“Good evening, my fellow citizens,” President John F. Kennedy said grimly on Oct. 22, 1962. “This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba.
“Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island,” the U.S. president said. “The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”
President Kennedy went on to explain that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were each “capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean area.”
Worse, he explained, the Soviets appeared to be installing sites for larger missiles capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States, as well as locations in Canada and South America. Obviously – however it was to be resolved – this situation could not be allowed to continue for long.
“This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base by the presence of these large, long-range, and clearly offensive weapons of sudden mass destruction constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” the president stated.
“Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small,” President Kennedy continued in what may have been the most important passage in his speech.
“We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril,” he said. “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.”
I have been pondering this important speech and the thinking it represented in the context of the present U.S. and Canadian response to the so-called crisis in Ukraine, and the childish and belligerent rhetoric about it by our wedge-politics-obsessed Conservative leaders in Ottawa and their echo chamber at the Sun News Network, the CBC and the other official and semi-official state news outlets.
This is likely only to get worse now that the predominantly ethnic Russian population of Crimea has overwhelmingly voted to rejoin Russia – as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hypocritical and nearly hysterical sputtering yesterday illustrates.
Monte Solberg, a former Parliamentarian turned Sun News commentator wrote in the Sun newspapers earlier this week that “the Ukrainians should have long ago armed up and joined NATO.”
As we have seen, one of the key issues that led to President Kennedy’s speech during the Cuban Crisis of 1962 – not long before which the revolutionary government of Cuba had armed up and for all intents and purposes joined the Warsaw Pact – was how close Cuba was to Washington, D.C.
It’s just over 1,800 kilometres from the Cuban capital, near which some of the missiles were parked, to the U.S. capital. It’s estimated that it would have taken a missile like the ones the Soviets had installed in Cuba just 13 minutes to reach Washington.
The Americans believed the proximity of these powerful weapons made a first “decapitation strike” against the American leadership far more likely – since the flying time from Cuba to Washington was so short – potentially getting around the concept of “mutually assured destruction” on which great power nuclear strategy rested then and now.
While it was not so clear at the time, the general consensus of history now that we’ve discovered the truth about the “missile gap” seems to be that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was bat-poop crazy to take on the Americans in their own back yard. (Premier Khrushchev may have been suffering from a similar state of mind when he gifted the predominantly Russian Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1954.)
So if you accept that President Kennedy’s concern was legitimate, and his response, while extremely risky, was probably justified, you have to wonder how else Russian President Vladimir Putin is supposed to view the developing strategic situation in Ukraine today.
The distance to Moscow from the Ukrainian capital Kiev is 756 kilometres, considerably less than that from Cuba to Washington – a calculation that is little changed despite the passage of 52 years. A ballistic missile launched from Ukraine would reach Moscow in about six minutes.
There may be no American strategic missiles in Ukraine – yet – but there are certainly nuclear-capable U.S. Air Force units now in the region, most recently F-15 fighters sent with much publicity to Poland and Lithuania.
Likewise, Ukraine has not yet joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as Mr. Solberg suggests it should have, but some of its nearby neighbours have.
I dropped Mr. Solberg a line and asked him if these strategic considerations put the Ukraine crisis – or at least Canada’s and Sun News Network’s 1960s-style Cold War crisis rhetoric – into a different context for him.
Perhaps he gets a lot of email, but so far Mr. Solberg hasn’t bothered replying.
Thankfully, under the potentially volatile circumstances and apparent inability of certain elements of the U.S. state to stop pushing the Russians, President Putin’s responses have been pretty restrained so far, at least compared with the options President Kennedy publicly considered in 1962.
For the moment at least, the fight seems to have switched to the economic front, a war of sanctions and counter-sanctions that U.S. and Canadian politicians and their media echo chambers seem prepared to wage to the last Western European natural gas consumer.
Well, it’s better than all-out war, I guess, but you have to ask what flavour of Kool-Aid the clowns at Sun News Network are drinking. Grape, by the sound of it.
As for the Harper government, it’s never seen a wedge issue it wouldn’t exploit, even at the risk of a planetary catastrophe.
Given that, if Mr. Solberg’s strategic insights are a reflection of the geopolitical thinking of the Harper Government he not so long ago served, we should all be truly frightened.