In the midst of the controversy over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to put troops in Cuba. Put them where? Close to the U.S. coastline? What is he thinking, or does he recall such an effort in the not too distant past – the Cuba missile crisis of 1962 in the middle of the Cold War, an event that brought the two powers – the U.S. and the Soviet Union – the closest they ever came to a direct clash, even possibly a nuclear exchange.
What a fearful memory, surely best forgotten. That Putin would raise it suggests the seriousness of the occasion, at least for the Russian ruler. He considers Ukraine the equivalent of Cuba, a neighbor that cannot be conceded to the enemy. That was also the opinion of President John Kennedy, who was alarmed and frustrated by the takeover of Cuba by the communist Fidel Castro, clearly and dangerously allied to Moscow.
Kennedy’s first response was a dismal failure. He backed an invasion of anti-Castro rebels that foundered at the Bay of Pigs, largely because a doubtful President failed to provide air cover. That emboldened Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a reckless and ardent communist who had participated in Josef Stalin’s mass murders and then turned on the dictator after his death. Sensing an opportunity, Khrushchev began to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to prevent another U. S. attempt on his communist ally. Khrushchev still dreamed of world revolution.
The U.S. was aghast at his move. By this time, Kennedy had learned from experience. He consulted all the members of the foreign policy establishment, a group of experienced and scholarly advisers that doesn’t exist today. Opinion varied in terms of what action to take, but there was no flighty talk of using nukes or demonizing Khrushchev. In fact, subsequent records reveal that both sides had a clear picture of the other, which helped in the ultimate resolution.
Kennedy and Khrushchev stayed in contact and arranged a compromise. Khrushchev would remove the Cuban missiles in return for the U.S. taking similar missiles out of Turkey. The crisis was over and in fact nothing like it occurred again up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At first Kennedy tried to portray the agreement as a Cold War victory for the U.S. and kept the Turkish part secret. But when that was revealed, the importance of the compromise was understood. It has gone down in history as an example of successful statecraft.
Though Putin has a substantial nuclear arsenal, he will not put missiles in Cuba. He is not an expansionist minded communist but an autocratic national leader looking out for his country’s interests. While Khrushchev approached Cuba offensively, Putin’s tactic is defensive. He wants the U. S. to stop expanding NATO to Ukraine on the Russian border. That’s the message of his threat.
The U.S. Is not today what it was in Kennedy’s day. Opinions and pressures are all over the place from a number of groups not always linked to the national interest. That’s the accusation against the so-called neocons who seem to have their own view of world revolution. There is similar distrust of the military-industrial complex that profits mightily from wars however misconceived. Whatever the flaws of the people advising Kennedy, their integrity was not challenged.
Since 9/11 something is lacking in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps it’s a matter of character as well as wisdom. Communism may be gone in America, but other kinds of of ideology prevail distorting policy. A clear view of the world is essential, as George Kennan demonstrated when he charted the U.S. course in the Cold War. But is another Kennan possible today?