The international community and the Cuban missile crisis

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            The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is a well known historical, international event.  Quite obviously it involved the entire world, as it held global consequences due to the involvement of the day’s superpowers.  More specifically, these two countries possessed more than enough firepower through nuclear arsenals to concern all nations around the world.  What is amiss, however, is the historical study and records of this event.  That is to say, for such a period of dire implications for all peoples, popular studies and analyses from that moment concentrate solely upon the viewpoints and actions of the United States of America and the former Soviet Union.  What of the reactions and responses of the international community?  Naturally, there were such occurrences.  Of particular interest are the actions of England, Switzerland and the Vatican.

            These three municipalities represent key, vital players in this intrigue.  England, with its role as chief ally of the United States necessarily involved itself in the matter.  The consequences faced by America could shortly have been theirs, as well.  Switzerland’s history has always been one of neutrality.  Perhaps more importantly, however, has been its role of moderator in many debates.  Would they have intervened in the process?  The Vatican, seat of the Catholic religion’s pope has maintained the part of peacemaker for the planet.  Its mandates and statements, though not binding for any country or government, still hold great import and influence on public matters.  What would they have said about this growing crisis?

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            Long time ally of the United States as of the Fall of 1962 was Great Britain.  Since the end of World War II they had been joined in the ever present struggle against the communism of the Soviet Union.  They maintained vigilance over this spread – and especially its spread into neighboring areas.  That is what was so appalling about the crisis.  This wasn’t a philosophical entreaty.  It was a real threat within close proximity to American civilians.  Naturally, then England had to respond.

            In Stephen Twigge and Len Scott’s journal article The Other Other Missiles of October: The Thor IRBMs and the Cuban Missile Crisis (2000), the readiness of British nuclear missiles within the context of the crisis is explored.  This little mentioned piece of history is full of twists, turns and revelations about the position the British government found themselves in.  Of primary importance to them was not the firing of missiles in the Caribbean, per se, but of the role their missiles would play, if any, in a resulting war.  Additionally, the place of the British arsenal as a deterrent to Soviet Aggression in the Western Hemisphere played a key role in strategy and stress levels in secret cabinet meetings around London.

            The response of the United Kingdom was twofold: a military reaction and a diplomatic one.  When first apprised of the developing situation in Cuba by the American government, the initial response was automatic.  The Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) called the Thors were placed at readiness levels.  This put them, and their nuclear payloads, within 15 minutes of launch.  According to Twigge and Scott, this meant that a simple telephone call from the ministry could put them into action (para. 23).  These 1.44 megaton weapons were aimed at various targets across the western Soviet Union.  Once the Thor system was alerted and put to the ready, the Air Ministry then put into operation the long range bomber fleet.  They, too, possessed nuclear capabilities, and were on the tarmac, fueled and ready to deliver bombs across the Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union itself.  Thus was the military response of England.

            Secondary to those actions was the diplomatic response.  Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, on the telephone with President Kennedy typified the extreme concern that Europe had, being so close to the Soviet Empire’s arsenal.  He expressed this by reminding Kennedy that any military rebuke by America would undoubtedly create an equal reaction in Berlin (para 31).  This alluded to the perception that war would begin by the Soviet Army quickly overwhelming Europe by ground and air forces from Eastern Germany.

            As Kennedy remained vague about his intentions, British diplomacy tried other angles.  London provided a leverage option to Washington under which a sort of compromise with the Soviets and Cubans might be reached.  The deal would be for a removal of Thor missiles from Britain in response to the removal of the missiles and sites from Cuba.  Although this had yet to be confirmed and authorized by the Ministry of Defence, it was tabled by the Foreign Office as a possibility.  At this point the British also suggested hosting a conference between the Soviets and Americans.  None of these suggestions were taken, and the key ally to the United States would remain curiously outside of the strategic loop for much of the crisis.

            The neutral country of Switzerland could not have been more appalled by the chain of events across the ocean.  The land has long maintained a disinterest in wars and armed conflicts, and remains out of them altogether.  But they do operate as mediators and peace brokers in the international community from time to time.  What was their position during the Cuban missile crisis?

