New book lays out for the first time the full story of Cuba's Cuban Missile CrisisHistorians in the News
tags: nuclear weapons, JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro
A new book by long-time colleagues of the National Security Archive, James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, offers a fresh exploration of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and plumbs its lessons on the continuing dangers of nuclear war. Homing in on the Cuban perspective, the book aims to fill a persistent gap in the history that not only skewed our understanding of the event for years but helped make the crisis so perilous in the first place – the superpowers’ utter dismissal of Cuba’s stake in its outcome.
Blight and Lang have studied the missile crisis for more than three decades. They were behind a series of ground-breaking international conferences involving American, Soviet, and Cuban ex-officials starting in the mid-1980s. In January 1992, they organized the historic Havana conference, attended by Fidel Castro himself, which began to make painfully clear how much nearer than anyone had previously recognized the world had come to nuclear Armageddon thirty years before. Since then, numerous follow-on conferences have taken place with Castro, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, and various other high-level participants, including senior Russian military and political figures. The innovative conference format, known as Critical Oral History, that made so many unexpected revelations possible was a Blight/Lang brainchild. The results have literally rewritten the history of the crisis.
Dark Beyond Darkness, their latest book, places the Cuban dimension squarely at the center of the reader’s line of sight, allowing for an in-depth appreciation of the “physical and psychological reality faced during the crisis by everyone in Cuba” as they struggled to deal with the seemingly existential threat presented by the superpowers’ ill-informed and self-absorbed mutual face-off. At the same time, the authors give a genuinely hands-on feel for how the historiographical process they invented actually works. Finally, Blight and Lang draw from this heavily evidence-based analysis what they view as the main, and inescapable, conclusion of any serious study of the crisis: that the primary goal for policymakers in this day and age should be nothing less than to abolish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.
Here, in one paragraph, is our variant of the truth about what made the Cuban missile crisis the most dangerous crisis in recorded history:
The crisis did not come out of the blue and last thirteen days. U.S. blindness toward Cuba only made it seem that way. The crisis began eighteen months earlier, after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, with the Cubans’ fears of an imminent full-scale U.S. invasion. They asked the Russians for defensive weapons. The Russians began providing them, and the superpower-sleepwalk toward Armageddon began. The U.S. was not a victim of the deployment; its threats to Cuba were an important cause of it. U.S. intelligence assessments were atrocious: they did not predict the deployment; they did not even confirm it until the missiles in Cuba were almost ready to fire; and their conclusion that warheads for the weapons probably never reached Cuba was dead wrong. In all, 162 nuclear warheads were shipped, delivered, stored and made ready to fire by Soviet technicians in Cuba. While JFK courageously and ingeniously resisted the many hawks in his administration urging him toward war, Kennedy had no plan when the missiles were discovered and was shocked at the deployment. Nobody won. Nobody lost. Nobody “blinked.” Once Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they were losing control of the crisis, they worked feverishly, collaboratively and effectively to terminate it. But Moscow’s and Washington’s dismissal of the Cuban perspective, leading to Cuban outrage and provocative behavior, sent the crisis to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Far from being a “bit player,” Cuba became the hinge of the world. Believing they were irrevocably doomed by an imminent U.S. nuclear attack on the island, Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev urging him to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. ASAP, once the Americans began invading the island. The Cubans, and their Russian comrades in Cuba, prepared to nuke the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base, and to use their short-range nuclear weapons against the invading U.S. forces. Had these been carried out, a U.S. nuclear response would likely have followed, and Armageddon would have commenced then and there.
Every claim in this summary statement is backed by voluminous and authoritative declassified documentation, oral testimony from top-ranking leaders during the crisis, and by the careful analyses of scholars from many disciplines! What it says happened, happened.