American Cold War literature on the Missile Crisis mimics a textbook of fantasy zoology. It was then that terms such as hawks, doves and owls were coined to characterize political tendencies, particularly in the face of major national security crises.
The hawks identified with the option of launching an immediate air strike against the island, followed by an invasion, to neutralize what was perceived as the Soviet plan to wipe out major U.S. cities with a nuclear first strike. In this cage were the former dean of the Harvard Humanities School, McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to JFK; Republican businessman John McCone, director of the CIA; General Maxwell Taylor and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. When Kennedy asked them what the Soviets would do in the face of an attack on Cuba, the head of the Air Force, Curtis Lemay, replied that “nothing, because they knew that the United States had more missiles” than they did.
The doves proposed a naval blockade of the island, with 240 warships and the closure of its airspace, a resolute military measure, but one that gave the Soviets time to reconsider and reverse the construction of bases in Cuban territory. These included former Ford Motors Chairman and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and JFK Speechwriter and Personal Advisor Ted Sorensen. Proposals emerged among them to negotiate with the Soviets, offering them the dismantling of U.S. missiles in Turkey, and even the Guantánamo naval base.
The owls later joined this political ornithology, who, learning from that Crisis, argued the need to avoid them through deterrent actions, because once they were unleashed, they ran the risk of being caught in a spiral of loose ends and deadly traps. Like when the first Soviet ship approached the quarantine line, and the commander of a U.S. destroyer considered firing his guns into the air, at the ship, as a “warning signal.” Or when a strategic bomber feinted in the direction of Leningrad, and the city’s radars registered it as an aborted combat mission. Or when a Soviet officer in charge of an anti-aircraft battery of surface-to-air missiles in Holguín asked the command by phone if he would shoot a U-2 that was entering his zone, he did not receive an answer, and decided to shoot it down, on October 27, later remembered as Black Saturday.
Interestingly, in those times of the Cold War, the enemies of the United States were not seen as different species of birds, but only as ferocious beasts: the Gray Bear (the USSR) or the Dragon (China). In a memorable phrase, General Lemay had argued the idea of attacking Cuba in the following way: “by wanting to put its paw in the waters of Latin America, we have caught the Russian bear in a trap, and now it had to be cut off up to its balls. Or better yet, cut off its balls at once.”
With bosses like the one in charge of the Air Force, and in the face of this haphazard escalation, JFK became so concerned that he dispatched his brother Bobby to meet with the top KGB officer in Washington, and quickly search, through a channel hidden from his top brass, for an understanding with Khrushchev, even if they had to secretly grant him the withdrawal of the U.S. missiles stationed in Turkey, as well as the public renunciation of invading Cuba and vetoing his conventional military collaboration with the island.
The same night of Black Saturday, thanks to providence and that hidden channel, Nikita would respond through the formal channel his famous proposal to withdraw the missiles, reacting to the negotiating offer received from JFK. In the next few minutes, however, another letter would arrive, signed by Khrushchev himself, in which he reaffirmed that the missiles would not be withdrawn, because they were not offensive, etc. JFK responded publicly to the first letter, and pretended the second did not exist. To put it in the animalistic language of the Crisis, instead of putting his testicles on the table, or threatening to rip them off the bear, the troubled owl made the wise decision to respond to the negotiating bear, and ignore the other.
The non-aligned countries — Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, North Korea, Algeria, Cuba — were not identified in this political zoology, as if they were spectators who neither poked nor cut. Their images, those of screaming underage creatures, have indeed swarmed in the graphic discourse of the press, caricatures and commercial or political propaganda posters, since long before the Cold War. But no more than that.
The grey kingbird and the names of the crises
In the Moscow of 1989, where the winds of late perestroika were blowing, we Cubans, invited for the first time to the Tripartite Conference on the Crisis, had what the poet Roque Dalton had called “the turn of the offended.” In the last session of that meeting, where mainly doves attended, some already mutated into owls, as well as any number of bears, of various colors, I was the designated hitter for the Cuba team. I share here my comments from then.
Since we were there to begin to understand each other, I said that I wanted to introduce them to a Cuban bird called the pitirre (grey kingbird). Considerably smaller than all those mentioned, this bird stood out for certain qualities. He had a characteristic voice that was heard everywhere. It took it a long time to get used to being caged. And above all, it was capable of defending its territory against larger birds, regardless of the consequences. There I explained to them the meaning of the farmer phrase “it fell like a pitirre to the buzzard,” at which point I must have earned the hatred of the translators.
