While Trump taunts North Korea, what can we learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis?

US Air Force F-106As in flight in the early 1960s. Planes such as these were on high alert and ready to launch airstrikes on Soviet missile positions in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. (U.S. Air Force photo) US Air Force F-106As in flight in the early 1960s. Planes such as these were on high alert and ready to launch airstrikes on Soviet missile positions in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. (U.S. Air Force photo)

For more than a year it has felt as if the risk of a nuclear war is increasing. But while this may be the tensest year in many decades in terms of the fear of nuclear confrontation, it is not the worst in our history. That distinction belongs to a moment when the survival of our species was most precarious: the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today’s world echoes Cold War fears of nuclear war. Experts have long predicted that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program would reach the point of being a danger to the continental United States, but few could have predicted that the president of the United States would be making such aggressive statements in response. Adding to the nuclear worries, the Trump administration decertified the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran on Oct. 13. That deal had lifted some economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a halt to that nation’s development of nuclear weapons; should it fall apart, we could add a nuclear arms race in the Middle East to the one in East Asia.

While a comparison with the Cuban Crisis does little to reassure us, it can offer some lessons on how our government avoided disaster in an even worse situation. We have been closer to the brink and still found a way to walk back. It has been 55 years since that crisis unfolded over the course of an infamous “13 Days,” to use the title of Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir, from the Oct. 15 to 28, 1962. What follows here are some excerpts from America’sfirst comments on the crisis, appearing in our Nov. 3 and Nov. 10 issues of 1962. In what is perhaps no surprise, the editors were enthusiastic supporters of the first Catholic president’s response. In the Current Comment section of the Nov. 3 issue, they wrote:

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In announcing a “quarantine” of Cuba the night of Oct. 22, President Kennedy blended admirable restraint with vigorous determination to defend the Western Hemisphere against the threat of Communist aggression. Once it became clear, as it did on Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, that the Soviet Union, despite lying disavowals, was turning Cuba into a nuclear base capable of striking any city in the hemisphere from Hudson Bay in Canada to Lima in Peru, the President had no realistic choice except to meet the challenge. He might have done more than to declare a limited blockade aimed at stopping the delivery of offensive weapons to Cuban ports and airfields. He could scarcely have done less.

The editors also made it clear they had no doubts about who was at fault in the crisis, continuing:

Since this tension is solely the responsibility of the Soviet Union, which for the past 17 years has pursued a reckless and unprincipled policy of expansion and subversion, President Kennedy’s action went to the heart of the danger. By delivering an ultimatum to Moscow, he did not drive the world to the brink of war. The world was already there. What he did was to give the aggressors the most solemn warning possible that unless they reined in their mad and brutal ambition, they would be obliged to face the ultimate consequences. In so acting, the President may well have preserved the peace. The next few weeks will tell.

President Kennedy blended admirable restraint with vigorous determination to defend the Western Hemisphere against the threat of Communist aggression

Today, some historians would dispute the easy labels of the United States as good and the Soviet Union as bad. We now know that the Soviets placing the missiles in Cuba was a response to U.S. missiles having been placed first in Turkey. Furthermore, there is a convincing argument that the failed attempt to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs attack prompted Mr. Castro to support the placement of the missiles by the Soviet Union in the first place. Such hindsight, however, was not available to the public at the time. That, plus an understandable affinity for a political system that guaranteed political, economic and religious freedom, may help to explain the editors’ staunchly anti-communist conclusion:

May the God whom they arrogantly deny keep them from the insane folly of a war which they cannot win, and which, should it come, will lay desolate the face of the earth. For our part, we make our own the inspiring, prayerful words with which the President concluded his fateful address: ‘Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right—not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere and, we hope, around the world.’

We can desire peace, the editors suggested, without feeling an affinity for our adversaries. Still, in the Nov. 10 issue, America ran an editorial titled “After the Victory,” arguing that perhaps war could be preferable to an untenable alternative:

Like people everywhere, Americans blanch at the thought of a nuclear holocaust. Nevertheless, so firmly are they persuaded that there exist higher values than mere survival that there is a point beyond which they cannot be pushed. They would not rather be Red than dead, as Moscow suspected they might be.

May the God whom they arrogantly deny keep them from the insane folly of a war which they cannot win, and which, should it come, will lay desolate the face of the earth.

