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The Korean Missile Crisis vs. the Cuban Missile Crisis

A submarine missile is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (Wong Maye-E / AP)

One of the more irritating claims made by members of the John F. Kennedy cult holds that JFK heroically saved humanity from annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. In one sense, the claim is true. During the crisis, the president overrode many people in his inner National Security Council “ExComm” circle who favored responding to the Soviet Union’s placement of missiles in Cuba in ways that might well have ignited World War III.

But Kennedy sparked the crisis in the first place, and his macho posturing during the hair-raising, 13-day showdown might have sparked global nuclear catastrophe if not for Soviet sanity. The faceoff never would have occurred without young President Kennedy’s aggressive arms escalation, his disregard (inherited from President Eisenhower) for Soviet disarmament offers, and his wish to strangle the great socialist revolution and national independence movement led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba.

Kennedy’s determination to look strong was a critical part of why the nearly disastrous missile crisis happened. This was JFK’s key political imperative in the wake of his Bay of Pigs humiliation the previous year, when a poorly planned U.S.-led invasion meant to overthrow the Cuban revolution failed ignominiously. It pushed Kennedy to go public and create a deadly televised game of global thermonuclear chicken—a contest that made humanity itself hostage to the egos and machinations of small power circles in Washington and Moscow—after he learned that the Soviets were acting to defend Cuba with nuclear weapons.

Kennedy could have done far more to solve the conflict behind the scenes, but the political imperative led him instead to go on national television and stake his reputation and manliness on the Soviets’ backing off. It all brought the world “One Minute to Midnight”—the title of a comprehensive book about the crisis, penned by Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs.

Considerably more aghast than Kennedy at the prospect of thermonuclear obliteration (JFK coolly calculated the chances for WWIII at 50 percent), Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did far more than his American counterpart to let the human race live to see another day. So, for that matter, did Soviet submarine flotilla commander Vasili Arkhipov. Under the waters of the western mid-Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea, Arkhipov blocked the surrounded and exhausted Soviet submarine captain Valentin Savitsky’s determination to launch a tactical nuclear torpedo at the U.S. Navy in the early evening of “Black Saturday,” Oct. 27, 1962.

Arkhipov’s fateful action came as Kennedy continued to dither in responding to Khrushchev’s offer much earlier in the day (at 10:18 a.m.) to dismantle and withdraw Russia’s missiles if the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove its nuclear Jupiter missiles from Turkey (obsolete weapons the U.S. already planned to scrap). The sticking point for Kennedy and his team was that the U.S. would appear to have been humiliated and countermanded by the Soviets—and by global public opinion, which seemed likely to perceive Khrushchev’s proposed trade as basically fair—if Washington publicly agreed to take down its warheads in Turkey.

Civilization is lucky to have survived the delay. In the truly perilous interim between Khrushchev’s offer, Kennedy’s counter (excluding a public retreat on Turkey but including a private and “confidential” assurance on removing the Jupiters), and Khrushchev’s acceptance (at 2 a.m., Oct. 28, Washington time):

  • Arkhipov pre-empted the firing of a tactical nuclear weapon from an ailing diesel Soviet submarine south of Bermuda.
  • A U.S. U-2 spy plane was destroyed, its pilot (Rudolph Anderson) killed, over Cuba, by a Soviet missile.
  • Another U.S. pilot (Chuck Maultsby) mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace, sending Russian fighter jets into the skies.
  • The U.S. conducted a massive nuclear bomb test in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Dozens of U.S. bombers loaded with high-yield thermonuclear weapons roamed the skies 24-7. Their pilots had full technical capacity to launch World War III of their own accord.
  • The full U.S. nuclear arsenal was placed on the highest and highly accident-prone alert, with 162 nuclear missiles and 12,000 airplanes carrying 2,858 nuclear weapons “cocked” and “ready to fire,” according to Dobbs.

