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That Cuba feeling

Fifty years ago this month the world came close to nuclear Armageddon. Paul Anderson looks back at the Cuban missile crisis and anti-nuclear campaigning since

October 26, 2012
11 min read

A CND march at Aldermaston

On 14 October 1962, a US Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over Cuba taking photographs of the ground below. The next day, Central Intelligence Agency analysts examined the pictures – and concluded that they showed the construction of a launch site for Soviet missiles, confirming their suspicions that Moscow was creating a nuclear forward base in the Caribbean.

Thus began the Cuban missile crisis – a 13-day standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought the world closer to all-out nuclear war than at any time before or since.

US president John F Kennedy spent the best part of a week working out how to respond. He was still smarting from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, the unsuccessful US-backed Cuban-exile invasion of the island in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro’s by then pro-Soviet revolutionary regime, and he resisted pressure from hawks to launch an immediate invasion. But the strategy he eventually adopted was high-risk. The US imposed a naval blockade on Cuba and promised not to invade if Moscow withdrew its missiles – but backed up the offer with a secret ultimatum threatening immediate invasion if it did not comply, with the only sweetener a secret promise to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey.

Both superpowers put their military forces on full alert, and for a week it seemed to the whole world that nuclear Armageddon was imminent. Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denounced the naval blockade in fiery language; the United Nations security council met in emergency session and resolved nothing; a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 over Cuba…

But then Khrushchev blinked. Out of the blue, he agreed to Kennedy’s deal: no Soviet missiles in Cuba, no American missiles in Turkey or Italy. At the time, because the US withdrawal of missiles from Turkey and Italy was not made public, it looked like a straightforward Soviet climbdown – and Khrushchev’s authority in domestic Soviet politics took a blow from which it never recovered: he was ousted two years later. Kennedy won, but he did not live long to savour his victory – he was assassinated in November 1963 – and the hubris that the successful resolution of the crisis instilled in the American establishment played a disastrous role in escalating US intervention in Vietnam.

Britain and CND

Britain was not an actor in the missile crisis. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government was kept in the dark by the Kennedy administration in its early stages. Macmillan privately expressed polite concern to Kennedy that the US might be going too far in ratcheting up the confrontation with the Soviets – he was worried most of all by the implications for West Berlin, which he feared could be subjected to another Soviet blockade or even invasion – but in public he gave robust support to the Americans.

For the British people, though, the problem was not the future of Berlin but what appeared to be the strong possibility of nuclear war. Newspaper circulations soared as, day by day, tension mounted.

But the crisis didn’t benefit the movement for nuclear disarmament. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), founded in early 1958 with the support of the Labour left and its weekly papers, the New Statesman and Tribune, had enjoyed a spectacular political success in 1960, when its lobbying of trade unions and constituency Labour parties led to the Labour conference adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, against the histrionic opposition of the party leader, Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and his allies had overturned unilateralism at the next year’s conference – and the CND leadership subsequently found itself without a viable political strategy and facing a barrage of criticism from activists for putting all its energies into Labour. By 1962, its influence was on the wane.

There was still life in the peace movement. CND’s Easter 1962 annual march from the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to London attracted 150,000 to its closing rally, its biggest ever crowd. But the impact of the Cuban crisis was demobilising. On one hand, it showed the futility of demonstrating – and on the other it showed that the leaders of the superpowers were not in the end prepared to launch a nuclear war. Activists drifted away from the movement; the nuclear powers agreed a Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 that seemed to indicate there was hope of multilateral nuclear disarmament by negotiation; and by 1964, when Labour won a general election under Harold Wilson, the movement for British unilateral nuclear disarmament was part of the past. Its activists moved on, to housing campaigns, workplace militancy and opposition to the US war in Vietnam.

The second wave

CND kept going as a small pressure group with a few thousand members through the 1960s and 1970s, a forlorn survivor that few thought would again play a significant role. Meanwhile, international nuclear diplomacy ground on. The Partial Test-Ban Treaty was followed by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which committed non-nuclear states to remaining non-nuclear and nuclear states to keeping nuclear know-how to themselves (though its impact was limited because India, Pakistan and Israel refused to sign and subsequently developed their own nuclear weapons). The two superpowers negotiated interminably, reaching significant agreements on limiting strategic nuclear forces and anti-ballistic missile systems in 1972 (SALT-1 and the ABM treaty) and a further agreement on strategic arms in 1979 (SALT-2), though it was not ratified by the US Congress.

But then everything changed. What had seemed to be an inexorable process of winding down the cold war – the 1970s saw not only nuclear arms agreements but also the Helsinki accords guaranteeing borders in Europe and respect for human rights – suddenly went into reverse. In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Days later, Nato announced that it would be deploying new American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe – cruise and Pershing 2 – if Moscow did not withdraw its own new-generation intermediate-range missiles from Europe.

