Swans Commentary » swans.com July 4, 2005  



Who Needs Cold War Falsification?
Max Frankel And The Cuban Missile Crisis


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Frankel, Max: High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Random House, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-345-46505-9, 206 pages, $23.95


(Swans - July 4, 2005)   In October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union appeared ready to fight World War Three over nuclear missiles in Cuba. Max Frankel, who was the Washington correspondent for the New York Times in 1962, provides some new insights about the role of the press in the crisis in an otherwise conventional interpretation. From his perspective, the Kennedy White House adroitness kept the world from being incinerated. The confrontation is a chess game that Kennedy wins through the sacrificing of a pawn: nuclear missiles in Turkey. Practically gloating, Frankel reveals that the missiles in Turkey were considered nearly obsolete in 1962. The bumbling Soviet leader had sacrificed a queen to gain a pawn.

For this analysis to make sense, the USSR must be seen as an interloper in the Western Hemisphere challenging the Monroe Doctrine and the "free world." Cuba simply becomes a stepping stone to future Soviet ambitions. The idea of deploying missiles in Cuba comes to Khrushchev out of the blue:

Once he acquired dictatorial power in the mid-1950s, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev proved to be an adventurous leader trying to rush his people out of a Stalinist hell toward a brighter future. As he remembered years later, dictating his memoir, the idea of sending his missiles to Cuba just popped into his head one day in April 1962, while he strolled on the banks of the Black Sea with his minister of defense, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, a comrade since the great World War II battle of Stalingrad. The bulldog-faced marshal was growling again about the American Jupiter missiles aimed at Soviet bases from neighboring Turkey, just across the water.

Well then, Khrushchev wondered, why couldn't they do the same to the Americans -- from Cuba? After sitting so long, so smugly behind their ocean moats, Americans should finally share the anxiety of living in the thermonuclear shadows that hung over all Europeans. (1)

For this portrait of Khrushchev as risk-taking global conspirator to work, Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution must become incidental to the showdown. Cuba becomes an outpost of Soviet expansionism rather than a country with legitimate fears over another Bay of Pigs. Worries about United States power are dismissed by Frankel:

All the anti-Castro exertions have never been fully documented. The best records deal with "Operation Mongoose," a plan hatched by a guerrilla fighter of mixed reputation, Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, a Kennedy favorite for a time.

His plan envisioned widespread sabotage and the infiltration of agents and guerrilla fighters to inspire a rebellion that could become the pretext for American military intervention by October 1962. But the CIA and Pentagon dragged their feet; the plan produced a few pinpricks that only stiffened Castro's defenses and buttressed his requests for more Soviet arms. (2)

Veteran New York Times reporter Tad Szulc's view of this period is distinctly at odds with Frankel's. In his biography of Fidel Castro titled Fidel, Szulc states that "things could have not been worse" for Castro in the spring of 1962. Armed rightist bands were active in the Oriente and Escambray mountains. Cuban casualties in the Escambray alone were nearly three times as great as at the Bay of Pigs. Economic losses were calculated around $1 billion in ruined crops, burned houses, and blown up rail lines, roads and bridges. (3) This is a rather sizable pinprick.

While Frankel tries to give the impression that direct US involvement with the counter-revolution had come to an end after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, ex-classified documents contradict this. In Edward Lansdale's "Review of Operation Mongoose," dated July 25, 1962, we discover that the CIA was directly involved:

CIA reports that 11 teams will have been infiltrated by the end of July and that 19 maritime operations have aborted. Of the teams in, the most successful is the one in Pinar del Rio in western Cuba; its success was helped greatly by a maritime re-supply of arms and equipment; the fact that it is a "going concern" and receives help from outside has attracted recruits. Its potential has been estimated at about 250, which is a sizeable guerrilla force. With equally large guerrilla forces in other Cuban provinces, guerrilla warfare could be activated with a good chance of success, if assisted properly. (4)

Ultimately, Frankel's version of the 1962 happenings depends heavily on foreshortened events. Nineteen sixty-one, the year of the Bay of Pigs, fades in importance. Instead of seeing the missile crisis as the culmination of a year of superpower bullying and threats, it turns into a cold war duel with Cuba, Berlin and Turkey as pawns.

