Cuba, October 27, 1962: The Once and Future Hinge of the World

This very moment is a moment without a future. Everything can suddenly burst into “roaring flames” and “brilliant luminosity” twenty miles high, as it says in the description of the hydrogen bomb that I just read. Nothing happens. Everything is possible.

Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment (1967)[1]


I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you … both of us are going to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means “The once and future king.”

T.H. White, The Once and Future King (1958)[2]


Exactly fifty-five years ago, on Black Saturday, October 27, 1962, Cuba became the hinge of the world, the most dangerous place on earth on the most dangerous day in recorded history. In the nuclear Armageddon that many believed imminent, Cuba was target number one which, if attacked and invaded by the U.S., would have lit the fuse at the end of which would have been the end of the world: not just the end of Cuba, or the end of the United States and Soviet Union, but the end of everything recognizably human on this planet.

After thirty years of research on the October crisis, much of it done here in Cuba, we now know for certain how supremely lucky we were that the Cuban missile crisis—the October crisis, in Cuba—did not explode into Armageddon.

In our new book, Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst, we have three missions: (1) we reveal the history of the October crisis as experienced on this island, particularly in this city; (2) we issue a warning with evidence that the risk of Armageddon is high and growing; and finally (3) we show how focusing on Cuba’s October crisis—the darkest day in history’s darkest crisis—can serve as a catalyst leading to the abolition of nuclear weapons.[3]

The Very Idea of Bullshit: The Liberation Philosophy of Harry G. Frankfurt

But first, we must begin with bullshit. Not your bullshit or our bullshit, but the idea of bullshit. The ability to distinguish bullshit from the truth will be helpful in distinguishing between two events: (1) the bullshit Cuban missile crisis that never happened, but most people outside Cuba believe happened; and (2) the true Cuban missile crisis, the October crisis that actually happened, but with which too few outside of Cuba are familiar.

In 2005, an eminent philosopher summoned the courage to give the proper label to a phenomenon with which we are all familiar, and that most of us refer to when speaking or writing privately—but a name we typically shy away from when speaking or writing publicly. In that year, the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt published his best-selling book, On Bullshit, liberating the rest of us in the English-speaking world to follow suit.[4] We are grateful to Frankfurt because “bullshit” is, in our view, the best way to describe the event so many people have written about and presented on film—the event they mistakenly call “the Cuban missile crisis.”

As Frankfurt points out, if one individual seeks to tell the truth, and another means to tell a lie, they both share an important characteristic: both are concerned about the truth. One tries to represent it accurately, the other inaccurately. But both begin with a shared idea of what constitutes the truth.

Bullshitters, writes Frankfurt, are simply not concerned about whether their statements are true or false. Instead, they are concerned only about whether their ulterior motives are served by the tales they tell. Their bottom line is neither truth nor falsehood, but effectiveness in convincing another of what is being said or written. Frankfurt writes: “The bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” Repeat: “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”[5]

The Bullshit, October 1962: The Glorious Victorious Cuban Missile Crisis That Never Happened[6]

Here, compacted into one paragraph, is our 260-word variant of the bullshit most in the world beyond this island have been led to believe about the Cuban missile crisis:

In October 1962, unprovoked and out of the blue, the Soviet Union (the bad guys, the aggressors) precipitated a crisis with the United States (the good guys, the victims) by attempting to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, (a “parking lot” for the missiles), 90 miles from the shores of the U.S. Luckily, U.S. intelligence discovered this provocative plan before its completion – in fact, before any nuclear warheads had arrived in Cuba, rendering their delivery vehicles—missiles, planes and boats--useless. And, so, with fearless, finely calibrated coercion, President John F. Kennedy compelled Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove the missiles. Kennedy stood strong; he stood tall; he did not compromise; and in just 13 days, he secured an unequivocal victory for the U.S. over the Soviet Union. Since Kennedy’s forces had overwhelming local military superiority in the Western hemisphere, and global superiority in deliverable nuclear warheads all over the world, the crisis was not as dangerous as some made it out to be. Khrushchev had no choice. He had to capitulate or risk being destroyed and he knew it, which is why he “blinked” and Kennedy didn’t. Kennedy and Khrushchev rightly ignored the ranting of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, since his views were irrelevant to both the deployment and removal of the missiles. October 1962 was Kennedy’s finest hour, Khrushchev’s worst humiliation, and Castro’s introduction into the high stakes game that was the Cold War, as played by the Big Boys from Washington and Moscow, a game in which a small country like Cuba was merely a bit player.

