By Bob Cesca: Fifty years ago yesterday, an American U-2 reconnaissance flight snapped a series of damning photographs of offensive Soviet nuclear missile sites being installed on the island of Cuba, some 90 miles from Florida. The series of events that followed could very well have precipitated a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, with a subsequent death toll of around 100 million people on each side. In a word: Armageddon. In the context of modern population figures, that’s one out of every three Americans alive today, say nothing of the Soviet death toll.
At any point during those 13 days in October 1962, events could have careened wildly out of control. If just one round of ammunition had been fired in anger, and if news of this aggression had leaked out, it could have rapidly escalated into the unthinkable. If the Kennedy administration had been bullied into an invasion by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Soviets would’ve surely invaded West Berlin in retaliation, then NATO would’ve been forced to retaliate against the Soviet invasion and it’s highly unlikely that nuclear weapons would’ve been spared, and World War III would’ve been engaged.
In fact, we only learned in the last ten years how dangerously close we came to such a scenario. In 2002, it was revealed that the warship USS Beale, participating in President Kennedy’s “quarantine” of Cuba, dropped depth charges near a Soviet submarine. It turns out, the sub carried a nuclear warhead and the Soviet captain, Valentin Savitsky, ordered the torpedo combat-readied in response to the Beale’s depth charges. Fortunately, the submarine was running low on air, and because Savitsky failed to attain a mandatory consensus among his top commanders to fire the nuclear torpedo, the sub had no choice but to surface. Furthermore, we’ve learned that in addition to the IRBMs rapidly nearing operational status, the Soviets had delivered 100 tactical nuclear warheads to Cuba that could’ve easily been fired directly at American military vessels — or even Miami. The consequences of such attacks would’ve led to the end of the existence as we know it.
It’s likely that many of us wouldn’t be here today to read about it. My Dad was a sergeant in the Army at the time and was deployed with a MASH unit to Miami as part of a potential invasion force.
“Cooler heads prevailed” is one of the most often cited phrases to describe how nuclear annihilation was ultimately avoided. By applying valuable lessons from the unchecked, textbook military escalation during World War I, and virtually on the fly, the Kennedys and their EXCOMM task force were essentially creating a new form of Soviet-U.S. diplomacy — a new language — that was both tough, face-saving and pacifistic. With the blockade, the Kennedys signaled to Moscow that it was being tough on the installation of nuclear weapons — a mandatory posture so as to not seem weak in the eyes of the American people, not to mention international allies — but that it also wanted to avoid a war. If Soviet Premier Khrushchev had even the slightest brain in his head, and he did, he would interpret the actions accordingly and respond with similar care and caution, especially after the U.S. opted not to retaliate against Cuba for shooting down Major Rudolf Anderson’s U-2 flight in the belly of the crisis. Khrushchev, like the Kennedys, was clearly aware of the same potential for an unstoppable chain reaction and, after the most intense two weeks of both the Cold War and human existence, a deal was reached and the Soviet missiles were removed.
It can’t be overstated how close we came to the most terrifying military conflict in history. And it can’t be overstated how it was prevented by leaders who were thoughtful, rational, reasonable, cool under pressure and not easily bullied by intense internal and external pressure.
I can’t help but to think about what might’ve happened if Richard Nixon had been president at the time. We can never know for sure, but considering that Nixon was more bellicose than Kennedy, it’s very likely that Nixon would have capitulated and accepted the advice of the Joint Chiefs, which would have included a more hawkish General Lyman Lemnitzer as chairman, and invaded Cuba to both destroy the nukes and to remove Castro. (Kennedy fired and replaced Lemnitzer just before the crisis and several months after Lemnitzer proposed to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara an insane false-flag terror attack against America, code named Operation Northwoods, to gin up public support for a war against Cuba.)
Either way, the Missile Crisis offers us an historical litmus test for determining how we choose our national leaders (that is, if you in fact believe President Kennedy and his team made the correct choices in avoiding nuclear war).
I’ve proposed this question before, but it bears repeating: Who would you rather have in the Oval Office when a potentially incendiary confrontation like the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs?
In 2012, there are several flashpoints in the Middle East, and, once again, nuclear weapons are centerpieces. Not only that, but Russia is a player in each, and not on our side of the line. As events in Syria and Iran heat up, we’re faced with a choice between President Obama, whose coolness, discipline, wonky intelligence and rationality under pressure is well-known. And, on the other hand, there’s Mitt Romney whose lack of personal conviction or firm posture leaves him vulnerable to the motives of radical foreign policy actors, including many of the same neoconservative advisers who surrounded George W. Bush for eight years.
Ask yourself which leader would’ve worked tirelessly to find a rational solution, and which leader would’ve allowed defense hawks and military commanders to call the shots? I think the answer is obvious. President Obama and his team, including Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, have shown many of the same leadership qualities required to make similar choices as the Kennedy EXCOMM team made exactly 50 years ago. But Mitt Romney is a wild card. It’s clear that he’s susceptible to personal whimsy and erratic, unpredictable behavior. It’s also clear that the Republican Party of 2012 is significantly more warmongering and extremist than the Republican Party of Nixon.
Imagine for a moment how these men would’ve comported our affairs during those 13 days in October and seriously decide for yourself. And then vote accordingly.