ARMAGEDDON, with the courtesy of four minutes’ warning: that was the prospect facing the world 50 years ago, as the Cuban missile crisis threatened thermonuclear war on a scale that experts today believe would have cost more than 200 million lives.
With the passing of half a century and the declassification of many documents on both sides, certain perspectives have changed; but no new insight has discredited the notion that it was one of the most perilous moments in the Cold War.
The key elements were geopolitical interests, human personalities and blind chance. Of these, the two last were the decisive factors. The geopolitical origins of the crisis lay in the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both had an irritant on their doorstep. For the Soviet Union it was the Free World enclave of West Berlin, supported by American intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in Turkey and Italy. For America it was Communist Cuba and its potential to become an immobile aircraft carrier for Soviet nuclear armament, which materialised as Russian R-12 medium-range and R-14 intermediate-range missiles.
Nikita Khrushchev devised a would-be cunning plan: install missiles on Cuba, threatening the entire United States, and either trade their withdrawal for the removal of US missiles in Turkey or, if this provocation were to result in an American invasion of the island, Soviet forces would, in retaliation, seize West Berlin. This scenario did not envisage nuclear war – especially since America enjoyed a massive superiority in intercontinental ballistic missiles – but much sabre-rattling nuclear gamesmanship.
Why did Khrushchev take such a risk? That is where one of the two main factors – personality – came into play, in the Soviet leader’s underestimation of president John F Kennedy. This was understandable: Kennedy had appeared supine in the face of Russia’s construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco had further discredited him. Khrushchev assessed Kennedy as inexperienced, too intellectual, torn between competing advisers and incapable of responding firmly to a crisis. Demythologised, the Kennedy clan reality was squalid: they built a sewer and they called it Camelot. Yet the bootlegger background of the Kennedys was probably an asset in squaring up to the regime that had enslaved half of Europe.
Once he sensed serious resistance, Khrushchev became badly destabilised, as witness his contradictory messages to Kennedy on successive days (26 and 27 October). The president responded to the first, more favourable, letter and gradually the crisis was defused. Kennedy deserves credit for disregarding the more hawkish among his advisers and opting for a naval blockade, which he prevented being an act of war by calling it “quarantine”. This was a firm and ultimately successful response. We now know the Russians did not increase their level of nuclear alert or prepare a missile strike. Khrushchev had no intention of launching nuclear war; only the mad dog Castro urged that option.
That is not to say the danger of nuclear catastrophe was negligible. The final factor – chance – was critical. The real danger came from independent action by some hot-head far down the Soviet military food chain. The notorious example was the decision by a Soviet officer on Cuba to shoot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane, killing the pilot, at the height of the crisis. Theoretically that should have triggered US military action, but Kennedy stayed his hand, suspecting it was a maverick episode. The more serious incident, we now know, was the US navy forcing to the surface a Soviet submarine armed with a 15-kiloton nuclear torpedo: the agreement of three officers was required to fire it – one withheld his consent.
Who won? Arguably, Fidel Castro, because America pledged never to invade Cuba. Kennedy also agreed to withdraw US missiles from Turkey, but he knew Polaris made them obsolescent. The West kept Berlin without firing a shot. October 1962 marked the point at which Soviet offensive ambitions in the West were checked.
It is fortunate our parents’ generation was willing to risk annihilation to halt Marxism in its tracks. Otherwise, today, we might be living in a society where every candidate at elections stood for the same agenda, where freedom of speech was replaced by Newspeak, where people had to consider whether they would offend the authorities by uttering certain opinions, where they could lose their jobs for being politically incorrect, where messages on social media could lead to arrest and where someone could be sent to jail for an offensive slogan on his T-shirt. When Marxism stops goose-stepping it is not dead: it is coming in by the back door.