Now you’ve met the enemy: the collection of bullshit in the above paragraph. Everything in that paragraph is dead wrong![7]

Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, spent much of the latter 1960s interviewing members of the Kennedy administration about the crisis. His 1971 book reporting his findings was Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.[8] He summarized his results concisely: “For thirteen days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood ‘eyeball to eyeball,’ each with the power of mutual annihilation in hand. The United States was firm but forbearing. The Soviet Union looked hard, blinked twice, and then withdrew without humiliation.”[9] In Allison’s view, the Cuban missile crisis was a hell of a game, with the outcome in doubt until the last minute. JFK had forced Khrushchev to “blink twice”—first, on October 24th when Khrushchev ordered Russian ships on their way to Cuba to halt, and then reverse course, rather than risk a military confrontation at sea; and then, on October 27th, when Khrushchev gave the order to begin dismantling the missiles in Cuba and begin shipping them back to the Soviet Union. The USA won; the USSR lost. Cuba watched from the sideline. What could be clearer than that?[10] This is also the view presented in Robert Kennedy’s posthumous 1969 book, Thirteen Days, the Kevin Costner 2000 movie of the same name, and the view of the average North American with an interest in history.

The bullshit version of the Cuban missile crisis represents only a highly selective history of what actually happened. It typically omits, as insignificant, events that occurred on the island of Cuba, and focuses almost entirely on events in Washington and Moscow.[11] The dominance of this myth has prevented the discussion of the contemporary nuclear threat from focusing on abolishing nuclear weapons from this planet, informed by what we now know about Black Saturday in Cuba, October 27, 1962.


Watch Out, Here Comes the Evidence, 1985-1993: The Cubans and Russians Start to Open Up

It seemed to us by the late 1980s that a crisis with the fate of the world potentially at stake was worth probing further. We wanted to delve further not only into the US experience, but most deliberately explore the Russian and Cuban views of the crisis, particularly on the key issue of how dangerous it was. Two developments encouraged us: the relative openness of Moscow, under Mikhail Gorbachev (called glasnost); and the desire of the Cubans to tell their side of the story in a setting that included senior American and Russians participants in the crisis. We held conferences in the U.S. and Russia. In November 1990, we were preparing for our next meeting, on the Caribbean island of Antigua, when we received our first glimpse of the newly declassified letter from Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev on Black Saturday, October 27, 1962. In that letter, Fidel urged Khrushchev, in the event of the expected U.S. attack and invasion of the island, to destroy the U.S. in a nuclear strike.

In early January 1991 we held that conference in Antigua, involving senior Cubans, Russians and Americans. One purpose was to decide whether it would be worth the time, expense and political consequences to try to move to a conference in Havana the following year, in which Fidel Castro could be expected to participate. The big questions for us were: (1) Would we be invited to Havana after the Antigua meeting for a lengthy face-to-face encounter with Fidel Castro; and (2) if our senior people, led by Robert McNamara, were invited to Havana, would they accept the invitation?

They were and they did. The epochal Havana Conference, in which Fidel participated for all four days, occurred in January 1992 one year after the Antigua conference.[12] Sometimes clichés are apt: that conference was a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, a giant step toward a new understanding—new everywhere except here in Cuba—of the events of October 1962. In our new book on the crisis, Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst, which appears in December, we focus centrally on the implications of Fidel’s letter, and on the January 1992 Havana conference in which it was discussed.

