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James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis
Posted on Aug 21, 2008
By James Blight
Prelude. We have just learned in great detail the scope of the U.S. military buildup in south Florida, which has been transformed almost overnight into a huge armed encampment, all of it in service of an expected air attack and invasion of Cuba.
Whoosh to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 (noon in Havana). We zoom across the Straits of Florida to Havana, Cuba, roughly 100 miles south of Key West. Dobbs leads us into Fidel Castro’s personal underground bunker, which will be his command post during the expected U.S. attack and invasion. We learn precisely where it was, who was in it at that moment with Castro, and how difficult it was to breathe inside the bunker. We listen as Capt. Flavio Bravo briefs Castro on Cuban forces’ difficulties in communicating with one another, due to the U.S. having intercepted Soviet ships that were carrying advanced communication systems for use by the Cubans. We listen as Fidel issues an order: When the U.S. planes fly over at very low levels, as they have been doing for days, Castro says simply, “Dejalos fritos”—“fry them,” which is the phrase U.S. Air Force Chief Gen. Curtis LeMay has just used in his instructions to his subordinates, to be implemented when the president orders the air attack to begin. Whoosh.
Next we are loaded into a jeep with Castro and his bodyguards for a 30-minute ride eastward from the bunker to Tarara Beach, above and behind which is a fully operational Soviet surface-to-air (SAM) missile site. Along this five-mile stretch of sloping sand, Dobbs tells us in an aside, was the “tropical equivalent of the beaches of Normandy,” where the U.S. invasion of Cuba would be focused. U.S. warships are so close they are clearly visible to Castro on the horizon. After the Cuban leader confers with Soviet commanders near the beach, we return with Castro to Havana knowing that “if all else failed, his Soviet allies had tactical nuclear weapons hidden in the hills behind Tarara Beach and other likely landing spots that could wipe out an American beachhead in a matter of minutes.” Whoosh.
Now we are whisked away to join the U.S. Marine unit that will lead the invasion force at Tarara Beach, aboard their temporary headquarters on the helicopter carrier USS Okinawa. We watch and listen as the Marines march back and forth on the deck chanting,
“Where are we gonna go?”
The plans and preparations for invading Cuba are highly refined. The chaplain is scheduled to arrive on Tarara Beach at H-hour plus 27 minutes. The U.S. forces expect a long and difficult campaign during which they must fight their way westward to capture and occupy Havana. They do not expect a cakewalk. The Americans will arrive on the beaches of Cuba with 2,000 tons of canned chicken for the 120,000 troops participating in the invasion, along with 7,454 tons of rice and 138 tons of powdered eggs. Although the Marines expect to encounter stiff resistance from the Cubans, they do not expect either the Cubans or the Soviets to respond with tactical nuclear weapons. Astonished, we wonder what possible sense the Marines are able to make of the order that they simply “report every delivered nuclear fire” to headquarters. The official estimate is that U.S. invasion forces will sustain 18,000 casualties during the first 10 days of fighting, including 4,000 killed in action. (Note: In other words, roughly the same number of U.S. forces, 4,000, were predicted to perish in 10 days of fighting in Cuba as have lost their lives in Iraq during the five and half years since the March 2003 U.S. invasion.)
Whoosh. Dobbs adds: “And that was without the participation of Soviet combat troops or the use of nuclear weapons.” This brings goose bumps because, by this point in the book, we already understand that Soviet combat forces would be heavily involved in efforts to repel the invasion force, and that the nuclear incineration of thousands of Americans offshore and on Cuban beaches would be virtually certain. Where that would lead is anyone’s guess, but probably, at the least, to the destruction of Cuba and millions of Cubans in a U.S. retaliatory attack with nuclear weapons. In addition, escalation of the conflict to a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union could not be excluded.
A Virtual Hiroshima
Michael Dobbs demonstrates dramatically, exhaustively and convincingly how phenomenally dangerous the missile crisis was, how many ways it could have spun into global nuclear destruction, and how fortunate we are that civilization survived. The missile crisis, in his telling, is the catastrophic event that didn’t quite happen. “One Minute to Midnight” is the capstone of a nearly 25-year effort to demythologize the Cuban missile crisis, and to transform our understanding of it from just another tedious case study of Cold War antiquity into the shockingly catastrophic event it nearly became. This missile crisis—the crisis that nearly destroyed civilization—should be visited at least once by every literate, informed person, for the same reason that people visit Hiroshima: to develop a deeper commitment to the sentiment “Never again.” The “visit” to the missile crisis, of course, must be virtual, not literal, a visit of the imagination, because the event we wish to visit is the event that did not happen. That journey can fruitfully begin with “One Minute to Midnight.” When you are finished, listen again to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall.” Notice that Dobbs provides the documentation and justification for Dylan’s approach to songwriting during that moment in October 1962. With the world possibly coming to an end, Dylan felt the song should be written as if each line might be its last.
Finally, after absorbing Dobbs and Dylan, whoosh yourself back to the present moment and ask yourself where you stand now with regard to a possible—some have said probable—U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran with the objective of eliminating its nuclear sites.
James G. Blight is a professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and the author or co-author of a half-dozen books on the Cuban missile crisis. He is the author most recently of “Vietnam, if Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK” (with Janet M. Lang and David A. Welch), which will be published in January by Rowman & Littlefield. He is also a producer of the Koji Masutani film based on the book.
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