Why has Fidel Castro decided to make public the letters he exchanged with Nikita S. Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis?
Did Castro want to respond to the charge, contained in Khrushchev’s recently released memoirs, that he had coldly urged the Soviet leader, at the height of the crisis, to launch a nuclear strike against the United States?
That’s the word going around Havana. But the impression one gets as a result of reading the letters is that Castro was anything but calculating.
Castro recommended to Khrushchev, in a letter dated Oct. 26, 1962, that he launch a nuclear strike against the United States if the U.S. military attempted to invade the island to neutralize the nuclear missiles the Soviets were installing. In the same letter, Castro said he expected a U.S. operation within three days.
Washington was, in fact, feeling the pressure to invade. Several missiles had already reached Cuba and President John F. Kennedy seemed unlikely to be satisfied for long with the naval blockade he had announced on Oct. 22.
Khrushchev, realizing that he had lost the high-risk wager he undertook by sending the missiles to Cuba, did not resist U.S. pressure for long. Though he said nothing to Castro--he feared that the Cuban might scuttle an agreement--Khrushchev agreed to withdraw his weapons in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.
Despite his heated rhetoric, Khrushchev knew there would be no winners in a nuclear war. Castro’s frenetic ideology and visceral anti-Americanism (only a year before his troops had had to repulse the U.S.-supported invasion at the Bay of Pigs) was such that he was ready to “heroically” accept the possibility of apocalypse for his people, and many others.
On Oct. 22, the Cuban missile crisis became public when Kennedy revealed it to Americans, declared a blockade of Cuba to prevent new arms from arriving there and demanded the withdrawal of the missiles. Moscow, at first, denied the charges. But on Oct. 25, Khrushchev, faced with the show of U.S. determination, sent a secret message to Kennedy (the text has never been published), in which he acknowledged the presence of nuclear missiles and suggested that they might be withdrawn in exchange for a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba.
When Castro wrote the following letter, he was unaware of Khrushchev’s approach to the White House.
Dear Comrade Khrushchev:
Based on our analysis of the situation and the reports in our possession, I conclude that an act of aggression could take place in the next 24 to 72 hours.
There are two possibilities: the first--and most likely--is an aerial attack on precise objectives with the sole intent of destroying them; the second--less likely but still possible--is an invasion. I realize that the latter, to be carried out, would require the use of considerable forces, and that it is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might rule it out.
You can be sure that we will firmly and resolutely resist any attack, whatever form it takes. The morale of the Cuban people is extremely high and they will face the aggressor heroically . . . .
If the second hypothesis materializes and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the danger to humanity of such an aggressive policy is so great that the Soviet Union should never allow a situation to develop in which the imperialists could strike the first blow of a nuclear war against it.
I say this because I believe that the aggressivity of the imperialists is making them extremely dangerous, and if they undertook such a brutal and illegal act as the invasion of Cuba, it would be the moment to eliminate such a danger forever. It would be an act of pure self-defense, as harsh and terrible as the solution may be, for there is no other.
I have reached this conclusion after seeing the way that this aggressive policy is developing and the way in which the imperialists, despite world opinion, have placed themselves above principles and law, the way they blockade the seas, violate our airspace and prepare for invasion, while frustrating any hopes for negotiations, even though they realize the gravity of the problem.
You have always been and you remain a tireless defender of the peace. I understand how bitter these hours must be for you, with the results of your superhuman efforts so seriously threatened.
Nevertheless, until the last moment, we will keep our hope that peace will be saved and we are ready to contribute to that quest with all the means in our possession. But at the same time, we are calmly preparing to confront a situation that we see as very real and very near . . . .
Fraternally, FIDEL CASTRO, Havana, Oct. 26, 1962
After Khrushchev’s secret message of Oct. 25, Moscow spread confusion in Washington by publishing, on Oct. 27, a new message from the Soviet general secretary in which he again offered to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American promise not to invade, but in which he also demanded the withdrawal of U.S. missiles in Turkey.
Kennedy ignored this message, but responded positively to the earlier one, promising not to invade Cuba if the missiles were removed. A few hours later, Khrushchev accepted the deal.
In this letter to the Cuban leader, he had to explain his decision to Castro, with whom he had not consulted.
Dear Comrade Fidel Castro:
Our message of Oct. 27 to President Kennedy allows us to settle the question in our favor, to defend Cuba from invasion and from the outbreak of war.
Kennedy’s response, which, it seems, you are familiar with, offers the following guarantees: Not only will the United States not invade Cuba with its own forces, but it will not allow its allies to invade . . . .
At a time when an agreement is in sight, the Pentagon is looking for a pretext to sabotage it.
That is why it is sending its airplanes on provocative flights. Yesterday, you shot one of them down, whereas in the past you did not shoot them down when they flew over your territory. The aggressors will use this fact to attain their goals.
