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CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS: MORE THAN JUST HISTORY Karen Wald Havana PART I: THE US SIDE As you drive east of Havana along the road to the beaches , just as you pass the medieval fortresses overlooking the sea (left there centuries ago by the Spanish conquistadores), you come upon a tall, white missile jutting its nose into the clear blue sky. This one is inactive, a monument to what almost happened thirty years ago. In 1962, on the heels of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion and the threat of a new one,the Soviet Union installed ballistic missiles in Cuba. The Pentagon learned of their presence, issued an ultimatum -- and the world held its breath. The stand-off over these missiles brought the world even closer to the brink of nuclear disaster than most people realized. Today, little boys in shorts and t-shirts fly kites along the rocky strip of beach, ignoring the missile and the cars filled with strangers coming to stand around it, give speeches and take pictures. The persistent efforts of some university professors, especially James Blight of Brown and Phil Brenner of American, brought the top US, Soviet and Cuban players in that old drama together to rehash what went on -- and what almost happened -- in October 1962. A reliving of history. But is the Cuban Missile Crisis really only an event of the past, of interest primarily to historians? The very intensity of the debate, the determination to ascertain exactly what each side THOUGHT was happening as well as the objective facts, seemed to imply much more. What we are learning here may very well help us prevent a similar crisis in the future, according to former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara -- a man whom many say is trying to spend the rest of his life expiating the guilt he felt for the role he played in the 1960s in some of America's less-than-honorable foreign adventures, such as Vietnam. McNamara's point was simple -- and he repeated it over and over. In crisis situations, such as occurred in 1962, the likelihood of governmental decisions being affected by misjudgment, misinformation and miscalculation make it impossible to predict with confidence the consequences of military actions. In an age of hi-tech weaponry, "crisis management" is uncertain and risky, at best. Therefore, all nations should strive for "crisis avoidance" instead. To the former Defense Secretary, "crisis avoidance" begins with an understanding of each other's actions and the motivations behind them. McNamara cited numerous examples of how this failed before, during and after the missile crisis. Four of these stand out. 1. Before the missile crisis, the Soviet Union and Cuba believed the United States intended to invade the island to overthrow President Castro and remove his government. McNamara denied that this was US intention at the time, but he agreed that it certainly must have looked that way to the Soviets and Cubans. 2. The US believed that the Soviets would not take the unprecedented step of moving nuclear warheads of out the SOviet Union, but in fact there were twenty soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba by October 24, 1962. Their missiles were to be targeted on cities in the US. 3. The Soviets believed they could introduce those missiles into Cuba without detection, and that once the US discovered their presence it would not respond. McNamara contends the Soviets were mistaken to believe this. 4. Equally mistaken was the US belief that the Soviets would not react to a US air attack to "take out" the missiles, as the warhawks were then urging President Kennedy. The likely scenario would have followed up the air strikes with a sea and land invasion, causing at least 100,000 casualties -- to which the US believed the Soviets would not respond. In Moscow, at a previous conference, the Soviets "expressed disbelief we could have thought that," insisting that they would have felt compelled to take some miitary action, somewhere. In light of this, McNamara insisted, it is imperative that parties in conflict "take great care to try to understand how their actions will be interpreted by the other party." McNamara --who went on to head the world bank after he stepped down as Defense Secretary -- reiterated the logic behind the Cuban and Soviet assumption that the US was preparing another invasion of Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs attack. "If I had been a Cuban leader, I think I might have expected a US invasion," he stated candidly. "We had authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion...We did not support it military...but in any event we had assisted in carrying it out. And after the debacle, there were many voiced in the US that said the error was not in approving the Bayt of Pigs operation [but] in the failure to support it with military force -- the implicationb eing that at some point in the future, force would be applied." In addition to this, CIA covert actions against Cuba were continuing, and important voices in the US House and Senate were calling for an invasion. "Contingency plans" had in fact been drawn up for just such an action. Nevertheless, the Kennedy-administration official insisted that his administration never intended to carry out an invasion-- something he will have to forgive the Cubans for being skeptical about, considering that McNamara also insists today that the US poses no threat to the Cuban Revolution. McNamara outlined four basic concerns which he said that every US administration since Eisenhower has had regarding Cuba. THree of these, he says, no longer apply. First, that Cuba was viewed as an agent of the Soviet Union in pursuit of its COld War aims and therefore a direct military threat to US security. Second, the US was concerned over Cuba's support for armed groups "whose goal was to overthrow many, if not all, of the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean (most of which, he sometimes acknowledges, were repressive military dictatorships). A third annoyance was Cuba's "constant, hostile rhetoric directed at the United States" and other governments in the hemisphere. Although the former Defense Secretary acknowledged that the US "also engaged -- and still does -- in considerable propaganda directed at CUba" he dismissed that by saying "rightly or wrongly, we vbiewed our efforts as reacting to, not precipitating, Cuba's." The fourth "concern" -- which is the one McNamara insists is an ongoing one -- was that the US saw the Cuban revolution as "a violator of accepted norms of international behavior, particularly in the fields of political freedom and civil rights." In this last, McNamara is on shaky ground when he argues that US actions have resulted from the fact "that the Cuban government betrayed its promises of a free election and began to establish a dictatorship that violated the civil and political liberties of the Cuban people." In a gross understatement, McNamara admitted that "US support for democracy in the Hemisphere has not always been consistent," but he insisted that this "does not make the defense of democracy by the US hypocritical or insincere." It is hard to understand why not, given that to this date, the US has shown itself willing to accept and defend mostly brutally repressive dictatorships anywhere in the world, as long as US economic interests were protected in those countries.


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