Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's threat Tuesday to retaliate against the United States if it deploys in Europe new missiles capable of quickly reaching Soviet soil echoed an earlier missile faceoff between the two superpowers, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Most people remember that episode now for the dramatics--days of national tension that finally ended with the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles and bombers 90 miles from our shore.
But specialists in the field also remember those events of 20 years ago in a different way, as part of an ongoing, almost mechanistic nuclear chess game.
The United States, they remember, had deployed new missiles in Italy, England and most important, Turkey, right on the Soviet border, all pointing toward Moscow. It was then that the Russians put weapons in Cuba.
Everyone remembers that the Soviets then blinked and removed their nuclear weapons. Not everyone recalls that the United States also seems to have blinked; its missiles based in Turkey were defused.
Brezhnev did not say the Soviets were about to deploy missiles in this hemisphere again. He said only that they would take "retaliatory steps" to put the United States in an "analogous position" if the United States put the Soviets under the gun with the Pershing II. But sources in Moscow said later the possible introduction of missiles in Cuba was just what he had intended to suggest.
And given what happened in 1962, it would make good sense to a Russian to threaten putting new land-based missiles in the Western Hemisphere, minutes from American targets, if the United States is preparing to put new American land-based missiles in West Germany, just eight minutes from Soviet territory.
The U. S. missiles that figured in the flareup in the 1960's were liquid-fueled, intermediate range Thors and Jupiters.
Although their deployment got little publicity in this country, Khrushchev and other Soviet officials complained long and loud against the NATO basing of those missiles, whose nuclear warheads could have reached into the Russian heartland.
Once those early Thor and Jupiter missiles were made operational, beginning in 1958, a key element in Khrushchev's policy was to have the them removed, or to have Soviet missiles in position to match them.
The parallel is that today NATO is preparing to receive a new generation of 572 intermediate range U.S. missiles, the first to be based on European soil capable of hitting the Soviet Union since the Jupiters and Thors were removed almost 20 years ago. The first of these are to be deployed late next year and in 1984. The new ones include 108 Pershing IIs that from their planned bases in West Germany, could hit Russian targets in less than eight minutes.
As they did with the missiles in the late l950s, Soviet leaders have been violently protesting the introduction of these new American missiles.
Defense experts in Europe and some in this country see the Russians as determined to prevent the deployment of these new missiles, and if that fails, take some action of their own.
Where could the Soviets, in the event of deployment two years from now, find a launching pad for a land-based missile that would be eight minutes from U.S. soil?
There is Cuba, although the 1962 agreement would have to be violated. Or there is Nicaragua, which in 1982 is not yet Cuba of 1962. But some students of the subject fear that over the next few years, if relations continue to deteriorate, the Sandinista regimemay move on its own or be pushed into so strong an anti-American stance that it would feel its own security required direct support from the Soviet Union.
At that moment, the Managua regime might be faced with the devilish bargain offered up to Castro by Nikita Khrushchev. As the former Soviet leader later recalled, no Soviet military forces thousands of miles away could protect Cuba from a determined invasion by American troops. That same reality must be apparent to the Sandinistas, despite their own military expansion.
As Khrushchev described it, the only thing that could guarantee the security of Cuba would be Castro's acceptance of Soviet nuclear missiles. The missiles then either could be bargained away or threaten destruction to the United States far beyond the worth of an invasion.
For the Russians, that approach met two policy goals; it allowed Moscow to play its part as defender of international communist movements and it provided a long-sought means to balance newly introduced, American missiles in Europe.
The United States and the Soviet Union now are at the negotiating table in Geneva, working on a possible arms control agreement directed at such weapons as the Pershing II and SS-20. But what will the Soviets do if these talks fail?
During a luncheon recently, a key member of the West German government suggested one reason the NATO allies want a settlement in Central America that does not give the Soviets a new foothold there is that "we do not want to see a deal that will make the United States hold back" its new missiles.
As this official saw it, the Americans might have to bargain away the cruise and Pershing missiles now planned for Europe in return for a Soviet pledge not to put similar missiles in Central America. And to this official, who has been a Bonn cabinet member for many years, the 1962 solution to the Cuban missile crisis, with the accompanying removal of American missiles in Europe, "harmed the military power of NATO."
For American officials, the views both current and historic, are sharply different.
Introduction of the Pershing II, these officials say, should not bring on any Soviet response because the Russians already have a capability through their submarines on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. East Coast. These nuclear missiles could be launched at Washington and hit with less than 10 minutes of warning. Thus, like their predecessors 20 years ago, today's officials in Washington take as mostly propaganda and empty threats the notion that there will be some response by Moscow should the Pershings be deployed.
But this view fails to take into considereation the generally accepted fact that missiles on submarines, despite their capability, do not have either the military or political value as missiles on land. The NATO decision itself, which turned down sea-based cruise missiles in favor of ones on land prove that point. And the Soviets are much more concerned about having weapons of equal capability and visibility as the Americans.
Then there is the disbelief in this country that the Soviets did gain removal of the American Thor and Jupiter missiles as a result of their attempt to put missiles in Cuba.
Thanks to what was written at the time and immediately thereafter, by journalists close to President Kennedy and his own top adviser, Theodore Sorensen, Americans generally have come to believe that there was no connection between the two events. The missiles, under this view, were scheduled to be removed before the crisis even occurred and Kennedy was angered when he found the State Department had not carried out his earlier order to do so.
Later writings on the Cuban crisis, however, including the book by Robert Kennedy, support the European thesis that there was in fact a connection.
Robert Kennedy's notes from his meetings with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrinin show the former attorney general told the diplomat that removal of the missiles depended on a NATO decision, not a unilateral American act. But Kennedy went on to say that if four or five months were allowed to pass after the Soviet missiles came out of Cuba, the American missiles also would be removed. On this he gave his personal promise, but it represented President Kennedy's position also, according to one of the participants in those discussions.