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Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

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Marilyn Monroe: An icon, a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a president

Hearing that some actor in a ‘soap’ or a singer discovered on a reality show is ‘great’ is enough to send some of us heading for the ‘scream out loud’ button in our brains; in modern terminology, ‘great’ seems to mean what was once described as ‘pretty good’. The same is true with ‘icon’, a fine word which is now applied to almost anyone who has a slightly individualistic attitude, swears a bit and has a tattoo in Ancient Persian on their forearm or ear. Hearing that some young singer, soap actor, footballer or, indeed, a footballers’ wife or girlfriend, is an ‘icon’ disturbs those of us who look back to those who were far more deserving of the title. If they want to see themselves as icons then let them be measured against Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, Picasso and Pele, just to mention a few Twentieth Century figures worthy of iconic status.

Iconic figures are more than just stars. They have an extra dimension, a status, which helps to shape and define their age. They embody some essential dimension of the ideas and values of their era. Their looks, words, tastes and actions are imitated at the time and inspire those who follow. They seem to express an indefinable quality of that period so that they almost become it. Their names become a shorthand way of referring to the era. To see Ché Guevara’s face adorning a million T-shirts, posters and CD covers is a slightly sad insight on society over the last forty years; the most stylish rebel of the century casts a shadow of credibility which is eagerly sought by many people. Ché would no doubt be delighted by the interest but bewildered by the way his image has made millions for business while his message of revolution has been lost to those who ‘wear’ him.

Amongst the icons of the twentieth century, one of the most celebrated was born as simple Norma Jeane Baker. Over the years she was transformed into one of the most beautiful, glamorous and mixed up women ever. In a world where the paparazzi are a big business all of their own, as is trying to ensure privacy, the celebrated but tragically short life of Marilyn Monroe is a telling moment in the journey towards celebrity obsession, and one which is well worth knowing a little about. Where Marilyn went, many others have followed since – and her life is a warning to all those seek fame as their greatest goal.

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An early modelling photo of Norma Jeane Baker. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Marilyn Monroe was born on 1st June, 1926, in Los Angeles. Confusion surrounds her early life, especially regarding who her father was. Her original name was Norma Jeane Mortenson but she was baptised as Norma Jeane Baker after her mother, Gladys Baker, who suffered mental illness and was soon taken into an ‘institution’. As a child, Norma Jeane spent her life in care homes and orphanages before she was finally adopted in 1937. However, in 1942, disaster struck when the Goddards, her adoptive family, could no longer afford to look after her. Faced with returning to a care home, she decided to marry her neighbour, a 21 year old man called Jimmy Dougherty (1920-2005). In 1944, Dougherty went off to war with the US Marines and Norma Jeane went to work in a Munitions factory where she was spotted by a photographer called David Conover. She was a natural in front of the camera (the phrase ‘a photographer’s dream’ was often used about her for the way she seemed more natural in front of the camera than in normal life) and she appeared on the front cover of more than 30 magazines during the war. When Jimmy Dougherty returned from the war, Norma Jeane faced a choice: family or work. She chose work. In doing this she was facing a dilemma which was to challenge more women as the century unfolded, the tension between work and family. She chose a career and they split up, the divorce coming through in June, 1946, just after Dougherty returned to the USA.

By way of her career, Norma Jeane was aiming for the movies but going from being a model to a film star required some changes. ‘Norma Jeane Baker’ was not considered a suitable name for a budding star who wanted to get into films and so she changed it to ‘Marilyn Monroe’, Monroe being her grandmother’s name. In going for the name change, Monroe she was far from alone in the acting world. No doubt many people would expect to see a list at this point, so here is one of just a few actors who ditched their childhood name in favour of something more memorable – or just simpler. One interesting thing to note is just how many film stars in middle years of the century were hiding foreign or Jewish names, a reflection of the values of the age.

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Frances Gumm became Judy Garland (1922-1969).  She was a seriously famous actress and singer, the child star of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who was the mother of two well-known singers and actresses, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. (Author: NBC; Source: here)

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The Marx Brothers: Julius Henry Marx, Leonard Marx, Adolph Marx, Herbert Marx and Milton Marx became Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx and Gummo Marx, sadly the one most people never remember for that is an inspired name. Together they formed one of the greatest and most popular comedy teams of the 1930s. In the photo, they are (from the top): Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo – so Gummo was already missing out. Author: Ralph F. Stitt; Source: here)

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Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff (born 1924) for some reason decided that ‘Doris Day’ was a better name for her. She was one of the finest singers and comedy actresses of the 1940s and 1950s. Her films included ‘Pillow Talk’, ‘The Pajama Game’ and‘Calamity Jane’ while her songs included classics like ‘Secret Love’ and ‘Que será será’, without which football fans would have little to sing at FA Cup matches. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Archibald Leach (1904-1986) is one of the most successful British-born actors of all time. Taking the name Cary Grant might have helped him on  the way. One of the greatest ‘matinee idols’ of films from the thirties to the sixties. Cary Grant was a handsome and witty actor who was voted the second greatest male star of all time – after Humphrey Bogart. And he made a film called ‘Touch of Mink’ with Doris Day. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Marion Morrison (1907-1979) is known to history as John Wayne. The all-American hero of the big screen, he attained iconic status through his many cowboy and war films. A fiercely loyal American who inspired many people – ‘Marion’ was, of course, simply wrong on many levels. (Author: Unknown ; Source: here)

