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James Blight on the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Posted on Aug 21, 2008
book cover

By James Blight

(Page 4)

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?”
“Gonna go to Cuba.”
“Whatta we gonna do?”
“Gonna castrate Castro.”

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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By loans, December 11, 2011 at 8:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Different people in the world get the business loans from various creditors, just because it’s comfortable and fast.

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By omniadeo, August 28, 2008 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment

I want to get this book, but one thing that I have read elsewhere is that the crisis was averted by a back channel contact (Dobrynin) between the Kennedy’s and Kruschev. You can read Dobrynin’s fascinating notes here:

It is very telling that the Kennedys had to back channel. They did not trust their own ambassador, or possibly believed that he was being spied on, and they were afraid that they were losing control of the US Military and Intelligence apparati.

On November 22nd they did. And so did we.

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By BobZ, August 26, 2008 at 10:12 am Link to this comment


I don’t disagree with your comments about AF generals. I was in SAC and we heard about “bombs away Lemay” all the time. Kennedy thought LeMay was nuts and he was the general satirized in the Dr. Strangelove movie. You may be a little hard on your dad. The military does a good job of programming to obey orders, although in Vietnam, the officer corp was so bad in come cases, the grunts rebelled against them to the point of “fragging” them.

With this in mind, I am amazed at the number of Americans who think McCain would make a better commander in chief than Obama. I don’t see a hot head like McCain being able to control the gung ho military leaders. Thank God, we had Kennedy in charge in 62. I look at Obama as being more Kennedy-like in his maturity and coolness. McCain has already tried to up the ante on the Russia Georgia situation, when we have very few chips to play with. That is not a good sign. And the “we are all Georgians” was way over the top. Most Americans still think Georgia is a state in the union.

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By Ralph -O-Matic, August 26, 2008 at 9:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey, BobZ: Think again. 

It wasn’t THEY who were going to start a war; it was US.  The Air Force generals in particular.  In that sense, JFK was an actual hero. 

I was a 6th-grader in Jacksonville, Fla then.  Navy aviator neighborhood and school.  Our dads all disappeared overnight and were gone for days.  Our moms wouldn’t answer our questions and they acted worried and it rubbed off on us.  We kids began to look at the news and our worry snowballed.  At school, we had a “fire drill” where they drove us 6o miles to the west to have lunch in a state park for most of the day. Gee, that had never happened before. Practice for the post-nuke evacuation, do doubt. Ha.

35 years later, my dad explained he and his squadron of A-1 Skyraiders had camped in Homestead, Fl.  They were to have been the first to depart for Cuba, being slower props, and their job was to drop tac nukes on to the various Cuban antiaircraft sites.  They were scheduled for 3 to 4 passes per site and really didn’t expect to return home.  I asked him his thoughts today, with hindsight.  He would have had no regrets; just doing his duty.  I repeat, DUTY. As it turns out, his DUTY would have guaranteed the obliteration of the State of Florida, as the Ruskies already had nuke missles operational—unbeknownst to US intelligence.  My Dad, without conscience, would have signed the death warrant of at least the state of Florida, his own family and god knows what else—just to do his DUTY for a threat that was negotiated away.  Good christian dad. Honor.  DUTY.  Bunk.

Well, let me just tell you all.  My dad is an idolator.  He worships at the altar of the military myth in this country. Most of us do.  He worships violence.  He killed people for a living.  He is a decorated hero.  He will be held accountable.

Be prepared all of you.  All self-proclaimed christians will be held accountable. Better actually read the Book before its too late.

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By BobZ, August 25, 2008 at 11:29 am Link to this comment

I had just gotten out of the Air Force in July 62, and still lived close to March AFB home of the 15th AF and B47 and B52 long range bombers. In October the bombers were redeployed to Homestead AFB in Florida, and as one politician observed at the time, Florida was lucky is didn’t sink under the weight of all the military resources in the state. A lot of my buddies at the time, got a six month extension of their enlistments, and I was worried I would be called back in, which I would have if a real war started. Even so, I can’t say that most people were overly worried at the time - we just didn’t believe a real shooting war would break out that close to home. We didn’t think Russia and Cuba would be that dumb to start a war in our backyard. I guess we were fortunate in our ignorance of just how close we really came. Great review.

