Peter Hoskin

From the archives: The Cuban Missile Crisis

From the archives: The Cuban Missile Crisis
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48 years ago this week, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end. Here are the two Spectator leading articles that bookended our coverage of those thirteen momentous days in October:

Trial of strength, The Spectator, 26 October, 1962

The West faces a grave situation. It would be absurd to think that the showdown on Cuba is only a Soviet-American affair. Rather it is the testing-ground of the determination of the freedom-loving peoples to defend themselves – one selected by Russia with a view to causing as much confusion as possible in the countries of the Atlantic Alliance and the uncommitted States.

We notice one crucial point at once. The Russo-Cuban calculation has failed in the most crucial zone. For one fact stands out: the almost unanimous vote of the Organisation of American States in support of President Kennedy's action. This is astonishing progress from the vague pro-Castroist, or at least anti-Yanqui, sentiments of a year or two ago. Originally the more progressive countries of Latin America had the same illusions that are still current about Cuba among the European Left. But they have since learned by experience – experience denied to our own Castro-appeasers. Even without the rockets, Cuba has been a hotbed of aggression against its neighbours. Its diplomats and agents have organised subversion. In the most promising democracy of South America, Venezuela, President Betancourt only the other day publicly denounced the Cuban-directed efforts to bring down his regime in bloody destruction.

In the last analysis the legal niceties of the American action are not the crux. If it comes to the point, the defence of our liberties, and of peace, depends on our strength. The core of that strength is the power of the United States. A direct threat to that power, if not firmly rebuffed, would mean the crumbling of the sole real guarantee of freedom and law throughout the world. Liberty has a right to self-defence.

The crash construction of missile sites in Cuba – certainly manned by Soviet troops, in the absence of any qualified Cubans – can only be regarded as a deliberate probing by the Soviet Union of the American will to resist. President Kennedy had no real choice. Weakness here would encourage Soviet expansionism in every area of the world. Our own frontier lies in the Caribbean as well as down the Bernauerstrasse. And it is worth saying once again that while our alliance is to defend liberty and peace, theirs is the opposite. We did not feel in the 1940s that our occupation of Iceland was unfair to the Nazis, even though it too was formally a minor aggression. Still less did we suggest that Malta should be offered to the Nazis in compensation.

We do not believe that the Russians have so far abandoned their senses as to have the slightest notion of starting a war. If they want war, no one can prevent their launching it: but their decision would be general one, and not based on any particular crisis. Cuba (or Berlin) would simply be the pretext, designed to give propaganda cover. The Russians have it in their power to aggravate the crisis, or at least give it every appearance of extreme danger, even without any intention of going further. Hysteria can only encourage such Soviet misapprehensions as remain after Kennedy's unambigious action. The West will need strong nerves.

It is on occasions like this that anti-American lunacy flourishes. Those who assume the implausible worst on every occasion have already started on their ululations. There is no need to deal with most of the arguments raised. There are no more than variants on the theme George Orwell contemptuously noted in the last war, when he wrote of having heard it seriously asserted by 'intellectuals' that American troops were in this country not to fight the Germans but to put down a British revolution.

Some arguments are of a more rational kind. For example, it is said that the Soviet missles in Cuba are simply the equivalent of the American missiles in Turkey. The differences – even apart from the fact that our side should make some sort of mental distinction between our missiles and those of our opponents–- are obvious. Russia's Cubas are Estonia and the other Baltic states. South-Eastern Finland is still in Soviet hands as the result of a war openly motivated by a desire to move Finnish weapons – and in those days guns only! – further from Leningrad.

The bases in Turkey (and the United Kingdom) are under allied control. The NATO alliance is a single power. And the missles on the territory of its members are there openly, and so deterrent rather than provocative. The clandestine Soviet build-up in Cuba is another and more sinister matter. But there is more to it than this. The line of Western defence in Europe stands where it does because it was at this point that Stalinist expansionism was contained. We are now asked to accept a further Soviet advance. But we cannot fail to remember what happened when, exactly six years ago, democracy raised its head in Hungrary. There was no question of American missile bases round Budapest, no desire to go further than neutrality on the Austrian model. Yet the Russians held even this to be against their national interest. They crushed Hungrary's newly-won independence. And it was not suggested that this far graver, and far less provoked, act of the USSR was a legitimate occasion for the United States to threaten nuclear war.

It is quite clear that there has been no current of hysteria in America forcing the President to action. On the contrary, the atmosphere was surprisingly cool and moderate, and the President has taken urgent steps on information of an immediate military nature, and on that alone.

The Soviet provocation was evidently based on some uncertainty in Moscow about President Kennedy's firmness. The United States position has now been made clear and unambiguous. With all the potential dangers in the present situation, we may find in the long run that the air has been cleared, and that negotiation on a world scale can at last be started on the sound basis of mutual comprehension Determination is the best beginning to détente.

