How My Father And President Kennedy Saved The World

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THE WORLD CAME CLOSE TO A NUCLEAR CLASH THREE times during the half-century of the Cold War. The first was in Korea when China’s intervention snatched imminent victory from General MacArthur. Only a nuclear strike could save the situation, but President Harry Truman firmly rejected it. The second time came in 1962, at the moment of greatest tension around Cuba, 40 years ago this October. And the last was in Vietnam when many American military and political leaders believed that atomic weapons alone could redress the failure of the war’s progress.

On the first and last occasions, American political leaders had a choice. But during the 13-day crisis of October 1962, events almost spun beyond control of either the White House or the Kremlin. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the fact that its causes were not solely what had become the familiar competition between two superpowers, America and Russia, but something more dangerous, the cultural differences—I would say differences in civilization— between them. Because of those differences, the leaders were unable to judge with any accuracy what effect their decisions would have on the other side.

However detailed the information the White House got from its intelligence sources and diplomats, the President based his final decision on his idea of conduct in the Kremlin. That is the crux of the matter. People invariably think in terms of their own traditions, their own culture, which may have nothing in common with the other party’s way of thinking. Furthermore, a leader will trust his own intuition more than all the intelligence agencies in the world. Otherwise he would not be a leader.

Differences in civilization affect a country’s vision not only of the future but of the past. Every country has its own historical mythology. The American mythology of the Cuban missile crisis is familiar: An aggressive Soviet Union, with the cooperation of a local dictator, Fidel Castro, placed offensive nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, in Cuba, with the intention of cowing the United States. When President John F. Kennedy learned of this, he quite properly threatened the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who “blinked” first and pulled his men and his missiles out of the island. The United States rightly won, and Khrushchev was soon swept from power.

But how did Cuba look from the windows of the Kremlin during the Cold War? At the beginning of 1959 the Soviet leaders could hardly imagine any fate that might link Moscow and Havana. No specialists in the Central Committee, much less Father, even knew much about Latin America. The Soviet embassy in Cuba had been shut down as unnecessary back in 1952.

The arrival in Havana of the partisan fighter Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959, and Fulgencio Batista’s flight, attracted little attention in Moscow. When Father asked for information about Cuba, it turned out there was none to give him. Neither the Communist Party Central Committee’s International Department, KGB intelligence, nor military intelligence had any idea who Castro was or what he was fighting for. Father advised them to consult Cuba’s Communists; they reported that the newcomer was a representative of the haute bourgeoisie and working for the CIA.

In 1960 Father decided to send his deputy Anastas Mikoyan to Cuba to discover what motivated Castro. Mikoyan was an intelligent man and an outstanding negotiator and diplomat. He visited Father at the dacha on the eve of his departure, and I remember one small episode. A group of us went for a walk, and one of Father’s aides reported on Castro’s recent trip to Washington to meet President Eisenhower. No one had any reliable information. The aide tried to persuade the group that Castro was an American agent, or at least ready to dance to the White House’s tune. You couldn’t trust him: That was the Kremlin’s view of Castro at the time.

Mikoyan returned from Cuba elated. He told Father in minute detail about his talks with the brothers Castro and other Cubans. In his opinion, they were honorable fighters for freedom and must be helped economically and politically. There was no talk yet of military assistance, and Father was cautious in evaluating Castro. Meanwhile, Washington continued to exert every effort to push the Cuban leader into the U.S.S.R.'s embrace. The economic blockade of Cuba announced by the United States was an important factor. It all began with sugar. To teach Castro a lesson, after he began to nationalize American petroleum refineries, the Americans stopped buying any sugar from Cuba. The Cubans had to look for a new customer. At first Father didn’t believe we would be that customer, since Russia had its own sugar and had never bought any.

 

World prices for sugar soared after the embargo was announced, and Father made fun of the Americans, who would now have to drink “empty tea.” But in fact Cuba’s neighbors in the Caribbean increased their sugar production and supplied the Americans. Castro asked for help. We had to rescue our new friends. Father reluctantly approved the temporary purchase of Cuban sugar in. exchange for Soviet fuel.