Brothers in Arms
Forty years after the Cuban missile crisis, old combatants make new friends (and enemies)
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff
HAVANA - LAST WEEKEND, a few dozen of the aged men who barely
yanked the world back
from the precipice of nuclear war 40 years ago met here to swap impressions from the ''sad and
luminous days'' of the Cuban missile crisis, as Che Guevara once put it. While the old ideological
grandstanding was sometimes on display at the three-day conference, the packed Palacio de
Convenciones often seemed like a bizarro Cold War world where the usual alliances had been
turned on their heads.
The Cubans and Americans got along famously, with former secretary
of defense Robert S.
McNamara and Cuban President Fidel Castro sharing the kind of eager, grinning bearhug you'd
expect from veterans who fought in the same trenches. When McNamara and two former Soviet
officials discussed nuclear dangers over grilled shrimp and beers, they couldn't find anything to
Yet the Americans didn't always get along quite so well with each
other: Two members of the US
delegation went so so far as to walk out during McNamara's closing speech. And the Cubans, who
think the Soviet Union betrayed them during the crisis, gave the Russians an icy reception. When
the conference organizers neglected to put out name cards for their former allies, the Soviets
refused to sit down until the insult was rectified.
It was not the first time these Cold War players had met, but
given the age of the participants, it
might well be the last. A similar conference in 1992 had led to the startling revelation that tactical
nuclear warheads were already on Cuban soil when the missile crisis took place, meaning that the
world had come even closer to nuclear war than previously known.
This time around, we learned yet another chilling fact: the Soviet
submarines in the waters off Cuba
had been armed with nuclear torpedoes. Even more alarming, we learned that when an American
destroyer blockading the island fired depth charges in an effort to force the subs to surface, one
Soviet officer, unable to contact Moscow and convinced that World War III had started, gave the
order to fire. A cooler-headed officer persuaded him to wait.
Both the 1992 and 2002 conferences were organized by the National
Security Archive, a nonprofit
research organization in Washington, D.C., together with Brown University and the Cuban
government. A Brown alumna, I attended to assist my former professor, James G. Blight, and his
wife, janet Lang; together, Blight and Lang have developed the discipline of ''critical oral history,''
which brings historical actors together to talk about past events in the company of question-wielding
historians armed with newly available documents.
Many conference participants emphasized the terrible dangers of
the missile crisis era. And yet
several juicy tales and newly declassified documents suggested the Cuban government was
genuinely interested in improving relations with the United States at the time. Richard Goodwin, a
speechwriter and aide to President Kennedy, earned gasps and guffaws from listeners with an
off-the-cuff story about his strange meeting with Guevara in August 1961. According to Goodwin's
yarn, which was backed up by a newly declassified memo he had written to Kennedy, Castro's
fellow revolutionary approached him at a party in Argentina four months after the calamitous Bay of
Pigs invasion. ''Of course my first response was to flee into the streets,'' the wild-haired and
bushy-eyebrowed Goodwin said. Instead, he followed Guevara into another room. When Guevara
sat on the floor, so did Goodwin, thinking, ''He's not going to out-proletarianize me!''
Guevara first thanked Goodwin for the Bay of Pigs affair, saying,
''Our support was scattered, and
you strengthened it immeasurably.'' Then, indicating that he spoke for the Cuban government,
Guevara suggested to Goodwin that the two countries negotiate a ''live and let live'' agreement. But
when Goodwin later relayed the message to Kennedy, along with some gift cigars, the president
dismissed any possibility of striking such a deal. (Kennedy also joked that he should make
Goodwin light up one of the gift cigars first, a reference to a CIA plot to assassinate Castro with an
exploding stogie.) Goodwin's story prompted many follow-up questions from a fascinated Castro,
who said he didn't recall hearing about the Argentine encounter.
Later, during the missile crisis itself, the back channel opened
again. According to newly-revealed
documents, the Canadian ambassador in Washington told then Secretary of State Dean Rusk that
the Cuban government ''was prepared at any time to negotiate its differences with the USA.'' Rusk
responded skeptically, saying that other countries had passed on the same message but there was
only ''a chance in a thousand'' that Castro was not ''a total instrument of Moscow.''