Peace preserved, The Spectator, 2 November, 1968

The crisis is not yet over, and will not be over until the Soviet rockets are actually removed from Cuban soil. But we may hope that this will be accomplished, without further bad faith, in the near future. The present favourable situation, and the warrant for optimism in future, is due to the skill and determination of the President of the United States. His actions have not only baffled the current threat to peace; they have also given a clear and, we believe, unforgettable lesson on the nature of present-day international politics to the peoples of the world. Meanwhile, we can register our satisfaction not only that the British Government firmly supported the Americans, but that the British people too, in spite of the complicated nature of the crisis, and in spite of the clouds of misleading propaganda surrounding it, aligned themselves overwhelmingly (as the opinion polls showed) in support of their threatened ally.

Krushchev said last year, on the occasion of Nkrumah's visit, 'Even if all the countries of the world adopted a decision which did not accord with the interests of the the Soviet Union and threatening its security, the Soviet Union would not recognise such a decision and would uphold its rights by relying on force.' Such words should be pondered. But at least they show that the Soviet leader may not be incapable of understanding the more moderate American view.

The rapidity of the Soviet climb-down on Cuba is simply explained. If they had continued for a few more days to maintain their challenge, their missiles would have been destroyed and, even more important, when the smoke had died down it would certainly have been found that the Castro regime was not among the survivors. By rapid retreat they have at least secured their political toehold in the Western hemisphere. Castro's puppet dictatorship will remain an ulcer on the body of Latin America. But at least we can now be certain that more vigorous measures will be taken to prevent the spread of the infection. Krushchev, moreover, had rubbed in the puppet nature of the Cuban regime by agreeing, without 'consulting' Castro, to United Nations handling of events on Cuban soil.

One of the most striking lessons of the whole affair has been the view it has given us of the quality of the Soviet leadership. No one, or at least no one properly informed about international politics, doubted their general intention of harming the free world and expanding their sphere at the expense of democracies. In this sense there was nothing new in their latest manoeuvre. But the tactics with which they attempted to implement their long-term strategical plan were a revelation. What was revealed was a shallow, irresponsible adventurism. President Kennedy was right when he said, 'I call upon President Krushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations.' It was the low quality, the peasant Machiavellianism, the cheap conman's and gamber's quality of mind, which came as a surprise even to those of us who have not credited the Russians with any great political sense in the past.

Yet the Russians, with all the inadequacy of their thinking (even from their own point of view), are not incapable of learning a lesson Cuba should be a striking one for them. And it is to be hoped that the results will lead to the elimination of individual irresponsibilities in the Kremlin, and to strengthening such elements of good sense as exist in the minds of Mr Krushchev and the more moderate of his advisers.

We believe that anyone who read what we said last week will agree that it is not hindsight which gives is the right to comment, and to comment adversely, on some of the attitudes taken in the middle of the crisis by certain periodicals and politicians in this country. International politics does not consist in making debating points. The Russians will grab Turkey, or anywhere else, if they can. If they can't, they won't – regardless of how favourable a vote they might get in a school-boy debating society.

Elsewhere in these pages note is taken of the way in which the hysterical element in British politics have proved themselves to be little more than apologists for totalitarian aggression and an adjunct to the Soviet propaganda machine – an inefficient adjunct, it is true, but it was harder for them than for us to imagine in advance that the Russians would confess that they were liars and cheats. The believers in this view will in future, we imagine, be treated with the contempt they have now so unashamedly earned. But even certain commentators with claims to good sense and integrity showed an unreal attitude to the crisis. Even the Manchester Guardian openly urged that if the Americans were compelled to excise the Cuban bases, we should vote against them in the United Nations.

As for the Observer, it actually chided the Americans for hoping for the end of the Soviet type of dicatatorship. But unless the USSR and its allies evolve to the level of civilisation implied by political democracy, there is a permanent threat to peace. No one in his senses would wish to liberate the subjects of the Moscow and Peking empires by a threat of nuclear war. But equally, it would be absurd to renounce the hope that the better system will prevail – in the interests not only of political humanism but of the long-term prospects of world peace.

Worst of all, Mr Gaitskell started talking about the 'doubtful legality' of the American operation, and even gratuitously obfuscated the issue by suggesting that the Russians would be justified in invading Turkey. This is not the kind of invitation that a Western leader issues. As it is, the only effect it could have had would have been to encourage the Kremlin to imagine that an aggression against one of our NATO partners might find the West divided, undecided and doubtfully willing to help. Fortunately the mobilised strength of the United States, and the resolution of the Commander-in-Chief, were facts which no amount og waffling by impotent outsiders could possibly cancel. If Krushchev had not climbed down, and America had attacked Cuba and overthrown the Castro regime, both the academic and the hysterical forms of anti-Americanism would have been strengthened by argument and catchword respectively. But Krushchev judged rightly from his point of view that continued provocation was not worth the bones of a single Siberian ballistics grenadier. Meanwhile we in England, whose faith in Mr Gaitskell as a possible alternative Prime Minister had been shaken by his performance on the Common Market, find his present wobbling a far more sinister disqualification.

As we suggested last week, the air may have been cleared for a real advance towards peaceful relations. Russian cannot really support an arms race against the United States, and it is in the Soviet interest to settle down to a calmer international life. this rational view may again be smothered by the irrational poison of expansionist ideology. But the West has now made things clear enough, and it is time to think of sitting down to a peace supper – with a long spoon.