Socialist Worker

A nuclear near miss

by Sam Ashman
Issue No. 1823

I AM a bit of a fan of the TV programme The West Wing. In it a fictional president of the US often has emergency meetings in the war room, where military advisers turn up and talk tough. Radio 4 had a great, if alarming, programme on last week about what these meetings are like in real life. It went through just how close the world was to nuclear war 40 years ago in October 1962.

I had sometimes wondered whether people who remember the Cuban missile crisis had exaggerated how scary it was. After listening to this, believe me - it was scary. US spy planes spotted Soviet nuclear installations on the island of Cuba - only 90 miles from Florida.

This was during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were eyeball to eyeball. The US threw up a naval blockade around Cuba and every US soldier in the world was put on nuclear alert. As Russian ships sailed towards Cuba (maybe carrying nuclear supplies) 100 US ships and 1,000 US bombers were ready to stop them. The US demanded the USSR withdraw the installations, and the world waited. US president John F Kennedy secretly taped the emergency meetings held in the White House.

The radio programme used actors to play the parts, but the words were real. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, declared they needed 'one hard crack' to take the nuclear installation out, and five more days to 'complete the job'.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, 'This situation could well lead to general war,' and 'inaction would undercut the foreign policy necessary for our survival.' The generals were the most gung-ho.

General Curtis Le May declared, 'They'll take Berlin if we knock off Cuba.' He saw 'only one alternative - fire nuclear weapons and begin a nuclear exchange'. Some of the politicians held back a bit more. Their response is a good insight into how the world still works today.

They immediately wanted to know what their allies in the Cold War would think. They worried about the 'problem of holding the alliance together' and whether the allies would see a strike 'as a mad act by the US'. They wanted to know, 'How many nuclear weapons are there in Turkey?' because it was the US base closest to the USSR. President Kennedy was on the phone to world leaders to get their backing. British prime minister Harold Macmillan asked, 'Are you going to occupy Cuba and have done with it?'

The crisis came to an end when the USSR said it would remove its nuclear weapons in Cuba if the US removed its weapons in Turkey. But 'if we bring this up at NATO it'll be all over Europe. We convinced the Turks it was in their interests' (to have the nuclear weapons), said someone in the White House. Even Kennedy agreed the secret deal.

There is one more thing the programme showed - how those at the top were fully aware of the protests that took place against what they were doing. The news reported demonstrators chanting 'Hands off Cuba', and how some of the angriest protests were in Britain.

The protests were discussed in Downing Street, and Kennedy commented that the protests in Britain were 'Bertrand Russell's lot'. Remember that when you are next protesting against the bombing of Iraq, George Bush is watching.

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Sat 26 Oct 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1823
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