Cuban Missile Crisis: Lessons for Iran?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

By Saul Landau

Fifty years ago millions of people around the world worried that nuclear war would break out between the U.S. and USSR over demands that the Soviet Union withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba. Many Americans still think that an angry Fidel Castro wanted to launch them at U.S. targets because he hated our country At that time, although few Americans know, the United States was preparing an invasion of Cuba, following a Kennedy-authorized terrorist war against the island, which included assassination plots.

As the cause-blame debate evolves over what to do about the mere possibility that Iran might now be developing a nuclear weapon, it appears few have learned much from the countless publications about the frightening October 1962 events.

Historians and the major media have ignored the real cause of the crisis. In August 1961, four months after Kennedy suffered a humiliating defeat of CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, and in the midst of daily raids by U.S.-based CIA agents against Cuban people and property, Castro sent Che Guevara to Uruguay to meet Richard Goodwin, Kennedy’s Latin America adviser. At this secret session, Che told Goodwin that “Cuba  “would like a Modus Vivendi” with the United States and is prepared to offer certain policies to please the U.S. administration. “They could not give back the expropriated properties – the factories and banks…..but could pay for them in trade…They could agree not to make any political alliance with the East – although this would not affect their natural  sympathies.” Che also offered in effect to stop exporting revolution. (White House, Memorandum for the President Conversation With Commandante Ernesto Guevara of Cuba, August 22, 1961)

As  a token of sincerity, Che gave Goodwin a gift for Kennedy, a box of JFK’s favorite Montecristo #1 cigars.

At the ensuing debriefing session at the White House, as Goodwin told the story, Kennedy lit a cigar saying, “You know Goodwin, I should have had you smoke the first one,” apparently referring to the CIA’s poison cigar plot aimed at killing Fidel. Goodwin advised the President that Che’s offer spelled “weakness” and suggested Kennedy “turn up the heat.” So, following Cuba’s “modus vivendi” offering, Kennedy increased the numbers of terrorist attacks against Cuba. Castro, taking these actions as Kennedy’s hostile response to his offer, accepted the Soviet offer to place nuclear missiles on the island.
Cuba assumed the U.S. would quickly learn of the new weaponry in Cuba – including tactical nuclear missiles designed to deter an invasion of U.S. ground forces – and understand its deterrent effect. Instead, the U.S. remained ignorant of the missile placement and continued to pursue its terrorist war (Operation Mongoose and Autonomous Operations as the CIA called them) against the island while expanding its regular military force, which Cuba interpreted, logically, as an invasion threat.

From July through the end of summer 1962, the Soviet weapons and medium range bombers arrived on the island. Finally, in September 1962, U.S. satellite photos identified the larger, not the tactical, missiles and the Missile Crisis began. The U.S. public, like most of the sane world trembled, as Soviet ships approached a U.S. military fleet in the Atlantic, fearing nuclear war could easily erupt. Indeed, U.S. military chiefs advocated attacking, and even annihilating Cuba.

Kennedy, more thoughtfully, fearing that a nuclear war would devastate mankind, sought a diplomatic solution, which he achieved when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in Cuba in return for the U.S. removal of its missiles from Turkey and a pledge not to invade Cuba.

The two leaders played a dangerous game with the lives of millions of people, but it worked successfully. The U.S. surprisingly remained ignorant of Cuba’s tactical missiles, and Khrushchev had to twist Castro’s arm to finally and unilaterally withdraw them.

What lessons can Obama learn from the dangerous tactics of Kennedy and Khrushchev, neither of whom wanted war?

Sergei Khruschev, Nikita’s son, concluded: “We were very lucky that the two leaders were balanced and reasonable and their policy was not shoot first then think, but first think, then, second time, think and maybe don’t shoot at all.” A Moscow Times editorial pointed to the differences between the 1960s and 2012. “An increasing number of unpredictable states demand a presence and voice in the global arena at a time when the United States, and all the more so Russia, are unable to control their activities as they once did during the Cold War. It is unclear whether these new players understand what Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy did 50 years ago: that there is a line in global affairs that it would be unthinkable to cross.”

Iran, for example, has done nothing to imperil U.S. national security. Nevertheless, the national security mavens and major media pundits have decided that if Iran succeeds in building a nuclear weapon, U.S. security would be threatened. Some want to bomb Iran to prevent – or at least delay – that process; others think that punishing Iran through sanctions will force Iran’s leaders to scuttle their administration to search for a third option, as did President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sergei Khrushchev advises Obama “to negotiate with Iran, not threaten them with different sanctions, but negotiate on the highest level, American president with Iranian president,” The former Soviet Premier’s son continued. “And I don’t think that President Kennedy loved Khrushchev more than President Obama loves President Ahmadinajad, but they understood – Kennedy and Eisenhower – that you have to talk with them, because if you are talking with your enemy, you can influence them and you can better understand them.”

President Obama might well apply this advise to his Cuba policy as well, and begin talking to Havana as well as to Teheran.

Saul Landau’s FIDEL and WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASEW STAND UP are available on DVD from

One comment

  1. a lesson of history many need for carefully evaluate…

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