Washington, D.C., January 11, 2018 - A new book by long-time colleagues of the National Security Archive, James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, offers a fresh exploration of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and plumbs its lessons on the continuing dangers of nuclear war. Homing in on the Cuban perspective, the book aims to fill a persistent gap in the history that not only skewed our understanding of the event for years but helped make the crisis so perilous in the first place – the superpowers’ utter dismissal of Cuba’s stake in its outcome.
Blight and Lang have studied the missile crisis for more than three decades. They were behind a series of ground-breaking international conferences involving American, Soviet, and Cuban ex-officials starting in the mid-1980s. In January 1992, they organized the historic Havana conference, attended by Fidel Castro himself, which began to make painfully clear how much nearer than anyone had previously recognized the world had come to nuclear Armageddon thirty years before. Since then, numerous follow-on conferences have taken place with Castro, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, and various other high-level participants, including senior Russian military and political figures. The innovative conference format, known as Critical Oral History, that made so many unexpected revelations possible was a Blight/Lang brainchild. The results have literally rewritten the history of the crisis.
Dark Beyond Darkness, their latest book, places the Cuban dimension squarely at the center of the reader’s line of sight, allowing for an in-depth appreciation of the “physical and psychological reality faced during the crisis by everyone in Cuba” as they struggled to deal with the seemingly existential threat presented by the superpowers’ ill-informed and self-absorbed mutual face-off. At the same time, the authors give a genuinely hands-on feel for how the historiographical process they invented actually works. Finally, Blight and Lang draw from this heavily evidence-based analysis what they view as the main, and inescapable, conclusion of any serious study of the crisis: that the primary goal for policymakers in this day and age should be nothing less than to abolish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.
The following is excerpted from Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning, and Catalyst (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without further permission in writing from the publisher.
By James G. Blight and janet M. Lang
ALEKSANDER ALEKSEEV: Fidel, do you mean to say [to Khrushchev] that we should be the first to strike a nuclear blow against the enemy?
FIDEL CASTRO: Under certain circumstances, we should forestall them without waiting for the first nuclear blow from their side. If they attack Cuba, we should wipe them off the face of the earth.
—Conversation between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Soviet Ambassador to Cuba, Aleksander Alekseev, in a bunker beneath the Soviet embassy, Havana, Cuba, sometime between 2:00 AM and 7:00 AM, October 27, 1962 EDT
The truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it.
—Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (2005)
The Truth About October 1962:
The Cuban, Cuban Missile Crisis, When the World Nearly Ended
Here, in one paragraph, is our variant of the truth about what made the Cuban missile crisis the most dangerous crisis in recorded history:
The crisis did not come out of the blue and last thirteen days. U.S. blindness toward Cuba only made it seem that way. The crisis began eighteen months earlier, after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, with the Cubans’ fears of an imminent full-scale U.S. invasion. They asked the Russians for defensive weapons. The Russians began providing them, and the superpower-sleepwalk toward Armageddon began. The U.S. was not a victim of the deployment; its threats to Cuba were an important cause of it. U.S. intelligence assessments were atrocious: they did not predict the deployment; they did not even confirm it until the missiles in Cuba were almost ready to fire; and their conclusion that warheads for the weapons probably never reached Cuba was dead wrong. In all, 162 nuclear warheads were shipped, delivered, stored and made ready to fire by Soviet technicians in Cuba. While JFK courageously and ingeniously resisted the many hawks in his administration urging him toward war, Kennedy had no plan when the missiles were discovered and was shocked at the deployment. Nobody won. Nobody lost. Nobody “blinked.” Once Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they were losing control of the crisis, they worked feverishly, collaboratively and effectively to terminate it. But Moscow’s and Washington’s dismissal of the Cuban perspective, leading to Cuban outrage and provocative behavior, sent the crisis to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Far from being a “bit player,” Cuba became the hinge of the world. Believing they were irrevocably doomed by an imminent U.S. nuclear attack on the island, Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev urging him to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. ASAP, once the Americans began invading the island. The Cubans, and their Russian comrades in Cuba, prepared to nuke the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base, and to use their short-range nuclear weapons against the invading U.S. forces. Had these been carried out, a U.S. nuclear response would likely have followed, and Armageddon would have commenced then and there.
