To an ancient participant in the Cuban missile crisis, the current brouhaha over troops in Cuba recalls Karl Marx's aphorism about Napoleon III that history invariably repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
Our predicament 17 years ago was unquestionably high drama; the Soviet missiles on the soil of Cuba were being trageted on our cities. But the sudden discovery of 2,000 or 3,000 Soviet troops is clearly a farcical echo. What possible threat could such a Graustarkian army pose for America unless -- and this is always a danger -- the customs guards in Miami should be out on strike?
In 1962 we were able to negotiate a satisfactory solution to the Cuban missile crisis because both the executive and Congress behaved with grave responsibility. Today -- as so often happens in a campaign year -- we hear the authentic voice of radio's famous Senator Claghorn bellowing from Capitol Hill: "Damn it, sir, what are all them evil Roosians and pesky Cubans doin' off our shores? Drive 'em into the sea, I say."
It all began when the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee felt compelled to prove his toughness of fiber to the Idaho electorate by telling the world not only the Soviet combat units were in Cuba but that, unless they were pulled out, the Senate would not ratify SALT II. That inspired a vigorous competition in senatorial demarches, with Sen. Henry Jackson outrunning the field by demanding not only the removal of the Soviet brigade but also all ground-attack aircraft. Nor should the Russians be permitted to provide Cuba any new submarines or naval forces. What he meant, he explained on television, was that the United States should not permit the creation of a "Fortress Cuba" -- a baffling throught since a fortress is, by definition, a defensive position and no one is yet proposing an invasion. Finally, Henry Kissinger, the inventor of linkage, suggested that we use the occasion to require the Soviets to stop employing Cuban surrogates and generally shape up. It was the kind of proposal I always find confusing, since I was taught as a lad in Iowa that "linkage" was another name for "baloney," and I have seen nothing since then to change that view.
Unhappily, this cacophony of congressional bluster, with its thunder and lightning -- and particularly its wind -- could be interpreted only as an ultimatum. Either the Soviets took their troops out of Cuba or the United States would commit some undefined unpleasantness. The net effect was to violate every rule of diplomatic tactics. It converted a matter of purely symbolic interest into an issue of substance. It put the Soviets in a position where they could retreat only with loss of face. (Who thinks the current Soviet leaders have forgotten Khrushchev lost his job for withdrawing his missiles under pressure of the American "quarantine"?) It confirmed the growing suspicion of our friends in other capitals that our foreign policy is idiosyncratic and, hence, unreliable. Finally, we fell into the trap of making public demands we had no clear plans for enforcing.
What happens now? Of course, the Senate could refuse to ratify SALT II and we could even block trade with the Soviet Union, but if Moscow should still persist in leaving its troops in place, what then? Who wants to stand "eyeball to eyeball" over such a peripheral issue?
It is not even clear what action we wish the Russians to take. This is not a new problem, only a newly discovered one. Without doubt, a substanital number of Soviet troops have been in Cuba for years. Thus, the narrow issue is not the fact that Soviet forces are there but that they are in what is technically described as a "combat mode" -- a distinction more metaphysical than real, since no one seems to know whom they would be likely to combat. So what should the Russian soldiers do? Change their uniforms? Break up their brigade formation? Take Cuban citizenship? It is reminiscent of earlier disputes when we wasted endless hours arguing whether particular weapons were "offensive" or "defensive" or whether American military advisers in Vietnam were performing combat roles when they flew on bombing missions with Vietnamese crews.
The basic weakness of our position is that we now maintain over 5,000 military personnel in Turkey, as well as a small number in Norway, and, until recently, we had over 1,000 in Iran -- all countries not 90 miles from the Soviet border but contiguous to it. Moreover, we have over 2,000 troops in Cuba at Guantanamo
No doubt the Soviets would be quite prepared to swap the withdrawal of their troops in Cuba for our agreement to pull ours out of the NATO countries on their border. But does anyone think that would be a good bargain?
"Dammit," says Senator Claghorn, "tell them pestiferous Cubans and Roosians that they got to clear out of that little island instantly. We've got the guns and, if they don't act fast, we'll show 'em; we'll shoot ourselves in the foot."