey. Fidel Castro felt betrayed.

But Dobbs avers that, if we talk about who were the winners and losers of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Castro who stood victorious.“Well the great irony is that Castro and his brother, Raul, are still in power, 50 years later. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Khrushchev was deposed in 1964, so if you want to think about winners in the missile crisis purely in terms of who survived the longest, it was Fidel Castro."

Today the missile silos are over run with vegetation and surrounded by fields of sugar cane. There is one ballistic missile left in Cuba a museum piece acquired from the Russians after it was de-commissioned as part of a later arms limitation treaty.  It remains a grim reminder of how close the world came to all out nuclear war.


Editor:James |Source:

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