Every claim in this summary statement is backed by voluminous and authoritative declassified documentation, oral testimony from top-ranking leaders during the crisis, and by the careful analyses of scholars from many disciplines! What it says happened, happened.
Have another look at this statement. Notice that the basic truth of the Cuban missile crisis has two parts: the part that happened, and the part that didn’t happen. The part that happened is the actual history: three leaders, three sets of perceptions, lots of mistaken judgments by all of them, decisions made based on assumptions that were either wrong or irrelevant, and so on. That’s what happened. The part that didn’t happen is the virtual history, the end of the world, as our forebears knew it, in 1962. Compare your own daily life, your sense of personal, familial and national history and the future you expect, with the bleak, lifeless planet confronted by Papa and The Boy in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, The Road. However you may judge your life and prospects at the moment, they are substantially more comfortable and promising than those of the living hell Papa and The Boy inhabit. If the Cuban missile crisis had exploded into nuclear war, the world afterward would have closely resembled that living hell.
The dominant North American myth about the Cuban missile crisis, which has been paradigmatic for more than a half century, goes like this. The bad guys (the Soviets) threaten the good guys (the Americans) by putting nuclear missiles into Cuba. The good guys stand firm, threatening to go all the way to nuclear war unless the bad guys remove their missiles and haul them back to where they came from in the USSR. The bad guys “blink” and cave in under U.S. pressure, and remove the missiles. The verdict: the good guys win the Super Bowl of the Cold War, with President John F. Kennedy the MVP. Kennedy had the moxie it took on the Cold War playing field. The bad guys lose badly. Their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, is gotten rid of shortly thereafter in an October 1964 coup. Cuba itself had almost nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis, other than to provide a parking lot for Russian missiles, very briefly, before the Russians were forced by U.S. pressure to un-park them. The little guy, Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, had nothing to do with the origin, conduct, resolution or level of nuclear danger in the crisis. For their part, the Cubans learn how the big dudes play the Cold War game, without regard for the interests or inclinations of bit players like Cuba.
Alas, this myth represents only a very partial history of what actually happened. It is partial because it typically omits, as insignificant, events that occurred on the island of Cuba, and focuses almost entirely on events in Washington and Moscow. Kennedy did this. Khrushchev did that. U.S. troops moved from A to B. Soviet forces moved from C to D. And so on. The history of the Cuban missile crisis told in the movie, “Thirteen Days,” is like this. It is true that both before the movie appeared in 2000, and after, some fine historians have departed from the Washington-Moscow exclusivity, and have begun to make use of the data our project has been generating since the 1980s, and generated additional data themselves. But for various reasons, they and we have failed to break through and change public perceptions of the crisis. As a consequence discussion of the contemporary nuclear threat has not moved to where it needs to be: focused on abolishing nuclear weapons from this planet.
What is chiefly omitted from this mythological version of October 1962 is what we sometimes call the Cuban, Cuban missile crisis: the physical and psychological reality faced during the crisis by everyone in Cuba, including the more than 43,000 Russians who were, with Cuban collaboration, preparing for war with the U.S. In Cuba, the crisis was not a chess match or any other kind of game, nor was it a test of wills between the superpowers. In Cuba, the crisis was experienced as preparation for the last battle, for Armageddon, an event that Cuban leaders and their constituents had been anticipating for a year and a half, ever since they had foiled the CIA-backed invasion of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, on Cuba’s southern coast, in April 1961. This meant preparing to fight to the death. It meant carrying the fight to the Americans in every way possible, even though Cuba had no chance of surviving an all-out war with the U.S. Above all, it meant adhering to a code of conduct with deep roots in Cuban history (a history grasped neither by Washington nor Moscow): no surrender; no compromise; no negotiations. It meant dying honorably. It meant taking as many of the enemy down with you as possible.