The Nato announcement thrust nuclear arms into the political limelight for the first time since the Cuba crisis. One man in particular made the running in Britain, the historian E P Thompson. He wrote a furious polemical piece for the New Statesman; followed it with a pamphlet for CND, Protest and Survive, excoriating the government’s asinine advice on how to cope with a nuclear war; then, with Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor and others, launched the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal, a manifesto for a ‘nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal’. By summer 1980 – when the Thatcher government announced that it would be replacing Britain’s ageing Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles with American Trident SLBMs – anti-nuclear protest groups had sprung up throughout Britain and CND was a mass movement again. Labour adopted a non-nuclear defence policy at its autumn 1980 conference; the next month Michael Foot, a founder member of CND, became Labour leader. In 1981, feminist pacifists established a peace camp outside the US base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, where the first batch of cruise missiles would be based.

For the next six years, the movement against nuclear arms was central to politics in Britain. It was huge: at its height in 1983‑84, CND estimated that it had 100,000 national members and perhaps 250,000 in affiliated local groups, and its demonstrations were massive, with 300,000 turning out in London in 1983. The movement was also much more sophisticated than in its first wave: there was no serious argument between advocates of working through the Labour Party and proponents of direct action; and END provided it with leadership that could not easily be dismissed as pro-Soviet or hard-left (though the Tory government did its very best to persuade voters otherwise).

But Labour lost the 1983 election; cruise arrived in Britain in 1984; and work started on the Trident submarines. Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader and soon made it clear that he wanted an end to the new cold war. Under Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as Labour leader in 1983, Labour stuck to a non-nuclear defence policy through the mid-1980s – but after Labour lost again in 1987, with a new détente apparently in the air and the peace movement much less vocal, he wavered. Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan agreed a deal to remove all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, codified in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in December 1987. Kinnock declared that the agreement changed everything and announced the abandonment of the non-nuclear defence policy. It took two attempts to get it through Labour conference, but by the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Labour was fully signed up to retaining British nuclear arms to resist a threat that had ceased to exist. The dwindling band of peaceniks pointed at the emperor’s new clothes, but no one took any notice.

Disarmament stalls

The INF treaty was signed nearly 25 years ago, and it should have inaugurated an era of nuclear disarmament – particularly after the implosion of the Soviet bloc and Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991. At first it seemed to have done so. In 1991, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1), and the result, combined with the effect of the INF treaty, was a significant reduction of US and Soviet (after 1991, Soviet successor states’) stockpiles of nuclear warheads. The global total halved by 2000, from 70,000 in 1987.

But the disarmament momentum soon ran out. Russia balked at further reductions of its nuclear weaponry; the US cooled on the whole disarmament process; and the smaller nuclear powers – Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel – either refused to engage or made minimal gestures towards denuclearisation. START-1’s successor, START-2, was signed but not implemented and replaced by an interim Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Meanwhile, it became clear that nuclear weapons were not central to the international crises of the time – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the bloody conflicts in Africa, the rise of al-Qaida, 9/11 and its aftermath – and that insofar as nuclear weapons were an issue the key problem was that the anti-proliferation regime was not working. Iran and North Korea were close to joining India, Pakistan and Israel as nuclear powers – and neither they, nor the Indians, Pakistanis or Israelis, were prepared to disarm.

US-Russian nuclear arms negotiations have continued: the START process was revived and concluded with a new treaty in 2010, when US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev agreed to deep cuts in strategic arsenals. Both Russia and the US have since reduced the number of actively deployed nuclear warheads to 2,000 apiece. But the stockpiles remain frighteningly large. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US retains in reserve nearly 6,000 and Russia more than 8,000. The total global warhead count in 2011 was around 20,000 – not quite as many as at the time of the Cuba crisis, but not far off.

The nuclear threat now

British anti-nuclear-arms campaigners didn’t give up after 1987. Some went off to create think-tanks, others put their efforts into making CND an alternative foreign policy pressure group. During the 1991 Gulf war, the campaign formed the core of the anti-war movement. Almost simultaneously, however, came a calamitous collapse of membership and an austerity drive that closed down Sanity, CND’s monthly magazine. The organisation never quite went under, but it returned to the margins. Whereas in 1991 it had set the agenda for opposition to the military intervention against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, a decade later it was reduced to a minor supporting role in the organised opposition to the US and UK military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nuclear arms are still there, but the politics of nuclear arms has changed. The future of Britain’s own bomb is more at risk from government budget cuts than it ever was from CND-inspired Labour opposition; and the threat of nuclear war no longer appears to come from a suicide pact between Washington and Moscow. For the past decade or more, the most likely sources of Armageddon have been India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and North and South Korea – all standoffs that no one in Britain can realistically hope to influence. That Cuba feeling, that we’re powerless to effect change, is back again, and it’s difficult to see how we can get rid of it.

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