The Truth, October 1962: The October Crisis, When the World Nearly Ended

Here, in one paragraph, is our variant of the truth about what made the Cuban missile crisis the most dangerous crisis in recorded history:

The crisis did not come out of the blue and last thirteen days. U.S. blindness toward Cuba only made it seem that way. The crisis began eighteen months earlier, after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, with the Cubans’ fears of an imminent full-scale U.S. invasion. They asked the Russians for defensive weapons. The Russians began providing them, and the superpower-sleepwalk toward Armageddon began. The U.S. was not a victim of the deployment; its threats to Cuba were an important cause of it. U.S. intelligence assessments were atrocious: they did not predict the deployment; they did not even confirm it until the missiles in Cuba were almost ready to fire; and their conclusion that warheads for the weapons probably never reached Cuba was dead wrong. In all, 162 nuclear warheads were shipped, delivered, stored and made ready to fire by Soviet technicians in Cuba. While JFK courageously and ingeniously resisted the many hawks in his administration urging him toward war, Kennedy had no plan when the missiles were discovered and was shocked at the deployment. Nobody won. Nobody lost. Nobody “blinked.” Once Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they were losing control of the crisis, they worked feverishly, collaboratively and effectively to terminate it. But Moscow’s and Washington’s dismissal of the Cuban perspective, leading to Cuban outrage and provocative behavior, sent the crisis to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Far from being a “bit player,” Cuba became the hinge of the world. Believing they were irrevocably doomed by an imminent U.S. nuclear attack on the island, Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev urging him to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. ASAP, once the Americans began invading the island. The Cubans, and their Russian comrades in Cuba, prepared to nuke the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base, and to use their short-range nuclear weapons against the invading U.S. forces. Had these actions been carried out, a U.S. nuclear response would likely have followed, and Armageddon would have commenced then and there.

Every claim in this summary statement is backed by voluminous and authoritative declassified documentation, oral testimony from top-ranking leaders during the crisis, and by the careful analyses of scholars from many disciplines! What it says happened, happened!

It is obvious that what is omitted from the bullshit version of October 1962 is what we sometimes call the Cuban, Cuban missile crisis: the physical and psychological reality faced during the crisis by everyone in Cuba, including the more than 43,000 Russians who were, with Cuban collaboration, preparing for war with the U.S. Here in Cuba, the crisis was not a chess match or any other kind of game, nor was it a test of wills between the superpowers. In Cuba, the crisis was experienced as preparation for the last battle, for Armageddon, an event that Cuban leaders and their constituents had been anticipating for a year and a half, ever since they had foiled the CIA-backed invasion of Cuban exiles at Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs) on Cuba’s southern coast, in April 1961. This meant preparing to fight to the death. It meant carrying the fight to the Americans in every way possible, even though Cuba had no chance of surviving an all-out war with the U.S. Above all, it meant adhering to a code of conduct with deep roots in Cuban history (a history grasped neither by Washington nor Moscow): no surrender; no compromise; no negotiations. It meant dying honorably. It meant taking as many of the enemy down with you as possible.[13]

Notice that the Cuban, Cuban missile crisis requires no imagination whatever to conjure up Armageddon. The Cubans, and the Russians on the island, imagine it for us: it was palpable, real and imminent. They thought their fates were sealed: all of Cuba was about to disappear. But the imminent meaningless slaughter of Cubans and Cuba, along with their Russian comrades on the island, was unacceptable. Such a sacrifice needed to be redeemed. By Black Saturday 1962, meaningless slaughter was converted to the nobility of martyrdom by the prospect of Moscow destroying the U.S. in a nuclear attack the moment the anticipated U.S. attack had begun. Kennedy be damned and Khrushchev be damned. Cuba was going under and so, many in Cuba fervently hoped and planned, was the United States of America.

