In 1962, the world was on the brink of war. Maybe even a world war. People say that it is on the brink of war now, and now the conflict could break out between nuclear-armed states. The Cold War was then at its height, today it is the Cold Peace. So, can we find any parallels between now and the so-called Caribbean crisis that arose 60 years ago? I think so! Moreover, it is possible to reach an agreement in which both sides can feel that they have won and that they have ‘saved their status’.
We will have another chance to talk about the Caribbean crisis in the autumn when it will surely be on all political calendars. Today, we can only recall in general terms what happened back then.
The world really was like a chessboard. After the end of the World War II, there seemed to be no lack of enthusiasm in the corridors of power in the USSR to turn the victory in the war into a world proletarian revolution. With the development of nuclear weapons, the country felt able to influence and change the World Order from a position of strength. The communist victories in China, Korea and the growing communist influence in Western Europe were optimistic, especially as the West seemed to be in a state of considerable confusion and disunity.
However, not everything was so good. The US developed the so-called “containment strategy”, offered Europe the Marshall Plan, prevented the USSR and China from winning the Korean War, and finally showed that the West was not so “crazy” by creating NATO. The essence of the containment strategy of the USSR was in fact to contain the expansion of the part of the planet under Moscow’s control by building defence lines as close as possible to the borders of that territory. At that time, the Americans and their European counterparts had the courage to admit Turkey and West Germany to NATO, while Moscow, which had abandoned the Marshall Plan, had to create an “iron curtain” in the middle of Europe.
However, the West did not succeed in everything. Perhaps the biggest shame was that West Berlin was separated by a “wall” in 1961, and Western politicians basically just shrugged as they watched what was going on. The East-West confrontation continued in other parts of the world, including Central America.
Here it is interesting to look at the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, then head of the Soviet state. Here an interesting fact is that the Caribbean crisis was de facto conceived… on the coast of the Black Sea.
In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, as he recalls, paid a so-called friendly visit to Bulgaria and, as he walked along the coast, he was deeply concerned not about Bulgarian problems but about Cuba. There was a feeling that Cuba, which had so enthusiastically overthrown a pro-American regime, might be lost. Cuba must be protected. If NATO missiles are right here in the neighbourhood of Bulgaria – in Turkey – why not send our missiles to Cuba? The author of the memoirs does not say whether he came up with the idea himself or whether he was advised to do so, but the idea seemed quite feasible.
Cuba was still geopolitical news that year, not only in the region but also in the world. When Fidel Castro seized power, he was little known in Moscow. Moscow knew more about Che Guevara and his brother Raul Castro. Fidel had not been a communist before, and he even hoped then that he would be able to reach an agreement with the Americans. However, they were not so pragmatic, so Fidel had to turn to Moscow.
The United States did not like metamorphosis of Cuba because Cuba had been such a very nice American summer residence. Maye we should not feel so sorry about the deposed President Fulgencio Batista if it were not for the fact that the island has become the tentacle of Moscow. A bad example for the region and for the whole world. Until now, the Russians have been pressed by the method of ‘distant defence’, and now they have shown themselves off the coast of America (Russian witticisms have even deciphered the meaning of the word CUBA in their own way – Kommunisty U Beregov Ameriki – Communists on the Coast of America). Cuba had to be taken back, and admittedly it was not. The attempts have brought shame rather than success. Fidel Castro only grew stronger and found an opportunity to deal with his adversaries. (Around 100,000 people were arrested, and many were simply destroyed). This was back in 1961, the same year that the Russians built the aforementioned Berlin Wall, and there was nothing the West could do to stop it.
Watching the success of Berlin, Cuba and Fidel Castro, the Russians might have thought they were strong, but the US President is weak, inexperienced, and often wrong. Like the current Joe Biden, with his memory problems and the shame of Afghanistan. Only the century is not the same. And yet even they themselves no longer believe in those Western values. The West is close to its death… it will be nice to read once again the prophecies of the sunset of the West. We will save Cuba and threaten the United States!
