A crisis to remember

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

I was eight when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. Believe it or not, I remember it well.  For a kid of my age, I was remarkably interested in politics, and reading newspapers and listening to the radio was an intrinsic part of my daily routine.

Of course, the full picture of what really happened in these 13 fateful days in October 1962 occurred to me much later, when I was an adult; besides, you could hardly expect getting a full picture from the Soviet propaganda of the time. But I do remember spirited reports praising brave Cubans and their charismatic leader Fidel Castro for standing up to the world’s worst “imperialist,” the United States of America. The reports were usually interspersed by energetic assurances that the Soviet Army was capable of defeating anyone who would dare to interrupt our peaceful movement towards Communism.

And then, I remember late-night kitchen conversations between my parents when I was supposed to be already asleep in my room. Speaking in a low voice so as not to wake me up, my mom was talked anxiously to my dad, asking him to explain what was going on. He, a quiet and thoughtful man, responded trying to sound calm and positive, not perhaps trusting his own words, as I now realize.

Finally, when the crisis was over, I vividly recall a cartoon on the first page of the daily newspaper Pravda. The cartoon depicted the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, as a captain of a ship with the steering wheel in hand. There was a compass in the middle of the wheel, with the compass’ needle pointing to the word “Peace.” I felt proud that I lived in a country that had preserved world peace.

The next time the Cuban Crisis had a personal touch upon my life was just a few years ago, when my family and I were already living in the U.S. For a high-school class in world history, my son decided to write about the Cuban Crisis. Happy about his choice of the topic, I volunteered to review a draft of the paper. Suddenly, my childhood memories of reading the Pravda newspaper were back.

In a straightforward manner that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of any seasoned Cold War warrior, my son told there narrative of a young, clever and perceptive American president who single-handedly outsmarted an old, moronic and clueless Russian leader. The conclusion of the paper was simple: there was a crisis; the Americans won, the Soviets lost.

I chose not to criticize my offspring’s opus. However, unable to restraint myself completely, I asked him a question: “Well, if the United States was allowed to have military bases next to the Soviet Union in Turkey, then why was the Soviet Union not allowed to have military bases in Cuba?” My son didn’t know the answer to this question: they hadn’t discussed this aspect of the conflict in his world history class.

A notable anniversary of every well-known crisis event provides all of us with the useful opportunity to re-consider its proper place in the grand scheme of human history. I leave it to the pundits to decide how many serious world crises were averted by the so-called Moscow-Washington hotline, a direct communications line established between the Kremlin and the White House in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I expect global security experts to weigh in on whether the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that proved its first worth during the Crisis, is still as valid today as it was in 1962.

But for me personally, the lessons of the Cuban Crisis could be summed up in three simple words: know thy enemy. When reading eyewitnesses’ accounts of the events of October 1962, I was struck by the level of ignorance both sides demonstrated with regards to the plans, intentions and mindsets of their respective opponents. Hopefully, things have improved since then: the famous hotline is likely to be regularly updated with the most sophisticated communication gadgets; modern spying technologies provide a clear picture of the military capabilities of the other side – and often of its plans as well; a small army of shrewd risk managers would come up with a plausible contingency for just about every risky scenario on a moment’s notice.

What else? Just a tiny bit: the leaders of both countries must listen to each other at least as attentively as they would listen to their home-grown hawks. With this happening too, the Cuban Missile Crisis will forever remain the only crisis of such a magnitude that we will commemorate, if not exactly celebrate, in the future.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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4 Responses to A crisis to remember

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    Very interesting post – and almost exactly my own feelings about the whole affair.. I was not as politically inclined as you were at the tender age, but I do remember tracks with camouflage headlight lenses on the streets and, of course, later I heard and read many accounts, including the first-hand.. And now , at my current age, I sometimes wonder if the Soviets should not have turned the ships – it seems the world we live in now would have been better. The Soviets would have they “perestroika” sooner or later anyway, but in much more sane manner. However the America almost definitely would have been a much better country to live with other nations on this planet.
    Cheers

    • Eugene says:

      Hi Alex,

      I don’t know, I don’t know…At any rate, I believe that a country’s problems come “from within,” and if not for the Cuban Crisis, both Russia and the US would have screwed things up in many different ways.

      Cheers,
      Eugene

  2. Dear Eugene,

    Being just a year old at the time I am afraid I cannot match your memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis! I find your reminiscence fascinating. I have often heard Americans, Britons and Greeks talk of their memories of it. I have obviously read accounts written by Soviet military, political and diplomatic figures who were involved. Yours is the first account I have read from a Russian who was not involved directly.

    As for the Crisis itself a huge amount has been written about it but you touch on an essential point, which had a strong resonance in the 1980s. At that time the US was deploying medium range nuclear missiles in western Europe. The Soviet reaction was very strong and I remember how this was represented as an example of Soviet belligerence. Almost nowhere was it suggested that the Soviets had a valid point and that if the US found unacceptable the deployment of Soviet medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba it was not unreasonable that the Soviets should find it equally unacceptable for US medium range nuclear missiles to be deployed in Italy and Turkey (as in 1962) or in Britain and Germany (as in the 1980s). Fortunately we now know that in private two western politicians did come to understand it: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both have a reputation as hardline anti Communists but certainly in Thatcher’s case she was far more understanding of Soviet and Russian security interests than was realised at the time and it seems that Reagan in time also came round to the same view. It tends to get forgotten that the decision to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in western Europe in the 1980s was not made by Reagan and Thatcher but by Carter, Callaghan and Schmidt. It was Reagan’s and Thatcher’s willingness to trade these missiles (contrary as we now know to the wishes of hardliners with NATO) that paved the way for the arms control agreements of the late 1980s and the easing of tensions that took place then. Unfortunately the proposals this time to deploy ABM systems in eastern Europe show that these lessons have been unlearnt.

  3. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Your comments always make me feel better about my pieces that they probably deserve:) Thank you.

    You’re raising a good point about leadership and vision. I’m not a big fan of Reagan, but I adore Thatcher, whom I consider one of the greatest politicians of modern times, on par with Churchill. At some point, I thought that Merkel would be capable of bringing Russia to Europe, where it belongs, IMHO. However, she’s definitely busy with more important “European” things. Besides, I’m not sure anymore whether or not Russia wants to be part of anything.

    It’s clear enough that neither Obama nor Romney is able to provide any sort of leadership – save for vision – to the Western world. Both are/would be strictly “domestic” presidents doing foreign affairs only out of responsibilities. I don’t even see much difference between them. Both place American interests above all – no matter what. The difference is that Obama is willing to consider national interests of other countries – as far as this doesn’t threaten America’s – whereas Romney is proudly applying the “my way or highway” concept.

    Best Regards,
    Eugene

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