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Isidore Demsky (born 1916) became Issur Danielovitch before settling on the slightly punchier ‘Kirk Douglas’. The owner of the finest dimple ever seen in a chin, Kirk Douglas starred in dozens of films of which ‘Spartacus’ and ‘The Vikings’ are just two marvellous old films that are well worth watching. He is also the father of Michael Douglas. (Author: Cinema Center Films; Source: here)

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Frederick Austerlitz (1899-1987) and Virginia Katherine McMath (1911-1995) became slightly more suave and sophisticated as ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’. They are celebrated as the most famous dancing couple ever seen in films. The plots of their films, like ‘Top Hat’, were pretty thin but the dancing and the dresses were sensational. (Author: Movie Studio ; Source: here)

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Bernard Schwarz (1925-2010) switched to Tony Curtis and so became one of the most famous actors who made it big in Hollywood. Curtis became a popular leading man, playing opposite Marilyn Monroe in the greatest comedy of all-time, ‘Some like it hot’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Anyway, back to Marilyn Monroe. Despite her hopes and good looks, the change of name did not work miracles and her career took several years before it got going. She continued modelling and had small parts in a number of films but, apart from some acclaim for ‘Asphalt Jungle’ and ‘All about Eve’, her career was drifting – until 1953 when she appeared in ‘Niagara’. Her decision to dye her hair blonde back in 1947 finally paid off as it raised her profile and helped her win higher profile roles in hit films like ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’ and ‘How to marry a millionaire’. Fame had well and truly found her – and she was one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as one of the most followed and imitated. Marilyn Monroe attracted attention and admirers from around the world and it was little surprise when she re-married in 1954. Her first marriage had been one of convenience in 1942 but now Norma Jeane Baker married one of the USA’s most famous men, Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). It was one of the celebrity marriages of the decade, captivating the country and raising Monroe’s profile even higher as DiMaggio, famous as ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ as he was known from his days with the New York Yankees, was one of the greatest players of all time – and he still holds the record for a hitting streak in Major League Baseball – 56 consecutive games in 1941. Sadly, as with all of her relationships, it was to be neither a long nor a happy one.

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Joe DiMaggio – ‘The Yankee Clipper’ – second husband of Marilyn Monroe. (Author: Leslie Jones Collection; Source: here)

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Monroe’s third husband was the famous playwright, Arthur Miller. (Author: US State Department; Source: here)

Monroe’s most famous film was made at the end of the fifties, the Oscar winning comedy, ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). Directed by the great Billy Wilder, the film also starred Tony Curtis (who was on the list of name changes earlier) and Jack Lemmon (who could have been, as he was originally called ‘John Uhler Lemmon III’). Both Wilder and Curtis were Hungarian-Jews, although Wilder immigrated to the USA while Curtis was born there. The film showed off Monroe’s comic skills at their very best but the film was a tense and difficult one to make. The script, cast and direction were all wonderful – but everyone said they would never work with Monroe again. She was invariably late and almost impossible to work with – although Tony Curtis must have been partly to blame as he did have an affair with her and claimed she became pregnant during the making of the film.

‘Some Like It Hot’ was just one of many great films directed by Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Wilder was Jewish and had been forced to emigrate from Europe to the USA in the 1930s so as to escape the Nazis. His mother and grandmother died in the Death Camp at Auschwitz during the war. Wilder was one of the high-profile figures who supported those actors who came under investigation by the HUAC and Joe McCarthy in the late forties and early fifties for allegedly being Communist supporters; in this he joined Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston and Groucho Marx, amongst others. So many little links are brought together in people like Billy Wilder. If you have some spare cash, buy a collection of his best films, several of which are in the ‘Best 100’ lists that appear when the critics get together.

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Billy Wilder with the famous actress, Gloria Swanson. (Author: Studio; Source: here)

Returning to Marilyn Monroe, her last completed film was called ‘The Misfits’ (1961) in which she co-starred alongside two great stars, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. It was written by her third husband, Arthur Miller, and it turned out to be Gable’s last film, as he died just after filming ended. People blamed his heavy smoking and also the crash diet he had gone on before making what was to be a physically demanding film. But it seems that stress and tension on the set was to be even more exhausting for Gable as he, and everyone else, had to wait almost every day for Monroe to be ready – echoes of ‘Some Like it Hot only worse’. Over the years, she had developed an extraordinary nervousness and anxiety around performing so that she would often keep people waiting for hours before appearing. While the world saw only beauty, wealth, fame and glamour, Marilyn seemed lost and bewildered, somehow never moving on from her early years of insecurity and rejection; the need for affirmation and acceptance always ran up against feelings of inadequacy so that she increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol as the ways to get her through the days. Fame and wealth did not mean happiness but were more of a mask behind which she experienced crushing loneliness and insecurity.

