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Castro’s Cuba: An Exchange

In response to:

Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary from the March 26, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

In his “Havana Diary” [“Four Days with Fidel,” NYR, March 26], Arthur Schlesinger discusses a conference that reexamined the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Based on statements made at the conference by General Anatolii Gribkov (who headed the operations directorate of the Soviet General Staff in 1962), Schlesinger claims that Soviet troops based in Cuba “had nuclear warheads…not only for strategic but for tactical missiles” and that at the height of the crisis, “the Soviet forces…were ready to fire tactical nuclear missiles at an invading force” without getting clearance from Moscow.

These two assertions are enormously important because, if accurate, they would alter our whole understanding of the Cuban missile crisis. But are they accurate?

Gribkov presented no documentation to buttress his assertions, which means we should be especially cautious about deriving conclusions from his testimony. If Gribkov is correct, documents corroborating his statements should certainly exist. Materials released since 1989 in Eastern Europe confirm that the storage of Soviet tactical nuclear warheads in a Warsaw Pact country was codified in a bilateral agreement. It follows that the stationing of nuclear warheads in Cuba must also have been covered by a bilateral agreement. No such agreement has come to light, however. Thus far, the only document that has been released is the general agreement on the deployment of Soviet forces in Cuba, which was declassified by the Cuban government at the Havana conference.

The unavailability of Soviet and Cuban documents concerning the storage and deployment of nuclear warheads is a serious problem, but by no means the only one. Even if it could be confirmed that nuclear warheads were sent to Cuba for deployment on Frog tactical missiles, that would not lend credence to Schlesinger’s second (and more important) assertion, namely, that Khrushchev had given the Soviet forces based in Cuba full discretion during the crisis to use nuclear-armed Frogs in defending against an American invasion. If this second claim is true, it implies that Khrushchev was willing to tolerate a much higher risk of nuclear war during the crisis than had been suspected. Khrushchev and his aides would have been aware that the use of tactical nuclear weapons against American soldiers just ninety miles from the US homeland would have provoked swift nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union itself. After all, Khrushchev had long been making speeches proclaiming that any use of nuclear weapons by either side would lead inevitably to all-out nuclear war. Even if one discounts the possibility that American troops would have invaded Cuba (rather than simply relying on air strikes against the missile sites), Khrushchev and his colleagues had no way of knowing that at the time.

Unfortunately, without documentary evidence we cannot directly judge whether Khrushchev was really as willing to risk nuclear devastation as Schlesinger implies. But the indirect evidence that is available, including important documentation, suggests we should be highly skeptical of Schlesinger’s assertion.

One key reason for skepticism is the evidence we find in the secret correspondence that Castro and Khrushchev exchanged during the crisis, which was declassified in late 1990. This correspondence, rather than bearing out Schlesinger’s depiction of Khrushchev as a leader willing to start a nuclear war in defense of Cuba, reveals just the opposite. Khrushchev had no intention of going along with Castro’s urgings that the Soviet Union take whatever steps were necessary, including a nuclear strike, to thwart an American invasion. How one might square Khrushchev’s aversion to nuclear war, which comes through so clearly in this correspondence, with the near recklessness that Schlesinger portrays is far from clear.

Khrushchev’s unwillingness to initiate a nuclear war on Cuba’s behalf is borne out by other evidence as well. In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union had not yet deployed any tactical nuclear warheads in Eastern Europe, either on delivery vehicles or at munitions depots. All such warheads were retained within the Soviet Union itself. The reason for storing the warheads so far away was apparently the concern that Soviet leaders had about the security and safety of the weapons. Soviet nuclear arms did not yet incorporate sophisticated features that were later installed to prevent unauthorized or accidental use. The only sure way to forestall a disastrous peacetime incident was to keep nuclear warheads apart from their delivery vehicles and under close guard in secure territory, until they were released for combat.

Schlesinger would have us believe that the caution which Soviet leaders displayed in Eastern Europe turned to near-recklessness when they dealt with Cuba. Schlesinger’s contention that Khrushchev decided to ship tactical nuclear warheads thousands of miles overseas to Cuba is surprising enough when one bears in mind that Soviet leaders had never been willing to store warheads much closer to Soviet territory in Eastern Europe. But even more striking is Schlesinger’s assertion that the warheads in Cuba were not only present, but were actually installed on their Frog delivery vehicles, ready to be used during the missile crisis. The Soviet Union at the time did not deploy combat ready warheads even on its long-range strategic missiles, much less on short-range tactical weapons.

Schlesinger’s contention that the Frogs were armed with nuclear warheads is similar to claims made by other Americans who attended the Havana conference. The only problem with these claims, however, is that they go far beyond anything Gribkov said. I have carefully reviewed the tapes (in Russian) of all of Gribkov’s comments, and I can safely report that at no time did he maintain that the Frogs were ever equipped with nuclear warheads. On the contrary, he remarked that “the nuclear warheads had not yet been released for use” and “were located some 250 to 300 kilometers away from their intended sites.” It is not clear which “nuclear warheads” Gribkov was referring to here, but this is the only time he directly mentioned the subject, so it is safe to assume he was indeed referring to Frog warheads as well as to those slated for the SS-4s.

