The Week the World Stood Still

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<p>For more than half a
century, Noam Chomsky has been a relentless voice for justice, democracy, and
universal human rights. Having revolutionized modern linguistics in the 1950s,
Chomsky turned his attention to the Vietnam War in the following decade, and has
since authored dozens of books on activism, propaganda, and American foreign
and domestic policy. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where he has worked and taught since
1955. His latest book, <em>
<a href=””>Occupy</a>
</em>, appeared
in May 2012. Chomsky was a named an Utne Visionary in 1995. </p>
<hr />
<br />
<em>This post originally appeared at <a href=””>TomDispatch</a>.
Read Chomsky’s earlier TD posts <a href=””>here</a>. </em>
<p>The world stood
still 50 years ago during the last week of October, from the moment when it
learned that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba until
the crisis was officially ended — though unknown to the public, only
<p>The image of
the world standing still is the <a target=”_blank” href=”″>turn of phrase</a> of Sheldon Stern, former historian at the
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, who published the authoritative version
of the tapes of the ExComm meetings where Kennedy and a close circle of
advisers debated how to respond to the crisis. Those meetings were secretly
recorded by the president, which might bear on the fact that his stand
throughout the recorded sessions is relatively temperate compared to other
participants, who were unaware that they were speaking to history. </p>
<p>Stern has <a target=”_blank” href=”″>just published</a> an accessible and accurate review of this
critically important documentary record, finally declassified in the late
1990s. I will keep to that here. “Never before or since,” he concludes, “has
the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of
dangerous deliberations,” culminating in “the week the world stood still.”</p>
<p>There was good
reason for the global concern. A nuclear war was all too imminent, a war that
might “destroy the Northern Hemisphere,” President Dwight Eisenhower had
warned. Kennedy’s own judgment was that the probability of war might have been
as high as 50%. Estimates became higher as the confrontation reached its peak
and the “secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the government was put
into effect” in Washington,
as described by journalist Michael Dobbs in his well-researched bestseller on
the crisis (though he doesn’t explain why there would be much point in doing
so, given the likely nature of nuclear war). </p>
<p>Dobbs quotes
Dino Brugioni, “a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile
buildup,” who saw no way out except “war and complete destruction” as the clock
moved to “<a target=”_blank” href=”″>one minute to midnight</a>,” the title of his book. Kennedy’s
close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, described the events as “the
most dangerous moment in human history.” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
wondered aloud whether he “would live to see another Saturday night,” and later
recognized that “we lucked out” — barely.</p>
Most Dangerous Moment”</strong>
<p>A closer look
at what took place adds grim overtones to these judgments, with reverberations
to the present moment.</p>
<p>There are
several candidates for “the most dangerous moment.” One is October 27th, when U.S. destroyers enforcing a quarantine around Cuba were
dropping depth charges on Soviet submarines. According to Soviet accounts,
reported by the National Security Archive, submarine commanders were “rattled
enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive
yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945.”</p>
<p>In one case, a
reported decision to assemble a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness was
aborted at the last minute by Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who may have
saved the world from nuclear disaster. There is little doubt what the U.S. reaction
would have been had the torpedo been fired, or how the Russians would have
responded as their country was going up in smoke. </p>
<p>Kennedy had
already declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch (DEFCON 2), which
authorized “NATO aircraft with Turkish pilots … [or others] … to take off,
fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb,” <a target=”_blank” href=””>according to</a> the well-informed Harvard University
strategic analyst Graham Allison, writing in the major establishment journal <em>Foreign
candidate is October 26th. That day has been selected as “the most dangerous
moment” by B-52 pilot Major Don Clawson, who piloted one of those NATO aircraft
and provides a hair-raising description of details of the Chrome Dome (CD)
missions during the crisis — “B-52s on airborne alert” with nuclear weapons
“on board and ready to use.”</p>
<p>October 26th
