Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: Freedom from Annihilation Is a Human Right

As far as we know, the Cuban Missile Crisis marks the closest the world has ever come to nuclear destruction. In the thirteen days between October 14, 1962, when CIA officials obtained photographic intelligence that Soviet missiles were being assembled in Cuba, until October 27, 1962, when Nikita Krushchev agreed to pull back, the people of the United States lived on the brink of nuclear disaster.

I was almost twenty-four years old, living with two roommates in a basement flat on the lower East Side of Manhattan, a student at Columbia University. As a result of my social activism in the civil rights movement, the segregated worlds which had formed my social practice and consciousness as a youth were unraveling. The summer and fall of 1962 had been a season of hope and bitterness. The hope came from mobilizations within and between communities. People I knew were talking for the first time about their dreams and passions for the future, love affairs, and a glimpse, previously unimaginable, of the end of racism. Martin Luther King had been arrested protesting segregation of public facilities in Albany, Georgia. The newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had galvanized the nation with courage. But a bitterness grew from the intransigence of Southern racists, the fickleness of the Kennedy Administration in protecting the lives of civil rights workers, and the powerlessness of African Americans to secure even the rudiments of dignity.

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The crisis can be understood as a conflict between three figures - Kennedy, Krushchev, and Fidel Castro. Kennedy represented the “great white hope,” the debonair Bostonian, the apex of American mastery and intelligence, the model of what every American of my generation had been conditioned to worship. Khruschev was his nemesis. He was fat, old, and bald. He couldn't speak English, and he had a habit of taking his shoe off and banging it on the table to make his point. But beneath the crudity of his image, the points he sought to make were closer than Kennedy's Camelot to my own hopes and dreams.

Castro was different from the other two. At thirty-five he was the only one who had actually made a revolution. The people of Harlem loved Fidel, and this made a big impact on me. Harlem residents remembered 1960 when Fidel came to speak at the United Nations. Planning to stay at a hotel near the UN in downtown Manhattan, he and his entourage were harassed by the management and unceremoniously evicted. In a move which greatly embarrassed the U.S. State Department, Malcolm X invited Fidel to stay in a modest hotel in Harlem.

Like many young African Americans of my generation in New York, I had met Malcolm X and talked with him. We had lunch several times at Mosque Number 7 on 116th Street. Yet Malcolm X frightened me. I would go up to Harlem to listen to him speak. There were usually 500 to 1000 Black people. Malcolm taught that African Americans should think of themselves as global citizens. He said the African American struggle was not for civil rights, but for human rights. Civil rights derive from the authority of the state. Human rights are natural rights that precede and transcend the restrictions of a particular sovereign nation. As a people unrepresented by the national government, we must demand our human rights. Malcolm counseled Black people to be peaceful unless they were provoked, in which case he instructed us to use “any means necessary.” I would gaze out over the crowd, beyond the barricades that had been placed to contain the Black people, and look into the eyes of the white policemen. I could see fear in their eyes.

Fidel accepted Malcolm's invitation to stay at the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. On his arrival, Fidel was lavishly welcomed by thousands of Harlem residents who lined the streets to greet him. They saw the abusive treatment he received by those in power as similar to the discrimination they experienced daily.

On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy's advisors told him that the Soviet Union was building nuclear weapons launching sites in Cuba. After a week of deliberation, Kennedy announced the crisis to the nation, charging that the Soviet Union had lied to him. Armaments and military equipment were being sent to Cuba, and now there was "unmistakable evidence that offensive missile sites were in preparation." Kennedy ordered a strict quarantine of "ships of any kind bound for Cuba," promising they would be turned back if they contained offensive weapons. He ended his speech with patronizing remarks to what he called "the captive people of Cuba."

"I speak to you as a friend, as one who knows your deep attachment to your fatherland . . . Now your leaders are no longer Cuban leaders inspired by Cuban ideals . . . We know that your lands and lives are being used as pawns by those who would deny your freedom."

From a white perspective, the Cubans were only a marginal factor in the struggle between superpowers. The perspectives of Black people in the United States were irrelevant. But today, in a world fraught with ethnic tension, it may be important to understand the crisis from these undervalued points of view.

Cuba is a Spanish-speaking, multiracial Caribbean Island. One third of the population is visibly African, and a much larger percentage of the population views the struggle against slavery as a defining crucible of national identity. Much of the culture reflects a New World amalgam, blending ancient Yoruba, Carib, and Iberian traditions. It is a culture inaccessible to a U.S. nation which, despite its large multicultural population, regards itself as "white." The majority of the Cuban population had been dispossessed by exploitative global military, economic, and political forces. In 1961, the U.S. had launched an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Castro feared that the United States would try again. It was this fear of U.S. aggression that led the Cuban government to ask for Soviet missiles. But Kennedy read the crisis as an act of Soviet aggression rather than Cuban self-defense.

By October 24, the quarantine was in full effect, and Russian ships, including a submarine, were nearing the 500 mile barrier. Kennedy now faced a major choice. The US had to intercept or announce withdrawal.