‘Over There’

Flash forward 55 years to the current U.S. nuclear standoff with North Korea. The differences between these two episodes are clear. In the current standoff, the Third World communist state in play is brandishing its own small nuclear arsenal—not Russia’s giant one. President Trump is engaged in a direct confrontation with a poor communist nation and nuclear mini-power.

We aren’t talking about the world’s two leading nuclear powers (the U.S. and Russia) potentially taking each other and the rest of humanity down. If Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un can’t retreat from their World Wrestling Federation battle over Korea’s nuclear program, it’s the Korean Peninsula that will burn in what could easily become the greatest single moment of human self-annihilation on record. Millions could die in Seoul, South Korea, alone. But the species would go on in the wake of the monumental crime.

Trump was factually correct when he told Sen. Lindsey Graham that the “thousands of deaths” (millions actually) that might result from a U.S. bombing of North Korea would occur “over there, not here.”

Wacky Dear Leaders and Their Wild Bombast

For all the reckless madness of the 1962 crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev were semi-responsible and emotionally intact adults, not infantile and malignant narcissists caught up in the throes of maniacal “Dear Leader” ego addiction. Listen to the wild rhetoric flowing from the mouths of these demented, arch-authoritarian lunatics today:

Donald Trump: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Trump’s “Defense” Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” (his actual nickname) Mattis: “North Korea should cease any consideration of actions that will lead to the end of the regime and destruction of its people.”

Kim Jong Un, speaking through state news: North Korea is developing plans to create “an enveloping fire” on Guam. Kim will make the U.S. “pay a thousandfold for all the heinous crimes” committed against his country.

Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, tried to calm nerves unsettled by such mad bombast by telling Americans they can still “sleep well at night” during the crisis. “What the president was doing,” Tillerson explained, “was sending a strong message to North Korea in a language that Kim Jong Un would understand.”

Thanks, T-Rex.

Reckless though JFK was, he was thankfully less rash than much of his top military team in October 1962. Today, it seems likely that the U.S. military command is less irresponsible than the ridiculous, Twitter-addicted “commander in chief.” Truth be told, Herr Donald is one of the last people on earth anyone reasonable would want having access to Washington’s nuclear codes. He asked on the campaign trail why the U.S. couldn’t just use its nuclear weapons. He called for the nuclear arming of Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary government on the planet.

Nikita Khrushchev had risen dutifully like a good engineer and bureaucrat through the Soviet party hierarchy. He was a Soviet party and company man, volatile though he may often have seemed. Kim Jong Un, by contrast, is a bizarre and pampered Dennis Rodman fan brought to the head of an openly Orwellian state through the genetic accident of dynastic family succession. He is perhaps the world’s first communist boy-monarch. A trip into his neural pathways—and Trump’s—would be a harrowing journey indeed.

No Great Revolution at Stake

There is no great, recently born popular Third World revolution at stake in this case. North Korea is a stale, 70-year-old Orwellian regime, an outcome to no small extent of a savage U.S. assault that killed an estimated 4 million Koreans in the first half of the 1950s—a war of invasion in which the U.S. seriously considered using a nuclear weapon. And Kim Jong Un is even less a Che Guevara or Fidel Castro than he is a Khrushchev.

Deterring Regime Change

Beneath these clear differences, however, are some chilling similarities. North Korea has long been targeted by Washington for regime change. U.S. military doctrine still includes a first-strike capability and the option of waging “pre-emptive” and even “preventive” war (recently threatened by “Mad Dog”) against the North Korean government. This is for the same reason that Cuba has long been on Uncle Sam’s regime-change wish list: the sin of national independence and development (however damaged and twisted in North Korea’s case) outside and against U.S.-managed global capitalism.

North Korea has developed early nuclear weapons capabilities for the same reason the Castro regime welcomed Soviet nuclear protection: to deter U.S. and U.S.-allied invasion. It’s the same reason Iran has sought to develop nuclear weapons. Pyongyang knows, as does Tehran, that Iraq and Libya would not have been invaded and collapsed by the U.S. had they possessed nuclear deterrents. Cuba would have been invaded and taken over for all intents and purposes by the U.S. but for the Soviet nuclear deterrent in the 1960s and 1970s.

