Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

800px-Lenin,_Engels,_Marx

Lenin, Engels and Marx. (Original author: unknown; Source: here)

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Well, here’s a happy topic and one which you have been looking forward to, no doubt, with some eager anticipation: Communism. This was a political ideology that a lot of people around the world used to believe in when there were political ideologies to believe in. Some countries are still called ‘Communist’ but it has fallen away so quickly since 1990 that it is becoming difficult for many people to remember just what Communism was all about. And it is almost impossible to recall just how frightening and threatening the Communist system was to those of us growing up in the Western world, the world of capitalism and democracy, a world fighting an epic battle for ‘good’ against ‘evil’. People recall things like, ‘They built a wall, didn’t they?’, but the general view is that ‘It failed, so it can’t have been much good’. But what was Communism all about? Why did people believe in it? Why was it so frightening? And why did it ‘fail’? So here begins a quick look at the most famous left-wing policy of them all.

‘Communism’ as a word that looks very like ‘commune’, ‘common’ and ‘community’, which is just as it should be for its focus is on the community over the individual. There is nothing unusual in stressing the importance of community in human history, of course, for every family, tribe and settlement has been a reflection of the human need to belong to a group. No child can survive without someone to care for them. Few, if any, individuals have all of the knowledge and skills needed to survive completely in isolation. It is natural for people to give to a group in some way and to receive from it. So where did this ‘frightening’ ideology come from if it was in some ways an expression of something so natural?

‘Communism’, or ‘Marxism’ as it is often known,as a political system is the name for the extreme left-wing ideology originally developed by two Germans, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), in the middle of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly have heard of Marx, a German philosopher, journalist, historian and revolutionary, although you might not be aware of Engels, his main supporter and collaborator. In simple terms, Marx did the writing and the thinking while Engels provided the money and other support to allow him to work. Before we look in more detail at these two fascinating characters, we should have a photo of the memorial to them in Berlin which reminds us of just what fine facial hair these two revolutionaries developed. They are a serious contrast to the modern, image obsessed politicians who lead most modern governments.

MarxEngels_4a

A close-up of the statue of Marx and Engels in Schlossplatz, Berlin. (Author: Manfred Brückels; Source: here)

There was some graffiti painted onto this statue after the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1989: ‘It was not our fault!’ This was a very reasonable point, really, as what came to be called ‘Communism’ was rather different from what Marx and Engels intended. The truth is that the system which we know as ‘Communism’, the system of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of the USSR, China and North Korea, the ideology that so threatened the West in the Cold War era, was a long way from being that envisioned by Marx and Engels. There was definitely a breakdown between the ‘planners’ and the ‘producers’ when it comes to communism. There was actually a rather heated debate in Berlin about whether or not this monument to the ‘founders’ of Communism should be kept or removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it was surely both a good and a necessary thing that it has remained in place as it would have been too easy for people to deny or ignore the past. In a world lacking ideology and integrity in the political world, the statue is a reminder that people have thought differently in the past – even if their ideas have not been successful or accepted. If success were the only criteria, it might be logical that all religious iconography in Western Europe would be torn down for a start – and as for the split between the original visions of the religious founders and the modern expressions of their ideas…well, that is a whole other story.

So, back to our finely bearded protagonists, especially Karl Mark. Marx was a German, born in 1818 in the town of Trier, near the border with Luxembourg and France. He was from a Jewish background being the son of a rabbi in a family of rabbis. His family can be described as upper-middle class family and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Marx went to the University of Bonn before moving on to the University of Berlin where he came under the influence of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel had said, ‘Philosophy is its own time raised to the level of thought’ (in ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’), a phrase open to much debate but one which the young Marx and others took as a call to action that challenged the established order in Germany. Hegel believed that the only way to understand things in the present was to see them as a part of some unrelenting or irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. This idea suggested that human freedom would come about as a result of this ‘progress’. Alongside this ideology, the rejection of religion as a valid means of understanding or addressing life and real issues was a key theme, centred on the work of another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx’s radical ideas did not go down well in the university and he was blocked by the authorities from continuing his academic career and so he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. In Paris, Marx met up with many German thinkers and activists who had left their country to escape the oppression of living under a dictatorship. In France just half-a-century after the French Revolution, his radical ideas were considered more ‘normal’ than in Prussia. Marx saw a more aggressive and, for him, advanced working class challenging the control and oppression that they suffered at the hands of the powers in the state, such as the politicians, church authorities and business leaders. He studied History and Social Sciences, both in Paris and, later, in Brussels, developing his observation that the more workers contributed to the capitalist system, the more they were alienated from the final outcomes, namely, the rewards, the profits. The workers might create great things through their skills and labour but they never had the chance to own them or to share fully in the profits; these belonged to the oppressive ‘bosses’ of society, the owners, the authorities. This sense of injustice and inequality in the means of wealth production became the heart of his idea of a ‘class struggle’; the alienation of workers seen in the control and exploitation of the proletariat by the landowners, nobility and the bourgeoisie under capitalism was to become the background for revolution.

