Castro hosts missile crisis reunion
'Kennedy was misled': Weekend conference unites key players in Cold War drama
A group of aged government officials from the United States and the
former Soviet Union will join Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in Cuba this
weekend in what promises to be a bizarre field trip to commemorate the
anniversary of the event that nearly brought the world to the brink of
nuclear war 40 years ago.
Former U.S. defence secretary Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger
Jr., the former special aide to John F. Kennedy, are among the dignitaries
who will participate in an all-expenses paid weekend conference in
Havana that re-examines the Cuban missile crisis, arguably the most
dangerous event of the entire Cold War.
The highlight of the two-day conference, which has attracted Cuban and
Cold War scholars from around the world, will be a visit to a former missile
silo in the western state of Pinar del Rio.
Conference organizers have also said the Cuban government will release
classified documents on the crisis and make them available to foreign
For his part, Mr. Castro, the conference's host, is using the weekend
gathering, which will include former Kennedy speech writers and CIA
operatives, to offer his view of what really took place during the tense
days in October, 1962, when people around the world thought nuclear
war was inevitable.
In an interview with ABC's 20/20, Mr. Castro blamed Soviet Premier Nikita
Khrushchev for aggravating the standoff between the two Cold War
superpowers by lying to President Kennedy that there were no nuclear
weapons on the island.
In October, 1962, Mr. Khrushchev told the White House that all Soviet
military activity in Cuba was defensive, even after U.S. officials obtained
spy plane photos showing Soviet missiles on the communist island. The
knowledge there were Soviet nuclear warheads only 200 kms from Florida
nearly brought the world to nuclear war.
In a sombre speech to the nation at the time, Mr. Kennedy noted "within
the past weeks, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a
series of offensive missiles is now in preparation on that imprisoned
island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a
nuclear strike capability against the Western hemisphere."
The crisis was averted after Mr. Kennedy imposed a naval quarantine
the island and the Russian leader backed down, agreeing to remove the
weapons from Cuba.
"[Kennedy] believed what Khrushchev told him," said Mr. Castro in the
interview. "Therefore Kennedy was misled. That was a very big mistake on
the part of Khrushchev, one that we opposed vehemently."
The Cuban organizers of the conference agree.
"This was the most dramatic episode of the Cold War and perhaps of all
contemporary history," said Jose Ramon Fernandez, a Cuban
vice-president and one of the key organizers of the event. He added the
Cuban government was bringing together the former Cuban, Soviet and
U.S. participants in the missile crisis "in a cordial spirit of analysis, without
tensions, insults or hatred."
Although Cold War scholars welcome the declassification of Cuban intelligence
documents from the
period, others find it strange Mr. Castro and his former enemies would get together to re-examine
history, especially since Cuba is still considered hostile to the United States and is high on the State
Department's list of terrorist states.
The United States maintains a trade embargo against Cuba and restricts
travel to the island by U.S.
citizens. Just this week a Chicago lawyer who smuggled Cuban cigars into the United States was
convicted of trading with the enemy, and could face five years in prison.
Mr. Castro's critics believe the real purpose of the conference is to
offer a revisionist view of history
and "to clean up Castro's image for posterity."
"Castro is the only surviving leader of that time, but he's getting
old too, and he wants to make sure
his version of events goes down in the history books," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Miami
office of the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro lobby group.
"It is well documented that Castro knew about the missiles and wanted
to use them. He can't now
claim that he was an innocent bystander in all of this. As funny as this is going to sound, calmer heads
like that of Nikita Khrushchev and the White House prevailed."
In addition to Mr. McNamara and Mr. Schlesinger, participants include
Robert Kennedy's widow, Ethel
Kennedy, former Kennedy aides Richard Goodwin and Ted Sorensen, and former CIA analyst Dino
Brugioni, who interpreted American spy photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Yesterday, several of the U.S. participants used the gathering to criticize
the performance of the
current president, George W. Bush, in dealing with Iraq.
"This was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War and it was handled
with great care and
prudence, especially on our side," said Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana in the late
"There was no cowboying. Today's crisis is not being handled in the same careful, prudent way."
On Thursday, Mr. McNamara said the majority of Mr. Kennedy's civilian
and military advisors had
recommended an attack on Cuba, but the administration chose the quarantine, to stop Soviet
freighters transporting the weapons to Cuba.
"We called it a quarantine because blockade is a word of war, and the
purpose of the quarantine was
exactly the opposite," he said. "It wasn't at all clear that a quarantine would postpone war. But it was
not pre-emption. It was the reverse of pre-emption."
Mr. Garcia said the weekend conference is one in what is becoming a
series of annual conference/field
trips to re-examine key events from recent Cuban history. Last year, the Cuban government organized
a similar conference on the Bay of Pigs invasion, which included a field trip to the white sandy beach
on the island where the invasion took place.
In April, 1961, a year before the missile crisis, 1,500 Cuban-American
emigrés, supported by the U.S.
government, tried to mount an invasion of the island, which had been taken over by Mr. Castro and his
troops in a revolution in 1959. To repel them, Mr. Castro sent 400,000 Cuban soldiers to the Bay of
Pigs, or Baia de los Cochinos, in the southwestern part of the island. But, according to historians, the
Cuban troops were poorly organized and not properly equipped.
"The Cubans tried to pass it off as a great victory, when the fact of
the matter is that you had
unsupported artillery, battalions with no water and no provisions," said Mr. Garcia. "The Bay of Pigs
was a total disaster."
In a communiqué, Mr. Fernandez, who as well as being the conference's
chief organizer is a retired
military officer who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion on the Cuban side, said the historic
gatherings are aimed at fostering "mutual understanding."
Mr. Fernandez said the purpose of the missile crisis conference is "to
learn from history and never
again take the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe."
© Copyright 2002 National Post