As can be seen from the memoirs of the then USSR leader, only Anastas Mikoyan, an old friend of Joseph Stalin and, in fact, more knowledgeable about his Cuban “colleagues” than anyone else, opposed this idea at the top of the Moscow establishment. Although Anastas Mikoyan was an old plotter and (no secret) had compromises against all the “friends” of the government, this time he was in the minority.
The Minister of Defence Rodion Malinovsky was in charge of Operation Anadyr. The missiles had to be sent to Cuba to carry nuclear weapons with a range of up to 4,000 km, as well as other weapons such as Mig 21 and Il 28 aircraft, tanks, anti-aircraft and coastal defence equipment. All disguised, of course, as “peaceful civilian cargo”. The secret could not be kept, the Americans knew what had arrived. But they didn’t know what to do.
Looking back at reminiscences of Americans there was panic. The United States certainly did not want war. It was too late. Once they had not taken Cuba without the Russians, it will be much harder with the Russians. Bombing here and now seemed too risky and shameful. It was no longer possible to pretend that nothing was happening.
The US Secretary of State Dean Rusk called Andrei Gromyko for an interview and told him that he was aware of the missiles and asked for them to be removed. Andrei Gromyko pretended that this was a lie and that there were no missiles and lied to the President John Kennedy as well. The date on the calendar was 18 October. The autumn chill was undreamt of. The Americans had hardly slept at all. Propaganda of Nikita Khrushchev was quite successful in brainwashing the world into believing that the Russians were making missiles like sausages, that they had long since overtaken the Americans. The USSR government itself knew that the Americans had more nuclear weapons, better aviation and were ahead of the Russians in other technical parameters but expected the “weak” John Kennedy to get scared. He wasn’t. He decided to have a real war. This surprised Russians, who were not prepared for the eventuality that the Americans would be ready for war.
According to the records of the President’s office, there was talk of attacking Cuba not by imaginary rebels but by the US military, with up to 500 air strikes planned. (The President’s brother Robert, who was rather against it, was present). On 22 October, the President declared a blockade of Cuba, which meant that no ship would be able to take weapons to Cuba. He also addressed the public with a seven-point message, the last of which urged Nikita Khrushchev to seize the opportunity to prevent self-destruction.
It seems that the USSR leaders then began to realise that they would lose the war. They would have to fight for 11,000 kilometres without any significant military advantage. The Americans knew that the Russians were not as strong as they thought they were and were informed by one of their most valuable spies, the GRU’s Agent Hero, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Marshal Malinovsky confirmed that two days would be enough for the Americans to take Cuba – they were close, they had all the resources. And here was a telegram from Havana. The USSR ambassador said he had definite news that the Americans would attack in a few hours, and that Cuba’s defences were not yet ready.
Now the Russians are seriously scared. Nikita Khrushchev remembers that he gave John Kennedy the message that he would agree to remove the missiles from Cuba if the Americans did not attack. However, he made a condition that the Americans would take the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey, and Washington promised …
On 28 October, the order was given to withdraw the missiles. This was not even coordinated with Fidel Castro. As Che Guevara recalls, when Fidel Castro found out, he kicked a wall and broke a mirror. He did not even want to meet the USSR ambassador. Later, he said he had been deceived into thinking that the missiles were a gift from Moscow, that they would not have to be “returned”…
So, the missiles sailed, the Americans never attacked Cuba, the President who had shown courage was gone a year later, and Nikita lost power. So that’s the story…
The Caribbean crisis of the past has many similarities with what is happening now on the borders of NATO and in Ukraine. I was not wrong when I said Ukraine. Russian troops are in the Crimea and Donbass, and that is, after all… Ukraine. What is missing in the analogy of the stories is the determination of the West not to give up. A determination to make Moscow believe rather than presume.
The diplomatic bigwigs think they will have sense to find some kind of agreement that will preserve good name (or reputation). However, as always, not everyone is in favour of sanity. A well-known Russian geopolitical ideologist Aleksandr Dugin coined the phrase: “If you don’t shoot when you draw your gun, it’s a suicide”.
It seems that at least one side has already drawn a gun.