When it comes to the North Korean regime, I am always reminded of the old joke that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you:” As the U.S. peace activist Medea Benjamin notes:

The North Korean regime feels encircled. It knows that the most powerful nation in the world, the United States, wants to overthrow it. There’s Trump’s belligerent rhetoric: ‘If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.’ There’s the ever-tightening screws of sanctions. Just a few hours before the latest North Korean missile test, Congress approved yet another round of sanctions to squeeze the North.

There are 83 US military bases on South Korean soil and US warships often patrolling the coast. US-South Korean military exercises have been getting larger and more provocative, including dropping mock nuclear bombs on North Korea. The US military also announced that it would permanently station an armed drone called Gray Eagle on the Korean Peninsula, and it has been practicing long-range strikes with strategic bombers, sending them to the region for exercises and deploying them in Guam and on the peninsula.

The United States has also long held a pre-emptive first strike policy towards North Korea. This frightening threat of an unprovoked US nuclear attack gives North Korea good reason to want its own nuclear arsenal.

North Korea’s leadership also looks at the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, leaders who gave up their nuclear programs, and conclude that nuclear weapons are their key to survival.

Exactly right.

Surrounded: Feeding the Enemy’s Authoritarianism

Surrounded by U.S. forces, nuclear and otherwise? So was the Soviet Union in 1962, confronted with significant U.S. nuclear weapon superiority based on land and sea and in the air and on all of its borders. Even if they’d kept nuclear missiles in Cuba, they’d still have been far outmatched by Washington.

Once again, the official U.S. enemy in the conflict and its methods are less than perfect counters to U.S. imperialism. Khrushchev’s missile placement was a rash and dangerous gambit. He stood atop a notoriously oppressive state. Today, the North Korean nuclear program is disquieting. So are the repressive Pyongyang regime’s harsh human rights violations.

Like the authoritarianism that developed in Cuba under Castro and in the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors (the first of whom was Khrushchev), the totalitarian culture that envelops North Korea is largely attributable to world-capitalist imperial policy and encirclement. Nothing feeds the repression of internal dissent and the urge to oppressive domestic policies and political thought-control more than foreign empires conspiring to overthrow your government and subject your nation to external control and subjugation.

Things get especially bad when that empire butchers millions of your people with bombing campaigns that kill and maim civilians on a mass scale. (The genocidal Pol Pot regime that arose in the wake of President Nixon’s carpet bombing of Cambodia is another terrible example). That’s what Uncle Sam did to Korea in the 1950s.

A Game of Chicken

Once again, we have two heads of state engaged in a giant ego-conflicted game of chicken. Who’s the Real Man here? Who’s going to back down? Who’s going to look weak? Domestic and global political calculations around macho posturing put millions of innocent lives at stake. Trump makes a threat and draws a line in the sand. Kim blows through the red line and ups the ante. Trump screams “fire and fury.” He can’t afford to look like a weakling and a “loser.” Kim says maybe he’ll incinerate the U.S. territory of Guam, home to 160,000 human beings.

Domestic Politics

Once again, there’s a terrible domestic political “wag the dog” feel to the U.S. president’s participation in the ugly game of thermonuclear chicken. Kennedy needed to boost his popularity numbers and imperial manliness quotient in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle and domestic policy setbacks. Trump is struggling with the consistently lowest public approval numbers of any new U.S. president and welcomes a foreign policy crisis to distract public attention from his dire domestic political failures.

Chance

Today, as in the past, the primary threat is the increased chance of accidental launch as cowboy heads of state fire up their rhetoric and threat levels. One wrong calculation, one wrong move can set regions, and indeed the world, on fire. As Noam Chomsky has noted regarding the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, “there [were] hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first strike minutes before [nuclear missile] launch, after automated systems gave false alarms.”

