One possibility would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization could survive and to eagerly accept both offers; to announce that the U.S. would adhere to international law and remove any threat to invade Cuba; and to carry forward the withdrawal of the obsolete missiles in Turkey, proceeding as planned to upgrade the nuclear threat against the Soviet Union to a far greater one — only part, of course, of the global encirclement of Russia. But that was unthinkable.
The basic reason why no such thought could be contemplated was spelled out by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard dean and reputedly the brightest star in the Camelot firmament. The world, he insisted, must come to understand that “[t]he current threat to peace is not in Turkey, it is in Cuba,” where missiles were directed against the U.S. A vastly more powerful U.S. missile force trained on the much weaker and more vulnerable Soviet enemy could not possibly be regarded as a threat to peace, because we are Good, as a great many people in the Western hemisphere and beyond could testify — among numerous others, the victims of the ongoing terrorist war that the U.S. was then waging against Cuba, or those swept up in the “campaign of hatred” in the Arab world that so puzzled Eisenhower, though not the National Security Council, which explained it clearly.
Of course, the idea that the U.S. should be restrained by international law was too ridiculous to merit consideration. As explained recently by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias, “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers” — meaning the U.S. — so that it is “amazingly naïve,” indeed quite “silly,” to suggest that it should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. This was a frank and welcome exposition of operative assumptions, reflexively taken for granted by the ExComm assemblage.
In subsequent colloquy, the president stressed that we would be “in a bad position” if we chose to set off an international conflagration by rejecting proposals that would seem quite reasonable to survivors (if any cared). This “pragmatic” stance was about as far as moral considerations could reach.
In a review of recently released documents on Kennedy-era terror, Harvard University Latin Americanist Jorge Domínguez observes, “Only once in these nearly thousand pages of documentation did a U.S. official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to U.S.-government sponsored terrorism”: a member of the National Security Council staff suggested that raids that are “haphazard and kill innocents… might mean a bad press in some friendly countries.”
The same attitudes prevailed throughout the internal discussions during the missile crisis, as when Robert Kennedy warned that a full-scale invasion of Cuba would “kill an awful lot of people, and we’re going to take an awful lot of heat on it.” And they prevail to the present, with only the rarest of exceptions, as easily documented.
We might have been “in even a worse position” if the world had known more about what the U.S. was doing at the time. Only recently was it learned that, six months earlier, the U.S. had secretly deployed missiles in Okinawa virtually identical to those the Russians would send to Cuba. These were surely aimed at China at a moment of elevated regional tensions. To this day, Okinawa remains a major offensive U.S. military base over the bitter objections of its inhabitants who, right now, are less than enthusiastic about the dispatch of accident-prone V-22 Osprey helicopters to the Futenma military base, located at the heart of a heavily populated urban center.
An Indecent Disrespect for the Opinions of Humankind
The deliberations that followed are revealing, but I will put them aside here. They did reach a conclusion. The U.S. pledged to withdraw the obsolete missiles from Turkey, but would not do so publicly or put the offer in writing: it was important that Khrushchev be seen to capitulate. An interesting reason was offered, and is accepted as reasonable by scholarship and commentary. As Dobbs puts it, “If it appeared that the United States was dismantling the missile bases unilaterally, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the [NATO] alliance might crack” — or to rephrase a little more accurately, if the U.S. replaced useless missiles with a far more lethal threat, as already planned, in a trade with Russia that any “rational man” would regard as very fair, then the NATO alliance might crack.
To be sure, when Russia withdrew Cuba’s only deterrent against an ongoing U.S. attack — with a severe threat to proceed to direct invasion still in the air — and quietly departed from the scene, the Cubans would be infuriated (as, in fact, they understandably were). But that is an unfair comparison for the standard reasons: we are human beings who matter, while they are merely “unpeople,” to adapt George Orwell’s useful phrase.
Kennedy also made an informal pledge not to invade Cuba, but with conditions: not just the withdrawal of the missiles, but also termination, or at least “a great lessening,” of any Russian military presence. (Unlike Turkey, on Russia’s borders, where nothing of the kind could be contemplated.) When Cuba is no longer an “armed camp,” then “we probably wouldn’t invade,” in the president’s words.
He added that, if it hoped to be free from the threat of U.S. invasion, Cuba must end its “political subversion” (Stern’s phrase) in Latin America. “Political subversion” had been a constant theme for years, invoked for example when Eisenhower overthrew the parliamentary government of Guatemala and plunged that tortured country into an abyss from which it has yet to emerge. And these themes remained alive and well right through Ronald Reagan’s vicious terror wars in Central America in the 1980s. Cuba’s “political subversion” consisted of support for those resisting the murderous assaults of the U.S. and its client regimes, and sometimes even perhaps — horror of horrors — providing arms to the victims.
The usage is standard. Thus, in 1955, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had outlined “three basic forms of aggression.” The first was armed attack across a border, that is, aggression as defined in international law. The second was “overt armed attack from within the area of each of the sovereign states,” as when guerrilla forces undertake armed resistance against a regime backed or imposed by Washington, though not of course when “freedom fighters” resist an official enemy. The third: “Aggression other than armed, i.e., political warfare, or subversion.” The primary example at the time was South Vietnam, where the United States was defending a free people from “internal aggression,” as Kennedy’s U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson explained — from “an assault from within” in the president’s words.
Though these assumptions are so deeply embedded in prevailing doctrine as to be virtually invisible, they are occasionally articulated in the internal record. In the case of Cuba, the State Department Policy Planning Council explained that “the primary danger we face in Castro is… in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half,” since the Monroe Doctrine announced Washington’s intention, then unrealizable, to dominate the Western hemisphere.
Not the Russians of that moment then, but rather the right to dominate, a leading principle of foreign policy found almost everywhere, though typically concealed in defensive terms: during the Cold War years, routinely by invoking the “Russian threat,” even when Russians were nowhere in sight. An example of great contemporary import is revealed in Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian’s important upcoming book of the U.S.-U.K. coup that overthrew the parliamentary regime of Iran in 1953. With scrupulous examination of internal records, he shows convincingly that standard accounts cannot be sustained. The primary causes were not Cold War concerns, nor Iranian irrationality that undermined Washington’s “benign intentions,” nor even access to oil or profits, but rather the way the U.S. demand for “overall controls” — with its broader implications for global dominance — was threatened by independent nationalism.