was the day when “the nation was closest to nuclear war,” he writes in his
“irreverent anecdotes of an Air Force pilot,” <a target=”_blank” href=”″>
<em>Is That Something the Crew Should Know?</em>
</a>On that
day, Clawson
himself was in a good position to set off a likely terminal cataclysm. He
concludes, “We were damned lucky we didn’t blow up the world — and no thanks
to the political or military leadership of this country.”</p>
<p>The errors,
confusions, near-accidents, and miscomprehension of the leadership that Clawson
reports are startling enough, but nothing like the operative
command-and-control rules — or lack of them. As Clawson recounts his experiences during the
15 24-hour CD missions he flew, the maximum possible, the official commanders
“did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue-crew or crew-member from
arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons,” or even from broadcasting a
mission that would have sent off “the entire Airborne Alert force without
possibility of recall.” Once the crew was airborne carrying thermonuclear
weapons, he writes, “it would have been possible to arm and drop them all with
no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the
<p>About one-third
of the total force was in the air, according to General David Burchinal,
director of plans on the Air Staff at Air Force Headquarters. The Strategic Air
Command (SAC), technically in charge, appears to have had little control. And
according to Clawson’s
account, the civilian National Command Authority was kept in the dark by SAC,
which means that the ExComm “deciders” pondering the fate of the world knew
even less. General Burchinal’s oral history is no less hair-raising, and
reveals even greater contempt for the civilian command. According to him,
Russian capitulation was never in doubt. The CD operations were designed to
make it crystal clear to the Russians that they were hardly even competing in
the military confrontation, and could quickly have been destroyed.</p>
<p>From the ExComm
records, Stern concludes that, on October 26th, President Kennedy was “leaning
towards military action to eliminate the missiles” in Cuba, to be
followed by invasion, according to Pentagon plans. It was evident then that the
act might have led to terminal war, a conclusion fortified by much later
revelations that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed and that Russian
forces were far greater than U.S.
intelligence had reported.</p>
<p>As the ExComm
meetings were drawing to a close at 6 p.m. on the 26th, a letter arrived from
Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, sent directly to President Kennedy.
His “message seemed clear,” Stern writes: “the missiles would be removed if the
U.S. promised not to invade Cuba.”</p>
<p>The next day,
at 10 am, the president again turned on the secret tape. He read aloud a wire
service report that had just been handed to him: “Premier Khrushchev told
President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from
Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey” — Jupiter missiles
with nuclear warheads. The report was soon authenticated. </p>
<p>Though received
by the committee as an unexpected bolt from the blue, it had actually been
anticipated: “we’ve known this might be coming for a week,” Kennedy informed
them. To refuse public acquiescence would be difficult, he realized. These were
obsolete missiles, already slated for withdrawal, soon to be replaced by far
more lethal and effectively invulnerable Polaris submarines. Kennedy recognized
that he would be in an “<em>insupportable </em>position if this becomes
[Khrushchev’s] proposal,” both because the Turkish missiles were useless and
were being withdrawn anyway, and because “it’s gonna — to any man at the
United Nations or any other <em>rational</em> man, it will look like a very fair
Power Unrestrained</strong>
<p>The planners
therefore faced a serious dilemma. They had in hand two somewhat different
proposals from Khrushchev to end the threat of catastrophic war, and each would
seem to any “rational man” to be a fair trade. How then to react? </p>
<p>One possibility
would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization could survive and
to eagerly accept both offers; to announce that the U.S. would adhere to
international law and remove any threat to invade Cuba; and to carry forward
the withdrawal of the obsolete missiles in Turkey, proceeding as planned to
upgrade the nuclear threat against the Soviet Union to a far greater one —
only part, of course, of the global encirclement of Russia. But that was
<p>The basic
reason why no such thought could be contemplated was spelled out by National
Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard dean and reputedly the
brightest star in the Camelot firmament. The world, he insisted, must come to
understand that “[t]he current threat to peace is <em>not</em> in Turkey, it is in <em>Cuba</em>
where missiles were directed against the U.S. A vastly more powerful U.S.
