We are at the beginning of a 13-day period marking the 50th anniversary of what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis in the United States. Since there never were any Cuban Missiles, the rest of the world refers to this frightening time as the “Caribbean Crisis” or simply the “Missile Crisis.” There are numerous articles that describe the different interpretation of what happened during these two weeks. The crisis supposedly began on October 16, 1962, when President Kennedy was told the Soviet Union (essentially, Russia) had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. These missiles had been photographed by a U-2 high-altitude spy plane. On October 22, Kennedy ordered the U.S. military to greatly increase its war readiness. He appeared on television that night, explaining the situation as simply as possible to scared Americans and citizens from around the world.
This was a tense period, which was de-escalated on October 28 as Soviet leader Krushchev agreed publicly to remove the missiles in exchange for a pledge from the U.S. not to invade Cuba. (There was also a secret part of the arrangement, mostly irrelevant, where the U.S. would remove outmoded similar nuclear-tipped missiles from Turkey 6 months later.) Kennedy was given much credit for this arrangement. His military advisors insisted on an all-out invasion of Cuba, which had been planned for over a year. In fact, that is why the missiles were there in the first place—to defend Cuba from an all-out, D-Day type of invasion by the U.S. In retrospect, military historians feel that this invasion of Cuba would have been incredibly bloody and drawn-out. In Congress and in the Pentagon, there apparently was no sense of how determined the Cubans were to remain free of foreign domination: 400 years as a brutalized Spanish colony, and roughly 60 years as an exploited, de facto American colony. Unlike now, Castro was extremely popular with a very high percentage of Cubans who never left the island. Our leaders were apparently unaware that underneath Cuba was an extensive system of interconnected limestone caverns, where the military was hiding out. Their leaders could probably have remained viable for a long time.
Even though this was a terrifying time 50 years ago, there were several notable positive outcomes to this crisis. A “hotline” was established between Moscow and Washington, so that leaders could actually speak directly with each other, rather than communicating with slow, error-prone encrypted communications systems. Also, in both the Soviet and American military, chains of command were modified, so that some rogue, low-level submarine commander or missile-site captain wouldn’t be able to start World War III because he was having a bad day.
Most important, the full-scale invasion of Cuba was avoided. It would have been particularly bloody and tragic, because just three years earlier, Cuba and the U.S. were strong allies. Many personal and family relationships existed between Cubans and Americans at that time, and that situation continues to today.
One question I’ve thought about a lot, and I’ve never seen anything written about this, but consider: before the U-2 spy plane discovered the missile sites on October 16, 1962, “triggering” the crisis, what exactly was C.I.A. doing with itself? After all, these huge, clearly-identifiable missiles were off-loaded from ships, then placed on large trucks, which transported them all over the island. Many rural roads, which were used primarily by donkey-carts and occasional Jeeps, were narrow, so that trees along the route would have needed to be trimmed back considerably. There had to be hundreds, and probably thousands of Cubans all over the island who had to be aware of what was happening. It seems that at least one Cuban-born C.I.A. operative might have asked some local kids playing baseball if they noticed any unusual activities happening during the night in their quiet countryside!
At least C.I.A. has been consistent in its operations and intelligence-gathering in Cuba—consistently WRONG, even to this day. I know we all want to feel that they are protecting us from enemies from around the world, but it seems that those agents and departments involving Cuba were recruited from the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Time and time again, Cuba’s Intelligence Service (DGI) made them look like fools with their double- and triple-agent penetration. It makes for humorous and frightening reading. If you are interested, I suggest you read the recently released: Castro’s Secrets—The C.I.A. and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine. It was written by Brian Latell, a retired C.I.A. Cuba specialist who probably knows more about Castro and Cuban Intelligence than anybody outside of Havana.
If you want to get a feel of what that time was like for Cubans in both the U.S. and on the island, I suggest you read an article about two brothers—one serving in the U.S. military and one serving in the Cuban military during the Missile Crisis.
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