Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Nuclear War That Didn't Almost Happen

President John F. Kennedy with General Curtis LeMay and the Joint Chiefs, October 1962.

Anyone who has spent any time reading the fine print of history, has known for some time that the Cuban Missile Crisis did not bring the world to the "brink" of nuclear war. From the minute President John F. Kennedy took a stand against the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, both sides were doing everything they could to avoid war.

Now, more than half a century after the crisis, newly declassified documents further support these facts.

It has long been part of the JFK mythology that his administration looked the leaders of the U.S.S.R. in the eye and "the other fellow just blinked," as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said at the time.

But in the years following the end of the crisis, reports that the United States had agreed to withdraw Jupiter nuclear missiles from U.S. installations in Turkey, made it clear that the two sides made a deal to end the crisis. And each side got something it wanted.

When word got out about the removal of the missiles in Turkey, the U.S. government described them as "obsolete." Turns out they had just become operational a few months earlier.

The United States also agreed not to make any further attempts to invade Cuba.

The crisis was said to go on for thirteen days. But, according to Associated Press reporter Peter Orsi, who has analyzed the newly released documents, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev recalled his ships carrying nuclear equipment to Cuba the day after JFK announced his "quarantine" of the island. That means the vessels were steaming home almost as soon after the confrontation as they were able to turn around.

"As the historical record has expanded, the image of the resolute president has given way to the resolution president," says security analyst Peter Kornbluh.

Yes it was a tense time. Yes President Kennedy, publicly, took an important stand. However, we now know on the same day a U.S. warship dropped depth charges over a Soviet submarine and the Soviets shot down a US spy place, Robert F. Kennedy was secretly meeting with the Soviet Ambassador in Washington to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

"This thing about eyeball-to-eyeball, it never was. That confrontation never took place," says Kornbluh.

Not a bad thing, one might say. Ah, but the myth is so much more dramatic.

Or, in the oft-quoted words of that wonderful John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

"You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?"
"No sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

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Cuban Missile Crisis Re-Examined

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