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Cold War at 60: Lessons learned resonate today

Cuba Missile Crisis
Ramon Espinosa
A soldier stands behind a glass wall near a replica of the anti-aircraft missile that brought down a U.S. reconnaissance plane on Oct. 27, 1962 that was flying in Cuban air space, at an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis inside the Revolution Museum in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Oct. 19, 2012.

October 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis — which is still being felt today.

“This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba,” said President John F. Kennedy, speaking to the nation on October 22, 1962.

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To many observers, those 13 days were the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. While the number of Soviet weapons in Cuba was relatively small, the main concern was location, location, location. The missiles would have reached Washington D.C. in about five minutes — Pensacola was much closer.

“They were intermediate range ballistic missiles designed to get to their target quickly," said Hill Goodspeed, chief historian aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, one of the southern U.S bases that were part of the military buildup. "The time it takes to get missiles into the air is a very big part of the weaponry. The speed with which they arrived over target would have been relatively quick. The Florida Peninsula was full of military bases. It was a mass influx of military power into the region, whether it be in the form of troops to aircraft, to other types of weaponry,” he said. “And it was almost overnight how quickly forces were mobilized here.”

Development of both conventional and nuclear weapons continued after the missile crisis, beneath the specter of the Cold War. Each weapons system, said Goodspeed, was at the heart of the struggle between the USA and USSR.

“One thing that evolved was the ballistic missile submarines; they are [now] very much a staple of the nuclear triad, as they call it,” he said. “[In the] 1980s, one of the big things was giving the Soviets the impression that we were going to make the effort of doing the Star Wars missile defense system to create a weapon that would render the opponents conventional capabilities capable.”

A vast number of Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s regime for the U.S. Among them was Dr. Alfred Cuzan, a professor of government at the University of West Florida. He was a teenager when his family left Cuba in 1961, a week before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

“My mom, my dad and four boys," said Cuzan. "The fifth one would be born in America a couple of years later. We lived in Mexico, and we lived there for about five months as we applied for a visa to come into the United States. We arrived here in September with our green cards.”

The genesis of the missile crisis, says Cuzan, can be traced to the Bay of Pigs, and that it actually was Castro more than Nikita Khrushchev that initiated the showdown.

“From the very beginning, Castro wanted a confrontation with the United States,” he said. “So it's been alleged that failed attempt to overthrow Castro led to the October Missile Crisis. Some people on the left would like to argue that we threw Castro into the arms of the Soviets. That's just poppycock.”

As far as JFK’s handling of this brand-new Cold War chapter, some of his decisions and actions – such as the quarantine of Cuba -- may have been improvised on the spur of the moment, because such conditions had never arisen.

“I can’t say that he did or not, but, when you’re confronted with a totally unprecedented situation, to say that he made it up as he went along, that would be something to be expected, I'm sure,” said Cuzan. “I’m sure Lincoln made it up as he went along in the Civil War.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis ended, when Khrushchev blinked, and ordered the missiles removed. Six decades later, the question has re-emerged — how close are we to a new crisis?

Cuba            Missile Crisis           1962
The U.S. Navy destroyer Barry maneuvers about the Russian freighter Anosov, at left, in the Atlantic Ocean, to inspect its cargo during the Cuban blockade on November 10, 1962. The Soviet ship presumably carries a cargo of missiles being withdrawn from Cuba. The interception took place about 780 miles northeast of Puerto Rico.

“President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe in a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime,” said President Joe Biden, speaking at the United Nations last month.

Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons against both Ukraine and NATO. Biden said the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures, including Russia.

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said Biden. “The five permanent members of the Security Council just reaffirmed that commitment in January. But today we're seeing disturbing trends.”

To this day, Cuba remains closed to most Americans, after a brief opening under President Barack Obama. Cuzan says the future relationship between the island nation and the U.S. remains somewhere down the road.

“Normally, short term forecasts are easier to make than long term forecasts; but in this case, I would submit that short term forecast is far more unpredictable,” he added. “When there's finally some sort of a democratic regime in Cuba, what I see is a very close integration with the United States.”

Sixty years since America and the Soviet Union stood nose-to-nose in Cuba, vestiges of the crisis exist today. Goodspeed says look no further than Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

“Diplomacy of the Western nations, doing what they can to help thwart the Russian intentions in Ukraine,” he adds. “There's a lot of lessons to learn, being measured in the response and hope that it does not escalate. I think that's one lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.