Rather than asserting that the Frogs were fitted with nuclear warheads during the crisis, Gribkov said something far more modest. He merely claimed that the command structure proposed in early 1962 for Soviet forces in Cuba would have given the local Soviet commander, Ilya Pliev, authority to order the use of Frogs “in an atomic mode” to defend against an invasion. If in fact this sort of arrangement was proposed for the tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba, it was very much in line with the Soviet Union’s projected command structure for a European war. Soviet military doctrine at the time gave full discretion over the launch of tactical nuclear weapons to commanders at the front. Any such delegation of authority, however, would have required the active approval of the highest civilian officials. Even in wartime, nuclear warheads would first have to be released by civilian authorities and mated with delivery vehicles; and only then would front commanders have the physical capacity to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Even if Gribkov is correct in asserting that command arrangements in the Cuban theater were initially modeled after those in Europe, the crucial thing is that the intention to operate under certain arrangements does not mean that when the crunch came those arrangements were actually put into effect. There is no evidence at all that nuclear warheads were installed on the Frogs or that Khrushchev activated a wartime nuclear command system during the Cuban missile crisis; indeed, all the evidence (including Gribkov’s own statement cited above) is to the contrary. In short, there is no basis for concluding that Soviet forces in Cuba in October 1962 were ready to use tactical nuclear weapons against incoming US troops. Khrushchev was not so foolhardy.

It is unfortunate that Gribkov’s testimony has been so widely misconstrued. Intentions are one thing, but actual practice during a crisis or war is quite another. The failure to distinguish between these two has given rise to a basic historical misunderstanding.

Mark Kramer
Center for Foreign Policy Development
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

To the Editors:

In his “Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quotes Fidel Castro as saying: “If you ask me if we still support revolution in Latin America, if that is Cuba’s policy today, I tell you, ‘No’…we are more mature, more realistic….” He then mentions that McNamara, also present at the meeting, said that Castro’s statement was “welcome.”

Unfortunately, the impression given is that Castro had the freedom to choose, or not to choose, to support revolution abroad. The fact of the matter is that he no longer has the resources to meddle in other countries’ affairs and that today there is no insurgency left in Latin America which would seek his help. Castro was simply converting a necessity into a virtue, for which he does not deserve a reward.

Maurice Halperin
Emeritus Professor
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, British Columbia

To the Editors:

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s article is informative and important because of the light it sheds on the errors and miscalculations made by the United States during the Cuban missile crisis, such as Washington’s conclusion that there were 10,000 Soviet troops in Cuba when there actually were 43,000, and the belief in Washington that there were no nuclear warheads on the island, when they were there and we now know that the Soviet field commanders in Cuba were authorized to use them against an American invasion. Equally interesting is the article’s discussion of human rights violations in Cuba, including the recent abuses against María Elena Cruz Varela, who, as described by the article, “was brutally treated by government demonstrators and forced to swallow a moving declaration of principles she had written for the small human rights group Criterio Alternativo.” The article allows the reader to perceive the callousness and simplistic, scapegoat mentality with which the Castro regime views the human rights activists it is punishing, like Yndamaro Restano, Sebastian Arcos and Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, whom Carlos Aldana, “the leading ideologue of the Politburo,” is quoted in the article as having described as “counterrevolutionary garbage.. directed by the CIA.” Given the state of repression in Cuba that Mr. Schlesinger forthrightly describes, it isn’t surprising that his “Havana Diary” concludes describing Fidel Castro as “a tyrant and a bully” and wondering whether he won’t end as one of “the last of the neo-Stalinist dinosaurs.”

Given this background and the admission that “opportunities for observation” during his visit to Cuba “were limited,” it is surprising, however, that Mr. Schlesinger could even suggest that “Castro seems to retain much of his old popularity,” while in the next breath he notes that “without free speech, free press, free elections, how can one tell?” and clarifies that “the police are ever ready to suppress public protest and dissidence.” Surely the world’s experience with the fall of totalitarian states over the last couple of years should have taught us to look past the apparent “popularity” of their leaders (like Ceausescu, in Romania), particularly in circumstances like those in Cuba, which have led to a dramatic increase over the past two years not only in escapes by the disadvantaged, who risk their lives in precarious boats, but also in defections by people in positions of privilege in the government and the military.

It is also somewhat surprising, given past miscalculations, that Mr. Schlesinger would recommend normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba and argue that the embargo currently in effect hasn’t worked over the past thirty years. There is, of course, no way of knowing what would have happened over the past three decades had the embargo not been in place, but there is abundant evidence of what has happened each time this country reduced its pressure on Cuba. Three examples should suffice: In 1975 the United States eased controls that had prohibited trading with Cuba by off-shore affiliates of US companies and ended all restrictions on foreign flagships in the Cuba trade. In the face of these actions, Cuba intervened in Angola. In 1977 the United States stopped reconnaissance flights over Cuba and reduced restrictions on travel to the island. This time Cuba immediately increased its troops in Angola and sent troops to Ethiopia. In early 1979 the State Department circulated a report recommending the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. A few month later two Soviet brigades and MIG-23s capable of carrying nuclear weapons were on the island and Castro’s major intervention in Central America began.

