KENNEDY AND THE OCTOBER CRISIS Sad and luminous days

Gabriel Molina

 

THE October 1962 Missile Crisis consolidated a decisive change in John F. Kennedy, as revealed by his brother Edward in the book True Compass: a Memoir (Los Kennedy. Mi familia), which he wrote under the pressure of his imminent death.

The popular senator recounted that in a press conference on April 21, 1961, the president “assumed total responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster; according to an old saying victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” (1) However, he privately commented that he had placed excessive confidence in the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon, his brother added.

On July 23, 1960, Allen Dulles, then a presidential candidate, informed him for the first time of the operation he was thinking of justifying in August at a meeting of the OAS. In fact, John Kennedy was doubtful as to the appropriateness of the plan that Dulles presented to him shortly after he was elected president. Nevertheless, he approved it because he thought that there was no alternative in the face of an operation ordered by his predecessor. He was worried about what to do with the hundreds of émigré Cubans recruited by the CIA. According to the prestigious journalist Seymour Hersh, JFK’s biographer, his initial refusal to cancel the Bay of Pigs operation when he was properly informed of it, or to involve the regular air force on April 19, 1961 in spite of pressure on the part of military chiefs and members of his cabinet, “was not the product of indecision, but a veritable political and cynical calculation to rid himself of the problem without being seen as weak in the eyes of public opinion.” (2)

In the face of the disillusionment that invaded the older brother, Robert proposed that the three of them consult with the creator of the clan, Joseph Kennedy.

Their father told them: the people like leaders to take responsibility and stated, “The subject is one of the best things that happened to you.”

“A year-and-a half later, when our nation confronted the missile crisis in Cuba and the possibility of nuclear annihilation, my brother’s experience thanks to the Bay of Pigs disaster turned into one of the best things that happened to him… to both him and the country: it generated a healthy skepticism in relation to the military advice that he received, the result of which was the peaceful solution to the missile crisis… Pop was right when, after the Bay of Pigs, he consoled Jack (as he was called within the family), by saying that it would be one of the best things that could happen to him” (3), affirmed Edward 49 years later.

Like the Bay of Pigs, the October 1962 Caribbean (Missile) Crisis was a decisive experience for Comandante Fidel Castro. In early spring 1963, just seven months after that crisis, in a luxurious Kremlin salon, a large table welcomed the Cuban delegation to the first lunch with the Soviet leadership in Moscow, whose population received Fidel with overflowing enthusiasm at midday on April 30, 1963.

On the 29th, the Cuban leader had arrived in Murmansk, a port city in the westernmost part of the country, still covered in snow that spring. There he toured a nuclear submarine. It was his first journey to the USSR and he was received by Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan, who accompanied him on the flight to Moscow. The official and popular reception with Khrushchev and Brezhnev was scheduled for the following morning in the capital.

Immediately after the impressive popular demonstration in the streets Nikita Khrushchev rose from his seat at the table in the Kremlin and raised a warm toast to his guests.

Fidel Castro lost no time. With his glass in hand, he looked attentively around him and turning to those present, said: “I cannot leave unsaid my disagreement with the way in which the Soviet rockets were pulled out of Cuba. We were not consulted and agreements were reached behind our backs, after our land was the potential scenario of a nuclear war.

Nikita interrupted him in agitation: “We did it to avoid an attack on Cuba and succeeded in maintaining the peace!”

Fidel spoke again in an angry tone: “What was achieved was a precarious peace, because there is no real commitment. If we had been consulted much more would have been achieved. We would have obtained a genuine peace and other objectives.

It seemed that the Cuban leader’s first visit to the USSR was going to end in failure. Nobody dared to say a word…

The then Cuban prime minister had not concealed his anger at any point since Khrushchev announced without consultation on October 28 that he would withdraw the missiles installed in Cuba and offered the possibility of UN inspectors being sent to the island to confirm that.

Fidel declared that in order to inspect the country they would have to come in combat formation and launched a five-point platform to secure a lasting peace: 1) An end to the U.S. economic blockade and commercial and economic pressure. 2) An end to subversive activities, mercenary invasions and the infiltration of spies and saboteurs. 3) An end to pirate attacks from the United States. 4) An end to violations of Cuba’s airspace and maritime waters. 5) Withdrawal of the Guantánamo Naval Base.

It is known from Soviet and U.S. sources that in 1962 the United States had 377 strategic missiles and was building another 1,000. Those deployed in Turkey and Italy gave the United States superiority, given that from there, they could reach the USSR in 15 minutes, while the 44 Soviet intercontinental missiles would take 25 minutes to reach the United States. Moreover, the USSR only had 373 medium-reach and 17 intermediate reach missiles. The deployment of 42 medium- and intermediate-reach missiles in Cuba would considerably level the difference and provide defensive measures against an imminent invasion of Cuba, which the Soviets and Cubans knew was being swiftly prepared. On September 26, 1962 the U.S. Congress had passed a joint bill granting the president the faculty of using nuclear missiles against Cuba.

