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Chomsky: Humanity Once Came to the Cliff's Edge of Total Self-Annihilation -- Let's Make Sure It Never Happens Again

Revisiting the catastrophe that almost was.

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Keeping U.S. Power Unrestrained

The planners therefore faced a serious dilemma.  They had in hand two somewhat different proposals from Khrushchev to end the threat of catastrophic war, and each would seem to any “rational man” to be a fair trade.  How then to react? 

One possibility would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that civilization could survive and to eagerly accept both offers; to announce that the U.S. would adhere to international law and remove any threat to invade Cuba; and to carry forward the withdrawal of the obsolete missiles in Turkey, proceeding as planned to upgrade the nuclear threat against the Soviet Union to a far greater one -- only part, of course, of the global encirclement of Russia.  But that was unthinkable.

The basic reason why no such thought could be contemplated was spelled out by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard dean and reputedly the brightest star in the Camelot firmament.  The world, he insisted, must come to understand that “[t]he current threat to peace is  not in Turkey, it is in  Cuba,” where missiles were directed against the U.S.  A vastly more powerful U.S. missile force trained on the much weaker and more vulnerable Soviet enemy could not possibly be regarded as a threat to peace, because we are Good, as a great many people in the Western hemisphere and beyond could testify -- among numerous others, the victims of the  ongoing terrorist war that the U.S. was then waging against Cuba, or those swept up in the “ campaign of hatred” in the Arab world that so puzzled Eisenhower, though not the National Security Council, which explained it clearly. 

Of course, the idea that the U.S. should be restrained by international law was too ridiculous to merit consideration.  As  explained recently by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias, “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to  legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers” -- meaning the U.S. -- so that it is  “amazingly naïve,” indeed quite “silly,” to suggest that it should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless.  This was a frank and welcome exposition of operative assumptions, reflexively taken for granted by the ExComm assemblage.

In subsequent colloquy, the president stressed that we would be “in a bad position” if we chose to set off an international conflagration by rejecting proposals that would seem quite reasonable to survivors (if any cared).  This “pragmatic” stance was about as far as moral considerations could reach. 

In a review of recently released documents on Kennedy-era terror, Harvard University Latin Americanist Jorge Domínguez  observes, “Only once in these nearly thousand pages of documentation did a U.S. official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to U.S.-government sponsored terrorism”: a member of the National Security Council staff suggested that raids that are “haphazard and kill innocents... might mean a bad press in some friendly countries.”

The same attitudes prevailed throughout the internal discussions during the missile crisis, as when Robert Kennedy warned that a full-scale invasion of Cuba would “kill an awful lot of people, and we’re going to take an awful lot of heat on it.” And they prevail to the present, with only the rarest of exceptions, as easily documented.

We might have been “in even a worse position” if the world had known more about what the U.S. was doing at the time.  Only recently was it learned that, six months earlier, the U.S. had secretly deployed missiles in Okinawa virtually identical to those the Russians would send to Cuba.  These were surely aimed at China at a moment of elevated regional tensions.  To this day, Okinawa remains a major offensive U.S. military base over the bitter objections of its inhabitants who, right now, are less than enthusiastic about  the dispatch of accident-prone V-22 Osprey helicopters to the Futenma military base, located at the heart of a heavily populated urban center.

 
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