My blog post today on Stephen Ambrose's Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 will focus on Cuba.
Richard Nixon had his own sort of Cuban Missile Crisis, if you will.
On September 16, 1970, a U-2 flight revealed that there was construction
going on at a harbor in Cienfuegos, Cuba. According to Ambrose, it
would turn out to be a "base support facility" for the Russians, where a
"submarine tender was being installed" (page 381). Henry Kissinger
said that this would mean "a quantum leap in the strategic capability of
the Soviet Union against the United States" (Kissinger, quoted on page
How this was concluded, I don't know. Ambrose narrates that
what made Kissinger suspicious was that it appeared that the Cubans
"were building soccer fields" (Ambrose's words, page 381), and the
Cubans played baseball, whereas the Russians played soccer. Ambrose
says that Kissinger was wrong about soccer in Cuba, since "soccer was as
popular in Cuba as in every Spanish-speaking country", but that he was
right to be suspicious (page 381). Nixon, in volume 1 of his memoirs,
narrates that U-2 flights revealed construction: "A submarine tender was
anchored to four buoys in the deep water basin, and submarine nets were
strung across the harbor. A large complex of barracks, administrative
buildings, and recreation facilities was almost completed on Alcatraz
Island" (page 602). Nixon says that "The construction was
proceeding at a rapid pace, and unless we acted completely and
decisively, we would wake up one morning to find a fully functioning
nuclear-equipped Soviet submarine base ninety miles from our shores"
(pages 602-603). What may have happened was that U-2 flights revealed
that soccer fields were being built in Cuba, and, because the Russians
played soccer, that tipped the U.S. off to the fact that the Russians
were doing construction there, construction that turned out to be for
Nixon handled this situation in a very
low-key fashion, when, according to Ambrose, it was tempting for him to
"exploit the crisis for votes" (page 383). Kissinger mentioned to
reporters (since C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times had
already broken the story that there might be a Soviet base for
submarines in Cuba) the 1962 Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement that the U.S.
wouldn't intervene in Communist Cuba against Fidel Castro, and the
Soviets wouldn't put missiles there. Nixon proceeded with his trip to
Europe, which was designed "to publicize Nixon the world statesman
inaugurating the new era of negotiations (one month before Election
Day)" (Ambrose on page 382), and this conveyed the message that there
really was no crisis. And Kissinger told Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin
that the Nixon Administration was concerned about what was going on in
Cienfuegos. On October 6, Dobrynin gave Kissinger a note denying that
the Soviets were violating the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement. According
to Nixon in volume 1 of his memoirs, the Soviet government's news
agency, TASS, later went on record denying the existence of a submarine
Nixon says on page 605 that "After some face-saving
delays, the Soviets abandoned Cienfuegos." Ambrose disagrees with that
assessment, saying that the "base remained, and Soviet submarines used
it frequently in subsequent years" (page 383). But Ambrose acknowledges
that a crisis was averted, for "no Soviet Y-class submarines, carrying
ballistic missiles", used the base.
Nixon had a variety
of reasons for handling this situation in a low-key manner. Ambrose
says that Nixon told Kissinger that he didn't want a "'clown Senator'
demanding a Cuban blockade in the middle of the campaign" (page 382).
According to Ambrose, Nixon also did not want for a new Cuban missile
crisis to disrupt his trip to Europe. Nixon himself, in volume 1
of his memoirs, seems to take issue with the public manner in which
John F. Kennedy had handled the Cuban missile crisis. Nixon
said that Kennedy and UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson went public about
their knowledge concerning Soviet missiles in Cuba, and that allowed
Khrushchev to exploit worldwide fears of war to pressure Kennedy into an
agreement: the U.S. wouldn't try to overthrow Castro in Cuba, and
Khrushchev would remove the missiles. Nixon appears to regard this as a
raw deal, and he seems to lament that Kennedy did not get to deal "with
Khrushchev from the position of immense nuclear superiority that we
still held in 1962" (page 602). In short, Nixon apparently thought that
Kennedy's public manner of dealing with the crisis made the situation
I'd like to make three points.
First of all, when I
first read Nixon's discussion of the Cienfuegos situation in his
memoirs, I wondered if he was trying to show that he was better than
Kennedy. In Oliver Stone's movie Nixon, Nixon is
continually comparing himself to Kennedy, lamenting that people love and
admire Kennedy but don't care that much for him. Could Nixon have been
talking about the Cienfuegos situation to show that he (Nixon) himself
had his own sort of Cuban missile crisis, and that he handled it much
better than Kennedy handled the 1962 one? I don't know. Either way, the Soviets' Cienfuegos activity may have been quite a serious problem.
I was intrigued by the discussion that Ambrose mentions between
Kissinger and Nixon about the authority of the 1962 Kennedy-Khrushchev
agreement. There wasn't actually a treaty. Kennedy simply
promised that he wouldn't intervene in Cuba. Technically-speaking,
Kennedy's successors were not bound by that agreement. But Kissinger
went on to say that the U.S. and the Soviets "acted as if it were a
formal treaty" (Ambrose's words on page 380).
Third, as I
said above, Ambrose says that the submarine base continued to exist in
Cienfuegos, and the Soviets still used it. Was the submarine base truly
a problem, then? It continued to exist, and there was no Soviet
invasion of the United States! I think of John Stormer's right-wing
classic, None Dare Call It Treason, in which Stormer refers to
people who contended that the Soviets still had underground missiles in
Cuba even after the Cuban Missile Crisis was supposedly resolved. Even
if that were the case (and I can't say one way or the other), the
Soviets didn't invade the U.S. Perhaps one could argue that the Soviets
were biding their time, waiting for the right moment----waiting to get
more territory, resources, and power so that they could be sure that
they would win were they to attack the U.S. I don't know.
Believe truth! Shun error!
2 hours ago