While fully understanding how terrible and awful a war would be, if there are principles and interests we cannot abandon, peace is not fully up to us. Our adversaries will get a say, too. This acknowledgment raises other concerns about our determination to defend these principles. The willingness to fight if needed was singled out by the editors of America as a reason peace prevailed:

We cannot be sure, of course, what it was that finally led [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, after several momentous days of blustering and face-saving indecision, to capitulate. But it could have been evidence, which grew as the crisis deepened, that the American people as a whole were standing solidly with their President, come what might. The Kremlin had good reason to conclude that, if it didn’t back down, it would have a real shooting war on its hands. In this sense, the Cuban crisis, which may well have been provoked to test the mettle of our people, can be said to have been a turning point in the Cold War.

The editors of America praised the unity of the American people and their readiness to support military action if needed. Times have changed. The country today is dangerously divided, and the president is not making serious efforts to unify it. Furthermore, the experiences of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have led the American people to be far more skeptical of their government’s arguments for the necessity of war than during the Kennedy era. In the leadership of the U.S. church, and in the editorial stance of America, there is also an increased willingness to resist the outbreak of conflict. Yet, what the editors of America in 1962 clearly suggest to us is that there can indeed be times when the willingness to fight a war can be needed to prevent its outbreak.

The real war of October 1962

Even during the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the America editors kept an eye on another crisis unfolding in October 1962: the brief but real shooting war between China and India in the intimidating terrain of the Himalayas. Somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 soldiers died, the majority from freezing in fighting that took place at elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 meters above sea level. Those elevations also forced the fighting to be limited largely to rifles, machine guns, mortars and head-on infantry charges, leading to brutal, up-close fighting that made headlines around the world despite being largely forgotten today. In the Nov. 10 issue’s Current Comment section, the editors wrote:

The angry rallying of the people of India to Prime Minister Nehru in that country’s current crisis reminds us that there is more to the Indian character than devotion to “nonviolence.” When pushed too far, Indians, like anyone else, will react. Indeed, the Red Chinese aggression on India’s northern frontier has worked profound changes within the nation—in politics and in international attitudes.

The editors were clearly excited to welcome an ally into the anti-communist fight:

New Delhi has at long last recognized its true friends. In an unprecedented move on Oct. 29, India requested military help from the United States. That help will be given without delay, red tape or recrimination. It is enough for us to know that Red China and the Soviet Union have been shown in their true colors in Asia.

But with an insight into the internal dynamics of the communist world that would not be integrated into U.S. foreign policy until 10 years later under Richard Nixon, America observed an emerging Sino-Soviet split:

Possibly overlooked, amid the tumult of rapid diplomatic exchanges and military developments in the Cuban crisis, was new evidence of the deepening rift between Moscow and Peking. On the same day Chairman Khrushchev informed President Kennedy that he had given orders for the dismantling of missile bases in Cuba, Peking was urging Cuba to shatter the military blockade. Meanwhile, across the globe, the continuing Red Chinese offensive in the Himalayas had caught Moscow, the sometime supplier of military aid to India, squarely in the middle between the two Far Eastern powers.

It is enough for us to know that Red China and the Soviet Union have been shown in their true colors in Asia.

Also in the Nov. 10 issue the editors wrote about how the “Red” Chinese invasion of India, which was a “non-aligned” power, should make the other neutral, newly independent, post-colonial nations of the world more aware of the dangers of communist aggression. “Why,” the editors asked, “have Ghana, Egypt, Indonesia and the others remained so strangely silent? Why has the West alone made any response to India’s desperate call for help and moral support?” In hindsight, it can seem strange that in the period during which humanity came the closest we have ever been to nuclear war and extinction, America’s editors should have been so concerned with other conflicts around the world. But America’s editors, like most citizens of the United States at the time, saw in the Sino-Indian war only more evidence of a sustained, constant and presumably coordinated plot of communist aggression and expansion: “Events in India have demonstrated that all of us, committed and uncommitted alike, are in the same boat.”

In the attention paid to other events during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one is reminded that there are always other conflicts. As we learn about the latest North Korean missile test and watch the experts discuss which new U.S. city is now in range, the fighting in places like Syria, Yemen and Ukraine continues unabated, usually far from the headlines. Indeed, one of the most underreported geopolitical events of this year was a standoff between China and India over the same border they fought over in 1962. India and China are the two most populous nations on earth, and both have become formidable nuclear powers in the decades since 1962. Perhaps one day it will seem strange that today’s editorial staff did not pay as much attention to the relationship between China and India as America’s editors did in 1962.

For now, let us try to learn from 1962 and commit ourselves to ensuring that there will be a future in which both peace and freedom survive and prosper.

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