Those who prefer the bullshit version of the crisis, which includes most North Americans, usually pay little or no attention to Fidel’s Armageddon letter sent to Khrushchev at 7:00 AM EST on Black Saturday—October 27, 1962—in which he asked the Russian leader to nuke the U.S. as soon as the expected U.S. invasion had begun. Those few outside Cuba who have noticed it tend to conclude as follows: Fidel was irrational; Fidel experienced a situational psychosis; Fidel and his Cuban constituents had, for whatever reason, lost their minds. This is what Khrushchev himself thought when he received the letter. Kennedy had no knowledge of it but, if he had, he would no doubt have agreed with Khrushchev.

The Truth is Scarier than the Bullshit

But we now know that Fidel was far from insane, far from suicidal. He was rational, given that he had concluded that Cuba’s destruction was inevitable (an impression that the Americans were trying to convey, but without sufficiently thinking through the implications of such a strategy). If Fidel’s letter had been the raving of a crazy man, the crisis would have little relevance today, other than the common sense injunction to try to keep crazy people from becoming leaders of countries. In October 1962, rational leaders, making decisions each believed were in their country’s interests, unwittingly went sleepwalking together toward the nuclear abyss, dragging the whole world with them. The Cuban missile crisis is scary and relevant today not because Fidel Castro was crazy, but because he was not crazy![14] Something like it could happen again, in our 21st century world, with its nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. That’s the truth. You are here today, at this conference center in Havana, because three leaders, and the rest of the human race, got lucky in October 1962. Ask yourself how it feels when you consider that the planet you inhabit today was saved from total destruction in October 1962 principally by luck. Let the idea sink in. Will you bet we’ll get that lucky next time?

Don’t. For more than half a century, we’ve been told that the Cuban missile crisis was a great victory because the Russians blinked and the Americans didn’t (while the Cubans didn’t matter). Hey, we avoided Armageddon in October 1962, and we’ll avoid it next time. Both parts of that proposition are bullshit. The next time the world finds itself staring into the nuclear abyss, and war breaks out, the lucky ones will likely be those who die quickly. The living will envy the dead. In Dark Beyond Darkness, we show how the detonation of perhaps less than 2% of the world’s roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons can lead to global nuclear winter and the eventual end of civilization as we currently experience it. Millions in the blast zones will die quickly. Billions, however, will feel the impact, as the world gets cold, crops fail, starvation is rampant, and the infrastructure of civilized life unravels.

If you don’t believe nuclear abolition is an urgent issue, you should ask yourself some tough questions: are you willing to bet the fate of this planet that the Pakistanis, feeling that the Indians have pushed their backs against the wall over Kashmir, will never go nuclear? Are you confident that the North Koreans will never yield to the temptation to launch their missiles and warheads at the hated South Koreans and beyond, perhaps at the U.S. or U.S. territory in or bordering the Pacific? Are you absolutely certain that Israel will never feel so threatened by an Islamic neighbor (or neighbors) that it will launch a preemptive nuclear attack? Are you sure that the Indians will never feel so cornered by the Chinese along their 2,170 mile border that they use their large and growing nuclear arsenal as a last resort? Is it really unthinkable in the age of Trump and Putin that a U.S.-Russian, Cuban missile crisis-like event will occur, somewhere, sometime, an event reminiscent of October 1962, which no one sees coming and which spirals out of control?

If any of these scenarios materialize, we will wish fervently that we had heeded the mother of all lessons from October 1962. It is this: having “lucked out” in October 1962; and lacking any means of changing human nature; and in the absence of a meaningful world government; nuclear weapons must be abolished before they abolish us—a conclusion reached by Robert McNamara on the basis of his experience in the Cuban missile crisis, and reaffirmed by Fidel Castro in a YouTube post on October 15, 2010. In that post, Fidel said: “The use of nuclear weapons in a new war would mean the end of humanity … In a nuclear war the ‘collateral damage’ would be all humanity.”[15]

Black Saturday Remembrance Day: The New Paradigm in 58 Words

Here is how to begin the process of abolishing nuclear weapons:

Establish “Black Saturday” as a global day of reflection, each year, on October 27th, emphasizing: (1) the near Armageddon of the Cuban missile crisis; (2) the threat of Armageddon today; and (3) the necessity of abolishing the nukes before they abolish us; and (4) the leading role of the Cuban government and the Cuban people in this enterprise.