This is why we would like to advise you in a friendly spirit: Be patient, show firmness and more firmness. Of course, if there is an invasion, it will have to be repelled using all means. But we must not allow ourselves to be provoked . . . .
N. KHRUSHCHEV, Oct. 28, 1962
Castro was deeply irritated by the agreement, particularly since he had not been consulted.
The declaration to which Castro refers in the following letter announced that Cuba would accept the Soviet-U.S. accord only if the economic blockade was ended, the United States halted all attempts at subversion, a stop was put to the activities of the Cuban emigres in the United States, U.S. overflights were ended and Washington abandoned the Guantanamo Bay naval base.
Dear Comrade Khrushchev:
You say: “Yesterday you shot down one of the airplanes, whereas in the past you did not shoot them down when they flew over your territory.”
Before, these flights represented isolated violations, with no precise military objective and no real danger.
That was not the case this time. There was a danger of a surprise attack on specific military installations . . . . We believed that this was something we should not permit, . . . and what’s more, because it would have weakened us militarily and been a blow to morale.
That is why Cuban forces mobilized 50 anti-aircraft batteries, all our reserves, to support the positions of the Soviet forces.
If we were to avoid the risk of a surprise attack, we had to give the artillery orders to fire. The commander of the Soviet forces can provide you with additional information on the plane that was shot down . . . .
We are in agreement on the need to avoid an incident at this precise moment, when it could compromise the negotiations, and we will instruct the Cuban batteries not to fire, but only for the duration of the negotiations and without retreating from our declaration, published yesterday, concerning the decision to defend our airspace . . . .
Fraternally, FIDEL CASTRO, Havana, Oct. 28, 1962
In the next letter, Khrushchev reproaches Castro for having called for a nuclear attack on U.S. territory, and also tries to explain his failure to consult with the Cuban leader at the peak of the crisis.
Dear Comrade Fidel Castro:
We understand that certain difficulties may have arisen for you following the promise we made to the United States to withdraw our missile base from Cuba, in exchange for the U.S. commitment to abandon plans for an invasion of Cuba . . . and to end what they call the “quarantine,” otherwise known as the blockade of Cuba . . . .
If, giving in to popular sentiment, we had allowed ourselves to be led by certain inflamed portions of the population and if we had refused to conclude a reasonable agreement with the U.S.A., war probably would have broken out, causing millions of deaths, and the survivors would have said that it was the leaders’ fault for not having taken the necessary measures to avert this war of annihilation . . . .
Some are saying that we did not conduct the necessary consultations with you before reaching the decision you are aware of.
In fact, we believe that there were consultations, dear Comrade Fidel Castro, because we received your cables, each more alarming than the one before and, finally, your cable of Oct. 27, in which you said you were almost certain Cuba was going to be attacked. You said it was only a question of time: 24 or 72 hours.
Receiving such an alarming cable from you, and knowing your courage, we thought the alert was totally justified.
Was that not, for your part, a consultation? We interpreted this cable as a signal of maximum alert. But had we continued consultations in such conditions, knowing that the unrestrained warriors of the American military wanted to take advantage of the situation to attack Cuba, we would have lost time and they might have succeeded . . . .
In your cable of Oct. 27, you proposed that we should strike the first nuclear blow against enemy territory. This would not be a simple blow but the beginning of global thermonuclear war.
Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your position incorrect even if I do understand the reasons for it.
We have lived through an extremely serious moment. Global thermonuclear war could have been unleashed. Obviously, the United States would have suffered enormous losses, but the Soviet Union and the entire socialist camp would have suffered . . . .
If we are struggling against imperialism, it is not just to die, but to make use of all our potential, to lose as little as possible in this struggle and then win even more later, in order to prevail and to ensure communism’s triumph . . . .
N. KHRUSHCHEV, Oct. 30, 1962
Castro continues to complain about Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the missiles and again defends the idea of resorting to nuclear weapons if the United States should invade Cuba.
Dear Comrade Khrushchev:
Many Cubans and Soviets, who were prepared to die with the greatest dignity, spilled tears when they learned of the surprising, unexpected and practically unconditional decision to withdraw the arms.
You may not realize to what point the Cuban people were ready to accomplish their duty to fatherland and humanity.
I was not unaware of the possibility that you might misinterpret the terms of my letter, and that is what happened--perhaps because you did not read it attentively, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I wanted to say too much in too few lines . . . .
We know . . . that we would have been exterminated . . . if a thermonuclear war had begun. But that did not lead us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, to ask you to give in . . . .
I don’t see how you can say that we were consulted on the decision that you took . . . . Already the imperialists are talking again about invading our country, proof that their promises are ephemeral and unreliable . . . (but) we will surmount the present difficulties and we will go forward, allowing nothing to destroy our eternal bonds of friendship and gratitude toward the U.S.S.R.
FIDEL CASTRO, Havana, Oct. 31, 1962