"The Soviet Union should not allow itself to be put into a situation where the imperialists could strike the first blow in a nuclear war. ... The invasion of Cuba would be the moment to eliminate forever this danger."
This appeal for a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States was made by Fidel Castro on Oct. 26, 1962, to Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Castro expected a U.S. invasion of Cuba within a matter of hours and urged Moscow to launch Armageddon in response.
Khrushchev of course refused, bluntly telling Castro to "be patient" while the Soviets and Americans work out a solution over the Cuban's head. It was then Castro's turn to react bitterly. The Cuban people are ready to "do their duty" and die en masse for their revolution, he says in a new letter on Oct. 31. Again he lectures the Soviet dictator:
"Once aggression has been launched, you cannot allow the aggressors the privilege of choosing the use of nuclear weapons. ... The first use of the nuclear weapon gives a great advantage to the user."
Thus the beginning and end of a stunning set of five letters Castro and Khrushchev exchanged in the fateful last week of October 1962. The Cuban leader suddenly handed copies of the messages this month to French writer Jean-Edern Hallier. He took them back to Paris and published them in full in the Nov. 24 edition of Le Monde.
This, Hallier believes, is Castro's response to the newly discovered volume of the Khrushchev memoirs published in the United States last month. Surprisingly, the correspondence confirms and expands the damning Khrushchev version of Castro's arguing that global annihilation is preferable to seeing the Cuban revolution crushed.
Castro's disclosure is important both as current politics and as history. It is another sign that the Cuban leader knows that both his long reign and the privileged Cuban-Soviet relationship are at an end. The Last Socialist intends the rambling, at times maudlin, justification for global nuclear holocaust he makes and his "revelation" of Soviet pusillanimity to find their way into history.
The Bay of Pigs debacle prompted John F. Kennedy to observe that success has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. If you prevail, you get to tell the story your way. Losers shut up and sulk.
The Cuban missile crisis shows how right Kennedy was. In America, a cascade of memoirs, analyses, minutes from White House meetings and conferences have for nearly 30 years told how Kennedy faced Khrushchev down on the nuclear brink. Only now do authoritative accounts from the other side emerge, with much more certain to come once Castro goes. The old Cuban surfer rides in front of the oncoming wave.
In the twilight of the Soviet-U.S. confrontation, the Castro letters offer little new about the superpower relationship that is immediately useful. But they provide a timely disclosure about the Kremlin's relations with a Third World dictator hellbent on ensuring his place in the world. The parallels to Saddam Hussein's actions in the Persian Gulf are striking.
The Gulf crisis again shows the separate uses of history in decision-making and in rhetoric. Rhetoric to stir the public must emphasize how things are the same: If Munich is allowed to happen, world war becomes inevitable. But to reach sound policy, decision makers must concentrate on what has changed.
In his Oct. 22, 1962, speech to the public, Kennedy used 1930s aggression in Europe as historical analogy to the threat the missiles in Cuba posed, much as George Bush and Jim Baker use it today when referring to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.
But in the secret White House deliberations, it was "Pearl Harbor," "Suez" and other analogies that were most useful in exploring what had changed in the world and how the American response had to be managed, as Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May point out in their excellent study of the uses of history in decision-making, "Thinking in Time." History is always used by policy makers, Neustadt and May write, "at least for advocacy or for comfort."
The Castro letters show Khrushchev repeatedly restraining Castro from pulling the temple down on himself and everyone else. The Soviet chastises Comrade Fidel for having shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and cites Castro's own alarm over an impending U.S. attack as justification for doing the deal with Kennedy, a deal that he says Castro has to accept.
The absence of such Soviet influence in the Third World today is clear. The collapse of Soviet power has left Moscow's former client, Saddam, free to pursue his grandiose visions of regional conquest and acquiring nuclear weapons as soon as he can. To rub in this new reality, Saddam, the Frankenstein monster the Soviets created, holds at least 3,000 of their citizens as hostage.
Hitler and the 1930s are useful rhetorical shorthand. But the Castro letters show us that Saddam is closer to the Fidel model of 1962 -- without any Soviet restraint and working to obtain his own nuclear and chemical warheads for a catastrophic revenge strike against any "imperialists" his rockets can reach.
You don't have to take George Bush's word for it. You can ask an expert how dangerous and destructive an ambitious Third World dictator can be if left to his own devices. You can ask Fidel Castro.