Finally, in the same line of analysis about the speeches, I commented on my thesis about the names of the Crisis:
In the United States it was called the Missile Crisis, because in no other event had Americans felt so exposed to nuclear weapons that they perceived as imminent danger. However, Professor Arthur Schlesinger, an adviser to Kennedy present there, had admitted to me a few years earlier, in Havana, that the psychological component of being located “in the heart of an area of vital interest prevailed over their real military threat for the United States,” that is, here in Cuba. The decision to impose naval and air quarantine had responded to this psychological factor, almost two weeks before the Pentagon had a quantified assessment of the extent to which strategic firepower had skewed in favor of the USSR. As the author of the evaluation himself, Raymond Garthoff, later revealed, the United States had continued to exceed Soviet nuclear power 15 times, even with its missiles in Cuba.
In the USSR, where it has been called the Caribbean Crisis, it was confined to the category of a regional conflict, which was not going to escalate to a global level, as the Korean War (1950-53), the Suez Crisis (1956), or later, Vietnam (1965-75). In 1989, I heard Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister in 1962, still claim that the brink of thermonuclear war had never really been reached. Nothing in the Pravda news resembled the alarm raised in the U.S. press in those days. So while ordinary Americans were marked forever by the prevailing panic, the Soviets continued their lives as if nothing had happened, ignorant of the seriousness of what was happening.
For their part, since 1960 Cubans had become accustomed to living with crises. That is to say, between states of alert, bombing of fields and cities, U.S. Navy warships that could be seen from the Malecón, civil war with armed groups in all the provinces, infiltrations and landings of enemy forces, militia mobilizations, maneuvers and Navy war games in the Caribbean and the Guantánamo naval base. After the Bay of Pigs, the idea of a direct U.S. invasion remained a daily notion. The 1962 October Crisis, as it was called in Cuba, only pushed that certainty to the limit. But not even its outcome closed the possibility of a conventional war, nor did it grant security to Cuba and the Cubans.
In 1965, 42,000 Marines landed in the Dominican Republic, 500 kilometers from us, and the large-scale invasion of Vietnam began. In none of these cases, nor in other Cold War military interventions, had they used nuclear weapons. But in the war of attrition against Vietnam, they did apply a scorched-earth strategy equivalent to the destructive power of several atomic bombs. In fact, the thousand conventional bombers that were ready to attack the island during the 30 days that the military mobilization lasted in 1962 could have devastated it as much or more than a nuclear attack. As is known, the contingency plan to invade us was not a paranoia of Fidel Castro, since it existed long before the Soviets appeared in Havana with the proposal of their missiles, in April 1962.
So when a historian of the stature of Arthur Schlesinger, opposed to the blockade and in favor of normalization, affirmed that “the United States never had the intention of attacking Cuba,” and mocked “the Cuban litany about CIA conspiracies,” as “a way to divert attention from the real problems of the country,” one wonders if hawks, doves and owls really learned anything from the Missile Crisis.
What is the importance of intention in politics, compared to the deliberate application of an escalation aimed at reaching the enemy’s breaking point? Or with the perpetuation of hostility? What does it mean, politically speaking, that dove presidents decided to change the regime of relations with Cuba, if the geopolitical logic and the undervaluation of the pitirres continued to foster hostility and have kept the door open for other possible crises?
It has always struck me that notable films about Vietnam such as Apocalypse Now or Platoon were dedicated to presenting the war only as an American tragedy, where the Vietnamese fighters are barely seen. Neither do Cubans appear in those dedicated to the Missile Crisis, not even when low-altitude flights could clearly portray them. It is as if they were, strictly speaking, forest birds, pitirres that barely inhabit the landscape.
Years later, I learned that the pitirre is an emblem of Puerto Rican national pride. Reclaiming this category, vilified as a gang of troublemakers, populists, hypernationalists, immature, emotional, ideological hotheads, would require learning who Ho Chi Minh, Tito, Yasser Arafat, Omar Torrijos, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah were, and updating their legacy.
I have also wondered why the same images of the Missile Crisis are always shown on Cuban TV, with the same explanations and ideological reasoning, military narratives and discourses. Why is it that neither the press nor the schools explain the exciting vicissitudes of that drama, its problems and political lessons, nor do they show the photos taken from the RF 101 fighters flying low over San Cristóbal, nor do they explain how the hell it was suspended. Understanding that context, that of the conflict with the United States and that of our complex relations with the USSR, requires going further. To do so, you have to go back.