missile force trained on the much weaker and more vulnerable Soviet enemy could
not possibly be regarded as a threat to peace, because we are Good, as a great
many people in the Western hemisphere and beyond could testify — among
numerous others, the victims of the <a target=”_blank” href=””>ongoing terrorist war</a> that the U.S. was then waging against
Cuba, or those swept up in the “<a target=”_blank” href=”″>campaign of hatred</a>” in the Arab world that so puzzled
Eisenhower, though not the National Security Council, which explained it
clearly. </p>
<p>Of course, the
idea that the U.S.
should be restrained by international law was too ridiculous to merit
consideration. As <a target=”_blank” href=””>explained recently</a> by the respected left-liberal
commentator Matthew Yglesias, “one of the main functions of the international
institutional order is precisely to <em>legitimate</em> the use of deadly
military force by western powers” — meaning the U.S. — so that it is
“amazingly naïve,” indeed quite “silly,” to suggest that it should obey
international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. This was
a frank and welcome exposition of operative assumptions, reflexively taken for
granted by the ExComm assemblage.</p>
<p>In subsequent
colloquy, the president stressed that we would be “in a bad position” if we
chose to set off an international conflagration by rejecting proposals that
would seem quite reasonable to survivors (if any cared). This “pragmatic”
stance was about as far as moral considerations could reach. </p>
<p>In a review of
recently released documents on Kennedy-era terror, Harvard University Latin
Americanist Jorge Domínguez <a target=”_blank” href=””>observes</a>, “Only once in these nearly thousand pages of
documentation did a U.S. official raise something that resembled a faint moral
objection to U.S.-government sponsored terrorism”: a member of the National
Security Council staff suggested that raids that are “haphazard and kill
innocents… might mean a bad press in some friendly countries.”</p>
<p>The same
attitudes prevailed throughout the internal discussions during the missile
crisis, as when Robert Kennedy warned that a full-scale invasion of Cuba would
“kill an awful lot of people, and we’re going to take an awful lot of heat on
it.” And they prevail to the present, with only the rarest of exceptions, as
easily documented.</p>
<p>We might have
been “in even a worse position” if the world had known more about what the U.S. was doing
at the time. Only recently was it learned that, six months earlier, the U.S. had secretly deployed missiles in Okinawa
virtually identical to those the Russians would send to Cuba. These
were surely aimed at China
at a moment of elevated regional tensions. To this day, Okinawa remains a major
offensive U.S.
military base over the bitter objections of its inhabitants who, right now, are
less than enthusiastic about <a target=”_blank” href=”″>the
dispatch</a> of accident-prone V-22 Osprey helicopters to the Futenma military
base, located at the heart of a heavily populated urban center.</p>
Indecent Disrespect for the Opinions of Humankind</strong>
deliberations that followed are revealing, but I will put them aside here. They
did reach a conclusion. The U.S.
pledged to withdraw the obsolete missiles from Turkey, but would not do so
publicly or put the offer in writing: it was important that Khrushchev be seen
to capitulate. An interesting reason was offered, and is accepted as reasonable
by scholarship and commentary. As Dobbs puts it, “If it appeared that the
United States was dismantling the missile bases unilaterally, under pressure
from the Soviet Union, the [NATO] alliance might crack” — or to rephrase a
little more accurately, if the U.S. replaced useless missiles with a far more
lethal threat, as already planned, in a trade with Russia that any “rational
man” would regard as very fair, then the NATO alliance might crack. </p>
<p>To be sure, when Russia withdrew Cuba’s only deterrent against an ongoing
U.S. attack — with a severe threat to proceed to direct invasion still in the
air — and quietly departed from the scene, the Cubans would be infuriated (as,
in fact, they understandably were). But that is an unfair comparison for the
standard reasons: we are human beings who matter, while they are merely
“unpeople,” to adapt George Orwell’s useful phrase.</p>
<p>Kennedy also
made an informal pledge not to invade Cuba, but with conditions: not just
the withdrawal of the missiles, but also termination, or at least “a great
lessening,” of any Russian military presence. (Unlike Turkey, on Russia’s borders, where nothing of
the kind could be contemplated.) When Cuba is no longer an “armed camp,”
then “we probably wouldn’t invade,” in the president’s words. He added that, if
it hoped to be free from the threat of U.S.
invasion, Cuba must end its
“political subversion” (Stern’s phrase) in Latin America.