Fidel had stated that he viewed Khrushchev’s proposal to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba as an action that would consolidate the defensive capacity of the entire socialist bloc, including Cuba, and that that was the principal reason for agreeing to it, while not ignoring the risks. Cuba proposed that the agreement should be made public, based on the right to self-defense by any military means, as such a statement would declare. But Khrushchev insisted to Raúl Castro, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces – who traveled to Moscow to sign the agreement – that any public announcement should be postponed, and meanwhile, that the agreement should be denied.

The U.S. president disclosed on October 22 that his U2 spy planes had detected the missiles deployed in Cuba by the USSR. Kennedy demanded that they be withdrawn under international inspection. But Fidel rejected such an inspection and ordered a combat alarm to reject the aggression. For his part, Marshall Rodion Malinowsky, Russian minister of defense, instructed General Issa Piev to place the troops located in Cuba on combat readiness to repel the enemy alongside the Cuban government.

In the night of October 23, the U.S. president rejected his military advisors’ idea of taking the initiative with a first strike, decreed a naval blockade and placed all the armed forces on maximum alert for the first time in his country’s history.

The following day Kennedy authorized low flights over the island, in addition to those undertaken by the U2s, to photograph its national territory. By the 25th, 15 such flights had been made. Fidel advised Khrushchev that Cuba would resist in a firm and determined manner. UN Secretary General U Thant announced tripartite mediation to begin on the 26th.

Meanwhile, on that same date, Khrushchev made a private proposal to Kennedy to withdraw the missiles against a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba. The U.S. president agreed to lift the naval blockade and to offer security that the island would not be attacked, while insisting on an inspection.

In a surprise action, the Soviet anti-missile artillery then brought down a U2 plane flying over Banes in eastern Cuba. The atmosphere grew tenser and prompted a letter from President Kennedy, susceptible to various readings: it was both threatening and tolerant, by trying to let it be seen that the act could not have been ordered by Khrushchev, who was already negotiating with him. That it could have escaped the Soviet premier’s control. On the 28th, Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s terms and then informed Fidel, who did not know about the secret talks.

The Comandante en Jefe stated that the news had prompted “great indignation in Cuba because we saw ourselves converted into an object for barter… we heard on the radio that an agreement had been reached on October 28.” Understandable only to the Cubans, the people’s reaction was not one of relief, it was of profound unrest. With a punching humor, the people said: “Nikita, Nikita, what is given isn’t taken away.”

U Thant traveled to Cuba and, when Fidel refused to accept the inspection, the UN secretary general stated that the Cuban leader was within his rights to do so and that the United Nations could not force him.

Given the situation, on November 2 Khrushchev sent Mikoyan to the island, where he remained for a number of days trying to convince the Cuban prime minister. But that was an impossible task.

Finally, after two weeks on the island, Mikoyan proposed that the inspection should take place aboard the ships. Fidel responded that that was a problem for the USSR. And the ships were inspected, but not in Cuban waters. From that moment, the Cuban military doctrine came to be one of national resistance in the event of its territory being invaded.

The French analyst Raymond Aron stated it in this way in his book Le Gran Débat: “The Cuban Republic is capable of defending itself… she can make a potential aggressor pay a disproportionate cost for the conquest; she is also capable of leaving the aggressor nothing but ruins to take. If the leaders of this Republic have the courage – and according to every probability they do have it – even deprived of Soviet support, they can refuse to capitulate.” Time has demonstrated, even today, the validity of that statement.

Many heads of state learned lessons from that confrontation. President Charles de Gaulle summed them up by saying: “Given that the United States can endanger Europe via a thermonuclear war without consulting it, France has to possess its own nuclear force.” And he technically withdrew from NATO.

The tension of that first day of Fidel’s visit to Moscow dropped after the incident. Clearly those luminous and sad days consolidated the relationship of the indomitable statesman and the powerful statesman, based on respect and affection.

In his letter of farewell to Fidel in October 1965, three years after the confrontation that was at the point of unleashing a nuclear war, Che Guevara recalled those events and stated: “I felt at your side the pride of belonging to our people in the luminous and sad days of the Caribbean Crisis. On few occasions did a statesman shine more brightly…”

For Kennedy as well, they were luminous and sad days.

1. Edward M. Kennedy. Los Kennedy Mi familia. Memorias, September 2010, Ediciones Planeta Madrid S.A. P. 209

(2). Seymour Hersh. La face cache du clan Kennedy. Citado en Ivonnick Denoel. Le Livre noir de la CIA. Nouveau Monde Edition. P.154

(3) Los Kennedy Mi familia. Ibid. P.222.

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