On 5th August 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead at her home in California. The coroner said it was ‘probably suicide’ but others said it was simply an accidental overdose. Some said it was done by a jealous lover (and there were many to choose from) while others suspected Mafia involvement. Rumours abound about Monroe’s affairs and she has been linked with many men, including Bobby Kennedy and, more especially, President Jack Kennedy, with whom she was supposedly obsessed. Many people believe that Marilyn was murdered by the CIA or the FBI because she ‘knew too much’, although as to exactly what that knowledge was, people are less clear. FBI files released in 2006 apparently claim her death was murder linked with her affair with Bobby Kennedy but that does not mean those files were authentic, especially as the man in charge of the FBI at the time was, of course, J. Edgar Hoover – and it does not make it clear who was supposed to have carried out the killing. This has all led to a barrage of conspiracy theories around the idea that she was killed off on orders from the White House or someone ‘high-up’ for knowing ‘stuff’ or simply to get her out of the way because she was increasingly unstable. In all probability, Monroe’s death was a tragic accident, the confused actions of a beautiful but deeply confused and anxious woman.

Marilyn Monroe lived and died in a way which linked her with many famous, powerful and important people, not least of all, President Jack Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, both of whom she is rumoured to have had affairs with. Within three months of her death, Jack and Bobby would be saving the world from destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis and it’s incredible to think what must have been going on in their private lives when all that was about to kick off. And maybe the saddest part is to remember that Marilyn died aged just 36 while Jack was killed at 46 and Bobby was only 42.

Just as sad and significant in many ways were her relationships with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, both of whom she was married to only briefly. As mentioned above, Joe DiMaggio is one of the greatest of America’s sporting icons (that word again), one of the most famous baseball players of all time. DiMaggio’s particular anger regarding Marilyn was triggered by the famous ‘skirt scene’ in ‘Seven Year Itch’, which he saw as explicit and exploitative. Monroe was a ‘sex symbol’ who sold dreams, a fantasy figure whose life seems to be a bridge between the apparent innocence of the post-war period and the apparent hedonism of the sixties and beyond. DiMaggio himself would live until 1999, dying at the age of 84. He was an All-American legend, forever ‘Joltin’ Joe’ or ‘The Yankee Clipper’ to millions of fans. One of the New York Yankees’ most famous sons, he was mentioned in ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel, which was used in the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’ (1967) which starred Dustin Hoffman who went on to play Carl Bernstein in ‘All the President’s Men’, the film about Watergate and Richard Nixon.

Arthur Miller was husband number three, another famous man who wrote plays which defined the era. In the early 1950s, Miller had been under investigation by the HUAC. He saw the power of McCarthyism at work and was horrified by its ability to destroy careers and lives. In response to McCarthy’s tactics he wrote one of the great plays of American theatre, ‘The Crucible’. On the face of it, this was a re-telling of the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 in Massachusetts, but in reality it was an allegory of life in 1950’s America. It was, and remains, a mighty piece of stage writing and a brilliant attack on how elders and leaders in a society can play on fears to create violence and hatred so as to build more fear. Arthur Miller died in 2005 at the age of 89.

Monroe’s first husband, Jimmy Dougherty, a police officer, died in 2005 (the same year as Miller) at the age of 84 (the same as DiMaggio). When set alongside Jack Kennedy, you have a soldier, a sportsman, a writer and a politician who were all involved with a true icon. Monroe was not the first celebrity, nor was she the first famous person to die young. But she was one of the most beautiful, fascinating and vulnerable women of the century, one who epitomised a change in the nature of stardom. Her life and her death in many ways came to mark a change in the whole experience of being a celebrity.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) (Author: Studio; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘Seven Year Itch’, ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen prefer blondes’, ‘Bus Stop’, How to marry a millionaire’.

You Tube: ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ (1962) is probably the most famous version of the song ever made.

Songs: Marilyn Monroe’s Greatest Hits, ‘Candle in the wind’ by Elton John and ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Photos: far too many to number and most are available on-line

Plays: ‘The Crucible’, ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller (all from ‘Penguin Modern Classics’)

Books: Many books concentrate on photos of Marilyn or present a number of the conspiracy theories about her death. A wide range of these can be found on-line or in most book-shops. As an overview, one of the older books is a good place to start: ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Biography’ by Donald Spotto (Arrow, 1994).

 

 

 

 

The Cuban Missile Crisis: As close to the end as it’s ever been

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The Cuban Missile Crisis: as close to the end as it’s ever been.

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State, 1961-69.

