Looking Backward

Thinking in Time:The Uses of History for Decision-Makers

by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May
Free Press, 329 pp., $19.95

In late July 1979 Senator Richard Stone of Florida told President Carter of rumors that the Russians had combat troops in Cuba. If this was true, he said, it would violate agreements made after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Satellite photos confirmed that there were indeed Soviet units on the island. Carter, who at that point was trying to get the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty he had just signed with the Russians, did not want to endanger the treaty’s passage. He told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to inform Stone that there was “no evidence of any substantial increase of the Soviet military presence in Cuba.”

Nevertheless, the story was getting around, and was likely soon to appear in the press. Vance and his aides telephoned a few key members of Congress so that they wouldn’t be surprised, and told them it did not amount to much. Most took the news calmly, except for Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was facing a hard reelection fight from an opponent who charged him with being soft on the Russians. Church, who had been attacked by right-wing politicians for supporting the SALT treaty and going to Cuba to confer with Castro, felt it would be prudent to demonstrate his anticommunist credentials. Seizing upon what he had learned from Vance, he demanded the immediate withdrawal of what was now being called the Soviet “brigade,” and urged the President to “draw the line on Russian penetration of this hemisphere.”

Church got his headlines and the administration was hit by a full-blown “foreign policy crisis.” Vance, fearing that the claims about the Soviet troops would imperil the SALT treaty, tried to play them down. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, was less concerned with SALT than with drawing the line against Soviet “adventurism.” Hawks and doves lined up to position themselves on the “brigade” issue. In the middle stood the hapless Carter. As indignation over Soviet perfidy mounted, support for the SALT treaty steadily dwindled.

But an odd thing happened. As more information began to drift in, it became clear that while Stone had been right about the presence of the troops, he was wrong in saying their presence violated agreements. During the 1962 missile crisis President Kennedy had asked the Russians to withdraw their troops, but they had balked and he let the matter drop. A review of old files and conversations with former CIA officials uncovered references to the “brigade” even earlier. It was discovered, as Vance later wrote, that the Soviets “had almost certainly been in Cuba continuously since 1962.” The presence of the unit had simply “faded from the institutional memories of the intelligence agencies.”

An embarrassed Carter sought to bring this farce to an end by citing a letter from Secretary Brezhnev that the unit was simply a “military training center.” In an effort to save face he announced that the US would increase its political…

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