Lessons from Cuba, 50 years on

In late October 1962 Cold War Watchers were horrified by the imminent prospect of global annihilation. John Kennedy, the charismatic but mercurial American President, had over 20,000 nuclear warheads under his command; Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Leader, had about 2,000. Berlin had been a flash-point ever since the Soviet blockade of 1948. Many American weapons were based in Europe and Turkey, targetting Russian cities: more were on missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines. In contrast the Soviets’ weapons were restricted to the admittedly extensive territories of the USSR and its satellites, and a few diesel submarines. The Russians felt encircled and were searching for a strategic response.

From January 1959 Cuba was under Castro’s revolutionary government. In August 1962 Khrushchev, sensing an opportunity to counter America’s nuclear supremacy, started secretly placing Soviet missiles and nuclear warheads on Cuban soil. This provoked an American uproar, calls for nuclear escalation, and a new invasion of Cuba even though, in April 1961, CIA-trained Cuban exiles had failed ignominiously when invading Cuba’s southern coast at the ‘Bay of Pigs’.

On ‘Black Saturday’ October 27th 1962, at the height of the crisis and while the US Navy was blockading Cuban waters (they called it ‘quarantining’), US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ‘feared he might never live to see another Saturdaynight’. An American spy plane had been sighted over eastern Siberia; another shot down over Cuba (the pilot did not survive); and a Soviet diesel submarine (‘B59’, one of a fleet of four) spotted in Caribbean waters. Unknown to the Americans each sub – whose crews were very heat-stressed – had a nuclear-tipped torpedo. The Americans dropped small depth charges signalling B59 to surface, very nearly causing the Soviet Commander, who didn’t recognise the signals, to discharge his torpedo and destroy much of the American fleet (and themselves, but he thought they were doomed). He was over-ruled – and possibly the World saved – by an on-board superior, Vasili Arkhipov. Eventually, with wildly oscillating moods and fears among the respective decision-makers, pragmatism prevailed: Khrushchev ordered the withdrawal from Cuba, and Kennedy from Turkey. We are now 2,608 Saturdays on.

Caption: Cuban crisis map missile rangeQuakers of a ‘certain age’ will remember the wide and severe alarm. Nevertheless issues of ‘the Friend’ continued unabated, with items on the meaning of centring down, preparing hearts and minds, proposals to rename ‘Elders’ and ‘Overseers’, and particularly ‘A Quaker Campaign’ (to increase membership): but Bernard Canter wrote critical editorials on October 26th and November 2nd.

The first – ‘Naked in Cuba’ – brought Friends’ attention to the American ‘nuclear ring’ around Russia and the Soviets’ response ‘of the same kind’, so that the Western Powers could see for the first time ‘the loathsome, utterly cruel …. character of the so specious doctrine of Deterrence and its guise as Peace through defensive mutual Deterrence’ (“God is being crucified”). The second, headed ‘Reprieve’, commented that ‘terrestrially speaking’ it is ‘by courtesy of the combined statesmanship of Kennedy and Khrushchev that our very babies lie in their cradles this morning’. It quoted the Guardian’saccount of the American hawks’ advice to Kennedy which included nuclear strikes on Cuba, and the Times which reported that ‘it was not a question of if something would be done (by the Americans) but when’.  Bernard Canter also reprinted theObserver’s leading article of October 28 as ‘although it may stand on some other foundations than those of Friends’ he thought it an example of the ‘temperate and moderate tone’ of the British Press. This blamed the USSR for introducing nuclear weapons to Cuba and upsetting a ‘tacit understanding of the balance of power’ and went on to say that Kennedy had to act, but that an invasion of Cuba would be madness and a nuclear strike criminal. The Americans were criticised for basing nuclear weapons in Turkey and saying that Cuba was in no danger from America. The Observer proposed ‘denuclearisation’ of Latin America and the Middle East, and unilateral British nuclear disarmament, but – reflecting that non-Quakerly ‘other foundation’ – recommended that the USA and USSR be content with a minimum deterrent on each side, and co-operate to ‘keep the world safe’ not only from nuclear but from all war. It also – with even more disarming naïveté, or possibly clumsy irony – suggested that Kennedy could save the world.

Over the following weeks just one brief and very anti-American letter featured in ‘the Friend’ – from J. Leslie Wain who demanded that “in the name of Jesus this unholy use shall cease once and for all”. However from September to November ‘the Friend’ reported weekly on the extraordinary and entirely co-incidental exploits of Everyman III, a diesel-powered ketch augmented by sail. It set sail from Gravesend on 25th September with a remarkable crew including several Friends – destination, Leningrad. Its skipper was Earle Reynolds (‘from Honolulu and Hiroshima’): Alan White of Moseley Road Meeting, Birmingham was the Russian-speaking interpreter. Its cargo was 100,000 leaflets with peace messages for the Russian people, including banning nuclear weapons tests. The venture was supported by CND, Hugh Brock and Bertrand Russell. The seas were often rough, but its crew gained much encouragement when taking refuge in Belgian, Dutch, German, Danish and Swedish ports. At Leningrad they were refused Russian visas and confined on board in some discomfort (sometimes with hands bound), but were allowed to meet Peace Committee delegations from Leningrad and Moscow. Although committed to non-violence, the crew tried to scuttle the ketch when ordered to leave: three (including Alan White) dived into near-freezing seas to delay departure (they were returned unharmed). On October 31st the Russians refloated the ketch and towed it to International Waters. Although (remarkably) Everyman III had no radio, the Russians lent one so that its crew could hear about Cuba: indeed, they were treated well by officials whose leaders were otherwise pre-occupied. On the return journey the ketch was damaged and nearly sunk by ice in the Baltic.

Sadly, we still have nuclear weapons. The 1960’s were quickly forgotten. Fifteen years later Russia had caught up with America’s 20,000. The Reagan/Brezhnev years followed and fear returned, revitalising anti-nuclear campaigns. Twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world still has 19,000; 2,000 are on hair-trigger alert. There are now at least ten Nuclear Weapons States: fears are widely expressed about others, such as Iran. Campaigners, supported by the United Nations Secretary General, are still calling for a universal and rapid ban on all nuclear weapons; but the Nuclear Weapons States remain very laggard.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has re-analysed the ‘nuclear famine’ (formerly called ‘nuclear winter’) which would follow an exchange of arsenals the size of those of India and Pakistan, or in a Trident submarine. Up to a billion people would die through 10 years of failed harvests and chaos. J. Leslie Wain’s demands are still justified, and the dedication of Everyman III’s brave crew has yet to be rewarded.


Frank Boulton, Hampshire and the Islands Area Meeting

Frank is a Board Member of Medact, the UK affiliate of IPPNW, and a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (www.medact.org  www.icanw.org ).

Reprinted from the friend, September 2012