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By Double U, August 22, 2008 at 10:07 pm Link to this comment

Nino Baldino es mucho loco.

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By Xntrk, August 22, 2008 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Blackspere said
>>Ah, just what we need another rehash of history.  The historical question to be answered is why would the Soviets place nuclear armed missiles in Cuba knowing that the US would learn of them sooner or later and take umbrage to put it mildly.  The answer is relatively simple——it was tit-for-tat.  The US had placed missiles in Turkey and to counter that the Soviets used Cuba.  The Soviets knew the US would not tolerate such action and a compromise was always the Soviet’s aim.  Taking matters to the brink was a bargaining ploy on both sides——both sides knew what the other wanted and in the end that’s what they got and in the process making each side look like the victor.  Nothing beats a win-win situation. << and several others voiced similar opinions.

But, the books I’ve read and McNamara’s interview with Castro, all emphasize that Fidel was the hidden factor that neither the Russians nor Kennedy were considering.

Fidel told/asked the Russians to bring the missiles to Cuba, on the grounds that he had nothing to offer the USSR but a close-in base in their chess match with the US. In the take-outs from the book, the author makes it clear that Castro ordered the attempts to shoot down the spy planes.

In his interview, MacNamarra asked if Fidel had been aware of the position he was putting Cuba in. His reply was along the lines of ‘So? We were dead either way.’ He told other interviewers []Tad Tdulz in ‘Fidel’] that he believed he had to have a quid pro quo with the Russians or become nothing more then a vassal state.

In the Angolan war, Castro obligated the Russians to committing more arms and equipment then they ever planned - Same idea. The Angolan War was Castro’s baby, the USSR would never have committed troops to fight it.

I think the US has always underestimated Fidel Castro, assuming he was never more then a South American Dictator along the lines of Peron. Fifty years later, The Revolution is still going strong and we’ve gone thru 9 different Presidents; each one of them failing to bring about the long-promised restoration of the Mafia to Havana.

Have you been following the Cuban Boxers in the Olympics? Eight medals for 11 boxers who have never fought in the International Boxing matches - Talk about underestimating!

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By LarSim, August 22, 2008 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis well.  I was a U.S. Marine deployed aboard an amphibious landing ship sailing around in circles off the coast of Cuba during October, 1962.

We had no idea what we were in for, or how dangerous the situation.  The possible employment of tactical nukes scares me even now.

I tend to agree with the “tit-for-tat” crowd.  I think the Soviets wanted to give the United States a taste of their own medicine.  The deployment of US missiles in Turkey along the USSR border countered by the deployment of USSR missiles in Cuba.

Stalemate.  Both batteries of missiles, Turkey and Cuba, removed.  Although removal of the US missiles in Turkey didn’t quite make the splash in the U.S. news media that the removal of the USSR missiles from Cuba did.

So it goes.

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By oregoncharles, August 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm Link to this comment

I remember that period vividly - I was a high school senior.  As soon as I and my cohort entered college, things started to pop.  Is that a coincidence?

Not exactly.  Whatever we THOUGHT about Kennedy’s actions, we FELT that a beloved leader was playing “Chicken” with our lives at stake.  I think that fuelled a fundamental cynicism about our political leadership that then exploded in the later 60’s.  Of course, the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement, which Kennedy supported only reluctantly, was at least as important.

But the Missile Crisis was responsible for the undertone of despair and nihilism that ran through the youth rebellion - witness the Bob Dylan song.