“Political subversion” had been a constant theme for years, invoked for
example when Eisenhower overthrew the parliamentary government of Guatemala and
plunged that tortured country into an abyss from which it has yet to emerge.
And these themes remained alive and well right through Ronald Reagan’s vicious
terror wars in Central America in the 1980s. Cuba’s “political subversion” consisted of
support for those resisting the murderous assaults of the U.S. and its
client regimes, and sometimes even perhaps — horror of horrors — providing
arms to the victims.</p>
<p>The usage is standard.
Thus, in 1955, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had outlined “three basic forms of
aggression.” The first was armed attack across a border, that is, aggression as
defined in international law. The second was “overt armed attack from within
the area of each of the sovereign states,” as when guerrilla forces undertake
armed resistance against a regime backed or imposed by Washington, though not
of course when “freedom fighters” resist an official enemy. The third:
“Aggression other than armed, i.e., political warfare, or subversion.” The
primary example at the time was South Vietnam,
where the United States
was defending a free people from “internal aggression,” as Kennedy’s U.N.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson explained — from “an assault from within” in the president’s
<p>Though these
assumptions are so deeply embedded in prevailing doctrine as to be virtually
invisible, they are occasionally articulated in the internal record. In the
case of Cuba,
the State Department Policy Planning Council explained that “the primary danger
we face in Castro is… in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon
the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that
Castro represents a successful defiance of the US,
a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half,”
since the Monroe Doctrine announced Washington’s
intention, then unrealizable, to dominate the Western hemisphere. </p>
<p>Not the
Russians of that moment then, but rather the right to dominate, a leading
principle of foreign policy found almost everywhere, though typically concealed
in defensive terms: during the Cold War years, routinely by invoking the
“Russian threat,” even when Russians were nowhere in sight. An example of great
contemporary import is revealed in Iran
scholar Ervand Abrahamian’s important <a target=”_blank” href=”″>upcoming book</a> of the U.S.-U.K. coup that overthrew the
parliamentary regime of Iran
in 1953. With scrupulous examination of internal records, he shows convincingly
that standard accounts cannot be sustained. The primary causes were not Cold
War concerns, nor Iranian irrationality that undermined Washington’s
“benign intentions,” nor even access to oil or profits, but rather the way the U.S. demand for
“overall controls” — with its broader implications for global dominance — was
threatened by independent nationalism. </p>
<p>That is what we
discover over and over by investigating particular cases, including Cuba (not
surprisingly) though the fanaticism in that particular case might merit
examination. U.S. policy
towards Cuba is harshly
condemned throughout Latin America and indeed
most of the world, but “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” is
understood to be meaningless rhetoric intoned mindlessly on July 4th. Ever
since polls have been taken on the matter, a considerable majority of the U.S. population has <a target=”_blank” href=””>favored normalization of relations</a> with Cuba, but that
too is insignificant. </p>
<p>Dismissal of
public opinion is of course quite normal. What is interesting in this case is
dismissal of powerful sectors of U.S. economic power, which also
favor normalization, and are usually highly influential in setting policy:
energy, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, and others. That suggests that, in
addition to the cultural factors revealed in the hysteria of the Camelot
intellectuals, there is a powerful state interest involved in punishing Cubans.</p>
the World from the Threat of Nuclear Destruction</strong>
<p>The missile
crisis officially ended on October 28th. The outcome was not obscure. That
evening, in a special CBS News broadcast, Charles Collingwood reported that the
world had come out “from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust
since World War II” with a “humiliating defeat for Soviet policy.” Dobbs
comments that the Russians tried to pretend that the outcome was “yet another
triumph for Moscow’s