By the time he met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels had already spent some time in England, much of it in England. With its many cotton mills, Manchester stood at the heart of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and, therefore, represented an expression of capitalism in its fullness. Industry had transformed the British landscape and society and, through its huge and growing Empire, it was shaping change across the globe. The population of Britain was growing and moving from the countryside to the towns; mechanisation was revolutionising employment; fortunes were being made but many of the people were being thrust into poverty. The experiences of Britain were being echoed in the rapid changes of European economies, too. Engels was actually from a reasonably wealthy family that was involved in mills and textile production, one of the bosses or ‘exploiters’. It is interesting to note that it was only through the money he made as a boss that Engels was able to support Marx in his revolutionary work. He is far less famous than Marx, so a proper picture might help at this point, especially as it gives another chance to admire his beard, an absolute gem of its kind. Actually, let’s put Marx in as well as they were such a team. You could lose a couple of small squirrels in their facial growth and they wouldn’t feel a thing.

548px-Karl_Marx

220px-Friedrich_Engels
Karl Marx (Author: unknown; Source: here) Friedrich Engels (Author; unknown: Source: here)

The reason why Engels knew England so well was that, in the early 1840s, he had been sent to Manchester to help run his father’s cotton mill. While he was there he became interested in the condition of the workers, believing they struggled under inhumane conditions. His studies led to the publication of an important book, which was ignored by most people at the time. This was, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). It’s interesting to compare Engels’ findings with those of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree some fifty years later because it shows how so much in life is about having the right message for the right audience at the right time. Engels’ message was a clear warning of what Booth and Rowntree later identified but for some reason his work had little impact at the time; it’s really not the validity of what you have to say so much as the willingness of the audience to hear it which matters in so many areas of life.

Anyway, Engels was horrified by the terrible living conditions he found in places like Saint Helens, Oldham and Manchester itself. The depth and the extent of poverty amongst the workers was frightening, their poor health was a great concern and, most of all, the injustice was intolerable in his eyes. The gap between rich and poor was stark and growing greater each day as privileged employers exploited the workers for profit. Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844 and they struck up an immediate friendship based on their sense of injustice about the impact of industrial change with Marx coming at it from a philosophical angle, Engels from his practical experience. At about the same time, Marx also made contact with the ‘Communist League’ which had developed from ‘The League of the Just’, an organisation set up by German workers who had emigrated from their homeland in the previous decade. While in Brussels in 1847, Marx joined Engels in attending a conference of the ‘Communist League’. The speech that he gave there was an expression of their ideas as formed over the previous years and it was published the following year as the ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most famous documents of the century.

Although Marx was the thinker and visionary, Engels played a crucial role in bringing the ‘Manifesto’ into existence. He supported Marx financially during these years, giving him the royalties from his book as a way of supporting his friend while he developed his philosophy. Engels’ support enabled Marx to commit himself entirely to his reflections as it allowed him to read, write and travel free from any financial pressure. The publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was actually a development of a piece of Engels’ own work which was called ‘The Principles of Communism’. Marx took this and developed it into the manifesto itself, foreseeing a class struggle which would end with ‘World Revolution’ and the overthrow of the oppressive business owners and landowners, the so-called bourgeoisie. The ‘Workers’ or the ‘Proletariat’, would rise up and establish a new system where everything was shared in common; there would be a classless society of total equality. This utopian ideal was rooted in the injustice Engels had seen and smelt in the slums of northern England; its goal was justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all at the expense of the privileged few. Apart from the expected violence which would be necessary in the initial stages of the revolution, the vision was almost religious in its aims and values.

