Cuban missile crisis, 50 years later: Lessons for Israel

JFK courted nuclear war with the Soviets, now Israel is courting a confrontation with the Iranians. But how can Israel contemplate starting a war against another country, a war that will not be negligible and could be devastating, for doing the same thing that it has been doing for over 40 years?

I love it when people say there’s no comparing a nuclear Iran to a nuclear Soviet Union because, after all, the Soviets weren’t really a threat to blow up America, people weren’t afraid they would just go crazy and push the button – they weren’t religious fanatics like the Iranians, they were a stable, rational regime. Definitely. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened 50 years ago this week. I was 11, and one night towards the end of it, when the U.S. had blockaded Cuba and was threatening to invade if Russia didn’t take down its nuclear missiles in that little Commie country “90 miles off our coast,” the topic of conversation among the kids on my block was the possibility of nuclear war. Growing up in the early 1960s on that block in Los Angeles, there were only two news events big enough to warrant our attention: the Kennedy assassination and the Cuban missile crisis. During that last week of October 1962, we were too young to be really afraid of a nuclear war, but the fear in the country was so intense that it trickled down to us; we were giddy with excitement over this real-life Twilight Zone drama.

So please don’t anybody tell me that Americans weren’t scared shitless of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Yet we survived, thanks to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I see no reason why nuclear Israel can’t survive a nuclear Iran the same way.

I’m sure that if Americans of mainstream political views were reading this, most of them would say: you just disproved your point. America almost didn’t survive the Soviet Union’s nuclear power during the Cuban missile crisis – do you want to take that sort of chance again with a nuclear Iran?

But this is the thing most Americans don’t know – it wasn’t Russia that was threatening war 50 years ago, it was the U.S. People in America believed their country was acting in self-defense. The Russians wanted to point nukes at us from 90 miles away, and we had to stop them. And that’s what Kennedy did – he gave Khrushchev an ultimatum. Khrushchev “blinked,” took down his missiles in Cuba and the world was safe again.

In fact, though, the U.S. already had nuclear missiles pointed at the Soviet Union from just across the border in Turkey, and within striking distance from Italy; Khrushchev just wanted to level the playing field, so to speak. And America was prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union over it. (The crisis ended on October 28 when Kennedy finally agreed to Khrushchev’s deal: the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba and the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey and Italy – but only after Khrushchev agreed that the American “concession” not be made public, and be carried out a few months after the Soviet climb-down in Cuba to avoid the appearance of linkage, of a quid pro quo. If there was a fanatic in this whole episode, it was America.)

There are a couple of resemblances between the American attitude to the Soviets 50 years ago and the Israeli attitude toward Iran today. Israel also thinks that if it attacks – with or without the Americans – it will be doing so in self-defense. The difference is that while Americans at large didn’t know about U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy (though some Americans obviously did), all Israelis know now that Israel has lots of nuclear weapons. How can they contemplate starting a war against another country, a war that will not be negligible and could be devastating, for doing the same thing, building nukes, that Israel has been doing for over 40 years? Why does Israel insist that either Iran backs down or it will strike, just as America did with the Soviets 50 years ago? As Noam Chomsky said of the Kennedy administration’s thinking in his recent  TomDispatch article on the golden anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, it is the belief that “we are Good.”

That’s it. We are Good, we mean well, we want peace, so we have rights that do not accrue to those others, those Evil ones. And if they try to claim the same rights we have, we are entitled – nay, we are duty-bound – to use military force to stop them. We are Good, so we can point nukes at the Russians, and if they try to point nukes back at us, we can attack them because they’re Evil. We are Good, so we can build all the nuclear bombs we want, and if the Iranians try to build just one, we can attack them because they are Evil. It’s not that might makes right, but that right justifies might. We start the war, but it’s not a war of aggression, it’s a war of self-defense – always. By definition.

This ideological disorder didn’t begin with America in the Cuban missile crisis, of course, and it won’t end with Israel in Iran (if we end up in, or over, Iran.) But this week, and particularly on Monday when Obama and Romney try to out-tough each other in their foreign policy debate, it’s worth remembering where that disorder nearly led the world in late October 1962, especially since so many Americans and even more Israelis are still afflicted by it.