Notice that the Cuban, Cuban missile crisis requires no imagination whatever to conjure up Armageddon. The Cubans, and the Russians on the island, imagine it for us. They thought their fates were sealed: all of Cuba was about to disappear; therefore, the way to convert the imminent meaningless slaughter of Cubans and Cuba, along with their Russian comrades on the island, to the glorious martyrdom of the Cuban nation was to nuke the United states the moment the anticipated U.S. attack on Cuba had begun. Kennedy be damned and Khrushchev be damned. Cuba was going under and so, those in Cuba fervently hoped and planned, was the United States of America.
The Letter, 27 October 1962:
A “harsh and terrible … solution”
By the fall of 1990, we had been researching the Cuban missile crisis for roughly five years. Many scholars of the crisis told us we had set out on a fool’s errand. It was now more than a quarter century after the crisis—long enough, they argued, for most of the relevant facts to be known and fitted into the history of U.S. foreign policy. But the received wisdom was lopsidedly U.S.-centric. For a quarter century after the crisis, Western scholars had virtually no access to Russian or Cuban sources—either documents or senior officials responsible for making their governments’ key decisions during the crisis. In addition, almost all of the relevant U.S. documentation was still classified as well.
On the afternoon of November 23, 1990, while we were working on the logistical details of a conference on the crisis on the Caribbean island of Antigua (scheduled for January 3-7, 1991), a paper bombshell arrived unbidden from Havana. Our assistant, David Lewis, came dashing into our office and handed us his quick, Spanish-to-English translation of a letter, published earlier that day in Cuba, from Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev dated October 26/27, 1962. It had been FAXed to us by Cuban diplomats in Washington, DC. The cover note asked rhetorically, “No es interesante?” (“Isn’t this interesting?”)
Many people of a certain age can tell you in great detail and with confidence exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned that JFK had been assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Psychologists call this sort of memory eidetic: memory so vivid, often involving all the senses, that one’s recollection may seem to be almost as acute as real-time experience. An eidetic memory approximates total, multi-sensory recall. In remembering when they first learned of JFK’s death, for example, many find themselves fighting back tears, more than a half-century after the death of someone they never met, and whom they may not have thought of in many years. Many decades from now, people who watched the events of 9/11 unfold on television will doubtless recall the events of that day with a vividness that will surprise them, each time the subject arises, especially each September 11th, when the media will be filled with images of the tragedy.
In recalling our first glimpse of Fidel’s letter, we remember that it was about 4:00 PM; we were sitting at a folding table on the upper floor of Brown University’s Center for Foreign Policy Development, where we had moved our Cuban missile crisis project earlier that year from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. We were drinking Constant Comment tea and eating popcorn, as we assembled materials for the Antigua conference. We remember asking—several times—if our assistant, David Lewis, was sure about the translation. He was. That was the moment, for us, when almost everything we had previously believed about the Cuban missile crisis began to break apart and melt away, like a glacier unable to retain its integrity in the heat of the changed climate.
Now, telling you that we have eidetic memories of our first exposure to Fidel’s letter will only get us so far. Telling you about it may not be terribly interesting to you, though it is of course to us. So here is what we suggest, by way of showing you what we felt like.
What follows is the complete text of Fidel Castro’s “Armageddon letter” to Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, which we first saw on November 23, 1990. We urge you not to read the text of the letter until you repeat to yourself, several times, the headline (in bold) of the received view of the crisis:
Nothing that happened on the island of Cuba—nothing involving the Cubans and Russians on the island—had any significance for the cause, evolution, level of nuclear danger, or resolution of the Cuban missile crisis!
Now read the letter, along with the contextual material we have added (indented and with the identifier J&j) to help you get inside Fidel’s mindset. Then you’ll know what he knew or thought he knew as he was writing this desperate letter to Khrushchev:
Hello, Nikita; Goodbye World:
Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev, October 27, 1962
[7:00 AM Saturday October 27, Havana, Cuba]
Dear Comrade Khrushchev:
From an analysis of the situation and the reports in our possession, I consider that the aggression is almost imminent within the next 24 to 72 hours.