Communist-manifesto

‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, February, 1848. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published in February, 1848, just as Europe was on the verge of one of the most traumatic years in its history. The pamphlet seemed to be truly of its time because risings of workers in 1848 threatened every major European country except Britain – and, even there, tensions rose with the revolutionary demands of the Chartists. It was known as the ‘Year of Revolution’ as France, Spain Austria and Germany all experienced major political change and radical social upheaval loomed large in the political consciousness. Having spoken of risings of the workers, it all seemed set to come true and Marx and Engels were among those happy to see the uprisings which threatened to tear the continent apart during the summer of 1848. Their ideas expressed a new vision which came to inspire many intellectuals and idealists, as well as the lower classes, but made enemies of the established ‘powers’, the politicians, the monarchs, the churches and the business leaders. In the face of these troubles in Europe, and the inflammatory nature of their words, both Marx and Engels were expelled from Belgium.

Without going into great detail about the ‘Communist Manifesto’ itself, it might be interesting to see a summary of the demands of the Communist Party in Germany from this period. They indicate something of the goals of the party if not their strategies or arguments. Not all of these arguments seem very frightening today but in the mid-19th century, they terrified many leading figures in politics, society and the churches.

Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single indivisible republic.
  2. Representatives of the people (MP’s) shall be paid so that workers also can sit in the parliament of the German people.
  3. Universal arming of the people.
  4. The estates of the princes and other feudal estates, all mines, pits, etc., shall be transformed into state property. On these estates, agriculture is to be conducted on a very large scale and with the most modern scientific means for the benefit of all society.
  5. Mortgages on peasant holdings shall be declared state property; interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.
  6. In the districts where tenant farming is developed, land rent or farming dues shall be paid to the state as a tax.
  7. All means of transport: railway, canals, steamships, roads, post, etc., shall be taken over by the state. They are to be converted into state property and put at the disposal of the non-possessing class free of charge.
  8. Limitation of the right of inheritance.
  9. Introduction of a steeply graded progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumer goods.
  10. Establishment of national workshops. The state shall guarantee a living to all workers and provide for those unable to work.
  11. Universal free elementary education.

Having been forced from Belgium, Marx and Engels made their way to London, where Marx himself would settle for the rest of his life. London was a very tolerant and open society for revolutionaries in those days, and many outsiders from Europe found their way there. Marx eventually died in 1883 and is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery alongside some other famous names including Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti and Douglas Adams. Key places linked with him in London include: the Reading Room at the British Museum where he wrote his famous work, ‘Das Kapital’; Covent Garden where meetings of the First International took place; and Hampstead Heath where he used to enjoy trips out with his family on Sundays. While Marx was in England, he was protected by the British Government of the time on the grounds of allowing people to express their ideas, which is an interesting situation as he was effectively considered to be a terrorist by some states. Britain’s interest was always in its Empire and helping rebels who annoyed the European powers was almost a pleasure for the Government at the time. Marx was not allowed back to Germany but Engels did return there to  work for his father but regularly visited London and he continued to support Marx financially.

468px-Karlmarxtomb

Marx’s Grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘Workers of all lands unite’. (Author: here; Source: here)

After Marx’s death, Engels publicised his work, writing commentaries and making it more suitable for publication. Neither lived to see the ‘Communist Revolution’ and they would have been shocked to see what happened in Russia and the world in the years after 1917. They had fully expected revolution to happen in an advanced industrial country, such as Britain or Germany, where the exploitation of the masses created the conditions for a true uprising. They had thought that revolution had come in 1848 when Europe was thrown into turmoil, and were dismayed that the moment passed without the sweeping changes they expected. They both died having changed politics and philosophy but without seeing the fulfilment of their dream – and they would almost certainly have had some questions for Lenin and others in terms of what was done in their name in the Twentieth Century.