People quite rightly go on about the terrorist attack on New York’s ‘Twin Towers’ as a defining moment in recent history. The world post-9/11 is undoubtedly a different place from what it was before. The loss of around 2900 lives, the economic cost, the military response of the ‘War on Terror’ and the psychological impact of what happened were enormous and the consequences continue to impact around the world today. But it was not the first disaster in history and it won’t be the last. 9/11 was a huge event that changed the world but it pales against what might have been the world-ending events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a story that is well worth reflecting on so only read this section if you’re in the mood to concentrate properly. A little Cuban music might cheer you up afterwards, too, so get the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ ready or maybe dig out the marvellous Kirsty MacColl’s album, ‘Tropical Brainstorm’: the tracks ‘In These Shoes?’ and ‘England 2 Colombia 0’ should do the trick if you’re worried about the end of the world after reading this.

The three key leaders at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October, 1962: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro.

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USA: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) (Author: White House Press Office; Source: here)

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USSR: Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) (Author: Peter Heinz Junge; Source: here)

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Cuba: Fidel Castro (born 1926) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Cuban Missile Crisis is especially rich in images and here are two cartoons that reflect the Western take on it from 1962. The first one reflects the idea of MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the way Khrushchev and Kennedy held the future of the world in their hands – one mistake and both sides would unleash their missiles. The second one reflects the outcome and Khrushchev’s decision to remove the missiles from Cuba, an act which brought practical problems for Castro, the patient, and political ones for the dentist, Khrushchev.

Cartoon link: ‘Ok, Mr. President. Let’s talk.’

Cartoon link: ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you!’

Other images were very significant in the build up to the crisis itself. Many of these came from the USA’s use of the U-2 spy planes, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft which could take incredible photographs from 70 000 feet (20 km), the edge of space. These photos revealed the location and development of the nuclear missile launch silos on Cuba in October 1962.

Cuban Missile Crisis-MRBM Field Launch Site

(Author: USAF; Source: here)

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(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

And, as always, a map is useful, in this case to show how almost every city in the USA came within the 2 500 mile (4000 km) range of the nuclear missiles on Cuba. The nuclear balance of power would have seen a major shift if the missiles remained in Cuba.

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(Author:  CIA; Source: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear destruction during the Cold War. For thirteen days between 15th and 28th October, 1962, the world hovered on the brink of war between the Superpowers, the USA and the USSR or Soviet Union. Fingers were almost literally on the buttons and ready to fire. In each camp, both in Moscow and Washington, there were people pressurising their leaders to launch the first nuclear strike but neither did. US President, Jack Kennedy, and the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, eventually concluded a deal that saved the world. At the time, it looked as though Kennedy had won and Khrushchev had backed down, the first one to ‘blink’. Later documents show that was not the case. For now, though, here is the story behind those thirteen days that so nearly saw us, ‘All go together when we go’, in the words of the great satirist, Tom Lehrer.

First of all, here is a bit of geography and late 19th century history to set the context. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, while the main language is Spanish, reflecting its colonial past as part of the Spanish Empire. The Cuban capital is Havana on the north-west coast, while the island itself is some 500 miles long and is just 90 miles south of Florida. Its near neighbours include the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Haiti and Jamaica. You might want to look at these maps of Cuba and the Caribbean just to be clear about the region and its proximity to the USA.

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(Author: Directorate of Intelligence, CIA; Source: here)

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(Author: Unknown; Source: CIA)

While you are checking your map, you might check out where Cienfuegos is on the map. It’s on the south side of the island and just to the west of it (that’s the left as you look at it) is the ‘Bay of Pigs’ or ‘Bahía de Cochinos’. This will become really important later on. You might also notice Guantanamo Bay at the south-eastern end (the bottom right-hand corner) of the island. That’s where the controversial US military base and terrorist prison has been based for several years. You might wonder how there happens to be a US military base on Cuba when there is such tension between them.

A key year in Cuban-American relations was 1898. At the time, Cuba was under Spanish control but the Spanish and the Americans had a bit of a war in that year, centred on control of Cuba – and Spain lost. The USA did not approve of empires in the sense that they operated under the old European model but it increasingly saw the benefits of influence and control over places like Cuba and the Philippines which it also gained after 1898. In 1903, just after the American influence over Cuba was established (as you’ll see in a minute), the US leased the land at Guantanamo for a coal and, later, oil refuelling base for its ships. This agreement was made between the Americans and the old Cuban government but it has been disputed since 1959 when Fidel Castro took control in the Cuban revolution. Castro always wanted to get the US out and Guantanamo back under Cuban control but he was not strong enough and there was, and is, no way the US would give it up as it would appear to be a sign of weakness – and Guantanamo Bay is very useful as a prison outside international law.