[J&j: The Americans are preparing for a massive attack on Cuba. Hundreds of attack planes are massed in Florida and preparing to attack. The plan is to attack Cuba, once the command is given, with 1,200 bombing runs on the first day alone. It will be a huge air attack. In addition, tens of thousands of fully armed troops are loading onto amphibious vessels in south Florida, and heading toward Cuba. The landing is scheduled to occur near the city of Mariel, west of Havana, following which the U.S. troops will fight their way east toward Havana. As it happens, many of the Russian nuclear warheads are stored just south of Mariel, near the town of Bejucal, in a hillside bunker, guarded by a Russian special intelligence unit of the KGB.]
There are two possible variants: the first and likeliest one is an attack against certain targets with the limited objective of destroying them; the second, less probable although possible, is invasion. I understand that this variant would call for a large number of forces and it is, in addition, the most repulsive form of aggression, which might inhibit them.
[J&j: The U.S. airstrike against Soviet missile sites is coming. The invasion of Cuba will follow, in order for the Americans to certify the removal of all Soviet nuclear weapons, and to remove the revolutionary government and replace it with a government of Cuban exiles living in Miami, who will be willing to rule Cuba in a way that is consistent with Washington’s desires.]
You can rest assured that we will firmly and resolutely resist attack, whatever it may be.
The morale of the Cuban people is extremely high and the aggressor will be confronted heroically.
[J&j: We anticipate our total destruction. We have been waiting for this moment ever since the failed, CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by 1,300 Cuban exiles in April 1961. There is nothing we can do to stop the Americans from destroying Cuba, other than surrender, which is unthinkable. We are prepared to disappear beneath the Caribbean Sea. But Comrade Nikita, do not worry about us. We 7.5 million Cubans are doomed only in the physical sense. We are ready to die honorably for Cuba, martyrs in the fight against imperialism.]
At this time I want to convey to you briefly my personal opinion.
If the second variant is implemented and the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.
[J&j: At the first sign that the invasion of our island has begun, I urge you to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the United States. Never again will the world have to tolerate aggression by the world’s biggest bully. Cuba will be honored to have provided the occasion for the total destruction of the U.S.]
I tell you this because I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be, for there is no other.
[J&j: Of course, ordering the destruction of the U.S. requires a momentous decision by you and your colleagues. But Uncle Sam is totally out of control—a monster trampling whole nations like ours underfoot without fear of retribution in kind. They have been warned. It is time to act.]
It has influenced my opinion to see how this aggressive policy is developing, how the imperialists, disregarding world public opinion and ignoring principles of the law, are blockading the seas, violating our airspace and preparing an invasion, while at the same time frustrating every possibility for talks, even though they are aware of the seriousness of the problem.
[J&j: We will continue to try to destroy the U.S. planes now overflying our island on an hourly basis. Their violation of our sovereignty is humiliating to us. And each plane might be the first plane to begin the bombing attack on our people.]
You have been and continue to be a tireless defender of peace and I realize how bitter these hours must be, when the outcome of your superhuman efforts is so seriously threatened. However, up to the last moment we will maintain the hope that peace will be safeguarded and we are willing to contribute to this as much as we can. But at the same time we are ready to calmly confront a situation which we view as quite real and quite close.
[J&j: You have the awesome responsibility to destroy the U.S. when their invasion commences. We Cuban comrades also have had an awesome responsibility, which we have understood ever since the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961: to prepare our people to be martyred for our just and glorious cause. They are prepared. We are all prepared. We are now living our last minutes, perhaps hours, in calm equanimity, proud to provide you with a just cause for the annihilation of the United States, the leader of the entire imperialist world.]
Once more I convey to you the infinite gratitude and recognition of our people to the Soviet people who have been so generous and fraternal with us, as well as our profound gratitude and admiration for you, and wish you success in the huge task and serious responsibilities ahead of you.
[J&j: Please remember us, remember Cuba, when it comes time to write the history of the moment when righteous representatives of the oppressed resisted the Great Imperialist Entity, just before it was destroyed once and forever!]
The Clarification, January 5, 1991:
“We should wipe them off the face of the earth”
Less than two months after we first saw the letter, we participated in our Antigua conference, where Felix Kovaliev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry Archives, added a chilling coda to Fidel’s Armageddon letter. The letter, Kovaliev told the conference, was written in a bunker beneath the Soviet embassy in Havana. Fidel and the Russian Ambassador, Aleksander Alekseev, had worked on it together through the night of October 26/27 1962. Two days after Fidel’s letter was sent to Khrushchev, on October 29, Alekseev sent a cable to Khrushchev in an effort to clarify what he, Alekseev, thought might be some ambiguity in Fidel’s own letter.