In at least one case, the secret diplomacy began in Washington.
On Oct. 26, well into the desperate
13 days of the crisis, Kennedy approved a message for Brazilian diplomats to convey to Castro,
though he insisted that they not reveal its origins. This curious message was recently uncovered by
James G. Hershberg, a professor at George Washington University and author of a forthcoming
book on Brazil's role in US-Cuban relations. The message, which pointed out that Soviet ships
were abandoning Cuba in the face of the American blockade, also noted that Cuba was being
''threatened by betrayal'' and hinted that ''many changes'' were possible if the Castro government
broke with Moscow.
In the end, the Soviets and Americans worked out their own deal
without consulting Cuba - and
before the Brazilian message could be delivered. But last weekend, Castro said it didn't matter
anyway. ''We would have rejected it, because threats have to be greeted with disdain,'' he said.
Most likely, none of this back-channel diplomacy had much of a
chance. ''In each of these cases,
the issue was that the US wouldn't talk to Cuba,'' contends Blight, coauthor of a new book about
how the crisis unfolded from the Cuban point of view. ''That's in contrast to the very established
Kennedy and Khrushchev correspondence, with two leaders working things out on their own,
directly, without even ambassadors between them. The fact that both sides ignored Cuba meant
they barely avoided a hideous catastrophe.''
With Florida weighing in the electoral balance, it's unlikely
that the Bush administration will heed the
increasing calls from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for improved relations with
Havana. But several scholars took home the impression that an aging Castro is eager for change,
although many wondered whether he could stay in power without an embargo to rail against. (After
holding out for years, Cuba has recently signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.)
Castro, his beard thinned and grayed, wore a suit and tie to every
event, never his usual fatigues.
Although he talked in his trademark long-winded style on topics ranging from AIDS in Africa to the
accounting scandal in the United States, he did not seem to appreciate such verbosity from his
fellow countrymen. At several moments, he subtly signaled the other Cubans, an array of military
figures and academics, to cut off their attacks on America's undying desire to colonize Cuba. ''The
object of the meeting is not to blame or criticize,'' Castro said. ''Everyone will narrate their own
Castro clearly reveled in the gathering, rolling out the red carpet
for guests, who included historian
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a platoon of Kennedys, and a contingent from the movie ''Thirteen Days,''
including JFK nephew Christopher Lawford, who played William B. Ecker, the naval commander
whose flight over Cuba confirmed the presence of missiles. At an opulent state dinner in the
cavernous marble hall of the Revolutionary Palace, Castro dined next to Ethel Kennedy while
Cubans and Americans and even a few Soviet military guys danced exuberantly.
But this harmonious celebration came just a few hours after the
American delegation quarreled at
the conference table. In his closing speech, McNamara warned that human fallibility will inevitably
lead to ''the destruction of nations'' as long as nuclear weapons remain so widely dispersed. When
McNamara, once given to talk of ''kill ratios'' and ''collateral damage,'' mentioned the Afghan
wedding party and Canadian troops killed recently by errant US bombing in Afghanistan, Dino A.
Brugioni, a former CIA officer who prepared intelligence briefings during the 1962 crisis, leapt from
his seat, booming, ''Mr. McNamara, you've never been in combat and you have no idea what the
hell combat is about. I support our troops, they make mistakes, they don't make them intentionally,
buddy.'' Brugioni stormed from the room, followed by Ecker himself.
Someone seated near Brugioni and Ecker said they seemed to have
planned their protest in
advance, passing notes to each other as McNamara talked. The outburst produced a stunned
silence, though McNamara, seemingly unruffled, called out that he and Brugioni were really making
the same point - that even the good guys will sometimes make deadly mistakes. Castro broke the
ice with a few jokes and the two men later returned.
Castro said several times that we'd all meet again for the 50th
anniversary of the crisis. But
McNamara, 86, who was seriously ill over the summer, pointed to the ceiling and demurred that
he'd have to come ''down from hell'' for the next one.
After more than 40 years of sour US-Cuban relations, Castro was
in no mood to agree with his old
enemy on that point.
''No, he will come down from heaven,'' he said.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.