I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis only vaguely. I had just begun at P.S. 196 and was in fourth grade. Our teacher, the stately and beloved Mrs. Rose Drayson, did her best to keep a straight face as she had us practice making ourselves safe from an all-out nuclear attack by hiding under our desks with our hands over the tops of our heads, presumably to protect ourselves from falling debris when the school exploded. Could she really have bought into the idea that the real danger from a nuclear war was going to be from falling plaster? She seemed to! But what did I know? I was only nine and I thought so too.
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of those terrible weeks in 1962. The world has changed and not changed. American policy towards Cuba is still confused and confusing. A Castro, although not the same one as then, is still running the show in Havana. The Soviet Union, of course, is no more. But the threat that nuclear weapons constitute to the future of the world as we know it—that is still very much in place. And, in its own way, the question of nuclear weaponry still constitutes the best example of the greatest of society’s unsolved riddles: how to deal with scientific knowledge that, for all it poses an ongoing threat to the future the world as we know it, simply cannot be unlearned, only—if possible—contained and controlled.
The events of October 1962 are surely still etched clearly in the minds of all of us who were old enough then to understand the significance of the events as they unfolded in Washington, Moscow, and the Caribbean. In the summer of 1962, after disastrous failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion attempt of the previous spring, Cuba and the Soviet Union began secretly to build missile launching sites in Cuba that could accommodate medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. The cover of secrecy was maintained for some time too, but then in October of that year, an American reconnaissance flight was able to bring home photographic proof of what was going on. It was this indisputable proof that triggered the crisis. In all fairness, it has to be noted that the United States had already stationed more than one hundred missiles with the capability of striking the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads in the U.K. (in 1958) and in Italy and Turkey in 1961. Nevertheless, President Kennedy made it clear that our government would not tolerate the presence of such missiles a mere ninety miles from Florida and initiated a military blockade effectively to prevent offensive weapons with nuclear capability from being delivered to Cuba. The blockade was set in place. Tensions were sky-high. No one knew where it would all lead, but, in the end, reason prevailed and an agreement, made public on October 28, 1962, was reached. Publicly, the U.S.S.R. agreed to withdraw all offensive nuclear weaponry from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade the island. And privately our country agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey and Italy.
The Soviets kept their end of the bargain, quickly removing the missiles already in place and returning them to the Soviet Union. The blockade was duly lifted soon thereafter, formally ending on November 20, 1962, almost one year to the date before President Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas. By September of the following year, all American missiles were gone from Turkey and Italy. The crisis was over.
I have found myself returning again and again to the details of that October in the last few weeks. Partially, that is simply because this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis. It’s odd to think that President Kennedy, if he were alive, would be ninety-five years old. (He was born the year after my father, but somehow he remains young in my mind, frozen in time at age forty-six.) Khrushchev, if he were alive, would be 118 years old. (It’s interesting to me that I completely missed the fact back then that Nikita Khrushchev was old enough to be President Kennedy’s father. I think I thought of them as contemporaries, as I think many of us did.) But it is not only the fact that a full half-century has passed since I was taught to protect myself from an aggressive Soviet attack against our nation by hiding under my desk in Mrs. Grayson’s classroom that brings the events of that October to mind. Even more than that sense of time past, it is the relationship of those events to the current efforts of Iran to acquire nuclear missiles that is bringing me back again and again to the topic.
After the U-2 pilot returned to base with incontrovertible photographic evidence that the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba that could hit targets in the continental United States with nuclear warheads, the president convened the group of advisors that would henceforth be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council and charged them with elaborating the various courses of action that our country could take to respond to the situation in Cuba.