Now Castro would have the United States believe that these destabilizing Cuban activities have stopped because the Cuban government has become “more mature,” as he told Mr. Schlesinger. The fact is that Cuba simply no longer has the means to maintain tens of thousands of soldiers on various fronts, as it had. With the collapse of Communism all over the world, Cuba has lost the sources of support that helped with its adventurism and enabled it to hold out in the face of the embargo. In fact, without hard currency to replace its lost, cheap supply of Soviet oil, Cuba is reduced to drawing many vehicles by animal power. In these circumstances, the danger of Castro’s further exporting revolution is no doubt limited so why, one wonders in light of past experience with eased restrictions, would the United States want to lift the embargo now? It is the Cuban “New Class” and the military, which consume a large part of the island’s resources, that suffer most from the embargo; lifting it would result in the channeling of resources there, not to the people. If history teaches us anything, certainly lifting the embargo isn’t going to lead the Cuban government to a new found respect for human rights or to allow the people to freely choose the kind of society in which they want to live or the government they prefer.

Carlos Ripoll
Professor Emeritus
Queens College
Queens, New York

Jr. Arthur Schlesinger replies:

General Gribkov told us in Havana that the Soviet forces in Cuba in October 1962 had tactical nuclear weapons and the authority to use them against an American invasion. (These, by the way, were Gribkov’s statements, not mine. Through most of the Kramer letter, the name “Schlesinger,” as in “Schlesinger’s depiction,” “Schlesinger’s contention,” etc., should be replaced by the name “Gribkov.”) Mr. Kramer thinks that General Gribkov was lying or, at the very least, was misunderstood. John Newhouse in his piece on the missile crisis conference in the April 27 New Yorker seems to say that Gribkov dreamed the story up in order to please Castro or possibly to do in Yeltsin and Yeltsin’s supporter General Volkogonov.

There is indeed a strong case that, given Khrushchev’s well-documented horror of nuclear war, the last thing he would have done would have been to give local commanders the power to start one. But, as I suggested in a footnote, Khrushchev may not have known of, or appreciated the implications of, the arrangement. Heads of government are not always fully informed of everything, nor do they always fully understand the information they receive, especially when they have other urgent matters on their minds. Nor do either Mr Kramer or Mr Newhouse explain very convincingly why Gribkov would be telling lies about tactical nuclear weapons thirty years later. And it is relevant that none of the Cubans at the Havana conference questioned Gribkov’s statements; they were surely in a position to know.

Since my piece was published, Bruce Allyn of Brown University’s Center for Foreign Policy Development has pursued the question in Moscow and has unearthed a Soviet General Staff retrospective assessment of the operation. This document states that, in the event of an invasion, and “if there is no possibility to retrieve directives from the Ministry of Defense of the USSR,” the Soviet commander in Cuba was allowed “as an exception, personally to take the decision to apply tactical nuclear weapons as a means of local war for the destruction of the opponent…on the territory of Cuba.”

The planners expected that, if war came, US forces would sink the Soviet communications ship, thereby severing the only link between the commander in Cuba and his superiors in Moscow. Delegation of authority to use tactical nuclear weapons was thus conditioned on the severance of communications. From a narrow military viewpoint, it was logical enough for numerically inferior forces to resort to tactical nuclear weapons in case of attack. This was also NATO doctrine. As for the warhead question, in saying that the Soviet forces would have used tactical nuclear weapons to repel an invasion they expected at any moment, Gribkov surely implied that the warheads could be installed on the Frogs without delay.

I agree with Professor Halperin’s point but would add that Castro’s abandonment of Latin American insurgencies, whatever the reason, opens, up new possibilities in the US-Cuban relationship.

Professor Ripoll questions the utility of relaxing the embargo. He may be right, but anti-Castro dissidents within Cuba and Latin American democrats disagree. Nor do they (as Professor Ripoll implies in his last paragraph) advocate lifting the embargo on the ground that it would lead the Castro regime into a new respect for human rights. Their view is rather that the inundation of Cuba by North American consumer goods and North American tourists would go far to undermine the Castro regime. This view seems both more persuasive and more humane to me than the policy, advocated by right-wing Cubans and by Congressman Robert Torricelli, of tightening the embargo—a policy that would bear heavily on people living in great deprivation and at the same time would protect the regime from external democratic influences.

With regard to my statement that the wife and children of the Cuban dissident Elizardo Sánchez “are subjected to harassment [in Miami] by the right-wing Cubans of the Cuban American National Foundation,” I would say that on further inquiry there is no question that Mrs. Sánchez has been subjected to psychological harassment by right-wing Cubans in Miami, but it is not clear that the Cuban American National Foundation is institutionally responsible for such harassment. The Foundation’s president, Francisco J. Hernandez, has written the publisher of The New York Review that he “contacted” Mrs. Sánchez, who told him “I have never been harassed, by any member of the Foundation.” The Foundation, however, and its chairman Jorge Mas Canosa are notorious for their bullying tactics, as John Newhouse demonstrates at length in his New Yorker piece.

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