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By basho, August 22, 2008 at 9:28 am Link to this comment

’ to think that if this happened today instead of Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Salinger, Sorenson, Stevenson being the names dealing with the crisis, that those names would be Bush, Cheney, Rice, Negroponte, Hadley.’

imo it is happening today.
the gulf of hormuz full of the u.s. navy, reports of israel and u.s. soldiers killed in the georgian offensive, russia cutting all ties with nato, russia re-arming syria, russian navy welcomed by chavez and the list goes on. it’s one minute to midnite all over again. the u.s. mindset of total war is still in play and no one in ‘the land of the free’ knows it. it’s more than scary. it’s the last cry from a country whose economy is ravaged, where it’s people are in debt over their heads, whose mfg. base is non-existent, whose politics are those of war. it’s 30 seconds to midnite

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By Blackspeare, August 22, 2008 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

Ah, just what we need another rehash of history.  The historical question to be answered is why would the Soviets place nuclear armed missiles in Cuba knowing that the US would learn of them sooner or later and take umbrage to put it mildly.  The answer is relatively simple——it was tit-for-tat.  The US had placed missiles in Turkey and to counter that the Soviets used Cuba.  The Soviets knew the US would not tolerate such action and a compromise was always the Soviet’s aim.  Taking matters to the brink was a bargaining ploy on both sides——both sides knew what the other wanted and in the end that’s what they got and in the process making each side look like the victor.  Nothing beats a win-win situation.

Today, the US has signed a document with Poland to place interceptor missiles near their border with Russia.  Here we go again——another bargaining ploy.  Of course the plan is only on paper so there’s a way to go yet and a new US administration may take a different view.

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By Fahrenheit 451, August 22, 2008 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

Ah, these were rational men in full control of reality; unlike the minions of today; controlled by the oligarchs of the present times.  Make no mistake:  Even full out nuclear war is acceptable as long as “they” survive to finish their vision of the future; a world of their making and control.  A world devoid of humanity; a world we would not recognize and likely would not want to live in.  Buyer beware!

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By Big B, August 22, 2008 at 7:40 am Link to this comment

I’ll have to order this book today as I have always found this to be one of the most provocative events of the 20th century. While the human race has been on the brink of nuclear war for decades, everyone possessing nukes (even the wackos in Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) seems to have developed a more acute sense of responsibility, a little voice in their heads that says “if you use these weapons, you most likley will bring destruction to your own door”. This “balance of terror” (MAD, whatever) has maintained a least a nuclear peace since Nagasaki.
After doing extensive reading about the crisis for a termpaper in the early 80’s, I was always taken aback that the “nuke Russia now” crowd seem to out number the voices of reason. Gen. Lamay in particular seemed to welcome a confrontation with the Soviets. His behavior during the crisis still makes me wonder to this day, how many war hawks in the pentagon even today hold onto the wet dream that a nuclear war is winable?
Another more sobering thought always comes to mind when I look back on the Cuban Missle Crisis, and that is, how would a George Bush or Reagan, or even Clinton or Carter handled this? It is frighening beyond conprehension to think that if this happened today instead of Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Salinger, Sorenson, Stevenson being the names dealing with the crisis, that those names would be Bush, Cheney, Rice, Negroponte, Hadley…
Kinda scares the shit out of you, doesn’t it?
My grandmother always used the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” Amen, grandma!

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By Nino Baldino, August 22, 2008 at 3:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

..this was the perfect October a whole lotter bunk. Lets see,we have a president who while serving as a PT commander was so derelict in his duty the fastest vessle could do some 80knots an hour..was cut into by a destroyer,which could do some 35 an hour.MacArthur declared he should have been given a courts martial for that. Then he ,as president,removes air cover for the cuban freedom fighters at the bay of pigs thus insuring their defeat.but also encouraging anti-castro fighters to come out of hiding in cuba ,reveal themsleves and thus get shot or captured..many were..then this great leader arranges to pay Castro some 54 million dollars in money and tanks etc in exchange for these prisoners,whom he caused to get captured! He then sends some 35,000 troops down to Oxford Mississipi to help a kid get into a southern college..(which he did have the right to get into)muzzles the military causing Major General Walker to resign out of protest,he later was a target for Oswald..then came this crisis..brrrrr..just before election day too..did any one see wealthy folks leave the seacoast and head inland..when the so called silos were dismantled did anyone see what was inside those mysterious crates hauled aboard those ships..nooooo it was all theatre..and so by the time it was all over,Communism was firmly intrenched in our hemisphere..Sen.Goldwater ran for president and was smeared as a war monger by the peace candidate LBJ..and guess what,,within 6 months of winning LBJ sent 300,000 troops to Nam etc etc..all theatre…

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