Looking back at US-Cuba relations

By Dan Drollette Jr | December 18, 2014

With the recent stunning, unexpected, and—in most quarters—largely welcome news that the United States will be restoring full diplomatic ties with Cuba, another Cold War flashpoint has vanished. So it seems an appropriate time to reflect on a US-Cuba relationship of such enduring tension that Bulletin authors felt compelled  to revisit it repeatedly through the decades.

After Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the new leader nationalized foreign assets, raised taxes on American imports, and negotiated trade deals with the Soviet Union. Then-president Dwight Eisenhower responded with economic sanctions, including a trade embargo and the cutting of diplomatic ties. Relations continued to deteriorate, and by 1961 the newly elected American president, John F. Kennedy, authorized a CIA plan (originally approved by Eisenhower) to send a group of 1,500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and hopefully oust Castro, landing at a place called the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos).

The outcome of the Bay of Pigs misadventure was succinctly summed up in the headline of a 1998 Bulletin article: “A Perfect Failure.” Note the quotation marks—they reflect the fact that the article’s title is a direct quote from an October 1961 CIA audit of the operation. (The CIA review was conducted six months after the Bay of Pigs, but released in February 1998, 37 years later.) The 150-page document, written by CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick, found fault with nearly all aspects of the endeavor, which included few personnel who even spoke Spanish; the report “was so offensive to agency officials that Director John McCone ordered all but one copy destroyed,” the Bulletin staff wrote.

The Cuban military handily defeated the bumbling, ragtag invasion attempt, but the Bay of Pigs incident did much to arouse Cuban distrust of the United States, and it arguably pushed Castro into signing a secret agreement with the Soviet Union, in which he allowed the Soviets to base their nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba—a mere 90 miles from the US mainland. The bases were discovered, and in October 1963, the United States responded with a naval blockade of Cuba; a tense, 13-day standoff ensued before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down.

That the missile crisis was a close call is explained thoroughly in a 1988 Bulletin article, published on the 25th anniversary of the crisis. The title “Did Khrushchev bluff in Cuba? No” says it all. (One set of figures easily overlooked in analyses of the crisis: At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the number of nuclear weapons ready to be used on command was 3,500 from the United States, and between 300 and 500 from the Soviet Union. These days, when the Cold War is considered to be over and done with, the number of nuclear weapons operationally available worldwide is actually higher, at about 4,000 weapons, with another 1,800 on high alert and available for use on short notice.

In the past few years, it has become publicly known that the world was much closer to nuclear annihilation during those 13 days than was widely realized at the time. Newly released documents and peaceful conferences among old combatants (in Havana, no less) hosted by the National Security Archive revealed that there were more Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on the ground in Cuba—98—that were close to being armed and ready than Kennedy realized. What’s more, some sources say that the Soviet ground commanders had already been authorized to launch the weapons, if the island were invaded by America.

And there was an item that was even more chilling, Kingston Reif reported for the Bulletin in June 2012. Reif wrote that on October 27, 1963, at the height of the crisis, “A Soviet submarine commander, under barrage by US depth charges, believed war between the Soviet Union and the United States must have already begun. He prepared to fire the nuclear-tipped torpedo. However, authorization to fire the torpedo required assent from the three officers on board. Two officers were in favor of launching the torpedo—fortunately, one was not. One.”

That same day, Castro sent a letter to Soviet Premier Khrushchev, urging him to destroy America in a nuclear first strike.

It’s interesting that all this material is only coming out decades after the fact; it may be that the participants needed that time to reflect, or to wait for for key documents to be declassified—proving the historian’s adage that “you need at least a hundred years after an event has passed to write any analysis of it.” There’s little on the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Bulletin’s archives that was published at the actual time of the crisis—those involved were understandably busy, and information was closely guarded.

One exception to the waiting-for-time-to-pass rule is a January 1963 Bulletin story, “Disarmament After Cuba,” in which the author, David R. Inglis, wrote: “The Cuban situation is related to the disarmament problem in many ways. First, it gave us the kind of a nuclear war scare that should impress on every thinking person the importance of bringing the arms race under control very soon. We went to the brink. We should not allow ourselves to forget how we felt during the ordeal of those few days between Kennedy’s sober announcement of the blockade on October 22 and Khrushchev’s wise decision to withdraw. President Kennedy was quick to point out that our success in threatening nuclear war and achieving our ends without war this time does not mean that we can count on similar success again under different circumstances. The Cuban crisis makes it clear anew that repeatedly running the risk of the destruction of civilization is not the right way to run a world for long.”

Or, as then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara phrased it some years later while reminiscing at a conference in Havana: “We’re damn lucky to be here.” 

Editor’s note: The Bulletin’s archives from 1945 to 1998, complete with the original covers and artwork, can be found here. Anything after 1998 can be found via the search engine on the Bulletin’s home page.

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