But let’s return to 1898. The Cubans had been fighting for independence and many Americans were unhappy at the Spanish repression there. After a US ship, the ‘Maine’, was attacked near Havana, President William McKinley declared war against Spain. This all linked in with a famous US policy called ‘Monroe Doctrine’. Going back to 1823, it said the USA would not tolerate any more European expansion and interference in the Caribbean and other areas that were important to the USA. Not surprisingly, the war was won by ‘Los Yanquis’, as the Cubans called the Americans, who took was to be temporary control of the island, as well as Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The US proceeded to develop its links with the island, using Cuba as a nice little base for business, sugar production (which was the island’s only crop), and tourism. By the mid-1900s, many banks and businesses, like Woolworths and General Electric, were based there, and Shell, Texaco and EXXON (which is better known as Esso) had set up oil refineries. Things worked nicely for the Americans who rather liked to nip down there for a little holiday, gambling and some deep sea fishing.

One of the most famous visitors to Cuba during these years was the writer Ernest Hemingway and you must read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. It’s one of the greatest short stories ever. Written on Cuba in 1951 and published the following year, it led to him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Only 100 pages but quite magnificent. His other stuff might be a bit dated and ‘macho’ for some tastes but read ‘The Old Man’ one cold, wintry day – it’s an absolute delight.

However, Cuba was not as idyllic and democratic as it might have appeared to many of those US visitors. In 1933, the ‘Revolt of the Sergeants’ saw Fulgencio Batista come to power and directly or indirectly he would rule the country for the next twenty five years. In this he had regular support from the Americans and a few elite Cubans prospered under Batista’s dictatorship while numerous US businesses got rich on tax breaks and cheap labour. It was all very comfortable, except for the 85% or so of Cubans who struggled to make a living. The USA had effectively got control of the island, buying up 95% or so of the only Cuban crop, sugar cane, and getting many breaks in return. The sense of injustice felt by the majority boiled over in the 1950s with a young lawyer in the forefront of the struggle. Despite having been imprisoned in the early fifties, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army proved victorious so that, in January 1959, he entered Havana as the new leader of Cuba. Castro was partly aided in this by the famous Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara who was travelling around the region in the fifties and sixties, seeking to foment rebellion.

Two other key figures in Cuba: Fulgencio Batista and Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara

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Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) (Author: unknown: Source: here)

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Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara (1928-1967) (Author:  Alberto Korda; Source: here)

Batista ran away just before Castro entered Cuba and he took a hell of a lot of money with him. He was given political asylum in Portugal and died in Spain in 1973. Castro, on the other hand, is still alive and was, until 2008, the leader of Cuba. For fifty years he was a thorn in America’s side, a focus for hatred and vitriolic attack, especially from the far right. He dared to stand up to the might of the USA, creating a Communist state in their ‘backyard’. The many assassination attempts made on Castro are well worth studying, especially the exploding cigars and the attempt to send him mad on TV by using air-borne LSD. What caused all of this trouble?

When he took over, Castro was really proud of what had happened and what he planned to achieve for Cuba. The revolution always had a left-wing focus, of course, with the removal of Batista and the redistribution of land but there was no Communist element at first. It was a ‘nationalist’ uprising, an attempt to change the country simply for the good of the vast majority of the people, the peasants who had been excluded. Many powerful people were killed and many more left for Florida in particular, going into exile. (Gloria Estefan, the singer, was one of these.) These exiles would play a key role later on at the Bay of Pigs – and some had links to ‘The Plumbers’ who broke in to Watergate, central to the story of Richard Nixon. Castro was rather arrogant, eager for change and keen to act quickly. He wanted the world to know about what had happened in Cuba and so at the first opportunity, he went to the United Nations in New York to make a speech. While he was there, he hoped to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower to discuss relations between the two countries but Eisenhower refused, saying he was too busy. However, also in the UN at the time was one Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, and he was only too keen to meet a fellow revolutionary, especially one who seemed to have upset the Americans. It was with some alarm that Americans, politicians and people alike, saw photos like these of Khrushchev embracing Castro, although they look as though they are going to dance. The first one is actually from 1961 but the one on the link is from 1959 and is delightful as it seems to show Khrushchev picking Castro’s wallet out of his inside pocket.

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(Author: Superdominicano; Source: here)

Khrushchev and Castro: Photo link

 

Naturally, worried Americans and angry business leaders meant pressure on Eisenhower. The execution of many of Castro’s opponents after the revolution, 70 of them being captured prisoners, also raised many fears. Castro’s main aim was to help the people so he nationalised all land and shared it out among the peasants. This meant it was taken from the rich Cubans and many Americans, private individuals and businesses so Eisenhower responded by cutting purchases of Cuban sugar so that their economy faced ruin. But with disaster looming for Cuba, help came from behind the ‘iron Curtain’ as Khrushchev stepped in to buy the sugar for the USSR. Later developments saw the further nationalisation of American assets and the takeover of their property and businesses. Eventually, the oil companies were kicked out too, and the land and property of the Catholic Church was confiscated with some bishops being exiled. At each point the pressure grew on Eisenhower to act aggressively and on the other hand, Khrushchev increased support for Cuba by sending oil and other aid.

