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Defining moments, 50 years on

October 23, 2012

DEFCON 2: that’s one teensy-weensy step away from nuclear conflagration, and it’s where the world stood half a century ago this week.

In mid-October 1962, American spy planes had spotted a Soviet nuclear arsenal in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The range of the missiles was sufficient to obliterate key strategic targets in the United States. That was unacceptable, never mind the fact that the US had in place nuclear warheads in Turkey that could have pounded Moscow within minutes.

President John F. Kennedy faced a monumental test. The common perception is that the superpowers went eyeball to eyeball, and that eventually Moscow blinked, thereby averting a catastrophe.

The truth is a tad more complex. The nuclear deployment in Cuba followed the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion attempt the previous year. The Soviet Union, under Nikita Khrushchev, was enthralled by the Cuban revolution of 1959. It had played no part in it, and the revolutionaries under Fidel Castro had turned to Moscow only after Washington spurned their overtures and indicated it favoured reverting to the status quo ante, when Fulgencio Batista, no matter how venal and corrupt, at least put up no resistance to the neo-colonial impulses of American corporations and the mafia, which profited substantially from the casinos and strip joints in Havana.

Although plans for an invasion had been put in place before Kennedy took office, and JFK is credited with refusing to provide air support to the CIA-trained invaders, it is pertinent to recall that he did not use his executive powers to call off the stupid plot — which was based on the incredibly misinformed analysis that a marine landing would spur a popular revolt.

It is often noted that JFK’s dad, Joseph Kennedy — a one-time Nazi sympathiser — had persuaded the mafia to support his son’s quest for the White House in 1960 on the promise that, once ensconced in power, the scion would ensure that the underworld would regain its lucrative stranglehold over pleasure zones in Havana.

One of the persisting angles on JFK’s assassination in November 1963 is that it was the mafia’s revenge for his failure to live up to that vow.

Be that as it may, evidence suggests that JFK’s primary adversary in October 1962 was not the mafia but elements in the US military, notably US Air Force chief Gen Curtis Le May, who was keen to risk a third world war by bombing the nuclear sites in Cuba.

To its credit, the civilian administration resisted the temptation. Backdoor negotiations with Khrushchev eventually produced a deal. The USSR would withdraw its missiles from Cuba, provided the US promised not to invade the revolutionary island and, furthermore, removed its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

The last part of the deal, furthermore, was to be kept secret, making it easier to convey the impression that Moscow had blinked, whereas in fact it was a mutual flicker of the eyes.

It took decades for significant facts about the crisis to become public knowledge, and Khrushchev was removed from power a couple of years after the confrontation, partly on the basis that his stance had humiliated the Soviet Union.

That was an unfair assessment. And it has only lately been revealed that, despite the one-minute-to-midnight situation, Khrushchev was willing to leave 100 smaller-range missiles, which the US was unaware of at the time, in Cuba in an attempt to placate Castro, who had been reluctant in the first place to host the Soviet warheads but was absolutely livid when they were removed without consultation.

It was ultimately Soviet deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan who decided that Castro’s angst made the plan too risky, and he persuaded his superiors to surreptitiously withdraw the weapons in November 1962.

The Cuban leadership was angry because it considered JFK’s verbal promise not to invade unreliable. The US stuck to its word, however. Although CIA plots to assassinate Castro proceeded apace — and, fortuitously, failed every time — no invasion has been attempted ever since.

Meanwhile, it was also 50 years ago this month that a rather more benign explosion rocked the West. It wasn’t perceived as anything resembling a big bang until much later, but in retrospect it is only natural that October 1962 should be viewed with something approaching awe in the cultural sphere.

It was the month that the Beatles released their first single on EMI’s Parlophone label. The lyrics ‘Love, love me do/ You know I love you/ I’ll always be true’ could hardly be deemed revolutionary, but the record made it into the top 20 — not least because a relatively small Liverpudlian entrepreneur called Brian Epstein reputedly bought 10,000 copies.

He never needed to go down that road again. The next single by the band he managed reached the top of the charts, and the rest is history.

In the British press, commemorations of the event have been tagged as the birth of modern culture. That’s something of an exaggeration, of course, although it arguably involves less artistic licence than the poet Philip Larkin’s declaration that “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me)/ — Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP”.

It’s the cultural intercourse that matters more, of course, and there are some stalwarts who continue to insist that it was the Beatles’ music, more than anything else, that propelled Soviet youth away from a Communist Party ideology that no longer struck a chord.

That view ought not to be taken at face value, although I admittedly witnessed some evidence of it, not least when, following a brief speech on Pakistani affairs at a diplomatic institute in Moscow back in 1977, the first question put to me was: “Do people in Pakistan listen to the Beatles?”

In retrospect, one thing that distinguishes the Beatles from most of their peers is the extent to which they progressed during their relatively brief life span. In a Havana park, there is a life-size bronze figure of John Lennon, who in his post-Beatles phase sang: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.” I think I’d like to go and sit next to him one day.