That’s the idea. That is, we believe, how nuclear weapons might someday be abolished. We are not joking. We urge you to read chapter 12 in Dark Beyond Darkness to learn why we believe such a process is feasible and will be effective, over what will at best be a long haul of several decades, and why it can engage the rising generation—the millennials—to undertake the effort.

This will require on every October 27th a literal and virtual assemblage of a critical mass of creative talent and the resources to support that talent. If the UN proves ineffective, governments and their private sectors will need to supply the ideas and the energy. In any case, the invitation list should be long and distinguished:  artists, filmmakers, poets, sculptors, composers, musicians, playwrights, and other artists should submit art they believe captures what happened, and what did not happen (but nearly did), on the last weekend of October 1962. The creative artists should also dig deep and connect that long ago and far away crisis to the nuclear threats now, some of which we have discussed in Dark Beyond Darkness. Winners in all categories would be announced every October 27th here in Havana. The ceremony will be viewed live around the globe. Analogous sculpted outdoor pieces should be placed conspicuously in Havana, Washington, Moscow, and elsewhere.

Cuba: The Once and Future Hinge of the World

 We conclude with an invitation to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine that this meeting here in Havana is occurring in late October 2062 forty-five years from now, on the one-hundredth anniversary of the October crisis. Imagine further that Black Saturday has been observed globally, and with increased intensity, over that nearly half-century. Imagine finally that by October 27, 2062, nuclear weapons have been abolished.

Before you consign this possibility to the dustbin of delusion and wishful thinking, consider this. We discovered while carrying out our research on the Cuban missile crisis that anniversaries of recent world historical events have extraordinary power to move people emotionally, and to attract their interest to a degree unimaginable under other circumstances. Anniversaries of the Cuban missile crisis—four of them—were absolutely critical to our success. These anniversaries were: the 25th (1987); 30th (1992); 40th (2002); and 50th (2012). For days, the media at these moments were flooded with news about the Cuban missile crisis. On each occasion, many focused on the necessity of eliminating nuclear weapons. Repeat: this occurred on only four of the fifty-four anniversaries of Black Saturday, generated by our tiny team of private scholars, with few resources other than our discoveries of the truth about the crisis. That is roughly 7% of the available anniversaries. But such was the power of the event, and such was the perhaps irrational but undeniable power of the anniversaries of the event, that we and our colleagues created a quiet revolution in our understanding of the October crisis, and stirred up a lot of thoughtful reflection about nuclear abolition that reached far beyond our usual comfort zone in academia.

But what if, between now and October 27, 2062, one hundred percent of the forty-five anniversaries of Black Saturday 1962 are exploited in this fashion, but with far more resources, publicity and international involvement than was available to our tiny, scholarly project on the crisis? Might the momentum toward a historically informed abolition be irresistible? Isn’t it worth a try?

 We are talking about a process driven by devotion to history, to artistic achievements of all kinds, and to a momentum-building public relations campaign that is global and relentless. Here, to provoke your imaginations, is but a single example of what we might call policy-relevant art: the young Cuban artist Reinier Leyva Novo’s Nine Grams that Could Change the World (2013).[16] The artist cut out the reprinted October crisis letters between Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, from October 2012 in Granma, shredded them, tied them together, and put them on a scale. The paper weighed nine grams, hence the title of this intriguing piece of three-dimensional art. The fate of all mankind is embodied in those nine grams of shredded paper.

To conclude: We must think like historians: think, Cuba, October 27, 1962. We must think like futurists: think the world, 2062. We must think like public relations campaigners to build momentum toward nuclear abolition, anniversary by anniversary, for as long as it takes, perhaps even before October 27, 2062.