With help from the CIA, which had already been very active in resisting the growth of left-wing forces in Central American states like Guatemala, attacks on Cuba started. These focused on using small planes and local supporters to burn the sugar crop while there was a strong allegation that a Belgian ship delivering weapons to Cuba was blown up by the CIA in Havana harbour with the deaths of seven people. Castro, feeling deeply threatened, declared that the Cuban Revolution was now a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ revolution, effectively aligning Cuba with Communism. One key event in all this took place at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs, on 17th April, 1961.

The Bay of Pigs was a hugely significant moment in mid-twentieth century history. It is rightly known as ‘The Bay of Pigs Fiasco’, a disaster of planning and execution, and something that drove Cuba towards the open arms of Communism. The Bay of Pigs is on the southern coast of Cuba about 170 miles south east of Havana. This was a CIA plan to attack Cuba using some of the many disgruntled Cuban exiles in Florida. They received Eisenhower’s permission to develop the plan and prepare the attack and the exiles went to Guatemala where their training took place in late 1960 and early 1961. By this time, of course, John (Jack) Kennedy had become President. He was young (only 43) and inexperienced in foreign affairs. He was replacing Eisenhower, an experienced former general and someone he had accused of not being tough enough against Communist expansion. So it was logical for him to accept the plan for the attack on Cuba without asking too many questions about the logic, purpose and execution. Big mistake.

In his first months in office, Kennedy gave permission for the attack to go ahead although he did make a couple of adjustments to cover things up. He would not allow the full number of aircraft that had been requested to be used and he also insisted that those planes should be disguised as Cuban planes so as to cover up the US’s involvement, which broke international law. Anyway, the attack at the Bay of Pigs began at about midnight on 17th April, 1961, and to cut a long story short, rarely has such an event been more disastrous and deserving of being called a ‘fiasco’. The exiles, who numbered about 1500, were not very well-trained and were relying on an uprising of the ordinary people to help them overthrow Castro. They were victims of their own opinions; they hated Castro and convinced themselves that all other Cubans did as well. Equipment was lost in swamps, the resistance of the Cubans was under-estimated and the attack lacked coordination. According to one report, some of the boats had their bottoms ripped out by coral reefs as CIA specialists had looked at surveillance photos and thought the dark marks in the sea were not reefs but seaweed. In another error, 172 parachutists were dropped in land but most came down in swamps and were lost to the operation. Within three days of the attack starting, nearly all of the exiles were killed or captured. Imprisonments, trials and executions followed before the remaining prisoners were sent back to the USA some 19 months later, ransomed for $53 million of food and medicine. The ‘Bay of Pigs Fiasco’ was an important mistake by the Kennedy administration as it served to convince Castro that the USA was out to get him and he needed help. And the only place which was realistically able to help him was, of course, the USSR.

The invasion force at ‘Bahía de Cochinos’ or the ‘Bay of Pigs’ numbered about 1500. The fiasco ended with 114 deaths and 1189 being taken prisoners with the others either not landing or making their way to safety. The failings of the USA meant, of course, a famous victory for Castro, a victory which brought a massive surge in support for him.

Photo links here and here

Over in Moscow at this time, Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR, also had a problem. There was a ‘missile gap’ between the USA/West and the USSR/East but it was not as people in the West believed it to be. The truth was that the USA did not trail behind the USSR in its nuclear weapons capability and, in fact, the advantage lay with the West. The USSR had as many missiles as the USA but with one big problem: they lacked long-range ICBMs, largely due to problems they had in developing solid fuel. Their liquid-fuelled rockets were unreliable and, frankly, dangerous. It’s believed that in 1961, they may have had as few as four nuclear missiles that could hit the mainland USA, whereas thousands of US missiles could have hit the USSR, especially with medium-range missiles based in Europe. The missile gap was claimed to have been built up under Eisenhower in the 1950s, and many politicians, including Jack Kennedy, had attacked the President for allowing this to happen. Eisenhower knew it did not exist but believed it was in the USA’s interests to allow this belief to grow as it allowed the Government to strengthen military spending, put extra money into the defence budget, create jobs and so strengthen the economy and build support amongst big businesses. Anyway, Khrushchev knew he had enough missiles but few that could hit the US mainland – but then came the Bay of Pigs.

Thanks to the CIA’s mess, Castro was aware that he was threatened by a most powerful neighbour and so he needed better defences, especially with Cuba being just 90 miles from Florida. Actually, from Cuba every major city (except Seattle) and military base in the USA would be within reach of Soviet-built medium-range missiles, and so it was that for their mutual benefit, Khrushchev offered to put Soviet nuclear missiles onto Cuba. All they had to do was build the launch silos and get the missiles to Cuba. By mid-1962, this work was under way and many Russian ships began to arrive in Havana, carrying engineers, building materials and, eventually, some very long ‘missile-shaped things’ hidden under tarpaulins. There were many US spies in the country but it seems that none of them really twigged what was happening. Farmers interviewed later reported that they saw missiles left on trailers on the roads and in their fields but no CIA spies seem to have bothered to tell Washington. This could be described as a ‘mistake’.

