Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scary Stuff

In recognition of the holiday, today we note two scary things: one from the present, the other from the past
It's nice when the pundits write things I have also observed. A couple of months ago I noted that the current Republican Party was nothing like the old GOP that our fathers and grandfathers knew. Arianna Huffington opined this week that the Party had been given over to its own lunatic fringe: "..the only thing that separates the Republican National Committee and Rush Limbaugh is a prescription for OxyContin." That's frightening to me no matter WHO writes it.

We passed an anniversary this month. If you were in a class in which the question "What event brought the world closest to nuclear warfare?" arose, what would you say? The correct answer is: The Cuban Missile Crisis, which arose and was resolved in October, 1962, as I settled in to the 8th grade, 45 years ago.
During that summer, our nation's intelligence services determined (without the benefit of torture) that the Soviet Union had shipped mid-range offensive ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads to Cuba, where they were quickly being assembled and prepared for ...what? Our analysts weren't sure just what was behind this new threat. But when it was discovered, there was no shortage of reaction favoring the unleashing of our OWN long-range missiles to the Soviet Union and eliminating it from the earth.
Our official reaction was the job of the president, John Kennedy. He had the tricky assignment, without benefit of direct communications with Moscow, of communicating BOTH that the missiles could not be allowed to stay in Cuba, AND that nuclear war was not inevitable even though our destructive capacity appeared to outgun the Soviets.
Several telegrams were exchanged, and the possibility of misinterpretation was considerable, as both sides struggled to interpret naval and air maneuvers in real time. Kennedy had to depend at one point that native Russian speakers would know the diplomatic difference between "embargo", an act of war, and "quarantine", which was slightly more benign. Finally, the Soviets withdrew, with the same intelligence units which had first warned of the threat confirming the removal of the missiles.
This event, along with the space program, make up much of today's Kennedy legend. You can see two Hollywood versions of the crisis - "Thirteen Days", made a few years ago, and the rarer "The Missiles of October" made for TV, which also shows what may have happened on the Soviet side. The actor who played Khrushchev had a terrificly-written part, given, of course, in english.
My clue as an 8th grader that this was something to pay attention to came from the fact that our history teacher, a coach who had no actual interest in history or anything else except basketball, actually took a little time to explain what was happening, something he had never done before and avoided thereafter. So it WAS scary, no question.
I don't think we are 100% sure today why the Soviets made this seemingly risky move in the first place. Kennedy was dead thirteen months later, and Khrushchev, ousted from office in 1964, later said that the missiles were just a bargaining chip to keep the US from a full scale invasion of Cuba. Hmm. I think it's more likely that the Soviets underestimated either American nerve or its intelligence gathering capacity.
In any case, we did not invade Cuba, and some of our own outdated missiles were later quietly removed from Turkey. Fidel Castro astonishingly is still alive and stands as one of the best political operators ("best" here means "effective", not "virtuous") of the 20th century. Cuba itself? It's pretty important, too - as an issue helping determine which way Florida will vote.


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