Above all: think Cuba, the once and future hinge of the world.




[1] Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment, trans. by the author (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. 145.

[2] T.H. White, The Once and Future King (New York: Collins, 1958). White based his account on that of the fifteenth century English writer, Sir Thomas Mallory, who wrote that on the tomb of King Arthur is written a Latin epitaph that reads, in English, “Here lies Arthur, King that was, king that will be.”

[3] James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, Dark Beyond Darkness: The Cuban Missile Crisis as History, Warning and Catalyst (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[4] Ibid. The book is a follow-up to a 1986 article that, at the time of its publication, received relatively little attention: "On Bullshit." See: Harry G. Frankfurt, “On Bullshit,” Raritan Quarterly Review, vol. 6, no. 2 (Fall 1986). Frankfurt’s book brilliantly combines a dispassionate, even occasionally tedious, analysis, as if the author were discussing any other central concept in analytical philosophy, like “truth,” or “reason,” etc., on the one hand; while, on the other hand, the subject of his analysis is “bullshit,” which requires him to discuss this kind of shit and that kind of shit, and in general to devote considerable space to the metaphorical significance of fecal material, human-produced and otherwise. The publisher, Princeton University Press has also played it straight—almost. On the tenth anniversary of the publication of Frankfurt’s runaway bestseller, the press took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Review of Books. The ad has a photo of a stack of books of different colors, but all copies of On Bullshit. The caption at the top of the page, in red lettering, reads: “10 years later and it’s still piled high.” New York Review of Books, April 2, 2015, p. 13. And just before the 2016 presidential election, Princeton University Press placed another full-page advertisement for On Bullshit in which the header says, in a very large font: “Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are”—which has become perhaps the most quoted passage from the book. See: New York Review of Books, September 29, 2016, p. 15. The ad occupies the page immediately following the conclusion of an article on the presidential campaign that contains this sentence: “Trump’s defeated Republican rivals can testify that it’s horrendously difficult to oppose a candidate unconstrained by truth or facts.” See: Jonathan Freedland, “U.S. Politics: As Low as it Gets.” New York Review of Books, September 29, 2016, pp. 13-15. As far back at May 2016, Frankfurt himself had weighed in on candidate Donald Trump as the epitome of a bullshitter. See: Harry G. Frankfurt, “Donald Trump is BS, Says Expert in BS.” Time magazine, May 12, 2016.

[5] Frankfurt, On Bullshit, p. 61.

[6] This section, and the subsequent section, labeled “The Truth,” are adapted from James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, Dark Beyond Darkness, chapters 2 and 3.

[7] The reason the previous paragraph is just so much bullshit, rather than a pack of lies, is that the entire exercise that produced this received pseudo-wisdom derives principally from the need to exclaim that “we won”—that the crisis was essentially a game in which Washington emerged the winner. Sentiments like these are meant to bring us to our feet and cheer for the good guys’ victory over the bad guys. The views expressed are manifestly untrue, but they are bullshit because the assertions have nothing to do with the real Cuban missile crisis. The narrative is driven by a need that is totally irrelevant to the historical event.

[8] Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little Brown, 1971).

[9] Ibid., p. 39.

[10] The same statement appears in the second edition of Graham Allison’s book: “During the crisis, the United States was firm but forbearing. The Soviet Union looked hard, blinked twice, and then withdrew.” See: Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman’s, 1999), p. 77.