Frankel's portrait of John F. Kennedy is that of a chastised youth who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar:

The president sheepishly conceded that invading Cuba had been a mistake. But when he cautioned that Castro must not become a threat to other Latin governments, Khrushchev scoffed again: How could six million Cubans threaten the great United States? Kennedy's pitch for global stability was turned entirely against him. He was made to feel young and inexperienced, a weakling who had lacked the courage even to finish off Castro. (5)

Another ex-NY Times reporter, Seymour Hersh, sees Kennedy's post-Bay of Pigs stance differently. In The Dark Side of Camelot, he writes:

In April 1962 the president lent the prestige of his office to the anti-Cuba effort by flying to Norfolk, Virginia, to watch a huge military exercise; some 40,000 men conducted amphibious landings at beaches in North Carolina and off Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, less than fifty miles from Cuba. In their 1997 study of the missile crisis, "One Hell of a Gamble," Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, who had access to Soviet archives, concluded that Khrushchev "came to believe" in the first few months of 1962 -- as the president wanted him to believe -- that "John F. Kennedy was prepared to invade Cuba." In his memoirs, published in 1970, Khrushchev wrote, "I'm not saying we had any documentary proof that the Americans were preparing a second invasion [after the Bay of Pigs]. We didn't need documentary proof. We knew the class affiliation, the class blindness, of the United States, and that was enough to make us expect the worst." (6)

Perhaps Frankel's version of the Cuban Missile Crisis would be more credible if he had not admitted that the Times had participated in a cover-up at the time. Once Kennedy had decided to blockade Cuba, he needed to make sure that the Soviets were kept in the dark about his plans. This entailed lining up the NY Times (and the Washington Post) in a vow of secrecy. According to Frankel, who was listening to Kennedy and James Reston over an extension phone, Kennedy said, "If you reveal my plan, or print that we discovered their missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev could beat us to the draw." At first, Reston demurred: "You're asking us to suppress the news?" but soon came around to understanding Kennedy's "reasonable request" -- the news was indeed suppressed.

Frankel could never see the parallels between state-controlled media in the USA and the USSR. Since the Times participated freely in a cover-up, he might argue that this was still a "free" press. However, this understanding surely violates Adolph Och's promise to his readers on August 18, 1896: "It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is permissible in good society, and give it as early if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor..."

Although John F. Kerry sees himself an enlightened foreign policy expert in the mold of the first JFK, there is every indication that the events of 1962 have much more in common with the invasion and occupation of Iraq that liberals would admit.

Just as Bush administration officials have been implicated in lies and cover-ups, so were prominent Kennedy White House figures, especially liberal icon Adlai Stevenson, who was the representative to the United Nations. Immediately after the Bay of Pigs operation began, Stevenson held up photographs to the UN Political Committee that proved Cuban air force defectors bombed Castro's soldiers. Even after he discovered that they were CIA forgeries, Stevenson continued to deny American involvement. He told the Security Council that "no offensive had been launched from Florida or from any other part of the United States." After these claims were revealed to be false, Stevenson described the entire episode to Pierre Salinger as "the most humiliating experience" of his career. (7)

One assumes that if Castro had been defeated at the Bay of Pigs, Stevenson would have felt much differently. Time after time, in places like Cuba, Vietnam, and Iraq, where US foreign policy is frustrated in its aims, there is much soul-searching. Such efforts seem in vain, for the proper time for soul-searching is in advance of such adventures rather than when they turn sour.


· · · · · ·
Frankel, Max: High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Random House, New York, 2004, ISBN 0-345-46505-9, 206 pages, $23.95

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1.  p. 8  (back)

2.  p. 70  (back)

3.  Fidel: a Critical Portrait, William Morrow, NY, p. 576  (back)

4.  The Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, New Press, NY, p. 44  (back)

5.  p. 51  (back)

6.  Dark Side of Camelot, Little Brown, New York, p. 346.  (back)

7.  Jeff Broadwater; Adlai Stevenson and American Politics, Twayne, New York, p. 206-207.  (back)


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About the Author

Louis Proyect on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

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Fourth Of July Greetings From an Iraqi Perspective - Gilles d'Aymery

Making Iraq The Central Front - Dossier compiled by Jan Baughman

Prelude To A Military Disengagement - Philip Greenspan

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Blips #22 - From the Editor's desk

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Published July 4, 2005