How Castro Held the World Hostage
ON Oct. 26-27, 1962, human civilization came close to being destroyed. Schoolchildren were ordered into shelters; supermarket shelves were emptied of soup cans and bottled water. It was the most perilous moment of the Cuban missile crisis, and of the cold war. But the danger of Armageddon did not begin, as legend has it, when the United States learned that Soviet missiles had reached Cuba’s shores earlier that month. Rather, it was driven by Fidel Castro’s fears and insecurities after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and by the failures of President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to take him seriously. With Soviet missiles stationed on the island and America poised to attack, Cuba 50 years ago was far more dangerous than Iran or North Korea is today. But the 1962 crisis shows that a small, determined revolutionary state, backed into a corner and convinced of its inevitable demise, can bring the world to the brink of catastrophe. Twenty years ago, we spent four days in Havana discussing the missile crisis with Mr. Castro, former Soviet officials and American decision makers from the Kennedy administration, including the former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. Mr. Castro’s interest had been piqued by the declassification and release of Soviet and American documents in 1991 and 1992, which both surprised and angered him. These included long-suppressed passages from memoirs, released 20 years after Khrushchev’s death, in which he wrote that Mr. Castro had become irrational and possibly suicidal and that the crisis had to end before Cuba ignited a nuclear war. In addition, declassified letters between Khrushchev and Kennedy revealed the extent to which Washington and Moscow cut Cuba out of negotiations, refused to consider Cuban demands and eventually resolved the crisis in spite of Mr. Castro’s objections. So to truly understand how the world came close to Armageddon, one must look not to Washington and Moscow but to Havana. •
After the American-sponsored Bay of Pigs debacle, Fidel Castro, then just 35 but already Cuba’s unquestioned ruler, drew an astonishing conclusion. “The result of aggression against Cuba will be the start of a conflagration of incalculable consequences, and they will be affected too,” he told the Cuban people. “It will no longer be a matter of them feasting on us. They will get as good as they give.” For the next 18 months, Mr. Castro prepared for nuclear Armageddon, while Kennedy and Khrushchev sleepwalked toward the abyss. Focused on their global competition, the United States and the Soviet Union were clueless about the mind-set of the smaller, weaker, poorer party. Kennedy wanted Cuba off his agenda and he resolved never again to cave in to his hawkish advisers and critics, who had continued clamoring for an invasion of the island, even after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Khrushchev, for his part, was worried about “losing Cuba” and decided in early 1962 to offer nuclear missiles to Mr. Castro to deter the invasion they both believed was being planned but that Kennedy was privately resolved to avoid. But as Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, the Soviet Union never intended to actually use the missiles; they were merely pawns in a game of superpower competition. However, Mr. Castro believed the fundamental purpose of Soviet nuclear weapons was to destroy the United States in the event of an invasion. After centuries of humiliation and irrelevance, he concluded, Cuba would matter fundamentally to the fate of humanity. Cuba couldn’t prevent the onslaught, nor could it expect to survive it. He insisted that the Cubans and Russians on the island would resist “to the last day and the last man, woman or child capable of holding a weapon.” Around noon on Oct. 26, Mr. Castro summoned the Soviet ambassador, Aleksandr Alekseev, to his command post. Mr....