That afternoon, I learned that the confrontation was about to take place as I came up out of the bowels of the subway and fixed on a newspaper headline: NUCLEAR WAR IMMINENT.

It infuriated me that somebody's program of blowing up the planet would interrupt the business of my growing up and healing the searing, corrosive scars of segregation that were tearing me in half. How could they do this to me when everything was finally coming together? I remembered when I was a kid; air raid sirens would go off every few days in our neighborhood. My father instructed us to get under a table when we heard the wailing sound. He told us not to look out of the windows when the whistles blew as bombs might be dropping from the sky. I stared across the intersection at a sullen sky, expecting at any minute to be confronted with evidence that a war had begun. Would there be a warning siren? Would there be a flash of light? Would the ground tremble beneath my feet?

Later that day the news came. Inexplicably, Russian ships had not challenged the quarantine. "We have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water." The report was confirmed. Still the crisis was not over. Russian technicians were in Cuba, uncrating and assembling bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the U.S. mainland.

The President had said that the missiles could hit targets 1000 miles away. How far was it from Cuba to New York? More than 1000 miles I thought. The missiles might hit Atlanta, Charleston, Albany, Georgia, cities tom apart by racial strife. I was struck by the absurdity of Black people risking their lives so they could sit at picnic tables in public parks or go into public bathrooms marked “white only.” Southern racists feared black bodies in public swimming pools. They didn't want Black people to vote or go to white colleges. They sent police officers to beat up pregnant women, and backwoods vigilantes shot up homes of civil rights workers. Meanwhile hour by hour, minute by minute, missiles to be aimed at these same cities were being erected in Cuba.

During those days in October, I experienced a crisis of consciousness. I couldn't find a point of balance, a center. As I read the news, a space opened up within me to two types of terror: one concrete, routine, familiar; the other abstract, technological. Which was worse? I couldn't say. It was eerie waiting for the bomb to drop, trying to sort out my emotions of rage and impotence. My anger came from the reluctant admission that maybe the peace activists were right all along. Maybe preventing a nuclear holocaust was more important than gaining civil rights for Black people.

Webster's Dictionary defines the verb to annihilate as "to destroy all traces of, to obliterate, to nullify or render void, to abolish." It is possible to argue that segregation is a lesser evil than annihilation because in the former, a human being may be degraded but is at least allowed a physical existence. In a nuclear blast, all people would be eliminated. This instant stands in contrast to the social death routinely enforced, which allows one set of people, through conscious and unconscious acts of commission and omission, to abuse another people. I couldn't accept the possible truth that total annihilation was worse.

On the evening of October 25 Kennedy received a "very long and emotional" letter from Krushchev. Some people who reviewed the message ominously suggested it showed that Krushchev was unstable and incoherent. In his book, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy thought otherwise. "It was not incoherent, and the emotion was directed at the death, destruction and anarchy that nuclear war would bring to his people and all mankind. That, he said, again and again and in many different ways, must be avoided. We must not succumb to 'petty passions' or to 'transient things' he wrote, but should realize that if war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war." Krushchev ended the letter proposing to withdraw weapons from Cuba. In exchange, he asked Kennedy to cancel the blockade and agree not to invade Cuba. The next day, Krushchev sent a more threatening proposal demanding that the U.S. dismantle missiles aimed at Russia, sited in Turkey. Kennedy ignored the second letter and agreed to the terms of the first. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over.

Great sighs of relief were felt throughout the land. But some saw in Kennedy's actions another example of white arrogance, the willingness on the part of Kennedy to risk the threat of global nuclear disaster rather than lose face. Kennedy chose to force Krushchev to back down unilaterally, with a potential loss of face. But the question remained: what would have happened if Krushchev had refused to back down?

Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists. While many are gloating over the success of the "free" market, we might pause to remember that it was Krushchev, not Kennedy, who saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. We are still faced with the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Many Westerners fear a future in which Third World nations have access to these weapons. The leaders of these countries are more like Fidel Castro than they are like Kennedy or Kruschchev. The ethnocentric bias and the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain with us.

Nuclear weapons are tools of a conquering, violent culture. Racism at domestic and international levels heightens the potential vulnerability and miscalculation surrounding nuclear proliferation. Few people of color have had any role in debate, development, or decision-making about the goals of this brutal technology. In a nuclear holocaust whole populations will be vaporized in the flash of an eye. People deciding the appropriateness of such a choice inevitably would bring their prejudices and fears to the devastating decision to annihilate whole peoples. The concentration of nuclear power in the hands of a Eurocentric technological elite, paranoid about the aims and aspirations of the majority of the world's population—people of color—magnifies the potential for global disaster. The great and growing gulf of human communication between the rich and poor, European and non-European, multiplies the potential antagonism that could result in planetary holocaust. In this context organizing against nuclear proliferation is, by definition, a multicultural effort, bringing the intelligence and wisdom of every community to the global task of defeating the excesses of racism, human aggression, and technology-gone-berserk.

Nuclear weapons are a violation of the sovereignty of the world's people. Freedom from annihilation is a human right.