Obviously Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who wanted the overthrow of oppressive powers in society but would they have recognised or approved of what came to be known as ‘Communism’? Would they have been admirers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro? Was the Communism of the USSR and China, North Korea and Cuba, what Marx had in mind? Did these systems address the issues as Engels saw them? It seems highly unlikely that they would have been in total agreement with the reality of ‘communism’, but that’s what tends to happen when other people get hold of your ideas in a different place and at a different time. It’s a bit like writing a song, releasing it yourself to no particular acclaim and then discovering that it’s been covered by Chris de Burgh, Lady Gaga and Primal Scream; the words might be the same but you never thought it would come out quite like that. You get the idea, anyway.

So, what was ‘Communism’ supposed to be? What was it supposed to change? In the ideological world, ‘Pure Communism’ was to mean a number of things: there would be no private ownership of property or business; people would work according to their skills and be paid according to their needs; people would live in the same accommodation as each other and there would be no classes; there would  be no nations due to people being united by their bond as ‘workers’ rather than any idea of nationality; there would be no need for democracy and elections as there would be unity amongst the people, a shared vision and absolute freedom as all would be united in one community. The words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon come to mind in some ways.

One particular area of controversy was Communism’s approach to religion and the churches. For Marx and Engels, there would be no organised religion as this was a tool by which the powerful in society controlled the people, allowing them to believe that troubles here on earth might bring pain but they would eventually be compensated by the glories of heaven. The churches, therefore, preached a message of cooperation with the authorities which allowed exploitation and oppression to be maintained. In return, the leaders of the churches were allowed privileges alongside the highest in the land as long as they ensured the people were loyal, committed and passive; in the mean time, the powerful could enjoy their rewards here and now. Marx’s view on religion was expressed in one of his most famous quotes but one which is usually misquoted: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Just so you know it but don’t show yourselves up by misquoting it, here it is in full:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

It should be noted that this is not quite as negative about religion as it might sound. It speaks of religion as the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’. At the time, opium or heroin was commonly used as a pain-killer so Marx was saying that organised religion acted as an anaesthetic against the pains of everyday life for the poor. The real evil for Marx lies in the system, capitalism, and not with religion which seeks to help alleviate the suffering of so many oppressed by that system. The religious authorities, though, collaborated with the economic and political powers, emphasising the glories of the next world over the need for justice in this one, and so allowed religion to support the oppression of the workers. In this, Marx would probably have been concerned by the aggressive actions of Lenin, Stalin and others in seeking to destroy the churches. Khrushchev’s decision, for example, to take his first wife’s coffin over a wall rather than have her carried through a Russian Orthodox Church on the way to her grave would have struck Marx as foolish, unnecessary and misguided.

It is obvious to see why Communism made enemies and, in the end, failed. Taking the second point first, Communism failed because most people are, to a greater or lesser extent, selfish. As long as you care more about people you know than people you don’t know, Communism cannot work as people do not see everyone in the world as equally important or as their ‘brother and sister’. Full unity is not possible when family ties, nationality, race, culture, language, gender, age and a dozen other factors can cause divisions that are anything from a hindrance to an insurmountable obstacle. Marx never really took full account of the individual in his system; the dream of being special is there in most people, and being or feeling at least slightly different, slightly better, slightly wealthier, slightly better dressed and slightly happier than others means that true equality does not appeal to many people, if any.

Of equal importance in the failings of Communism was that fact that its enemies were many and they were powerful. It’s easy to see who they were and why they were unhappy. They were the established authorities who had status, power and influence in social, economic, political and religious terms. Communism did not choose its enemies wisely, raising anxiety amongst landowners and business leaders, monarchs and the nobility, church leaders and politicians. And alongside these groups were many individuals who aspired to belong to those groups, living by values which were in direct contrast with those of Communism. It is possible to see Marx and Engels as incredibly naïve, rooting their theory in the idea of unity amongst peoples who would define themselves as ‘workers’, embracing unknown ‘others’ against those with whom they already had some bond: language, religion, race, culture, family, friendship. And the idea that such a unity might exist for ever after the removal of the common enemy, the oppressive leaders of society and industry, was equally extreme.