peace-loving foreign policy over warmongering imperialists,” and that “[t]he
supremely wise, always reasonable Soviet leadership had saved the world from
the threat of nuclear destruction.”</p>
<p>Extricating the
basic facts from the fashionable ridicule, Khrushchev’s agreement to capitulate
had indeed “saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction.”</p>
<p>The crisis,
however, was not over. On November 8th, the Pentagon announced that all known
Soviet missile bases had been dismantled. On the same day, Stern reports, “a
sabotage team carried out an attack on a Cuban factory,” though Kennedy’s
terror campaign, Operation Mongoose, had been formally curtailed at the peak of
the crisis. The November 8th terror attack lends support to Bundy’s observation
that the threat to peace was Cuba,
not Turkey,
where the Russians were not continuing a lethal assault — though that was
certainly not what Bundy had in mind or could have understood.</p>
<p>More details
are added by the highly respected scholar Raymond Garthoff, who also had rich
experience within the government, in his careful 1987 <a target=”_blank” href=”″>account of the missile crisis</a>. On November 8th, he writes,
“a Cuban covert action sabotage team dispatched from the United States
successfully blew up a Cuban industrial facility,” killing 400 workers
according to a Cuban government letter to the U.N. Secretary General. </p>
comments: “The Soviets could only see [the attack] as an effort to backpedal on
what was, for them, the key question remaining: American assurances not to
attack Cuba,” particularly
since the terrorist attack was launched from the U.S. These and other “third party
actions” reveal again, he concludes, “that the risk and danger to both sides
could have been extreme, and catastrophe not excluded.” Garthoff also reviews
the murderous and destructive operations of Kennedy’s terrorist campaign, which
we would certainly regard as more than ample justification for war, if the U.S. or its
allies or clients were victims, not perpetrators.</p>
<p>From the same
source we learn further that, on August 23, 1962, the president had issued
National Security Memorandum No. 181, “a directive to engineer an internal
revolt that would be followed by U.S. military intervention,” involving
“significant U.S. military plans, maneuvers, and movement of forces and
equipment” that were surely known to Cuba and Russia. Also in August, terrorist
attacks were intensified, including speedboat strafing attacks on a Cuban
seaside hotel “where Soviet military technicians were known to congregate,
killing a score of Russians and Cubans”; attacks on British and Cuban cargo
ships; the contamination of sugar shipments; and other atrocities and sabotage,
mostly carried out by Cuban exile organizations permitted to operate freely in
Florida. Shortly after came “the most dangerous moment in human history,” not
exactly out of the blue.</p>
officially renewed the terrorist operations after the crisis ebbed. Ten days
before his assassination he approved a CIA plan for “destruction operations” by
U.S. proxy forces “against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large
electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbor facilities, and
underwater demolition of docks and ships.” A plot to assassinate Castro was
apparently initiated on the day of the Kennedy assassination. The terrorist
campaign was called off in 1965, but reports Garthoff, “one of Nixon’s first
acts in office in 1969 was to direct the CIA to intensify covert operations
against Cuba.”</p>
<p>We can, at
last, hear the voices of the victims in Canadian historian Keith Bolender’s <a target=”_blank” href=”″>
<em>Voices From the Other Side</em>
</a>, the first oral history
of the terror campaign — one of many books unlikely to receive more than
casual notice, if that, in the West because the contents are too revealing.</p>
<p>In the current
issue of <em>Political Science Quarterly</em>, the professional journal of the
association of American political scientists, Montague Kern <a target=”_blank” href=”″>observes</a>
that the Cuban missile crisis is one of those “full-bore crises… in which an
ideological enemy (the Soviet Union) is universally perceived to have gone on
the attack, leading to a rally-’round-the-flag effect that greatly expands
support for a president, increasing his policy options.”</p>
<p>Kern is right
that it is “universally perceived” that way, apart from those who have escaped
sufficiently from the ideological shackles to pay some attention to the facts.
