60 years ago this month the world held its breath as what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. The Scottish weekly newspaper the Sunday Post asked the eminent British military historian and author of a book on this subject, Sir Max Hastings, for his reflections on the relevance of this dramatic episode for today.
The newspaper reminds us that “For 13 days in October 1962, as President John F Kennedy decided how to react as Russia deployed ballistic missiles on Cuba, 450 miles from the coast of Florida, the world stood on the brink of unthinkable conflict, on the edge of nuclear war.” Fortunately, deal was finally worked out and a nuclear confrontation avoided.
When he began his research, the Sunday Post notes, “Hastings believed he was detailing a moment when the world got lucky. He did not suspect events in Ukraine would make his analysis alarmingly, shockingly of the moment.”
The historian explains: “We haven’t thought about nuclear weapons and yet suddenly, Putin has put them right back in the centre of the agenda and I think it’s enormously important to learn some lessons from 1962 in thinking about how we deal with his monstrous aggression today.”
Putin, Hastings says, “is sitting on the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. His power to destroy us all is not in doubt. I think he’s a less stable and more isolated figure than Khrushchev. We now know that he was absolutely terrified of the idea of nuclear weapons being exploded, and the sense we get at the moment is that one’s not so sure Putin is as frightened as God knows he should be for the sake of the planet.”
On the other hand, Hastings considers the US so far has been “firm and very sensible.” The Biden administration “has shipped the Ukrainians vast quantities of weapons and warned the Kremlin of the consequences of going nuclear, but refrained from rattling sabres.”
“I would like to think that we are not, at this moment, in quite as dangerous a situation as we were in 1962, where the Americans were within a whisker of bombing and invading Cuba, which could have provoked a general nuclear war,” the historian says.
Nevertheless, in his view, the danger of things going terribly wrong exists. “The Americans remain the ones who matter and so far they are still not even discussing the possibility of intervening directly militarily against Russia. But if Putin exploded a nuclear device, which is certainly possible, then the world would once again be in a terrifyingly dangerous place. Once you get into that cycle of escalation with nuclear armed powers, anything is possible.”
For Hastings, the key lesson from the stand-off 60 years ago between the two nuclear superpowers was that “Kennedy saw that, instead of just trying to batter the Soviets, there was going to have to be some sort of trade, some sort of bargain. They’d have to be given something to persuade them to get their missiles out…. You’ve got to look at what’s possible, and you’ve got to choose every word with care. Kennedy did this and I think he played a stunning hand.”
The historian acknowledges the complexity of the current confrontation with a bellicose Russia and the need to keep up the support for Ukraine. Also that this requires Western governments being very open not only about the risks, but also the costs involved.
“Sending more billions to Ukraine is going to cost the British people. I think that cost must be borne but our governments must be honest with us…. It’s going to likely go on for a long time. It’s not that we’re all doomed, it’s just that I think the British people might respond better to the government if they saw them being a little bit more truthful.”
Hastings is guarded in his predictions about how Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. He does not talk about victory by either side.
“I fear and suspect there will probably be some sort of dirty deal,” he concludes.
Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 by Max Hastings is published by William Collins
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