Despite the madcap bluster of Trump in Washington-Mar-a-Lago and the Dear Leader in Pyongyang, the risk of a nuclear exchange occurring is slighter today than it was in October 1962. But it doesn’t take much to start an unfortunate chain of events, and war on the Korean Peninsula could very well bring in China and Russia, giving the crisis a considerably more global feel.

Thank goodness for cool heads in China. Beijing is enraged over the United States’ deployment of the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, knowing that its radar goes well into Chinese territory. Still, China does not want war in Korea because of the regional chaos that would ensue on its border. Beijing has proposed a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a freeze on U.S.-South Korean war games—an end to the giant war-preparation games that Washington and Seoul have been holding every spring for years, with new joint exercises planned this month.

A “freeze-for-a-freeze.” That’s the short-term, stand-down fix right there, the equivalent of the deal that Kennedy and Khrushchev worked out at the last minute after Vasili Arkhipov saved humanity in the western Atlantic in the fall of 1962.

The U.S. should add a promise not to invade North Korea and a repeal of its presumed right to launch technically criminal first strikes and wage pre-emptive and preventive war against other sovereign states. It won’t, but it should. Along the way, the U.S. should help gain cooperation from Beijing that is needed to fashion a political solution by taking down the giant THADD system in South Korea.

An Ugly and Racialized Parallel: Truman (1945) and Trump (2017)

Trump’s conditional promise of nuclear “fire and fury” to North Korea has to be one of the most reckless and inflammatory things ever said by a U.S. president—a U.S. president who has already undertaken two ham-fisted bombing extravaganzas. That the people killed in this case would primarily be Asians might remind us that Trump made childish fun of Asian people during the presidential campaign, the same campaign in which he asked just why it was the U.S. couldn’t use its nukes.

Bear in mind also that the U.S. is the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons against civilians and did so against Asian (Japanese) but not white European (German) civilians. After the totally unnecessary and arch-criminal atom bombing of Hiroshima and before the even worse atom bombing of Nagasaki, President Truman said that the Japanese people would have to “accept our terms” or “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.” The statement was made on Aug. 6, 1945, 72 years and two days before Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Five Minutes to Regional Midnight

North Korea’s regime might be a little wacky and scary, but Kim Jong Un and his party elite aren’t interested in seeing their “glorious fatherland” turned into a radioactive ash heap. They are playing an old game with new, more advanced interballistic cards: banging their nuclear drum to extract concessions from Washington and now also China. Here’s hoping that Trump can be persuaded to let his make-a-deal side win out over his wag-the-dog, racist-mad-bomber side.

My money is on a peaceful stand-down. Trump is motivated by venal and commercial self-interest above all. And Trump Inc. makes more money without a war on the Korean Peninsula than it does with such a horrible event.

It’s more like five minutes, not one minute, to midnight, in North Korea right now. The further these nut-job heads of state are allowed to go with their unhinged rhetoric, however, the more dangerous the situation becomes. “With all this talk,” James D. Thurman, a former U.S. military commander of U.S. forces in Korea under President Obama, reflects, “what I worry about is a serious miscalculation.”

On Thursday, Trump told reporters that “maybe” his “fire and fury” statement “wasn’t tough enough,” and threatened “an event the likes of which nobody’s ever seen.” When asked what he might to do in response to North Korea’s defiance, the president said, “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”

Speaking on CNN on Thursday night, the former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, worried that Trump’s overheated rhetoric could lead the U.S. into war. As Clapper told Don Lemon on “CNN Tonight”: “I do worry that this game of rhetoric chicken is going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. … It’s somewhat reminiscent to me of the history of World War I and how the world kind of blundered into that. I hope people learn from history here and don’t repeat that. … I think there’s still time for other measures —sanctions, diplomacy, all those kinds of things.”

Yes, all those not nuclear-war kinds of things.

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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