Kern is, in fact, one of them. Another is Sheldon Stern, who recognizes what
has long been known to such deviants. As he writes, we now know that
“Khrushchev’s original explanation for shipping missiles to Cuba had been
fundamentally true: the Soviet leader had never intended these weapons as a
threat to the security of the United States, but rather considered their
deployment a defensive move to protect his Cuban allies from American attacks
and as a desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality in
the nuclear balance of power.” Dobbs, too, recognizes that “Castro and his
Soviet patrons had real reasons to fear American attempts at regime change,
including, as a last resort, a U.S.
invasion of Cuba…
[Khrushchev] was also sincere in his desire to defend the Cuban revolution from
the mighty neighbor to the north.”</p>
of the Earth”</strong>
<p>The American
attacks are often dismissed in U.S.
commentary as silly pranks, CIA shenanigans that got out of hand. That is far
from the truth. The best and the brightest had reacted to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion with near hysteria, including the
president, who solemnly informed the country: “The complacent, the
self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris
of history. Only the strong… can possibly survive.” And they could only
survive, he evidently believed, by massive terror — though that addendum was
kept secret, and is still not known to loyalists who perceive the ideological
enemy as having “gone on the attack” (the near universal perception, as Kern
observes). After the Bay of Pigs defeat, historian Piero Gleijeses <a target=”_blank” href=”″>writes</a>, JFK launched a crushing embargo to punish the
Cubans for defeating a U.S.-run invasion, and “asked his brother, Attorney
General Robert Kennedy, to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw
Operation Mongoose, a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare, and
sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the ‘terrors of the earth’ on Fidel
Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him.”</p>
<p>The phrase
“terrors of the earth” is Arthur Schlesinger’s, in his quasi-official biography
of Robert Kennedy, who was assigned responsibility for conducting the terrorist
war, and informed the CIA that the Cuban problem carries “[t]he top priority in
the United States Government — all else is secondary — no time, no effort, or
manpower is to be spared” in the effort to overthrow the Castro regime. The
Mongoose operations were run by Edward Lansdale, who had ample experience in
“counterinsurgency” — a standard term for terrorism that we direct. He
provided a timetable leading to “open revolt and overthrow of the Communist
regime” in October 1962. The “final definition” of the program recognized that
“final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention,” after
terrorism and subversion had laid the basis. The implication is that U.S. military
intervention would take place in October 1962 — when the missile crisis
erupted. The events just reviewed help explain why Cuba
and Russia
had good reason to take such threats seriously.</p>
<p>Years later,
Robert McNamara recognized that Cuba
was justified in fearing an attack. “If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I
would have thought so, too,” he observed at a major conference on the missile
crisis on the 40th anniversary.</p>
<p>As for Russia’s
“desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality,” to which
Stern refers, recall that Kennedy’s very narrow victory in the 1960 election
relied heavily on a fabricated “missile gap” concocted to terrify the country
and to condemn the Eisenhower administration as soft on national security.
