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Restraint Saved the Day in 1962

October 27, 2002|Ann Louise Bardach | Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and the editor of "Cuba: A Traveler's Literary Companion."

The first and only time the United States faced the real prospect of nuclear apocalypse was 40 years ago today. That was the day that a Russian missile, launched on the order of Fidel Castro, shot down an American U-2 spy plane, killing its pilot and catapulting the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

Today, as we stand poised for war with Iraq, it would be foolish not to examine the lessons learned from the Cuban missile crisis, and how restraint saved the day. We didn't get the regime change we were seeking, and in fact have yet to see a regime change in Cuba. But neither did we embark on a war fueled by nuclear weapons that would have changed the world as we know it.

From the moment Castro came to power, the U.S. began plotting to get rid of him. There were numerous clandestine attempts to do away with the Cuban leader -- many of them bordering on the loony. The most costly attempt, both in lives lost and political capital squandered, was the humiliating 1961 CIA-backed invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Preparation for the mission began in March 1960 under President Eisenhower, who ordered CIA Director Allen Dulles to begin training Cuban exiles for a planned invasion of Cuba. Eisenhower left office the next year with a warning to his successor, John F. Kennedy, that "the United States cannot allow the Castro government to continue to exist in Cuba."

Kennedy agreed and was keen to displace Castro, but he strongly favored covert action over direct intervention. In the spring of 1961, he signed off on a secret CIA plan for an exile force to invade Cuba from its southern shore at Bahia de los Cochinos -- the Bay of Pigs.

Almost every element of the planning and execution of the operation guaranteed its failure, beginning with its grievous underestimation of the depth of popular support behind the Cuban revolution and the preparedness of Castro. Some within the administration and Pentagon had entertained grave misgivings about the plan based on internal analyses, but they hoped the military would be summoned to the rescue if the attack foundered.

It was not to be. A force of 1,300 Cuban exiles stormed the beach on the morning of April 17. They were quickly vanquished by a large and well-organized Cuban force. When the smoke had cleared, more than 100 members of the U.S.-backed force were dead. The rest surrendered and were taken captive. No U.S. military force came to the rescue. It turned out that Kennedy had meant what he said: There would be no overt U.S. action.

America's defeat to Castro's forces on the shores of southern Cuba conferred an international celebrity on the Cuban strongman: He was David, successfully vanquishing the Ugly American Goliath. The debacle, in the opinion of many historians, also led to the Cuban missile crisis.

Seeking to neutralize his northern neighbor, Castro began an all-out seduction of his Soviet allies, convincing Premier Nikita Khrushchev that serious firepower was needed to deter another U.S. invasion. In 1962, the Soviet Union surreptitiously installed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

On learning of the action, Kennedy moved quickly, ordering a naval quarantine of Cuba to intercept Soviet ships before the missiles could be made battle-ready. On Oct. 22, based on CIA reports that the Soviet Union was constructing sites for intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S. evacuated all nonessential personnel from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. At 7 p.m., Kennedy addressed the country on national television, revealing that there were nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

With the two superpowers poised on a nuclear precipice, negotiations took on an urgent intensity. On Oct. 26, in a secret communication, Khrushchev agreed not to break the U.S. blockade and offered to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba and agreed to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

But while the two statesmen were negotiating, Castro, with characteristic hubris and belligerence, had other ideas. A day after Khrushchev and Kennedy began brokering an agreement, Cuba shot down a U.S. surveillance plane. According to Carlos Franqui, a Castro biographer and former confidante, it was Castro himself who impulsively activated the missile that shot down the American U-2 spy plane, killing its pilot, U.S. Air Force Major Rudolf Anderson. Then Castro reportedly turned, faced his stupefied Russian advisors and said, "Well, now we'll see if there's war or not."

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