Alekseev’s account provides a rare window on a leader struggling, in the fog of a deep and confusing crisis, with the catastrophic options he is facing, as Cuba prepares for Armageddon. Fidel wants to tell Khrushchev what is on his mind—martyrdom, and the necessity of Khrushchev’s participation by ordering the destruction of the United States. At the same time, Fidel wanted to come across to Khrushchev as fully rational, in control of his emotions. He wants to appear logical, as Alekseev told us. He doesn’t want to alarm Khrushchev, but only to inform him of the situation the Cubans, and the Russians in Cuba, are facing.
We invite you to vicariously join Fidel and Alekseev, in the wee hours of the morning of October 27, 1962, as Fidel struggles to find a way to avoid alarming Khrushchev, while asking him to nuke the United States in the event of an invasion he believes is both inevitable and imminent. As usual, Alekseev is chain-smoking cigarettes while Fidel, also as usual, puffs on one cigar after another. Both are eating sausages and drinking strong Cuban coffee to stay alert. The air circulation is negligible. It is almost impossible to see through the smoke from one side of the small room to the other. A non-smoking visitor would have felt suffocated, but Fidel and his friend, “Alejandro,” are energized by the pollution they are generating. Both are aware that they are approaching awful and awesome decisions.
Here is the relevant portion of Alekseev’s cable, exactly as it appears in the official English translation from the Russian Foreign Ministry Archives:
On the 27th of October, at 2:00 AM Cuban time, [Cuban President Osvaldo] Dorticós called me at my apartment and said that Fidel Castro had already left to see me for an important conversation. Fidel stayed at my place until 7:00 AM Cuban time. Explaining the critical nature of the moment, he dictated and dictated again the letter sent to you. Fidel sometimes dictated, and sometimes made drafts by himself until he reached the final version. I asked him directly, “Do you mean to say that we should be the first ones to strike a nuclear blow against the enemy?” “No,” answered Castro; “I do not want to say this directly. But, under certain circumstances, we should forestall them without waiting to experience ourselves the perfidy of the imperialists and the first nuclear blow from their side. If they attack Cuba, we should wipe them off the face of the earth!” He was positive that an attack was inevitable, and he said there were only five chances in a hundred that it would not happen.
Both Fidel and Alekseev told us years later that they felt that the U.S. war against Cuba might begin at any moment. Thus, Fidel felt it was urgent to get the proper message to Moscow as soon as possible. As one of Fidel’s colleagues, Jorge Risquet, said at the Antigua conference, “Fidel might not have had the time to send it later; it’s not easy to write a letter amid radioactive rubble.”
Our initial reaction to Fidel’s letter and Alexeev’s “clarification” was rather schizoid. Intellectually, Fidel’s letter, as clarified by Alekseev, seemed perfectly clear. On the last weekend of October 1962, Fidel had told Khrushchev what he thought was about to happen: a massive airstrike and an invasion of Cuba. Next, he had asked Khrushchev to respond to the expected U.S. attack and invasion by nuking the United States, totally destroying it, killing its roughly 185 million inhabitants. But emotionally, we found it difficult to come to grips with the implications of what Fidel’s letter seemed to imply. What in the world would it be like, we wondered, to make such a request? What would drive a leader to urge his powerful ally to assist in the martyrdom of one’s entire country?
We saw two options: (1) Fidel had during the missile crisis become suicidal, or possibly already had suicidal tendencies that became manifest only as the crisis seemed to be careening toward all-out war; or (2) there must be some vast piece of the Cuban missile crisis that we knew nothing about—some information that would help us, if we understood it, to stand vicariously in Fidel’s shoes during the crisis and conclude, as he had, that the least-worst option for Cuba was to ask his Soviet ally to destroy the United States in a nuclear attack, just as Cuba was being totally destroyed. It seemed on the face of it quite unlikely that Fidel had been in the grip of some presumed suicidal demons. After all, although everything about Fidel’s reign in Cuba was controversial, he had by 1991 ruled Cuba creatively and forcefully for 32 years, in the face of tremendous U.S. hostility. How does someone who is suicidal do that? He doesn’t. So, we thought, we must be missing something—something big.
