Bibi Netanyahu is fond of saying, regarding Iran, that it’s Munich and the year is 1938: what the west does now will determine whether Iran will get nuclear weapons and whether Israel’s existence will be endangered as a result. Capitulate and we will have another Holocaust. Resist Iran’s nuclear ambitions and we will stop the next Hitlerian nation from threatening world domination and conquest. So goes his thinking.
But it’s not Munich and it’s not 1938. Rather, it’s Cuba and it’s 1962.
I was 11 years old then and I remember the panic, fear and hysteria that we faced in the run-up to a possible nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. over Cuba. I remember the, in retrospect, laughable duck and cover drills in which we dropped under our desks, as if that would protect from Soviet nuclear fallout. And what I’ve read since then indicates we were even closer to such a potential conflagration than we knew at the time. All I can say is thank God Khrushchev blinked.
Jeffrey Goldberg just interviewed Fidel, who told the former a few things he may not have wanted to hear. One of them in particular fascinated me. Castro, it appears, is deeply frightened of a Middle East war between Israel and Iran. And he’s frightened precisely because of his own personal experience during the Cuban missile crisis, in which he strongly advocated that the Russians protect their nuclear missiles with a counter-assault should the U.S. attack his island. Such an act would’ve undoubtedly involved, or led to the use of nuclear weapons:
Castro ha[s] become preoccupied with the threat of a military confrontation in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S. (and Israel, the country he calls its Middle East “gendarme”). Since emerging from his medically induced, four-year purdah early this summer…Castro has spoken mainly about the catastrophic threat of what he sees as an inevitable war.
I was curious to know why he saw conflict as unavoidable, and I wondered…if personal experience – the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that nearly caused the annihilation of most of humanity – informed his belief that a conflict between America and Iran would escalate into nuclear war.
Somewhat incredibly, Castro in retrospect thinks he was a fool (though he didn’t use that term precisely) to have allowed things to get that far. That immediately made me think, even before I read Goldberg’s piece, of the crisis that both Bibi and Barack face in contemplating their own Iran Waterloos. Do we face a prospect in 50 years time, in which leaders of Israel and Iran will look back on this period and say what fools they were that they came this close to war over this? Or will they look back, having gone to war, and regard with horror the carnage that resulted from the massive miscalculations that led to bloodshed?
Here’s how Castro, in his twilight years, both analyzes the current conflict and his own behavior during the missile crisis. It’s eye-opening stuff:
Castro went on to analyze the conflict between Israel and Iran. He said he understood Iranian fears of Israeli-American aggression and he added that, in his view, American sanctions and Israeli threats will not dissuade the Iranian leadership from pursuing nuclear weapons. “This problem is not going to get resolved, because the Iranians are not going to back down in the face of threats. That’s my opinion,” he said. He then noted that, unlike Cuba, Iran is a “profoundly religious country,” and he said that religious leaders are less apt to compromise. He noted that even secular Cuba has resisted various American demands over the past 50 years.
We returned repeatedly…to Castro’s fear that a confrontation between the West and Iran could escalate into a nuclear conflict. “The Iranian capacity to inflict damage is not appreciated,” he said. “Men think they can control themselves but Obama could overreact and a gradual escalation could become a nuclear war.” I asked him if this fear was informed by his own experiences during the 1962 missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. nearly went to war other over the presence of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba (missiles installed at the invitation, of course, of Fidel Castro). I mentioned to Castro the letter he wrote to Khruschev, the Soviet premier, at the height of the crisis, in which he recommended that the Soviets consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attack Cuba. “That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense,” Castro wrote at the time.
I asked him, “At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?” He answered: “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”
“It wasn’t worth it all.” Telling words. I hope someone’s whispering them into Barack Obama’s ears as I write this. I have less confidence that either Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu understand what Castro is saying. They, like him in 1962, are absorbed in the moment and not contemplating the impact of decisions they make today or tomorrow on history. That’s why Fidel’s words are so important. This is a man who lived through it all. In fact, with the death of Robert Macnamara, Fidel may be the last active participant in the crisis left living. He now can look back with historical perspective on what he did and said then, and say in retrospect, it was rubbish. This is an incredibly valuable perspective. I only wish Obama could hear those words directly from Castro himself. If our own stupid policy towards his country was reformed, he might be able to do so.