The chilling parallels between the 1962 Cuban crisis and today in Ukraine

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Historian Max Hastings’ latest book is “Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962” (William Collins, £30 557pp).

I was fortunate to attend a talk by Hastings on the book, at the recent Wantage Literary Festival. To a packed house, he gave a compelling narrative about the events.

His conclusion was that we (the world) were very lucky to John F Kennedy as President during the Cuban crisis. He brought a high intelligence to bear on the issue, and, in particular, faced down his military advisers who were “gung ho” for war. This is summed up by this excerpt from the book’s description on Max Hastings’ website:

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous event in history, when mankind faced a looming nuclear collision between the United States and Soviet Union. During those weeks, the world gazed into the abyss of potential annihilation.

One of its most terrifying moments came on 18 October, when President John F. Kennedy and his advisers discussed the prospect that, if US forces invaded Cuba to remove the missiles secretly deployed there, the Soviets would seize West Berlin. Robert Kennedy asked: ‘Then what do we do?’. General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: ‘Go to general war, if it’s in the interests of ours’. The President asked disbelievingly: ‘You mean nuclear exchange?’. Taylor shrugged: ‘Guess you have to’. His words highlight the madness that overtook some key players on both sides. Mercifully, JFK recoiled from the soldier’s view saying: ‘Now the question really is to what action we take which lessens the chances of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure’.

Of course, all this has chilling relevance today with regard to the Ukraine war, and Putin’s thinly veiled threats of nuclear strikes.

Chiming in with all this, in the Guardian, Jonathan Steele recently wrote an article entitled “Sixty years ago, true statecraft avoided a nuclear war. We need that again over Ukraine.” Steele presents an interesting comparison between the Cuban crisis and today’s Ukraine war, concluding wistfully:

After 13 days of nail-biting tension, the 1962 crisis ended with a breath of common sense and statecraft on both sides. If only the same qualities could be revived over Ukraine today.

There is, perhaps, some cause for optimism in the news that US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been holding secret talks with senior Russian officials, in the bid to avoid a nuclear escalation.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Barry Lofty 8th Nov '22 - 10:41am

    Having lived through the Cuban missile crisis I had hoped we would not again be faced with another threat to civilisation, intelligent cool heads are needed once again if we are to avoid a devastating conflict that nobody can win, a threat that puts many of today’s problems into the shade, let’s hope common sense prevails!

  • Paul Barker 8th Nov '22 - 1:17pm

    If you are going to talk about this, why start half-way through ?
    The US based Nuclear Missiles in Turkey, close to the Border with The USSR & refused to withdraw them. The Cuba stage of the Crisis was The USSR response & meant as a negotiating ploy which worked.
    It suited both sides to have a “Crisis” & terrify everyone else. The Final “Showdown” was obviously staged in retrospect.

    On The Ukraine front, The Russians have been dialling-down on the Nuclear rhetoric for Weeks now. They tried to Spook The West & failed, mostly.

  • Mr W J Francis 11th Nov '22 - 6:01pm

    @Paul Barker.

    American missiles were stationed in Turkey because the US believed it was falling behind in the ICBM race with Russia. JFK campaigned on closing the “missile gap” after all. Turns out the USSR, much like the Russian Federation, wasn’t nearly as militarily capable as the US thought.

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