One Sunday in October 1962, a U-2 spy plane was sent over Cuba to see if anything of interest to the USA was going on. The CIA’s surveillance department developed the photos and got a bit of a shock. The comment made was along the lines of, “Uh-ooooh! We seem to have some…er…nuclear missile silos here, sir…” (This is pretty much an actual quote from an interview with the man who saw the photos.) To put it mildly, all hell broke loose: “Those sneaky, pesky, Russians. What the hell do they think they’re doing? How dare they put missiles on Cuba?” The fact that the USA had missiles all over Europe (for defensive purposes, of course) thanks to NATO did not seem to matter. When Khrushchev and Castro said the missiles were merely defensive and there would be no problem if the USA did not threaten Cuba, they were not believed. The missiles had to be aggressive, they had to be. No one in the White House, the military or the CIA seemed to stop and think, or to remember the Bay of Pigs, for example; this was simply devious and aggressive ‘Commie’ tactics at work. The missiles would have to go immediately.

The following thirteen days (covered in the half-decent but obviously US-centric film, ‘Thirteen Days’ (2000) which is worth a watch) saw the future of the world hang in the balance. The Americans insisted that the missiles had to go; the USSR said ‘nyet’ or ‘no’. The Americans said they would use force; the USSR said they would retaliate with equal force; there was a stalemate of truly frightening proportions. Communications were slow and awkward as there was no direct line between the White House and the Kremlin at that time. The previous 15 years had been mired in tension so that neither side knew what to say or what to think of the other; the level of distrust was such that, whatever one side said, the other refused to believe it could be honest, helpful or peaceful. Both countries were Superpowers and saw their reputations on the line so that backing down would give out the ‘wrong message’ both at home (such as to voters in the USA and the Red Army in the USSR), and abroad to allies who needed to know that all offers of support were genuine and would deliver tangible results.

In the White House, several options were considered, including a full-scale invasion of Cuba, conventional air-strikes, a nuclear attack and a blockade. The President called together his main advisors from the National Security Council as a group known as EXCOMM. It included Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (John Kennedy’s younger brother) and the main military leaders of the Armed Forces. The majority of people round the table in Washington wanted swift, decisive action such as a nuclear strike or an air attack. They did not seem to have learnt from the British approach at the time of the Berlin Blockade back in 1948, when the US had wanted to go for a direct confrontation but the British persuaded them to try the less aggressive airlift as an option first. President Kennedy was not sure. As the days went on, tensions grew, and the media followed it by the minute. The great Walter Cronkite anchored the footage on CBS at that time and a media legend was born.

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Robert McNamara (1916-2009), the long serving Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. (Author: Oscar Porter, U.S. Army; Source: here)

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Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), the most respected news presenter in the USA, who covered the crisis. (Author: Thomas J. O’Halloran, US News and World Report; Source: here)

The option Kennedy had already chosen to follow, against most of his advisers, was a ‘quarantine’, or blockade of Cuba using US shipping. A barrier was formed in international waters some 40 miles off Cuba, stopping and searching any ship bound for Cuba. This was illegal and broke international law but Kennedy considered it a better option than the others which were more aggressive and potentially deadly for all. Soviet ships carrying missiles were approaching the blockade. Kennedy ordered that the US navy should stop and search one which was transporting oil, knowing that it could not possibly be carrying missiles too. This would indicate that they were serious about the quarantine, giving a clear message to Moscow, but without creating a major incident through the discovery of missiles. A ship was stopped, nothing was found but the message had been given that the blockade would be enforced. The other Soviet ships which were bound for Cuba and approaching the blockade slowed down and then stopped. Things seemed to be coming to a calm and peaceful conclusion.

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Ships and planes in the US blockade of Cuba (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

But then a new crisis developed and things suddenly worsened, moving the situation to its very worst point as a US plane was shot down by Cuban anti-aircraft artillery. The US military demanded retaliation but Kennedy refused. Communications were then received from Khrushchev that seemed to be positive, offering a way out of the whole crisis through the removal of the Cuban Missiles. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as a peaceful outcome seemed within reach. But the following morning, a new letter and a new set of demands came from Moscow; it was as though someone in the Kremlin had had a go at Khrushchev saying he was settling for too little from the US in return for the removal of the missiles. The US was not willing to accept the new demands and there seemed to be no way out of the impasse.

At this point it is worth mentioning two rather important people, one very famous and one little known today. The famous one is Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney-General (main legal man in the US Government) and younger brother of President Jack Kennedy. He was Kennedy’s most trusted advisor. The little-known figure is Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010), the Soviet Ambassador to Washington from 1962-1986. Dobrynin became a legendary figure in Washington but most people have not heard of him. He had not been in Washington long when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. President Kennedy sent Bobby Kennedy to speak with Dobrynin on the night of Saturday, 27th October. Dobrynin was a key figure as all communications with Khrushchev and Moscow had to come through him.