There was indeed a “missile gap,” but strongly in favor of the U.S. </p>
<p>The first
“public, unequivocal administration statement” on the true facts, according to
strategic analyst Desmond Ball in his authoritative study of the Kennedy
missile program, was in October 1961, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell
Gilpatric informed the Business Council that “the U.S. would have a larger
nuclear delivery system left after a surprise attack than the nuclear force
which the Soviet Union could employ in its first strike.” The Russians of
course were well aware of their relative weakness and vulnerability. They were
also aware of Kennedy’s reaction when Khrushchev offered to sharply reduce
offensive military capacity and proceeded to do so unilaterally. The president
failed to respond, undertaking instead a huge armaments program.</p>
the World, Then and Now</strong>
<p>The two most
crucial questions about the missile crisis are: How did it begin, and how did
it end? It began with Kennedy’s terrorist attack against Cuba, with a
threat of invasion in October 1962. It ended with the president’s rejection of
Russian offers that would seem fair to a rational person, but were unthinkable
because they would have undermined the fundamental principle that the U.S. has
the unilateral right to deploy nuclear missiles anywhere, aimed at China or
Russia or anyone else, and right on their borders; and the accompanying
principle that Cuba had no right to have missiles for defense against what
appeared to be an imminent U.S. invasion. To establish these principles firmly
it was entirely proper to face a high risk of war of unimaginable destruction,
and to reject simple and admittedly fair ways to end the threat.</p>
observes that “in the United
States, there was almost universal
approbation for President Kennedy’s handling of the crisis.” Dobbs writes, “The
relentlessly upbeat tone was established by the court historian, Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote that Kennedy had ‘dazzled the world’ through a
‘combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so
brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.'” Rather more soberly, Stern
partially agrees, noting that Kennedy repeatedly rejected the militant advice of
his advisers and associates who called for military force and the dismissal of
peaceful options. The events of October 1962 are widely hailed as Kennedy’s
finest hour. Graham Allison joins many others in presenting them as “a guide
for how to defuse conflicts, manage great-power relationships, and make sound
decisions about foreign policy in general.”</p>
<p>In a very
narrow sense, that judgment seems reasonable. The ExComm tapes reveal that the
president stood apart from others, sometimes almost all others, in rejecting
premature violence. There is, however, a further question: How should JFK’s
relative moderation in the management of the crisis be evaluated against the
background of the broader considerations just reviewed? But that question does
not arise in a disciplined intellectual and moral culture, which accepts
without question the basic principle that the U.S. effectively owns the world
by right, and is by definition a force for good despite occasional errors and
misunderstandings, one in which it is plainly entirely proper for the U.S. to
deploy massive offensive force all over the world while it is an outrage for
others (allies and clients apart) to make even the slightest gesture in that
direction or even to think of deterring the threatened use of violence by the
benign global hegemon.</p>
<p>That doctrine
is the primary official charge against Iran
today: it might pose a deterrent to U.S. and Israeli force. It was a
consideration during the missile crisis as well. In internal discussion, the
Kennedy brothers expressed their fears that Cuban missiles might deter a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, then under
consideration. So “the Bay of Pigs was really
right,” JFK concluded.</p>
principles still contribute to the constant risk of nuclear war. There has been
no shortage of severe dangers since the missile crisis. Ten years later, during
the 1973 Israel-Arab war, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called a
high-level nuclear alert (DEFCON 3) to warn the Russians to keep their hands
off while he was secretly authorizing Israel to violate the cease-fire imposed
by the U.S. and Russia. When Reagan came into office a few years later, the
U.S. launched operations probing Russian defenses and simulating air and naval
attacks, while placing Pershing missiles in Germany with a five-minute flight
time to Russian targets, providing what the CIA called a “super-sudden first
strike” capability. Naturally this caused great alarm in Russia, which unlike the U.S. has
repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare
in 1983. There have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a
first strike minutes before launch, after automated systems gave false alarms.
We don’t have Russian records, but there’s no doubt that their systems are far
more accident-prone.</p>
<p>Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear
war several times, and the sources of the conflict remain. Both have refused to
sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, along with Israel,
and have received U.S.
support for development of their nuclear weapons programs — until today in the
case of India, now a U.S. ally. War
threats in the Middle East, which might become
reality very soon, once again escalate the dangers.</p>
<p>In 1962, war
was avoided by Khrushchev’s willingness to accept Kennedy’s hegemonic demands.
But we can hardly count on such sanity forever. It’s a near miracle that
nuclear war has so far been avoided. There is more reason than ever to attend
to the warning of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, almost 60 years ago, that
we must face a choice that is “stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put
an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”</p>
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on <a target=”_blank” href=””>Facebook</a>. </p>
<p>Copyright 2012
Noam Chomsky</p>
<em>Image of October 1962 EXCOMM meeting held in <a href=”,_Cuban_Missile_Crisis,_29_October_1962.jpg”>public
domain</a>. Image of Chomsky by <a href=”” title=”John Soares” target=”_blank”>John Soares</a>
<a href=””>
</a>.   </em>

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