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Caribbean lessons

10.10.2014 | By Serhiy Semenov

A few days ago former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt compared the crisis in Ukraine with the Cuban missile crisis that broke out in October 1962. He believes the major geopolitical players and opponents (then the US vs. the USSR, today the US and the EU vs. Russia) have unwillingly reached an extreme point of confrontation as well as that time. Neither Barack Obama, nor Vladimir Putin, nor even the Europeans want war, but the threat of its occurrence is growing, said Schmidt and added that the Caribbean crisis is a model for de-escalation of the situation: Peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis was possible because both parties realized the extent of their responsibility. It would not hurt diplomats around the world to learn such lesson

Let us try to understand this lesson. First of all, we would like to note that in contrast to the current situation, in the early 1960s there was no nuclear parity between the USSR and the US. Americans had 6,000 nuclear warheads and the Soviet Union had only 300. The US had an advantage in means of delivery. For example, 8 Soviet nuclear submarines carried 24 missiles, and 9 American nuclear submarines had 327 missiles, more than the Soviet Union had on all types of carriers. Finally, in 1961 Americans deployed Jupiter MRBMs (mediumrange ballistic missiles with a range of 2,400 km and estimated time of flight of 10 minutes in Turkey.

The main stabilizing factor in the unequal nuclear standoff was the understanding that even a single ballistic missile could cause irreparable damage. For example, according to various estimates, Little Boy atomic bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima, had a yield of 13 18 kilotons of TNT and killed 70,000 80,000 people (more than 200,000 people including those who died of radiation sickness). The yield of warheads of Soviet missiles of the time (P12 and P14) was 1 megaton, by dozens of times higher than that of Hiroshimas Little Boy.

Nonetheless, distinct advantage in the impact point time of the US missiles worried Soviet generals and political leaders. Only the revolution in Cuba gave the USSR an opportunity to try, to mock America in the words of Nikita Khrushchev. Once Cuban emigrants trained and armed in the US have made an unsuccessful outbreak attempt landing in the Cuban Bay of Pigs in April 1961, Cuba started looking for the Soviet military protection. So when at the end of May 1962 the Soviet delegation arrived to Cuba and proposed Castro to locate Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, he agreed on the very same day. Well, then the sequence of events had a speed of a sled rushing down a snowy mountain. Never again, either before or after the Cuban missile crisis, mankind was so close to nuclear destruction.

Even though in terms of presentday logic location of Soviet missiles in Cuba was an adequate response to American missiles in Turkey, at that time Americans did not think that way. At that time the USA considered themselves (as, indeed, always) a global leader and were not going to share this title with anyone. Within a few days the US and the Soviet Union steamed each other with bellicose statements to the extent that the global military conflict was very probable.

On October 22 President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation announced creation of a 926kilometer (500 nautical miles) quarantine zone around the island for the Soviet merchant ships which carried missiles with nuclear warheads, military equipment and personnel to Cuba (the USSR planned to deploy five units of nuclear missiles, four motorized rifle regiments, two tank battalions, flying squadrons and 50,000 personnel on the island). The blockade was to begin on October 24 and vessels accompanied by Soviet submarines were on their way to the island.

After that, Kennedy has taken several actions. On the day of the blockade he sent a telegram to Khrushchev asking him to use good judgment and not to violate the quarantine. Khrushchev replied with a snooty message saying that the Soviet vessels would not follow the demands of American warships. On the next day the American ambassador to the UN presented photographs clearly depicting placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. On the same day John F. Kennedy gave an order to put the US Strategic Air Force on alert at the level preceding the military conflict, which was never declared either before or after the Cuban missile crisis.

Preparing for war Americans cleaned shelves in grocery stores. In the USSR retirement of conscripts was suspended. Thus, the Soviet Union and the US were approaching the point of no return, which actually was the intention of American generals, convinced that the Soviet Union had neither the heart nor the means to strike back.

In this situation Khrushchev found the strength to be prudent. On October 26 John A. Scali, American journalist, known for his connections with the Department of State, contacted the administration and said that a member of staff of the Soviet Embassy Alexander Fomin (who was an undercover KGB resident in the United States Alexander Feklistov) offered him to meet. They talked at the Occidental restaurant, which now is marked by a plaque. Feklistov said that the USSR was willing to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for guarantees of nonaggression against the island. It was like pulling up a brave front. After all, the Soviet Union brought nuclear missiles to Cuba not so much to protect the island, as to threaten the US. What other choice did it have?

However, the events unfolded based on their own logic. Although the process of reconciliation started, on the next day, October 27, an American plane was shot down over Cuba and the military demanded that Kennedy ordered invasion of the island. Kennedy was stretching the time until on the night of October 28 his brother, Robert, met Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and said that John was ready to give guarantees in exchange for missiles. The statement was brought to Khrushchev and the answer was affirmative.

Thus, diplomacy of the leaders of the USSR and the US was exercised in secret, not only from the battlehungry military, but also from nations whose fate it decided. But while for the Soviet people it was regular and they did not even think about it, in the United States everything was different. There is an interesting scene in the American movie Thirteen Days, dramatizing the Cuban missile crisis and based on a book by Robert Kennedy and tape recordings of meetings in John F. Kennedys office. The thing is that the Soviet Union in exchange for removing its missiles from Cuba demanded that the US removed their missiles from Turkey, because of which the whole scandal broke. To maintain its appearance the US asked for six months to do that. In the film one of the partakers of the meeting in the office of the American president says The press will be all over it. Months from now, we are not gonna care, are we? And another man replies: We will deal with it then. And so it happened that in reality nobody remembered the missiles in 6 months.

Up to the present day experts argue about the winner in the Cuban missile crisis. But in fact the main prize was that the leaders of the two nuclear powers on the brink of mutual destruction found the strength not to do bidding of the hawks and agree on terms mutually beneficial for their countries (maybe more favorable for someone, that is not so important now). And realizing that it was possible, they never crossed the red line in the future.

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