From the archives: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Peter Hoskin 2:06pm
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
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.