Monday, June 29, 2009

Radioactive Amelia Island?

Last year, I read Ted Sorensen’s newly published memoirs, which includes a detailed account from his perspective of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s a well written tale, but not one apparently people want to keep in their libraries, since you can get a used copy at for $1.75. (I love

A couple of days ago, I listened to pod cast of a recent lecture by Sergei Khrushchev, the son of old Nikita, in which he talked about the Cuban crisis from the Russian standpoint and from the perspective of one who was in the room with his father throughout.

Sergei speaks good English and is an astute observer, as well a pretty funny guy. The point he made which got my attention was that Russians and Americans just think differently, because their cultures and experiences are so radically different. Because of this, both sides made serious mistakes in the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost got us all killed.

The Russians simply did not think putting missiles in Cuba was any big deal. Russians have for millenniums had “enemies at the gates”, Mongols, Tartars, Germans, Poles, Swedes, French, and dozens more. Russians have learned to live surrounded by enemies, and in1962 they were, by their way of thinking, surrounded again by America and American allies. No big deal.

The Russians, said Sergei, in 1962 were looking to be recognized as equal with the Americans, and thought this might be a way to move in that direction. Khrushchev thought there would be a “crisis’ like Berlin, or any of the other crisis since World War II, and then the US and Russia would get back to some serious negotiations. In the end, that is what Russia got from the crisis, recognition as an equal, although no one really saw that at the time.

The Russian didn’t see putting nuclear armed missiles in Cuba as disturbing the balance of power at all. At the time, Russia had maybe 25 missiles capable of reaching the US on Russian soil. The US had thousands and thousands of missiles and other delivery systems pointed at Russia. How could a few more missiles in Cuba make any difference? As Sergei said, if Russia wanted to commit national suicide, a few missiles in Cuba wouldn’t stop that from happening.

The Americans had never been surrounded by enemies, or even tolerated any hostile regime nearby. The placement of missiles in Cuba was seen as a huge change to the balance of power, and a threat, not so much by The Kennedys, but by the public they had to satisfy and the military and other political forces which wanted a first strike.

Sorensen’s account is very different, a kind of historical Rashomon. But they do agree on what a close thing it was, the closest we ever came to a nuclear holocaust.

Neither side ever understood this mutuality of mistakes, which I suspect still plagues US Russian relations.

So what does this have to do with Amelia Island? Had it all went down, a few miles from Mayport, this island would have been radioactive for a few tens of thousands of years and its inhabitants at the time would have joined the Timucuans and the Dodos, quite extinct.

Down load the pod cast. Worth a listen.