World war. Only one event can justify such words:
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
There was nothing like it before or after. Those who lived it will tell you that (1) nobody knew how it would end; (2) everybody thought a nuclear war could occur. Family in Florida called, said the sky was dark with planes flying south… everybody has their own true story.
On October 14 U.S. aerial reconnaissance discovered and photographed missiles in Cuba. On October 22 JFK gave a speech to a nervous nation. An attack by a Russian missile launched from Cuba, he said, would be considered to be an attack by the Soviet Union. America versus the U.S.S.R.: the showdown had finally come. JFK also announced a maritime “quarantine” of Cuba. Or did he?
A fleet of Russian cargo ships was on its way to Cuba. Flyovers showed missiles were hidden under canopies on deck. If these additional missiles reached Cuba, Khrushchev would have played his daring gambit and won. Missiles in Cuba would have altered the political balance of power in the world. The loss to America would have been unimaginable. Makes you wonder how Obama would have handled it.
American ships hurriedly left port. To keep the additional missiles from arriving in Cuba, a blockade was put in place.
Or was it?
No ifs, buts, maybes about it. According to international law, a naval blockade is an act of war. A blockade of Cuba would, in effect, declare World War III.
Well, the White House certainly did not want to declare World War III. If only there was a way America could have a “not really” blockade, i.e., have the wherewithal to stop the Russian ships from arriving in Cuba but do so without the legal responsibilities and military consequences of a blockade.
Presto, thanks to Admiral Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations, a solution appeared. The White House, Pentagon and State Department would not call a blockade a blockade. Henceforce, the American ships surrounding Cuba formed a…quarantine. Clever, no? Pure alchemy. We have seen such word substitutions before, notably of republic for polity (post of 10-31-2011). We have also seen similar “not really” gaming of the system: Blacks are not really human; only 3/5 (post of 9-19-2011).
Actually, such toying characterizes American culture in general. You don’t think so? How about that centerpiece of The Great American Pastime, the World Series? Where are the Japanese teams? The Cubans? How about calling the disastrous one person, one person reapportionment (warm body counts only) “One Person, One Vote” reapportionment? (post of 10-3-2011). Calling license for newspaper owners “freedom of the press”?
Would the Russians back down? Would they try to run the blockade? Flip a coin. Everybody held their breath. The utter recklessness of Khrushchev made the outcome absolutely unpredictable. Or so we were led to believe…
I was a college student at the time, working in the newsroom of the Washington Post. I was passing by the office of Al Friendly, Managing Editor, when I noticed a stack of letters on his secretary’s desk, between 30 and 50, awaiting signature. What’s going on?
Curious, I leaned over…
The letters were brief and to the point. They were to newspaper editors around the U.S. The letters all said exactly the same thing: Dear (insert offender’s name): I noticed in your article about the Cuban crisis that you used the word blockade. Blockade is incorrect. Quarantine is the right word.
One can argue that the Post assigned itself this “patriotic” “mission” purely out of the “highest” “public spirit,” that it only wanted to “help” the country, indeed the entire world, and thus took upon itself the “sacred” “civil duty” to…
Only one problem with all that volunteer stuff. I do not know how many daily newspapers existed in America in 1962; a good estimate is 1,750. The Washington Post did not have the time or staff to go through all those newspapers and find the ones who needed to learn the word quarantine. Practical, logical conclusion: somebody out there, somebody big -- no secretarial pool fueled by Dunken Donuts at a gaslight motel -- reviewed every single one of the nation’s newspapers and had made a list of misguided souls in need of correction. The list was delivered to the Post.
In a twice, the Washington Post changed hats, converting itself from mild mannered reporters for a large metropolitan daily into an ad hoc Ministry of Propaganda whose mission was to contact rápido editors who were “confused” over Kennedy newspeak.
To get a taste of the brave new world where the Post was headed, here’s a name for you: Enver Hoxha. Don’t forget the old boy’s agitprop films on the Internet. Gosh, all those people sure are happy.
I believe in freedom of the press, not in license of newspaper owners. The newspapers in the American heartland had a perfect right to call it the way they saw it without harassment from the Washington Post and its owners, the Graham family. I also believe that, unlike the Post, they had done the right thing in calling a blockade a blockade. There was a simple way, incidentally, for the White House to turn the ships around without a blockade and its de facto declaration of war; without making a mockery of international law; without twisting and insulting common sense with transparent quarantine not blockade nonsense.
Speaking of options, I’ll bet you think there has to be another explanation for that stack of letters. You are right.
They were a psych 101 experiment. Some Post editor’s kid handed over to Andover had read C.G. Jung’s Alchemical Studies, didn’t understand them, but, hells bells, decided to give it a go anyway. The ultimate finding of a 17-year-old high school senior’s term project managed to be completely predictable yet still amusing, true and not without originality: you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
I am ready and willing to take a lie detector test on the letters or any other thing I authored. Of course, Washington Post chiefs will have to do likewise. Question 1: have you ever knowingly accepted money or other remuneration from the C.I.A.? Better clear out your agendas, gentlemen: you are in for a long afternoon.
PostScript. Ever been to Russia? I lived there for 5 months studying the language in 1994 and living with a Russian family. The drive from the airport into town will convince anybody with normal eyesight that the country is underdeveloped. It has pockets of development, e.g., the space program, nothing more. Riding the trolley, you’ll swear you were in 1905. The national sport, by the way, isn’t plotless video games in which you rack up points by killing and destroying, but mushroom hunting.
I agree with General Anthony C. Zinni, former commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command (post of 12-14-2011): there was no way a real war could have started between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That includes the Cuban missile crisis. Why?
Simply put, the idea that the Soviet Union could have won is preposterous. Now you know what the Kremlin knew. I am not so sure about the White House, which seemed to be caught in its own propaganda.
Despite its weaknesses, the U.S.S.R. won the Cuban missile crisis. For removing the missiles, it extracted from JFK an agreement never to attack Cuba as well as the removal of American missiles in Italy and Turkey. Those three concessions were kept secret at the time – they had to be in order to create the impression that the Soviet Union lost. To show where our nation’s priorities are, the U.S. traded off a real material loss for a propaganda gain. That gain, of course, instantly evaporated once the truth came out.
As for the real loss, any chess player will tell you what happens when you lose actual pieces in exchange for the other guy giving up potential ones. No alchemy there.