PARIS — Why has Fidel Castro decided to make public the letters he exchanged with Nikita S. Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis?
Did Castro want to respond to the charge, contained in Khrushchev's recently released memoirs, that he had coldly urged the Soviet leader, at the height of the crisis, to launch a nuclear strike against the United States?
That's the word going around Havana. But the impression one gets as a result of reading the letters is that Castro was anything but calculating.
Castro recommended to Khrushchev, in a letter dated Oct. 26, 1962, that he launch a nuclear strike against the United States if the U.S. military attempted to invade the island to neutralize the nuclear missiles the Soviets were installing. In the same letter, Castro said he expected a U.S. operation within three days.
Washington was, in fact, feeling the pressure to invade. Several missiles had already reached Cuba and President John F. Kennedy seemed unlikely to be satisfied for long with the naval blockade he had announced on Oct. 22.
Khrushchev, realizing that he had lost the high-risk wager he undertook by sending the missiles to Cuba, did not resist U.S. pressure for long. Though he said nothing to Castro--he feared that the Cuban might scuttle an agreement--Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his weapons in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.
Despite his heated rhetoric, Khrushchev knew there would be no winners in a nuclear war. Castro's frenetic ideology and visceral anti-Americanism (only a year before his troops had had to repulse the U.S.-supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs) was such that he was ready to "heroically" accept the possibility of apocalypse for his people, and many others.
On Oct. 22, the Cuban missile crisis became public when Kennedy revealed it to Americans, declared a blockade of Cuba to prevent new arms from arriving there and demanded the withdrawal of the missiles. Moscow, at first, denied the charges. But on Oct. 25, Khrushchev, faced with the show of U.S. determination, sent a secret message to Kennedy (the text has never been published), in which he acknowledged the presence of nuclear missiles and suggested that they might be withdrawn in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.
When Castro wrote the following letter, he was unaware of Khrushchev's approach to the White House.
Dear Comrade Khrushchev:
Based on our analysis of the situation and the reports in our possession, I conclude that an act of aggression could take place in the next 24 to 72 hours.
There are two possibilities: the first--and most likely--is an aerial attack on precise objectives with the sole intent of destroying them; the second--less likely but still possible--is an invasion. I realize that the latter, to be carried out, would require the use of considerable forces, and that it is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might rule it out.
You can be sure that we will firmly and resolutely resist any attack, whatever form it takes. The morale of the Cuban people is extremely high and they will face the aggressor heroically . . . .
If the second hypothesis materializes and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the danger to humanity of such an aggressive policy is so great that the Soviet Union should never allow a situation to develop in which the imperialists could strike the first blow of a nuclear war against it.
I say this because I believe that the aggressivity of the imperialists is making them extremely dangerous, and if they undertook such a brutal and illegal act as the invasion of Cuba, it would be the moment to eliminate such a danger forever. It would be an act of pure self-defense, as harsh and terrible as the solution may be, for there is no other.
I have reached this conclusion after seeing the way that this aggressive policy is developing and the way in which the imperialists, despite world opinion, have placed themselves above principles and law, the way they blockade the seas, violate our airspace and prepare for invasion, while frustrating any hopes for negotiations, even though they realize the gravity of the problem.
You have always been and you remain a tireless defender of the peace. I understand how bitter these hours must be for you, with the results of your superhuman efforts so seriously threatened.
Nevertheless, until the last moment, we will keep our hope that peace will be saved and we are ready to contribute to that quest with all the means in our possession. But at the same time, we are calmly preparing to confront a situation that we see as very real and very near . . . .
Fraternally, FIDEL CASTRO, Havana, Oct. 26, 1962