            Thomas Fischer presents the Swiss side in The ICRC and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  His article demonstrates the willingness of the country to participate in the peace negotiation process.  He writes, “On 6 November 1962, the Swiss Ambassador and former President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC), Paul Ruegger, embarked on a delicate mission to negotiate with the United Nations Secretary-General and the representatives of the two superpowers and Cuba in New York (287).  This had all come about from a 26 October 1962 memorandum of interest that the ICRC had sent to the United Nations offices once the Soviets and Americans relaxed their naval fronts slightly.  It appeared that some sort of conversations approaching compromises might actually take place.  The Swiss were the first to offer their help.

            This offer was acknowledged by all parties and the ICRC were designated as observers to the naval embargo which was to be lifted for strictly humanitarian goods.  It seemed natural, then, that the ICRC would be the monitors having no military involvements.  Once the Americans and Soviets agreed to terms of dismantlement on 28 October, the ICRC was in fact named monitors of not only the lifting of the embargo, but of future boardings to determine lack of military products.  Both parties agreed, with the United States adding the measure that all ICRC personnel would be Swiss.  This, too, was agreed upon.  However, these plans would never come into fruition.  Behind the scenes, the United States and Soviet Union worked out their own agreements for bilateral verifications, apparently because Cuba was refusing any involvement on their shores.  So the offers by the ICRC and Switzerland themselves were never implemented (304).

            It is in no way surprising that the Vatican would have become involved in such a conflict as the world faced that year.  The new pope, John XXIII, would spend his brief time as leader of the Catholic Church seeking world peace.  Just prior to the crisis, in fact, he had issued Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) encyclical addressed to all people of good will (Schiblin 1).  As the conflict began, a fearful world would turn to the church for calm – and so did President Kennedy.

            The American leader called upon the Vatican for their assistance on October 23, 1962.  The next day the Pope sent a message to the Kremlin, Soviet headquarters, through the Soviet embassy in Rome.  Its primary message was, “Let them [heads of state] do all that is in their power to save peace; in this way they will avoid the horrors of war, the appalling consequences of which no one could predict.  Let them continue to negotiate…” (1).

            Even Pravda, official communist newspaper, quoted the pope’s plea, “We beg all rules to not be deaf to the cry of humanity” (1).  This provided an instrument with which Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, and John F. Kennedy, leader of the United States could withdraw and still save face.  They could make themselves seen as men of peace.  Two days later, the two did agree upon the removal of missiles from the island of Cuba.

            And so the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 ended, with peace, not war.  Yet the story has never ended.  Common sense dictates that the affair was not one of just two superpowers battling with ideologies and weapons of mass destruction.  War would not have merely impacted their countries.  It would have been a true international nightmare.  More than likely the war would have indeed spread across the European frontier and throughout the globe as communism and democracy came to blows.

            Yet that is not the history related in most works on the subject.  Primary literature, and especially popular primary literature, recalls the stage being occupied by the United States of America, President Kennedy, the Soviet Union and Premier Khrushchev.  Ignored are the behind the scenes activities, intrigues, diplomacy and cries for peace that took place that Fall.  Especially important but overlooked are the negotiations and efforts made by the International Committee of the Red Cross with Paul Ruegger, and the Vatican’s Pope John XXIII.  And England, too, with its potential for involvement in the nightmare remains in historical neglect.  It is a shame that such an opportunity for historical enlightenment would fail to such bilateral limelight.

Works Cited

Fischer, Thomas.  “The ICRC and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.” IRRC 83.842 (2001): 287-

308. Print.

Schiblin, Richard. “Pope John XXIII: Preacher of Peace.” Liguorian, n.d. Web. 13 July 2010.

Twigge, Stephen, and Scott, Len. “The Other Other Missiles of October: The Thor IRBMs

and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”  The Electronic Journal of International History:

Journal 3 (2000): n. pg. Web. 14 July 2010.

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