800px-Flowers_for_Princess_Diana's_Funeral

The response shown by so many people at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a rare example of an outpouring of emotion for someone few people actually knew – but it was an emotion not shared by everyone. (Author: Maxwell Hamilton; Source: here)

The fatal flaw in Communism, therefore, was its failure to grasp what motivated real people. As mentioned above, people usually care more about people they know rather than people they don’t know. They tend to be selfish and look for their own survival (individually and as a group) which is why ‘true’ martyrs are so rare, those who will die for an idea or to save someone they do not know at all. People are more than theories and ideals; most need something real and practical too. The highly committed believers may meet, debate, argue and really live out their ideology but most people see them as ‘fanatics’, and get on with their own lives: work, home, food, leisure, competition, savings, dreams and so on tend to dominate life for ordinary people. When fanatics take over, be they religious, political or whatever, then ordinary people tend to get bored, confused, angry and demoralised. One only has to see what happens when the ‘World Cup’ comes along every four years. The committed football fan gets excited; the majority at best tolerate it, maybe watching the odd game, during which they will probably annoy the true fan by asking questions that are either distracting, simplistic or irritating: Which team’s in blue? Why do they kick each other? Just what does ‘off-side’ mean? They are not as bothered or as obsessed as the true fanatic. Marx, Lenin and others never grasped this fundamental issue and the failure to convince ordinary people of the nature and benefits of ‘true’ Communism was a key to its eventual demise.

Despite these problems, Communism can and does exist but only rarely and on a small scale. It can be seen in highly motivated, ideological communities, two examples being some religious communities (monasteries) and on a kibbutz. Looking at a monastery, those who enter do so of their own choice and make a life-long commitment, although that can be broken. They take various vows: poverty means not seeking or receiving particular rewards for your work, which brings a clear form of equality; obedience means that your own ideas and values are not imposed on others or used to argue with others, as you accept your role within the running of the larger community, another form of equality; a vow of chastity is often taken, not just an issue around marriage or sex, but a commitment of equality in friendship and belonging with all in the community. The leader of the community is chosen by the community itself, serving the whole group in a way that protects them and leaves them free to do what they need to do. The leader serves for a set period of time before returning to the ranks as an ordinary member of the community. Communism is possible and has worked in the past but it is rare, not for all and requires certain conditions to be met. It demands total commitment and belief in the system and the values it proclaims. It must also be freely chosen and not imposed on the unwilling. Many people are religious and have enough belief to go to a church, mosque or temple regularly; but the majority are not motivated to give their lives over to it. In the same way, Communism appealed to a core group ideologically, made sense to some in particular circumstances but never appealed to the majority as a way of life. It does not mean the ideology itself was ‘bad’, it just never had enough rewards or made enough sense to people who had other values.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not ‘bad’ men, as some people try to portray them. In many ways they were visionaries who expected change in the name of justice and equality for all. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s just that too many key people thought they were wrong; they ignored certain things about ordinary people and made enemies of too many powerful people because that ‘justice and equality for all’ thing’ is just a bit too much to take. In many ways, their are many people suffering because of capitalism today who probably wish their full vision had come to dominate the world. Exploitation and oppression remain but, with rampant individualism and consumerism in the ascendancy, communism is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in history for some time to come.

 

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

Giron

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.

WH/HO Portrait

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

Nikita_S._Khrushchev

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

2279157023_da92517e90

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)

Cuban_missiles

(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.

Cuban_crisis_map_missile_range

(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.

Cuba-CIA_WFB_Map

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

MiddleAmerica-pol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(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

Fulgencio_Batista,_president_of_Cuba,_1952

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

 Che_Guevara,_Guerrillero_Heroico

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.

Castro-kruschev

(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.

Robert_McNamara_1961

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

Walter_Cronkite_on_television_1976

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.

P-3A_VP-44_over_USS_Barry_(DD-933)_and_Metallurg_Anasov_during_Cuban_Missile_Crisis_1962.jpeg

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.

AF_Dobrynin_02

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

Robert_F_Kennedy_crop

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

tumblr_mcyl1w6sd71rzax3oo1_400

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