Of course, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But we thought it had to be connected to events on the island of Cuba, where Fidel spent the entire crisis, and which the CIA during the crisis and American scholars ever since saw basically as a jungle-covered parking lot for Russian missiles. Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s chief of staff and speechwriter once told us unapologetically that he thought then, and still thought (in 1990), that Fidel and the Cubans were “bit players” who were basically irrelevant to the crisis. [More than a decade later, Ted would revise his view and join us in Havana for a discussion with Castro.]
Fidel Castro, we would learn later, decided to publish his missile crisis correspondence with Khrushchev at this time in part to insert his own, and Cuba’s, point of view into the discussion at our Antigua conference. Fidel’s letter was the most discussed element of a discussion that was disorienting for the Americans. None of us, whether scholars or close associates of JFK like Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had ever before participated in an extensive discussion of the events of October 1962 from the Cuban point of view, let alone with senior Cuban officials and scholars. We learned a lot. For the first time we found ourselves discussing formerly un-researchable subjects like Cuban troop movements and Cuban intelligence assessments of the U.S. threat to the island. But we heard nothing that helped us understand Fidel’s Armageddon letter to Khrushchev. We couldn’t empathize. We could not yet inhabit the history that Cubans lived in October 1962. We could not yet stand in Fidel’s shoes and write the letter he had written. The next step would be taking our team to Havana and cross-questioning Fidel, as he attempted to contextualize his own letter. That conference convened one year after the Antigua discussions, meeting from January 9-12, 1992, at the National Conference Center in Havana, Cuba.
The Reflection, January 9, 1992:
“We took it for granted that we were going to disappear”
At the Havana conference, our Cuban and Russian colleagues continued to fill in details of the “Cuban, Cuban missile crisis”: the crisis as it appeared from the island to the 7.5 million Cubans and 43,000 Russians who were preparing to defend Cuba against all odds, to the last man woman and child on the island. We were getting closer to an appreciation of the situation in Cuba before, during and after the Cuban missile crisis.
In the following short “highlight film” of a few things we learned at the conference, and following the conference, we switch to the present tense, because this was how we heard it at the time, in January 1992. The Cubans and Russians who were on the island during the crisis spoke with a degree of emotion and conviction that was very powerful. It was obvious that most of the people in the conference room—the Cubans and Russians—were sharing a common montage of eidetic memories of an unforgettable moment in their lives.
The CIA is wrong. There are more than 43,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, rather than the roughly 5,000 the CIA estimated. The Soviet nuclear warheads have arrived and the Soviet forces in Cuba are preparing to use them in an effort to repel the U.S. invasion. In addition, Soviet forces are actively preparing to attack the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay with, as we learned later, short-range tactical nuclear weapons. Like the U.S., the Soviet Union is also operating at a very high level of military alert, just short of readiness for nuclear war. At roughly the same time Fidel sends his Armageddon letter to Khrushchev, Soviet forces in Cuba are ordered to change into their Soviet uniforms, in order to honor their country by dying in their own uniforms. (They have previously tried to disguise themselves as Cubans.)
The Cubans are on a war footing. A quarter of a million troops are pledged to fight, as Fidel writes during the crisis, to “the last man, woman and child on this island capable of holding a weapon.” In the east of Cuba, Defense Minster Raul Castro will lead a Cuban guerrilla force and, along with Soviet forces in the region, take the fight to the invading Americans, initially by destroying the base at Guantanamo. In central Cuba, including Havana, Fidel himself will assume command. While the nuclear forces in Cuba remain under Soviet control, all Soviet and Cuban forces on the island assume (wrongly) that the war will go nuclear almost immediately, when the Americans nuke the Cuban beaches, and the Soviets reply in kind. In the west, Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara is prepared to retreat with his forces into the caves of the tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Rio and, as the U.S. is settling into its occupation of Havana, his forces, along with a Soviet contingent equipped with Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, will attack whatever is left of Havana and destroy it, killing all of the occupying force.
