"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cuban Missile Crisis

Noam Chomsky has written (Guardian 10.16.12) an excellent summary of the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on newly-released documents and recordings of internal White House deliberations at the time.  We were indeed on the brink of nuclear war, but opinions differ on whether or not JFK’s aggressive and muscular strategy added to the tension or were appropriate uses of realpolitik threats and intimidation. 

Chomsky takes a third tack – that the US was following its hegemonic policies of world supremacy and domination.  Even though Kennedy had many chances to defuse the situation by agreeing to Khrushchev's offers – take your missiles aimed at the USSR out of Turkey and agree not to invade Cuba – he refused to do so.  It was important for the United States never to back down on its policy of the extension of American power.

The options were quite acceptable in one way.  The Turkey-based missiles were antiquated and could be replaced eventually by more modern ones; and a promise not to invade Cuba would have been covered by current International Conventions.  In other words, we would lose nothing by getting rid of the missiles in Turkey and would project a more Internationalist and peaceable face to the world with our respect for Cuban integrity. A flat refusal to do either, says Chomsky, showed American desires for hegemony and world domination at their worst.

This is where I disagree.  Not just the US but all world powers have used every means at their disposal to extend their perimeter.  Aggression, invasion, colonization, oppression and worse was par for the course throughout history.  Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine came charging out of the Steppes and laid waste to all in their path from Europe to the Far East.  They took no prisoners, marauded their way to world domination.  Were they the only ones to do so?  Perhaps they are remembered for their particular brutality, but they did what rulers always do.  The Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the English, the Japanese, the Germans all did the same.

It may have been ‘world domination and hegemony’ in Chomsky’s mind, but it was the military expression of a world power no different from any other.

At the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask whether or not such intractability was necessary, bringing us to the brink of nuclear holocaust as it did.  It turned out the Kennedy was right and that Khrushchev blinked, but he might easily have stood his ground.  Even if the Kennedy strategy was correct – that the USSR would not risk nuclear annihilation – the very mounting of the threat was itself a risky proposition:

The official commanders "did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue crew or crew-member from arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons", or even from broadcasting a mission that would have sent off "the entire airborne alert force without possibility of recall". Once the crew was airborne, carrying thermonuclear weapons, he writes:

"It would have been possible to arm and drop them all with no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the systems."

While the chance of error was certainly there, it did not and could not have deterred Kennedy.  To capitulate to the Soviet Union was absolutely unthinkable.  The United States in the early 60s had not recovered from the Red Scare of the 50s and the Soviet Union was far more an ‘evil empire’ then than when Ronald Reagan uttered the phrase.  The Soviet Union was in high form, bellicose, unpredictable, and not yet feeling any of the erosion in economic status which occurred before its end.  For Kennedy to say to Khrushchev “OK, you’re right.  We are the rogue state which breaks international treaties, threatens weaker neighbors, and unreasonably aims its missiles at you, a sovereign state” was unconscionable then as it would be now.  This is not the way the US does business, nor any other country. 

Although the US publically talks peace in the Middle East, a military option to attack Iran is definitely on the War Room table, even though it might well provoke a serious regional if not international conflict. We still believe – with the weight of history behind us – that military threats and intimidation work if you have a clear superiority in arms, men, and materiel. If Iran attacked Israel would we convene a roundtable peace conference? We have invaded Guatemala, backed civil conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on the assumption that military power was simply an extension of foreign policy.  Chomsky, ever the peacenik and ‘progressive’ observer, feels that such a policy is immoral and indefensible:

Political subversion had been a constant theme for years, invoked, for example, when Eisenhower overthrew the parliamentary government of Guatemala and plunged the tortured country into an abyss from which it has yet to emerge. And the themes remained alive and well right through Reagan's vicious terror wars in Central America in the 1980s. The "political subversion" consisted of support for those resisting the murderous assaults of the US and its client regimes, and sometimes – horror of horrors – perhaps even providing arms to the victims.

Chomsky is too infected by his ‘progressive’ outlook, his hope that America can be different, can jettison its irresponsible and profligate ways, and be a more positive force in the world, and his selective reading of history.  America did what all great powers do – use their might to attain their political ends.

Finally it was Khrushchev who resolved the crisis by his dual Turkey-Cuba propositions.  He knew that Kennedy would have to agree because ‘any rational man’ would have to agree that they were reasonable; and refusing them would risk the opprobrium of the world, an eventuality that Kennedy did not want.

At the same time, Kennedy got what he wanted.  The Cuban missiles were dismantled as were the Turkish ones.  The US continued its attempts to destabilize Cuba if not overthrow Castro, and it replaced the outdated missiles in Turkey with more potent and mobile Polaris submarine nuclear weapons.  Ultimately through the continued pressures of presidents from Kennedy to Reagan, the Soviet Union threw in the towel and disintegrated.

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