1962: Cuban Missile Crisis – Myth & Reality

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‘I believe that we created, built and manufactured the Castro movement out of whole cloth and without realising it.’

President John F Kennedy to Jean Daniels (October, 1963)

The Myth

North American television, film and media depict the so-called ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ as a trial of strength between the noble (capitalist) United States (which stood for freedom and democracy), and the evil (Communist) country of the Soviet Union (which stood for despotism, tyranny, and slavery). The general mythic narrative still found in text-books and popular entertainment is that US Intelligence discovered that the USSR intended to ship nuclear missiles to the island nation of Cuba (situated just off the coast of North America), together with thousands of expert Soviet military and civilian personnel, to install, service and if need be, ‘fire’ these missiles at the US on behalf of the Soviet Union. President Kennedy instantly ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, awaiting the Soviet fleet. As the Soviet fleet approached (carrying the missiles and personnel) the war of words intensified between the USA and the USSR, with each threatening the other. As the Soviet fleet approached the US naval blockade, General Secretary Khrushchev ordered the fleet to stop, turn-around and return the missiles to the USSR. The capitalist world rejoiced at this victory of US sabre rattling and brinkmanship. The problem with this narrative is that none of it is true.

The Reality

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a historical 13 day event that occurred between October 16th – October 28th, 1962. It is important to remember that Soviet nuclear missiles were already present on Cuba prior to this ‘crisis’ breaking-out, and that the US version of events is purely fictional. When Fidel Castro led the Cuban people to a successful Socialist Revolution in 1959 (ousting the US-backed dictator Batista),  he was undecided on which form of Socialism he followed, or if Cuba would align itself with either China or the USSR. Nikita Khrushchev was a reformists, revisionist Trotskyite, who had demonised Joseph Stalin in 1956, and steered Soviet Russia away from the direct Revolutionary path. China rejected the criticism of Joseph Stalin, and the subsequent Soviet policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between capitalism and Communism, because it meant that the oppressed masses of the world had no ‘right’ or ‘ability’ to rise-up and over-throw their oppressors. Indeed, whilst Castro led his band of Cuban volunteers in Cuba, it was China that openly backed his Revolution, with the USSR staying very much on the sidelines. This initial difference can be seen as Fidel Castro had leading members of the Cuban Socialist Party exiled to Czechoslovakia for daring to create a direct link with Moscow that by-passed his governmental authority. As the Soviet Union was concerned about losing influence in the world to Communist China, it started making a more concerted effort in the region to court Fidel Castro and influence the direction of the Cuban Revolution.

Between April 17th –19th, 1961, President Kennedy was persuaded by the CIA to launch the disastrous ‘Bay of Pigs Invasion’ of Cuba, which saw the US Airforce, and US Navy support a CIA-trained Brigade of essentially Cuban exiles in an attempted counter-revolution. This force was decisively defeated, and eventually surrendered to Cuban Revolutionary forces. This led to an intensification of Cuban-USSR diplomatic activity behind the scenes which led to the Soviet Union placing SA-2 missile sites across Western Cuba. The SA-2 was a highly effective Soviet surface to air missile self-defence system, that granted the Cuban military the ability to shoot-down US military aircraft with ease. President Kennedy was made aware of the presence of these missiles in August, 1962, following a CIA intelligence report gathered from U-2 spy-plane fly-overs of Cuban territory. John McCone, the head of the CIA, was agitating for a show of strength against the Communist Bloc, and President Kennedy responded by putting thousands of military reservists on alert, coupled with a media offensive demonising Cuba and its under-hand Soviet allies (but at the same time, President Kennedy ordered the halt of all further U-2 flights over Cuba). What had irritated John McCone was the fact that the Soviets were able to operate with impunity on the high seas – transporting whatever they wanted to Cuba. McCone briefed Kennedy that the next logical step for the Soviets was to place nuclear weapons on Cuba. In September, 1962, Khrushchev authorised the first shipment of Soviet R-12 medium-range nuclear missiles to Cuba, aboard the merchant vessel Indigirka – these missiles arrived in Cuba on October 4th, 1962. US spies operating in Cuba, began reporting a substantial build-up of Soviet military and civilian personnel on Western Cuba, stating that it involved the importation and installation of missiles. Following yet another CIA briefing informing President Kennedy of developments, he authorised the re-instatement of U-2 flights over Cuba in October, and it was during these fly-overs that the presence of Soviet nuclear weapons was detected. In the meantime, the Soviets continued to send nuclear weapons and associated technology to Cuba, prompting President Kennedy to initiate a naval blockade of the island. The problem with this was that US naval ships were told not to engage the Soviet ships, and this led to Soviet ships simply steaming through the blockade, rendering it ineffective. The image presented to the US populace, however, was that the ‘evil’ Soviets were being kept at bay by the blockade. In reality, President Kennedy could do nothing tangible to stop the Soviets. The false propaganda offensive in his own country was nothing but a face-saving device, designed to make him look re-electable to the general public. On the surface, President Kennedy had to appear to be standing-up to the ‘nasty’ Soviets, when behind the scenes there was considerable panic. This issue was not decided by Soviet ships turning-back (away from US power), but rather in secret, behind closed doors. In clandestine diplomatic communications, President Kennedy buckled to Soviet demands for US nuclear missiles to be removed from Turkey and Italy, although in public only the deal about Turkey was announced at the time. For this US back-down, Khrushchev ordered the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba – a move that frustrated Fidel Castro at the time, who interpreted it as a betrayal of Cuba.

Book Reference:

Reid-Henry, Simon, Fidel and Che – A Revolutionary Friendship,Walker * Company, (2009) Pages 251-271.

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