By the last weekend of October 1962, tiny Cuba has become the hinge of the world. The hinge can give way at any moment that any commander decides, for any reason, to start shooting. Once the shooting starts in earnest, a catastrophic nuclear convulsion will likely follow, an eventuality that is embraced by Castro, and by most Cubans and Soviets in Cuba, but which strikes terror into Kennedy and Khrushchev, who struggle mightily to control the Frankenstein’s monster they have created.
Under these conditions, Fidel Castro asks Nikita Khrushchev to nuke the U.S. when the expected invasion commences. “If the invasion had taken place in the situation that had been created,” Fidel tells the January 1992 conference participants, “Nuclear war would have been the result. Everybody here was simply resigned to the fate that we would be forced to pay the price, that we would disappear.” He recalls being utterly convinced that the Cuban people preferred martyrdom to simply being destroyed meaninglessly by the overwhelming U.S. attack and invasion, which Fidel believes is inevitable and, by October 26-27, 1962, imminent. The fuse of Armageddon, according to Fidel’s understanding, could be lit at any moment on the final weekend of October 1962. Just as Cuba is to be wiped off the face the earth, the U.S. should also be totally and irrevocably destroyed. Fidel’s letter to Khrushchev is written as the last will and testament of the Cuban nation, as imagined by their leader.
We would later learn from Nikita Khrushchev’s son and biographer, Sergei Khrushchev, what his father told him about how he had reacted to Fidel’s Armageddon letter. Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership receive the letter at a moment when Khrushchev and Kennedy are struggling to defuse the crisis short of war. Khrushchev explodes: “What? Is he proposing that we start a nuclear war? That we launch missiles from Cuba?” An aide confirms this. “That is insane. We deployed missiles there to prevent an attack on the island, to save Cuba and defend socialism. And now not only is he preparing to die himself, he wants to drag us with him.” Kennedy never learned about this Armageddon letter from Fidel to Khrushchev. But if he had known about it, he would undoubtedly have shared Khrushchev’s view: Fidel is not just a loose cannon; he is a certifiably suicidal lunatic.
The Truth is Much Scarier Than the Mythology
But we now know that Fidel was far from insane, far from suicidal. He was rational, given that he had concluded that Cuba’s destruction was inevitable (an impression that the Americans were trying to convey, but without sufficiently thinking through the implications of such a strategy). If Fidel’s letter had been the raving of a crazy man, the crisis would have little relevance today, other than the common sense injunction to try to keep crazy people from becoming leaders of countries. In October 1962, rational leaders, making decisions each believed were in their country’s interests, unwittingly went sleepwalking together toward the nuclear abyss, dragging the whole world with them. The Cuban missile crisis is scary and relevant today not because Fidel Castro was crazy, but because he was not crazy! Something like it could happen again, in our 21st century world, with its nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons.
That’s the truth. As the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “The truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it.” You are here today, reading these words, because three leaders got lucky in October 1962. Ask yourself how it feels when you consider that the planet you inhabit today was saved from total destruction in October 1962 principally by luck. Let the idea sink in. Will you bet we’ll get that lucky next time?
Don’t. For more than half a century, we’ve been told that the Cuban missile crisis was a great victory because the Russians blinked and the Americans didn’t (while the Cubans didn’t matter). But that is total bullshit.
If we continue to subscribe to the mythology a Great Camelot Victory of the Cuban missile crisis, we will likely pay insufficient attention to its Great Lesson—that the event was a not a victory of any kind, for anybody. It was instead a colossal failure by rational leaders to steer clear of the abyss of nuclear Armageddon. They deceived themselves, as they discovered when it was almost too late to avoid catastrophe. This is the history that leads to the warning: the next time the world finds itself staring into the nuclear abyss, and war breaks out, the lucky ones will likely be those who die quickly. The living will envy the dead. Their nasty, brutish and short existence will resemble that of Papa and The Boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Moving swiftly and safely to nuclear abolition is the way to save Papa and The Boy, and the rest of us.