This week in history: Adlai Stevenson and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Ismael Francisco, Cubadebate, Associated Press
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson exposed Soviet duplicity for the world to see on Oct. 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite repetitive Soviet denials that it had supplied Cuba with offensive weapons, Stevenson revealed photographs to the UN to the contrary, and made a damning case against communist aggression.
Only 90 miles from the Florida coast, the island nation of Cuba had experienced a revolution in 1959 that removed the U.S.-friendly government of Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power. Though initially vague about his political leanings, Castro soon declared himself a communist and announced an alliance with the Soviet Union. After President John F. Kennedy's botched attempted to remove Castro during the April, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cubans sought military protection from the Soviets. Moscow declared it would send only defensive weapons to help Castro in the event of an American attack.
The Cuban Missile Crisis began when American U2 reconnaissance planes photographed Soviet medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. With the exception of Seattle, these nuclear-tipped rockets could hit every major American city in the continental U.S. and offered the real possibility of a Soviet first strike against the United States.
What made the location of these missiles so important was the dramatic cut in response time they represented to the United States. Intercontinental missiles fired from the Soviet Union itself would give the American government about 15-20 minutes notice, allowing time for a nuclear response before American cities and bases were hit. This time frame was crucial because it let the Soviets know the U.S. had the ability to respond in kind in the event of Soviet attack. The missiles in Cuba, however, cut the response time down to about five minutes.
From the Soviet standpoint, this was only fair. The United States enjoyed a similar advantage with with nuclear missiles stationed in West Germany and Turkey. In the event of an American first strike against the Soviets it would be theoretically possible to wipe out all major Soviet cities and bases before the Soviets could launch their own retaliatory strike. The scheme to place atomic rockets in Cuba had the been the idea of the Soviet general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev.
In his book, “The Cold War: A New History,” John Lewis Gaddis writes: “Just what Khrushchev intended to do with his Cuban missiles is unclear: it was characteristic of him not to think things through. ... The best explanation, in the end, is that Khrushchev allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis.” In short, it is possible that his love of the idea of a Soviet satellite so close the U.S. trumped his fear of nuclear annihilation. Whatever the calculations of the Soviet leaders, they consistently denied they were giving the Cubans anything but defensive weapons.
The whole scenario required a balancing act for Kennedy and his top advisers. They had to let the Soviets know that they would not accept that Soviet missiles remain in Cuba, but they could do nothing that might lead to war and the destruction of both the U.S. and the USSR. Even as the United States instituted a naval blockade (dubbed a “Quarantine” for legal reasons), the Soviets continued to deny to the world they had placed offensive weapons in Cuba and brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
In order to make the case that the Soviets had indeed threatened world peace, Kennedy turned to his ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson had served as governor of Illinois and had been the Democratic nominee for President against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in both the 1952 and 1956 elections, losing both times. In 1960, Kennedy had faced a passive challenge from Stevenson for the Democratic nomination, and at times the relationship between the two men had been frosty. Given his stature within the Democratic Party, however, Kennedy felt compelled to give him a high-profile position within his administration.
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