Bobby Kennedy’s response to the letters received from Khrushchev was more measured than most. He proposed concentrating on the bits they could agree with and ignoring the rest. This meant building on the basic point that neither side wanted to destroy the world over Cuba. At their late meeting on 27th October, Dobrynin understood the situation well and he approved of the idea to withdraw the missiles on one key condition from Khrushchev. This was the removal of US medium range nuclear missiles from Turkey, which Bobby Kennedy agreed to. The crisis was over, much to everyone’s relief – and to the shock of Fidel Castro, who had not been involved in discussions.

It is important to note that the missiles were not removed from Turkey until sometime later and it was not announced until 1967. This action meant the world and the USA saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as a victory for Kennedy and the West; it certainly raised Kennedy’s standing. It seemed that Khrushchev had backed down, especially in the eyes of the West, who gave him little credit for what was in many ways an unacknowledged compromise in favour of Kennedy who Khrushchev knew faced particular challenges from being in a democracy. In reality, Khrushchev had no real intention of going to war and destroying the world over Cuba, seeing the situation as an opportunity to gain some advantage in the political and military balance of power. In the end, nuclear Armageddon came close but it was avoided. The calmer voices of Kennedy and Khrushchev controlled the more aggressive ‘hawks’ on both sides and the diplomacy of Bobby Kennedy and Anatoly Dobrynin sealed the deal.

For the main players, the effect of the Cuban Missile Crisis was quite different. Fidel Castro felt betrayed by the USSR and ploughed an almost lone furrow against the USA for decades afterwards; Nikita Khrushchev was weakened by the crisis, especially in the USSR itself, as he was perceived as being weak and inconsistent by the Red Army in particular; Jack Kennedy was perceived as being the winner and received a huge boost in popularity and respect for ‘facing down’ the Soviet threat. And the three faced very different futures following the crisis as Kennedy was assassinated just 13 months later, Khrushchev was removed in a coup in October, 1964, while Castro remained in power, a thorn in the USA’s side until he stepped down as leader of Cuba in 2008.

However, before this story is finished, there is a little point to add. Information that emerged after the collapse of Communism shows the very real dangers that stalked the troubled waters of October 1962, evidence that shows how tricky it can be as an historian trying to understand events. In the 1990s, de-classified Soviet documents revealed that the B-59, a new Soviet nuclear powered submarine, with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, had been sent to Cuba, maintaining complete radio silence, in other words having been given its instructions and then told to stay out of contact with Moscow so that it could not be tracked. The submarine was in the area of the blockade and found itself surrounded by up to 11 US warships, one of which, the USS Beale, dropped depth charges to force the submarine to the surface. As other ships joined the attack, the captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, and the second in command of the submarine, agreed that they would fire a ten kilo-ton nuclear torpedo at the USS Randolf, a huge aircraft carrier, in line with the instructions they had received. Only one man refused to approve this action, Vasili Arkhipov, the third officer. An attack would have meant not only the destruction of the ‘Randolf’ but the start of World War III – all-out nuclear war. Agreement by all three men was needed so his actions led to a delay and the torpedo was not fired. If the torpedo had been fired, it would almost certainly have triggered a nuclear war, the almost immediate destruction of Europe and the Eastern Bloc, and untold consequences for the rest of the world. Anatoly Dobrynin and Bobby Kennedy might have been excellent diplomats, while Khrushchev and Kennedy might have had no intention of going to war over Cuba, but if Vasili Arkhipov had not been so brave as to disagree with his commanding officers on B-59, then it’s likely that few of us would be here today.

At some stage in life, stop for a moment and raise a glass to Vasili Arkhipov, a rather important and unknown hero.

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Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to the USA (Author:  Yoichi R. Okamoto; Source: here)

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Bobby Kennedy addressing a crowd in 1963 (Author: Warren K. Leffler; Source: here)

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Vasili Arkhipov, the third officer on B-59 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

TV: ‘Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs (CNN – series available as DVD 2012, originally shown in the late 1990s) Cuba is covered in episode 10 of this superb series.

Film/DVD: ‘The Fog of War’ by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara (Sony Pictures Home entertainment, 2004). Mainly focuses on Vietnam but includes reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Films: ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb’ (Originally released in 1964; DVD – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1999) A rather inspired and satirical look at the effect nuclear weapons had on society in the 1960s, starring Peter Sellers and directed by Stanley Kubrick. ‘Thirteen Days’ (Walt Disney Studios, 2001). Watch with care as it tells things very much from the White House/USA perspective.

Book: ‘Thirteen Days: A memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis’, by Robert Kennedy (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011) ‘One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-64’ by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)  ‘My Life’ by Fidel Castro and Andrew Hurley (Andrew Lane, 2007) ‘Outposts of Empire: Korea, Vietnam and the Origins of the Cold war in Asia, 1949-54’, by Stephen Hugh Lee (Liverpool University Press, 1996) For the seriously committed reader who wants to put things into the bigger context.

For the image of the ‘Museo Girón’ or ‘The Bay of Pigs’ at the start of this section: author and source: here