They responded with a list of six possibilities, some slightly overlapping but each constituting a specific path forward. The U.S. could launch a full-scale invasion of Cuba with the specific goal of overthrowing the Castro government and replacing it with a democratically elected one. The U.S. could bring the full force of its Air Force to bear and aim solely at destroying the missile sites, but without our country undertaking to meddle in Cuban internal politics. Alternately, the U.S. could do nothing at all, which non-course of action could reasonably be justified by noting that the Soviets already had the capability of launching innumerable nuclear missiles at the U.S. from its own territory. A fourth possible course of action, similar to the third, could have been to do nothing but also to threaten mighty reprisals should the Cubans not dismantle the missiles bases on their own. A fifth could have been to focus solely on diplomatic efforts to convince the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. And finally, there was a sixth course of action the president’s advisors suggested and which the president ultimately accepted, which was to use the US Navy to set up a blockade that would prevent Soviet ships from arriving in Cuban ports.
Each of these paths forward was fraught with danger. Each, other than the option to do nothing at all, involved some level of risk that the United States could have ended up at war with the Soviet Union. Would that war have involved the use of nuclear weaponry? It surely could have! Would such a war necessarily have involved aggressive action aimed at the territory of each country? The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, led directly to the Spanish-American War, after all, and that war was fought neither on American nor Spanish soil! (Most of the fighting took place in Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.) And yet, for all the danger involved in doing something, as opposed to doing nothing, the results were favorable. The president chose neither the path the most likely to lead to a war between the United States and the Soviet Union—that would surely have been the decision to opt for an all-out invasion of Cuba—nor did he choose the path that not possibly have led to a war. Instead, he chose a middle-ground approach, making it clear that the U.S. would not tolerate nuclear missiles less than 100 miles from its shores but also allowing the Soviets the time and the space to back off gracefully without appearing to cave under the president’s threats and, at least formally, without losing face.
How could these lessons be applied to the situation in Iran today? The same range of options exists, after all, today: to do nothing, to threaten war, to mount a blockade, to launch a unilateral all-out attack, or to attempt to resolve the dispute diplomatically. Diplomacy, clearly every sane person’s first choice, seems totally to have failed. An all-out war, unilaterally undertaken and ruthlessly pursued until Iran’s nuclear capability is ground to dust, is every sane person’s last choice. And so, not unlike President Kennedy in his day, we have opted for a blockade or, to use the modern term, a set of sanctions intended so severely to cripple the economy of Iran that its leaders will, in the end, have no choice but to do whatever it takes to bring those sanctions to an end. Are those sanctions working? At least a little bit, they clearly are. The rial, Iran’s currency, has dropped dramatically in value. The sense that things will only get worse seems finally to have dawned on the Iranians, both the citizenry and the leadership. Will they respond by doing whatever it takes to convince the world to end the sanctions? I suppose we’ll all find out soon enough. But I remain convinced that the Soviets backed down neither because U Thant asked them to nor because President Kennedy demanded that they do, but because the Soviet leadership finally accepted the possibility that not doing so could possibly have led to a war that they would almost definitely have lost. They wouldn’t and couldn’t ever have said that in public. But I believe that the key motivating factor behind their decision to capitulate was their sense that doing so served their own best interests far more than sticking to their guns, literally, ever could have.
Will the world remain committed firmly enough to the sanctions currently squeezing the Iranians and their currency to bring the leaders of Iran around to the conclusion that abandoning their nuclear pretensions is the decision that best serves, not Israel’s interests or the interests of the United States, but their own interests? I do not see that happening unless the threat of war is as real to the leaders of Iran as it was to the members of the Politburo in 1962. And that is why I encourage any of you who have not yet done so to sign the petition we have undertaken to complete by the last day of October and then send to the White House. The petition, which you can access easily by going to www.change.org and then typing “Shelter Rock” into the search box, encourages President Obama to stick to his guns, to honor his commitment to take nothing at all off the table until our honorable and just goal of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power capable of sharing its weaponry with any or all of the violent terrorist groups it openly supports is attained, and to know how crucial and vital we consider this issue to be…for ourselves, for our country, for Israel, and for the world.
To defer speaking out until after the presidential election is over would be, I believe, a mistake: this is not an issue tied to the specific individual sitting in the Oval Office but to our country’s resolve to prevent a catastrophe from taking place.