[11] A telling example of American blindness to Cuba’s role in the crisis is in Robert Kennedy’s influential memoir of the crisis, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, afterword by Richard E. Neustadt and Graham T. Allison (New York: Norton, 1971). The final chapter is entitled, “The Importance of Placing Ourselves in the Other Country’s Shoes.” It begins this way: “The final lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes” (p. 102). This is an important insight. But it is also the only time “Cuba” or “Cuban” appears in the chapter. As usual in U.S. accounts of the crisis, the phrase “Cuban missile crisis” refers to Cuba only in passing as the temporary location—like parking spots on city streets—of Soviet missiles deemed by Washington to be threatening to U.S. interests. Robert Kennedy continues: “During the crisis, President Kennedy spent more time trying to determine the effect of a particular course of action on Khrushchev or the Russians than on any other phase of what he was doing” (Ibid., p. 102). While this was an important step, leaving out Cuban “shoes” was a serious error of omission during the crisis, and it has been a serious error of omission in recalling the history of the crisis. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson liked to call Vietnam “that damn little pissant country.” (The Wiki entry for “pissant” defines it as “an insignificant or contemptible person or thing.”)  Johnson’s inability to put himself in the shoes of the Vietnamese communists cost him his presidency, and he declined to run for reelection in 1968, after it became clear that his reassurances that the U.S. was winning the war were false. JFK, his brother Robert, and in fact his entire administration treated Cuba in October 1962 as a “damn little pissant country,” and it nearly brought about the end of civilization. LBJ is quoted in George Herring, LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), p. 31.

[12] This conference is the subject of James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse, rev. ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).

[13] Americans’ inability to resonate with the Cuban pursuit of martyrdom in the Cuban missile crisis, of the noble sacrifice, is somewhat puzzling in light of similar mythic episodes in U.S. history. The most famous of these is probably the battle of The Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas, in February-March 1836. A couple of hundred “Texians” (as advocates of an independent Texas then called themselves) holed up in a Spanish mission for nearly two weeks before being slaughtered by Mexican forces, under the brutal Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Everyone in the mission was killed. The leader of the Texas independence movement, Sam Houston, made good use of the cry, “Remember the Alamo,” in subsequent battles with Mexican forces. The Alamo itself, restored to its ruined, heroic splendor, has long been the most popular tourist site in Texas. And of course the lore of the American Civil War is full to overflowing with martyrs, especially (but not only) among the Confederates.

[14] This is the point argued in our short, animated film, directed by Koji Masutani, “Was Castro Crazy,” available at and

[15] Robert McNamara began to publicly espouse nuclear abolition soon after he retired as president of the World Bank in 1981, at age 65. Privately, however, his experience in the Cuban missile crisis had already convinced him of what he sometimes called “the disutility of nuclear weapons. See James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), pp. 3-16, for background on the evolution of McNamara as an advocate of the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Fidel Castro, in a YouTube video posted on October 15, 2010. The video is at: On the context of the video, and the written text of his statement (which he read to a camera), see Blight and Lang, Armageddon Letters, pp. 133-138.

[16] Reiner Leyva Novo’s piece is featured in Cuban Art News, August 13, 2017. It appears courtesy of the artist, and of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The article can be accessed at: In a lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reiner Leyva Novo explains how he tried, in this piece, to capture the weight of history in terms of physical weight. See: (The lecture, with slides, is in Spanish, with sequential interpretation into English.)


·About the Authors ·

James G. Blight and janet M. Lang were trained as cognitive psychologists. But in the mid-1980s, provoked by the nuclear war scare arising between the U.S. and Russia, they retrained in nuclear strategy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. They have written or co-written fourteen books on the history of U.S. recent foreign policy, seven of them on the Cuban missile crisis.

Their work highlights the views of “the other side,” and documents the risks that ignorance of “the other side” poses for U.S. foreign and defense policy. They served as principal advisers on Errol Morris’ 2004 Academy Award-winning documentary, The Fog of War. Their short films on the Cuban missile crisis, live action and animated, are on their YouTube channel:

In Dark Beyond Darkness, they take their readers to Cuba (the history) to experience the dread that is as applicable now as then (the warning), before suggesting a paradigm-shifting path to long-term action toward nuclear abolition (the catalyst). Jim and janet are professors in the Department of History and the Balsillie School of International affairs at the University of Waterloo. (Note: the lower case “j” in janet’s name is not a misprint. That is how she spells her name. The upper case “J” in Jim’s name is also not a misprint. That is how he spells his name.)

The authors have been married for forty-one years.









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