Sunday, October 23, 2022

October 1962: The Edge of the Abyss

On the evening of October 22, 1962, television screens across the U.S.A. and in many other places in the world presented an emergency speech by President John F. Kennedy. In this speech, Kennedy made public for the first time one of the most urgent crises of the Cold War era. American intelligence had discovered (beyond doubt) that the secret construction of Soviet nuclear missile bases in Cuba was underway and rapidly approaching completion. Aerial reconnaissance photography unveiled multiple bases in remote locations on the Caribbean island, along with an increasing buildup of medium range ballistic missiles capable of hitting two-thirds of major population centers in the United States, as well as many cities in Central and South America. The time from launch to impact of these weapons of mass destruction was estimated to be less than five minutes. Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union dismantle the missile bases, and he declared that the U.S. Navy would enforce a “quarantine” around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from delivering any further military supplies to them. The “quarantine” was a blockade in all but name (calling it a blockade would have been an “act of war”). The American Navy would surround Cuba, asserting the right to stop and search all Soviet vessels approaching Cuban ports and to refuse entry to any ships containing weapons or any other materials pertaining to the further buildup of the bases. If the Soviets violated the “quarantine,” further U.S. military action would be taken.

The world learned that night, through the medium of television, that a confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers had reached the brink of World War III.

The Soviets insisted that their only interest was to defend Fidel Castro’s newly Communist Cuba from “imperialist invasion” by the United States. But this buildup was clearly beyond anything Cuba might have needed for its defense. It was a provocation, perhaps a gamble, by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to maximize the benefits of the U.S.S.R.'s presence in the Western Hemisphere. It was an attempt to gain an advantage in the weird standoff of the Cold War. One particular outstanding issue pertained to the Soviet leader’s frustration over the lack of a treaty between East and West Germany, and the consequent presence of "West Berlin" as an outpost of the NATO alliance in the midst of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps Khrushchev was hoping that a military confrontation over Cuba could provide a pretext for seizing West Berlin by force.

But this would only have been one motive within a larger context that continues (at least in the background) to frame all consideration of warfare since 1945. The invention of "nuclear weapons" placed a whole new level of power — power that harnessed the energy of the core foundations of the material world as modern science understood it — into the hands of human beings, who could now choose to unleash its immense destructive capacities in warfare. The U.S.A. had already demonstrated the monstrous power of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II. The ensuing generation saw the development of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, and its voluminous proliferation in both the United States and the Soviet Union.

A strange paradox surrounded these weapons. They were so vastly, indiscriminately, and unpredictably destructive that the use of them in warfare, for any reason, seemed to be unthinkable. We might choose to unleash their power to serve our aims, but once unleashed, how could we hope to control it? Who could predict the physical and psychological effects that human beings would undergo during or after the unprecedented event of a multi-pronged thermonuclear attack? What manner of economic chaos and social disorder would remain for the survivors (assuming there would be any)? The short, medium, and long term impacts on whole human societies, countless millions of people, and the consequences for regional and global environmental health were beyond imagining.

Humans apparently saw the need to avoid ever using nuclear weapons. But how could we be sure that such a catastrophe could be avoided? This was a particularly poignant question for the U.S.A. and its allies, nations that at least in principle were politically free, open, and transparent in the way they were governed. The Free World advocated these political and social standards as the ideal, even if the realities of politics and statesmanship constantly failed to measure up to them. No such ideals hindered Soviet Communism; rather, it held as a creedal principle that political ends justified every means, including all manner of lying and deception. The post-World-War-II world, indeed, revealed that allied countries had been excessively credulous in their expectations of Stalin’s “honor” and their confidence in his promises. It seemed clear that trust was not a viable foundation for security in the atomic age. What options remained?

In the Cold War era, a sort of culture of mutual terror emerged between the rival blocs, within which a measure of "security" was at least felt to be within human reach: the perception was that the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons would never be used was to threaten to use them in retaliation if the enemy chose to use them first. 

Ultimately this became a kind of "pact" that "kept the peace" during the years I grew up; or, at least, it kept peace between the U.S. dominated "First World" and Soviet Communism, while Third World populations endured dictatorships, revolutions, and proxy wars (in a wide variety of local circumstances we have scarcely begun to understand). It was called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (aptly abbreviated as “M.A.D.”). Somehow, this strategy became acceptable (or at least tolerable) to political leaders, even though it bound them up with maintaining, as at least a threat, the possibility of inflicting enormous, disproportionate, indiscriminate violence and destruction upon entire nations and their populations.

It was a harsh paradox: our world spoke in terms of becoming more united in peace, freedom, and understanding — while also generating escalation scenarios for total war and spending gigantic sums of money to stockpile weapons that were capable of destroying the human race. It was ultimately an implausible paradox, and in trying to stretch themselves to reconcile themselves to it, free nations became further alienated from the Christian humanism they still claimed (however vaguely) as their heritage.

In his speech that night, President Kennedy laid the foundations for the difficult exchanges between American and Soviet regimes over the next terrifying week. This led to the eventual Russian withdrawal of the nuclear missile bases from Cuba, gaining for a time a measure of “security” against the possibility of cataclysmic war. But the hidden cost was high, in terms of a hardening of the U.S.A.’s political willingness to “wager” on the immediate safety of millions of innocent human lives. 

The apparent insufficiency of the “quarantine” in the days that followed very nearly led to a full scale invasion of Cuba by American forces. U.S. intelligence at the time, however, was deficient regarding the Russian military equipment already in place. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years later did the world learn that by October 1962 Cuba was already armed with smaller “tactical nuclear weapons” designed to be used in battlefield conditions. These weapons were more “limited” but still horrendous in their destructive capacities. The Cubans (and, therefore, the Russians) were prepared to “cross the nuclear threshold” to push back American forces invading Cuba. This could have triggered the protocols of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” bringing about an escalation of retaliative nuclear strikes that would have had its own bizarre logic. Both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had their larger (“strategic”) nuclear weapons aimed at major population centers filled with millions of innocent civilians who might die in a nuclear attack without even knowing that their country had entered a war. And the escalation would have continued…

In any case, the targeting of American strategic nuclear weapons toward the indiscriminate destruction of civilian population centers required President Kennedy to press the threat “to retaliate” to any nuclear attack initiated by the Russians. The U.S.A. in effect held the civilian population of the Soviet Union “hostage” in order to dissuade the Soviet Union from attacking American civilian populations (and vice versa). It was intrinsic to nuclear deterrence to put millions of non-belligerent civilians in danger of death, and in a crisis this danger had to be presented as a threat (in atomic new-speak terms, “a full retaliatory response”). Kennedy was a man of noble sentiments who aspired to do good, and who was personally appalled by the brutal “requirements” of this crisis. Yet he saw no way to escape the evils entailed except through cowardice. And he refused to stoop to cowardice, or subject his nation to what he could only perceive as a humiliating and dangerous appeasement. Thus, he endeavored to present the available options for this desperate crisis in noble terms (a nobility which means very little to today’s political discourse). But ultimately it was the tragic nobility, born of an atrophying society that was drifting far from the resources of its original inspiration in the Gospel’s testimony to the love of God and the dignity of every human person.

Sixty years later, we still drift - as we face new kinds of war and old threats of nuclear weapons - we drift in desperation, not knowing where our politicians want to take us (or why); or we drift like beggars in search of a renewed evangelical inspiration, a renewed wisdom in which we might find the courage and compassion to affirm the transcendence of human freedom, and to discover new ways of reconfiguring vast and potentially destructive material power into the energy of service to human persons, relationships, and communities.

Words from JFK’s televised speech of October 22, 1962: