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John Dolva

cu on the other side...

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to the tones of the Godfather

The View From The Ground

John Pilger Interviewed by Michael Albert

By John Pilger and Michael Albert

Saturday, February 16, 2013

John Pilger's ZSpace Page

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Michael Albert: 1. As a person very well known for both video work and writing work - I wonder if you could tell us how you got started in each, so people know a bit more about your history.

John Pilger: My journalism began in Australia when I started a newspaper at Sydney High School. It was called 'The Messenger' and I was 12 years old. Or perhaps it began a year or two earlier when I would get up before sunrise to deliver newspapers, only to be chastised by my employer for wasting his time reading them. Journalism certainly helped bring the world to me as I grew up; the antipodes is ruled by a tyranny of distance; I tried to imagine the rest of humanity so far away.

I grew up in Sydney, in what was then quite a poor industrial city, in a family that was considered "political": that is, we were "on the side of the underdog", as my mother would say. Australia was a society divided deeply by class, religion and silence, as Mark Twain recognised on one his visits. He described our colonial history as "like the most beautiful of lies". The indigenous people, the oldest continuous culture on earth, about whom almost no one spoke, did not exist; the likeness with South Africa was too disturbing.

My parents had grown up in the coalmining towns of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. My father left school at 14 and worked in the mines. My mother was the only one of nine children to complete school; at 19 she became Australia's youngest graduate: a distinction she held for many years. They met at the Mechanics Institute in Sydney (similar to the WEA); my mother would smuggle her young man into the newly-built university library, where they would read by candlelight. In his early twenties, my father was one of the founders of the IWW (the Wobblies) in Australia, though neither of my parents was doctrinaire; both became lifetime supporters of the Australian Labor Party, then a reformist social democratic party based on the trade unions. My father felt strongly about American cold war influence on our lives. He would emerge from watching a movie at the local picture house saying, 'Why do we get only American propaganda?' It was a good question. Kids of my age were on a drip feed of John Wayne and the cold war. My parents' influence on me was a counter to this; I was proud of our often unspoken ethos and I was sad when they drifted acrimoniously apart.

I would escape to the Pacific ocean, down the hill, where I was taught to swim by one of Australia's greatest swimming coaches, Sep Prosser, an exotic character who would dive with his girlfriend from precarious rockfaces into the boiling surf of Bondi Beach; I think my father paid for my lessons as Sep's bookie. Swimming has since been a staple of my life; I think and write as a I swim.

I joined the cadet journalism training scheme of the Sydney Daily Telegraph. I realised later it was like walking on to the set of Lewis Milestone's version of The Front Page. People did shout, 'hold the front page', and wear loud ties and tilt back their felt hats in the newsroom; and you could feel the presses rumbling beneath you. It was very romantic, but with serious purpose. The Telegraph was owned by Frank Packer, a former boxer and thuggish political kingmaker who conducted unrelenting vendettas against almost anyone to the left of Pontius Pilate. (All so-called mainstream newspapers in Australia were, and still are right-wing; there is no choice). Still, the training was superb; a style developed by a highly literate former editor, Brian Penton, who had published poetry, forced you to consider the value of almost every word. Paragraphs could be no longer than sixteen words, and only the active voice was allowed. All adjectives and most cliches were banned (except, of course, those in the splenetic editorials). I learned to write fluent English then and many of the old grammatical strictures have stayed with me, for which I am grateful.

I was 22 when I boarded a rust-streaked Greek ship and sailed for Genova in Italy and eventually London, and Fleet Street, then the Mecca of newspapers. I worked in London for Reuters, then joined the Daily Mirror, at that time an extraordinary left-wing tabloid that had stood up to Churchill during the Second World War and played a critical role into bringing to power the Attlee Labour government to power in 1945, the most radically reforming British government in the modern era. The Mirror also opposed the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, which marked the coup de grace of the British Empire.

During the 1960s, the Mirror laid out a political map of the world for its millions of readers: then a quarter of the British population. Only the Peking Daily had more readers. (When much later I met Chou en-Lai in Peking, I mentioned this to him, to which he replied, "Ah, but we have a captive audience.")

I became chief foreign correspondent and had found my journalistic home. In 1967, across the front page, the Mirror carried the headline, "How can Britain support a war like this?" Beneath was my first dispatch from Vietnam. During the years of the civil rights movement and the anti Vietnam war movement, I was based in the US, often flying to and from Indochina. On one flight I read Noam Chomsky for the first time; I still recall the impact of his clear-sightedness and insight and mastery of contemporary history. I was fortunate to 'enter' American society through the eyes of those like Noam -- although we didn't meet until much later -- and the photographer Matt Herron and Jeannine Herron, freedom riders in the Deep South, with whom I worked. Martha Gellhorn once described people like them as "that life-saving minority of Americans who judge their government in moral terms. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America's citiizens ..."

This was a disturbing, yet thrilling time. As Noam pointed out, the margins of America expanded enough to threaten the rapacious ruling power.

I reported the Poor People's March to Washington, and the campaign of Eugene McCarthy and his 'children's crusade'. I was standing behind Robert Kennedy at the door of the kitchen of the Amabassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was assassinated, having interviewed him two days earlier. I still recall the surreal shock and the sound of the shots. I thought Kennedy was a carpetbagger: a prototype for Barack Obama.

I have much to thank the US for my political education. I was watching some archive footage recently and caught sight of myself standing next to Vietnam veterans in Washington as they hurled their medals at the Capitol. It was 1970 or 1971. Many - like Bob Muller - became my friends; and it seemed appropriate that my first documentary film was "The Quiet Mutiny".

Filmed on firebases in Vietnam, it revealed a widespread insurrection among drafted troops, including the killing of unpopular officers. When it was broadcast in the UK, the US ambassador, Walter Annenberg, a friend of President Nixon, complained to the Independent Television Authority, the regulatory body, not that my facts were wrong but that I was clearly a communist. I have since made some 58 documentary films, including quite a few in Vietnam and Cambodia. The majority have been shown around the world, but not in the US; I am always bemused by the notion that speech is freest in the US. In 1980, PBS were on the verge of showing my first Cambodia film but decided they couldn't take the risk at the start of the Reagan presidency. The film described how the US bombing had served as a catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and suggested that the horror Nixon and Kissinger had begun was exploited by Pol Pot. The US didn't leave Cambodia alone even when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border in 1979. Reagan imposed one of America's sieges -- known as "sanctions" - on Cambodia, preventing any substantial rehabilitation reaching a stricken population. At the same time, British special forces - sent by Thatcher as part of a deal with Reagan – began secretly training the Khmer Rouge and its allies. Cambodia’s liberators, the Vietnamese, had come from the wrong side of the cold war and were never forgiven for driving the US out of their country. The exclusion of this work from the US is an interesting history of censorship.

2. How do you think of the two types of focus and their relations? Is it just a different delivery system - but otherwise one endeavor, or are the differences greater than that? What is good journalism, in your view - what is it you are trying to do?

Good journalism is good journalism regardless of the form. Television is more immediate than print, and the web offers another kind of audience. Documentaries are journalistic essays which at their best unite words and pictures – as, say, Life Magazine, at its best, united reportage and still photographs. In all these forms the aim should be to find out as many facts and as much of the truth as possible. There’s no mystery. Yes, we all bring a personal perspective to work; that’s our human right. Mine is to be skeptical of those who seek to control us, indeed of all authority that isn’t accountable, and not to accept “official truths”, which are often lies. Journalism is or ought to be the agent of people, not power: the view from the ground.

3. Have you felt, over the years, that your efforts have had the effects you sought, and those hoped for? If not, why do you think that is - and what might occur to increase the effects?

That’s often impossible to measure and, anyway, the aim of good journalism is or ought to be to give people the power of information – without which they cannot claim certain freedoms. It’s as straightforward as that. Now and then you do see the effects of a particular documentary or series of reports. In Cambodia, more than $50 million were given by the public, entirely unsolicited, following my first film; and my colleagues and I were able to use this to buy medical supplies, food and clothing. Several governments changed their policies as a result. Something similar happened following the showing of my documentary on East Timor – filmed, most of it, in secret. Following its broadcast in the UK, some 25,000 people called the ITV every minute, wanting to help and to know more. That was heartening, to say the least. Did it effect the situation in East Timor? No, but it did contribute to the long years of tireless work by people all over the world.

4. How has your media work been changed, or otherwise affected over the years, if at all, by the emergence of internet activity and, most recently, Google, Facebook, and Twitter? Do you see significant changes that affect the basic aims or methods of your own work - or that affect its effectivity? How do you assess the emergence of "social networking" and its impact on journalism and information flow?

I used to pick up a selection of newspapers every morning. Now I log on to the web. That’s the change. Google is remarkable, of course, but it’s not the same as the kind of research that will always require time and patience, and tenacious work. Twitter and Facebook are essentially about the “self”; they allow people to talk to themselves -- and often to make fools of themselves. Ironically, they can separate us even further from each other: enclose us in a bubble-world of smart phones, and fragmented information, and magpie commentary. Thinking is more fun, I think

5. As someone who has had considerable visibility in, but also steadfastly critiqued mainstream media for, I guess, decades, and has also been a very strong supporter and advocate for alternative media - what do you think we in alternative media have done wrong? Why haven't we built larger audiences and larger means of communications and outreach? Are there problems with our structures, policies, our content that might be corrected to yield better results?

I don’t agree with your premise. “Alternative” media has built audiences and reached out, and achieved extraordinary results. In Latin America, community radio has become a voice of people in the barrios. The propaganda that accused Hugo Chavez of attacking the “free” media in Venezuela (i.e. monopolies) ignored the fact that community radio had expanded as never before. There’s a similar situation in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina. In the US, Pacifica Radio at its best is an inspiration. Take Dennis Bernstein’s programmes. On the web, your own ZNet reaches out, as does Tom Feeley’s Information Clearing House, and Truthout, and therealnews.com, and many more.

6. As you look forward, what do you think are the prospects for a more serious flow of critical, visionary, content to wide audiences? What steps do you think might permit and generate that either by an improved alternative media - or by a mainstream media forced to do better, even against its own purposes and logic?

The so-called mainstream media will never contradict its own logic. It is an extension of established authority; it is not, as Edmund Burke wanted us to believe: a “fourth estate”. But it’s not monolithic. I have worked all my career in the mainstream. I’ve done this by expending a huge amount of energy in maintaining my place, and fighting my corner. It has been often and literally a struggle, but in time I learned to navigate through and sometimes around institutions. Learning to navigate is critical for young, principled journalists.

What we need urgently is a “fifth estate” that challenges the autocracy of the corporate media, that includes and gives voice to the public, that mounts an invasion of institutions -- TV, newspapers, media colleges -- calling on journalists and their teachers to drop their defensiveness and promoting another way of seeing and working. In practical terms, we should be working to create publicly funded organisations that provide seed money to new, independent journalistic ventures. This has enjoyed success in Scandinavia.

7. As fast as everything changes, at one level, at another deeper level, yesterday seems to keep coming around. How would you describe the logic and scope of American Foreign policy - and also international relations more broadly - say, forty years ago, and now? Are there substantial differences?

I seldom use the almost respectable term, US foreign policy; US designs for the world is the correct term, surely. These designs have been running along a straight line since 1944 when the Bretton Woods conference ordained the US as the number one imperial power. The line has known occasional interruptions such as the retreat from Saigon and the triumph of the Sandinistas, but the designs have never changed. They are to dominate humanity. What has changed is that they are often disguised by the modern power of public relations, a term Edward Bernays invented during the first world war because “the Germans have given propaganda a bad name”.

With every administration, it seems, the aims are “spun” further into the realm of fantasy while becoming more and more extreme. Bill Clinton, still known by the terminally naive as a “progressive”, actually upped the ante on the Reagan administration, with the iniquities of NAFTA and assorted killing around the world. What is especially dangerous today is that the US’s wilfully and criminally collapsed economy (collapsed for ordinary people) and the unchallenged pre-eminence of the parasitical “defence” industries have followed a familiar logic that leads to greater militarism, bloodshed and economic hardship.

The current spoiling for a fight with China is a symptom of this, as is the invasion of Africa. That said, look back on the Eisenhower/Dulles years and the US elite was in a not dissimilar mood; only the presence of the Soviets held them back. I find it remarkable that I have lived my life without having been blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust ignited by Washington. What this tells me is that popular resistance across the rest of the world is potent and much feared by the bully – look at the hysterical pursuit of WikiLeaks. Or if not feared, it’s disorientating for the master. That’s why those of us who regard peace as a normal state of human affairs are in for a long haul, and faltering along the way is not an option, really.

8. As with trying to create an alternative to mainstream media, we have of course also sought to deter and finally replace the sources of war and inequality by aiding and participating in movements to that end. Here too, being objective about it, it seems we have less to show for four decades of effort than we expected and hoped for all along, certainly, and arguably than we might have achieved had we done better. If you agree, what do you think the anti war and anti imperialist movements you saw and aided over these years have been good at, and what do you think they have fallen short at, or even been quite poor at?

As mentioned, my political education was honed among the US anti-war people of the 1960s and 70s. I admired their imagination, resourcefulness and courage. Then the movement wilted, understandably. For at its heart had been the anti-draft movement: an essentially middle-class resistance to sending the “boys” to a war they and eventually their families didn’t like. When the war was over, the camaraderie of the anti-war veterans and others remained, but public support dissipated. This suggested that a political driver was missing -- unsurprisingly.

The difficulty in the US is that the principal political force is Americanism, an ideology that rarely speaks its intentions. It’s an exceptionalism, a mysticism, a hocus pocus of so-called patriotism designed to trump any rationale debate about class and peace. I find that even enlightened people I know fall victim to the nonsense that the US invented democracy and is God’s Chosen One. The Native Americans got the same spiel before they were slaughtered. So did the Filipinos. And so on.

US anti-war movements are seldom internationalist. The US has never had a Labour Party, so anti-war people cling to the Democratic Party which, apart from its populist phase, was always militarist. The coup de grace to the peace mass movement in the US was delivered when Barack Obama was elected. The fawning over the first African-American president was a pretty disgusting spectacle when you look at his record, particularly towards people of colour all over the world. So many forgot that George W Bush could boast the most multi-racial cabinet in US history; his secretary of state, his national security adviser, his attorney general were Americans of colour, and vicious reactionaries. Who dared stand up and say that, once subverted by power, it’s not your race or your gender or your sexual preference or your class that matters, it’s the class and power you serve. Obama is the Great Servitor, and his most enduring achievement is all but silencing the contemporary anti-war movement.

9. Again, looking forward, how do you think we might do better, in the period ahead?

If by “we” you mean ordinary people, we have no choice but to keep standing up, to keep informing others and organising, and not to allow a mutated “popular culture” or hi-jacked issues of “identity” and “self” deflect us into believe that consumerist lifestyle is real change.

10. What would international relations be like, say fifty years in the future - not country by country but in terms of general relationships - if it was as it ought to be?

Mike, I’m not and have never been a futurist. I predict badly; however, I’m confident that if we remain silent while the US war state, now rampant, continues on its bloody path, we bequeath to our children and grandchildren a world with an apocalyptic climate, broken dreams of a better life for all and, as the unlamented General Petraeus put it, a state of “perpetual war”. Do we accept that or do we fight back?

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Edited by John Dolva

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The Week the World Stood Still:

The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ownership of the World

Noam Chomsky

Tomdispatch.com, October 15, 2012

The world stood still 50 years ago during the last week of October, from the moment when it learned that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba until the crisis was officially ended -- though unknown to the public, only officially.

The image of the world standing still is the turn of phrase of Sheldon Stern, former historian at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, who published the authoritative version of the tapes of the ExComm meetings where Kennedy and a close circle of advisers debated how to respond to the crisis. Those meetings were secretly recorded by the president, which might bear on the fact that his stand throughout the recorded sessions is relatively temperate compared to other participants, who were unaware that they were speaking to history.

Stern has just published an accessible and accurate review of this critically important documentary record, finally declassified in the late 1990s. I will keep to that here. "Never before or since," he concludes, "has the survival of human civilization been at stake in a few short weeks of dangerous deliberations," culminating in "the week the world stood still."

There was good reason for the global concern. A nuclear war was all too imminent, a war that might "destroy the Northern Hemisphere," President Dwight Eisenhower had warned. Kennedy's own judgment was that the probability of war might have been as high as 50%. Estimates became higher as the confrontation reached its peak and the "secret doomsday plan to ensure the survival of the government was put into effect" in Washington, as described by journalist Michael Dobbs in his well-researched bestseller on the crisis (though he doesn't explain why there would be much point in doing so, given the likely nature of nuclear war).

Dobbs quotes Dino Brugioni, "a key member of the CIA team monitoring the Soviet missile buildup," who saw no way out except "war and complete destruction" as the clock moved to "one minute to midnight," the title of his book. Kennedy's close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, described the events as "the most dangerous moment in human history." Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wondered aloud whether he "would live to see another Saturday night," and later recognized that "we lucked out" -- barely.

"The Most Dangerous Moment"

A closer look at what took place adds grim overtones to these judgments, with reverberations to the present moment.

There are several candidates for "the most dangerous moment." One is October 27th, when U.S. destroyers enforcing a quarantine around Cuba were dropping depth charges on Soviet submarines. According to Soviet accounts, reported by the National Security Archive, submarine commanders were "rattled enough to talk about firing nuclear torpedoes, whose 15 kiloton explosive yields approximated the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in August 1945."

In one case, a reported decision to assemble a nuclear torpedo for battle readiness was aborted at the last minute by Second Captain Vasili Arkhipov, who may have saved the world from nuclear disaster. There is little doubt what the U.S. reaction would have been had the torpedo been fired, or how the Russians would have responded as their country was going up in smoke.

Kennedy had already declared the highest nuclear alert short of launch (DEFCON 2), which authorized "NATO aircraft with Turkish pilots ... [or others] ... to take off, fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb," according to the well-informed Harvard University strategic analyst Graham Allison, writing in the major establishment journal Foreign Affairs.

Another candidate is October 26th. That day has been selected as "the most dangerous moment" by B-52 pilot Major Don Clawson, who piloted one of those NATO aircraft and provides a hair-raising description of details of the Chrome Dome (CD) missions during the crisis -- "B-52s on airborne alert" with nuclear weapons "on board and ready to use."

October 26th was the day when "the nation was closest to nuclear war," he writes in his "irreverent anecdotes of an Air Force pilot," Is That Something the Crew Should Know? On that day, Clawson himself was in a good position to set off a likely terminal cataclysm. He concludes, "We were damned lucky we didn't blow up the world -- and no thanks to the political or military leadership of this country."

The errors, confusions, near-accidents, and miscomprehension of the leadership that Clawson reports are startling enough, but nothing like the operative command-and-control rules -- or lack of them. As Clawson recounts his experiences during the 15 24-hour CD missions he flew, the maximum possible, the official commanders "did not possess the capability to prevent a rogue-crew or crew-member from arming and releasing their thermonuclear weapons," or even from broadcasting a mission that would have sent off "the entire Airborne Alert force without possibility of recall." Once the crew was airborne carrying thermonuclear weapons, he writes, "it would have been possible to arm and drop them all with no further input from the ground. There was no inhibitor on any of the systems."

About one-third of the total force was in the air, according to General David Burchinal, director of plans on the Air Staff at Air Force Headquarters. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), technically in charge, appears to have had little control. And according to Clawson's account, the civilian National Command Authority was kept in the dark by SAC, which means that the ExComm "deciders" pondering the fate of the world knew even less. General Burchinal's oral history is no less hair-raising, and reveals even greater contempt for the civilian command. According to him, Russian capitulation was never in doubt. The CD operations were designed to make it crystal clear to the Russians that they were hardly even competing in the military confrontation, and could quickly have been destroyed.

From the ExComm records, Stern concludes that, on October 26th, President Kennedy was "leaning towards military action to eliminate the missiles" in Cuba, to be followed by invasion, according to Pentagon plans. It was evident then that the act might have led to terminal war, a conclusion fortified by much later revelations that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed and that Russian forces were far greater than U.S. intelligence had reported.

As the ExComm meetings were drawing to a close at 6 p.m. on the 26th, a letter arrived from Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, sent directly to President Kennedy. His "message seemed clear," Stern writes: "the missiles would be removed if the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba."

The next day, at 10 am, the president again turned on the secret tape. He read aloud a wire service report that had just been handed to him: "Premier Khrushchev told President Kennedy in a message today he would withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey" -- Jupiter missiles with nuclear warheads. The report was soon authenticated.

Though received by the committee as an unexpected bolt from the blue, it had actually been anticipated: "we've known this might be coming for a week," Kennedy informed them. To refuse public acquiescence would be difficult, he realized. These were obsolete missiles, already slated for withdrawal, soon to be replaced by far more lethal and effectively invulnerable Polaris submarines. Kennedy recognized that he would be in an "insupportable position if this becomes [Khrushchev's] proposal," both because the Turkish missiles were useless and were being withdrawn anyway, and because "it's gonna -- to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade."

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.

An Indecent Disrespect for the Opinions of Humankind

The deliberations that followed are revealing, but I will put them aside here. They did reach a conclusion. The U.S. pledged to withdraw the obsolete missiles from Turkey, but would not do so publicly or put the offer in writing: it was important that Khrushchev be seen to capitulate. An interesting reason was offered, and is accepted as reasonable by scholarship and commentary. As Dobbs puts it, "If it appeared that the United States was dismantling the missile bases unilaterally, under pressure from the Soviet Union, the [NATO] alliance might crack" -- or to rephrase a little more accurately, if the U.S. replaced useless missiles with a far more lethal threat, as already planned, in a trade with Russia that any "rational man" would regard as very fair, then the NATO alliance might crack.

To be sure, when Russia withdrew Cuba's only deterrent against an ongoing U.S. attack -- with a severe threat to proceed to direct invasion still in the air -- and quietly departed from the scene, the Cubans would be infuriated (as, in fact, they understandably were). But that is an unfair comparison for the standard reasons: we are human beings who matter, while they are merely "unpeople," to adapt George Orwell's useful phrase.

Kennedy also made an informal pledge not to invade Cuba, but with conditions: not just the withdrawal of the missiles, but also termination, or at least "a great lessening," of any Russian military presence. (Unlike Turkey, on Russia's borders, where nothing of the kind could be contemplated.) When Cuba is no longer an "armed camp," then "we probably wouldn't invade," in the president's words. He added that, if it hoped to be free from the threat of U.S. invasion, Cuba must end its "political subversion" (Stern's phrase) in Latin America. "Political subversion" had been a constant theme for years, invoked for example when Eisenhower overthrew the parliamentary government of Guatemala and plunged that tortured country into an abyss from which it has yet to emerge. And these themes remained alive and well right through Ronald Reagan's vicious terror wars in Central America in the 1980s. Cuba's "political subversion" consisted of support for those resisting the murderous assaults of the U.S. and its client regimes, and sometimes even perhaps -- horror of horrors -- providing arms to the victims.

The usage is standard. Thus, in 1955, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had outlined "three basic forms of aggression." The first was armed attack across a border, that is, aggression as defined in international law. The second was "overt armed attack from within the area of each of the sovereign states," as when guerrilla forces undertake armed resistance against a regime backed or imposed by Washington, though not of course when "freedom fighters" resist an official enemy. The third: "Aggression other than armed, i.e., political warfare, or subversion." The primary example at the time was South Vietnam, where the United States was defending a free people from "internal aggression," as Kennedy's U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson explained -- from "an assault from within" in the president's words.

Though these assumptions are so deeply embedded in prevailing doctrine as to be virtually invisible, they are occasionally articulated in the internal record. In the case of Cuba, the State Department Policy Planning Council explained that "the primary danger we face in Castro is… in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half," since the Monroe Doctrine announced Washington's intention, then unrealizable, to dominate the Western hemisphere.

Not the Russians of that moment then, but rather the right to dominate, a leading principle of foreign policy found almost everywhere, though typically concealed in defensive terms: during the Cold War years, routinely by invoking the "Russian threat," even when Russians were nowhere in sight. An example of great contemporary import is revealed in Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian's important upcoming book of the U.S.-U.K. coup that overthrew the parliamentary regime of Iran in 1953. With scrupulous examination of internal records, he shows convincingly that standard accounts cannot be sustained. The primary causes were not Cold War concerns, nor Iranian irrationality that undermined Washington's "benign intentions," nor even access to oil or profits, but rather the way the U.S. demand for "overall controls" -- with its broader implications for global dominance -- was threatened by independent nationalism.

That is what we discover over and over by investigating particular cases, including Cuba (not surprisingly) though the fanaticism in that particular case might merit examination. U.S. policy towards Cuba is harshly condemned throughout Latin America and indeed most of the world, but "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is understood to be meaningless rhetoric intoned mindlessly on July 4th. Ever since polls have been taken on the matter, a considerable majority of the U.S. population has favored normalization of relations with Cuba, but that too is insignificant.

Dismissal of public opinion is of course quite normal. What is interesting in this case is dismissal of powerful sectors of U.S. economic power, which also favor normalization, and are usually highly influential in setting policy: energy, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, and others. That suggests that, in addition to the cultural factors revealed in the hysteria of the Camelot intellectuals, there is a powerful state interest involved in punishing Cubans.

Saving the World from the Threat of Nuclear Destruction

The missile crisis officially ended on October 28th. The outcome was not obscure. That evening, in a special CBS News broadcast, Charles Collingwood reported that the world had come out "from under the most terrible threat of nuclear holocaust since World War II" with a "humiliating defeat for Soviet policy." Dobbs comments that the Russians tried to pretend that the outcome was "yet another triumph for Moscow's peace-loving foreign policy over warmongering imperialists," and that "[t]he supremely wise, always reasonable Soviet leadership had saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction."

Extricating the basic facts from the fashionable ridicule, Khrushchev's agreement to capitulate had indeed "saved the world from the threat of nuclear destruction."

The crisis, however, was not over. On November 8th, the Pentagon announced that all known Soviet missile bases had been dismantled. On the same day, Stern reports, "a sabotage team carried out an attack on a Cuban factory," though Kennedy's terror campaign, Operation Mongoose, had been formally curtailed at the peak of the crisis. The November 8th terror attack lends support to Bundy's observation that the threat to peace was Cuba, not Turkey, where the Russians were not continuing a lethal assault -- though that was certainly not what Bundy had in mind or could have understood.

More details are added by the highly respected scholar Raymond Garthoff, who also had rich experience within the government, in his careful 1987 account of the missile crisis. On November 8th, he writes, "a Cuban covert action sabotage team dispatched from the United States successfully blew up a Cuban industrial facility," killing 400 workers according to a Cuban government letter to the U.N. Secretary General.

Garthoff comments: "The Soviets could only see [the attack] as an effort to backpedal on what was, for them, the key question remaining: American assurances not to attack Cuba," particularly since the terrorist attack was launched from the U.S. These and other "third party actions" reveal again, he concludes, "that the risk and danger to both sides could have been extreme, and catastrophe not excluded." Garthoff also reviews the murderous and destructive operations of Kennedy's terrorist campaign, which we would certainly regard as more than ample justification for war, if the U.S. or its allies or clients were victims, not perpetrators.

From the same source we learn further that, on August 23, 1962, the president had issued National Security Memorandum No. 181, "a directive to engineer an internal revolt that would be followed by U.S. military intervention," involving "significant U.S. military plans, maneuvers, and movement of forces and equipment" that were surely known to Cuba and Russia. Also in August, terrorist attacks were intensified, including speedboat strafing attacks on a Cuban seaside hotel "where Soviet military technicians were known to congregate, killing a score of Russians and Cubans"; attacks on British and Cuban cargo ships; the contamination of sugar shipments; and other atrocities and sabotage, mostly carried out by Cuban exile organizations permitted to operate freely in Florida. Shortly after came "the most dangerous moment in human history," not exactly out of the blue.

Kennedy officially renewed the terrorist operations after the crisis ebbed. Ten days before his assassination he approved a CIA plan for "destruction operations" by U.S. proxy forces "against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbor facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships." A plot to assassinate Castro was apparently initiated on the day of the Kennedy assassination. The terrorist campaign was called off in 1965, but reports Garthoff, "one of Nixon's first acts in office in 1969 was to direct the CIA to intensify covert operations against Cuba."

We can, at last, hear the voices of the victims in Canadian historian Keith Bolender's Voices From the Other Side, the first oral history of the terror campaign -- one of many books unlikely to receive more than casual notice, if that, in the West because the contents are too revealing.

In the current issue of Political Science Quarterly, the professional journal of the association of American political scientists, Montague Kern observes that the Cuban missile crisis is one of those "full-bore crises… in which an ideological enemy (the Soviet Union) is universally perceived to have gone on the attack, leading to a rally-'round-the-flag effect that greatly expands support for a president, increasing his policy options."

Kern is right that it is "universally perceived" that way, apart from those who have escaped sufficiently from the ideological shackles to pay some attention to the facts. Kern is, in fact, one of them. Another is Sheldon Stern, who recognizes what has long been known to such deviants. As he writes, we now know that "Khrushchev's original explanation for shipping missiles to Cuba had been fundamentally true: the Soviet leader had never intended these weapons as a threat to the security of the United States, but rather considered their deployment a defensive move to protect his Cuban allies from American attacks and as a desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality in the nuclear balance of power." Dobbs, too, recognizes that "Castro and his Soviet patrons had real reasons to fear American attempts at regime change, including, as a last resort, a U.S. invasion of Cuba... [Khrushchev] was also sincere in his desire to defend the Cuban revolution from the mighty neighbor to the north."

"Terrors of the Earth"

The American attacks are often dismissed in U.S. commentary as silly pranks, CIA shenanigans that got out of hand. That is far from the truth. The best and the brightest had reacted to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion with near hysteria, including the president, who solemnly informed the country: "The complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history. Only the strong... can possibly survive." And they could only survive, he evidently believed, by massive terror -- though that addendum was kept secret, and is still not known to loyalists who perceive the ideological enemy as having "gone on the attack" (the near universal perception, as Kern observes). After the Bay of Pigs defeat, historian Piero Gleijeses writes, JFK launched a crushing embargo to punish the Cubans for defeating a U.S.-run invasion, and "asked his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare, and sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the 'terrors of the earth' on Fidel Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him."

The phrase "terrors of the earth" is Arthur Schlesinger's, in his quasi-official biography of Robert Kennedy, who was assigned responsibility for conducting the terrorist war, and informed the CIA that the Cuban problem carries "[t]he top priority in the United States Government -- all else is secondary -- no time, no effort, or manpower is to be spared" in the effort to overthrow the Castro regime. The Mongoose operations were run by Edward Lansdale, who had ample experience in "counterinsurgency" -- a standard term for terrorism that we direct. He provided a timetable leading to "open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime" in October 1962. The "final definition" of the program recognized that "final success will require decisive U.S. military intervention," after terrorism and subversion had laid the basis. The implication is that U.S. military intervention would take place in October 1962 -- when the missile crisis erupted. The events just reviewed help explain why Cuba and Russia had good reason to take such threats seriously.

Years later, Robert McNamara recognized that Cuba was justified in fearing an attack. "If I were in Cuban or Soviet shoes, I would have thought so, too," he observed at a major conference on the missile crisis on the 40th anniversary.

As for Russia's "desperate effort to give the U.S.S.R. the appearance of equality," to which Stern refers, recall that Kennedy's very narrow victory in the 1960 election relied heavily on a fabricated "missile gap" concocted to terrify the country and to condemn the Eisenhower administration as soft on national security. There was indeed a "missile gap," but strongly in favor of the U.S.

The first "public, unequivocal administration statement" on the true facts, according to strategic analyst Desmond Ball in his authoritative study of the Kennedy missile program, was in October 1961, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric informed the Business Council that "the U.S. would have a larger nuclear delivery system left after a surprise attack than the nuclear force which the Soviet Union could employ in its first strike." The Russians of course were well aware of their relative weakness and vulnerability. They were also aware of Kennedy's reaction when Khrushchev offered to sharply reduce offensive military capacity and proceeded to do so unilaterally. The president failed to respond, undertaking instead a huge armaments program.

Owning the World, Then and Now

The two most crucial questions about the missile crisis are: How did it begin, and how did it end? It began with Kennedy's terrorist attack against Cuba, with a threat of invasion in October 1962. It ended with the president's rejection of Russian offers that would seem fair to a rational person, but were unthinkable because they would have undermined the fundamental principle that the U.S. has the unilateral right to deploy nuclear missiles anywhere, aimed at China or Russia or anyone else, and right on their borders; and the accompanying principle that Cuba had no right to have missiles for defense against what appeared to be an imminent U.S. invasion. To establish these principles firmly it was entirely proper to face a high risk of war of unimaginable destruction, and to reject simple and admittedly fair ways to end the threat.

Garthoff observes that "in the United States, there was almost universal approbation for President Kennedy's handling of the crisis." Dobbs writes, "The relentlessly upbeat tone was established by the court historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote that Kennedy had ‘dazzled the world' through a ‘combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated.'" Rather more soberly, Stern partially agrees, noting that Kennedy repeatedly rejected the militant advice of his advisers and associates who called for military force and the dismissal of peaceful options. The events of October 1962 are widely hailed as Kennedy's finest hour. Graham Allison joins many others in presenting them as "a guide for how to defuse conflicts, manage great-power relationships, and make sound decisions about foreign policy in general."

In a very narrow sense, that judgment seems reasonable. The ExComm tapes reveal that the president stood apart from others, sometimes almost all others, in rejecting premature violence. There is, however, a further question: How should JFK's relative moderation in the management of the crisis be evaluated against the background of the broader considerations just reviewed? But that question does not arise in a disciplined intellectual and moral culture, which accepts without question the basic principle that the U.S. effectively owns the world by right, and is by definition a force for good despite occasional errors and misunderstandings, one in which it is plainly entirely proper for the U.S. to deploy massive offensive force all over the world while it is an outrage for others (allies and clients apart) to make even the slightest gesture in that direction or even to think of deterring the threatened use of violence by the benign global hegemon.

That doctrine is the primary official charge against Iran today: it might pose a deterrent to U.S. and Israeli force. It was a consideration during the missile crisis as well. In internal discussion, the Kennedy brothers expressed their fears that Cuban missiles might deter a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, then under consideration. So "the Bay of Pigs was really right," JFK concluded.

These principles still contribute to the constant risk of nuclear war. There has been no shortage of severe dangers since the missile crisis. Ten years later, during the 1973 Israel-Arab war, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert (DEFCON 3) to warn the Russians to keep their hands off while he was secretly authorizing Israel to violate the cease-fire imposed by the U.S. and Russia. When Reagan came into office a few years later, the U.S. launched operations probing Russian defenses and simulating air and naval attacks, while placing Pershing missiles in Germany with a five-minute flight time to Russian targets, providing what the CIA called a "super-sudden first strike" capability. Naturally this caused great alarm in Russia, which unlike the U.S. has repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. There have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first strike minutes before launch, after automated systems gave false alarms. We don't have Russian records, but there's no doubt that their systems are far more accident-prone.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several times, and the sources of the conflict remain. Both have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, along with Israel, and have received U.S. support for development of their nuclear weapons programs -- until today in the case of India, now a U.S. ally. War threats in the Middle East, which might become reality very soon, once again escalate the dangers.

In 1962, war was avoided by Khrushchev's willingness to accept Kennedy's hegemonic demands. But we can hardly count on such sanity forever. It's a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided. There is more reason than ever to attend to the warning of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, almost 60 years ago, that we must face a choice that is "stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?"

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