As far as we know, the Cuban Missile Crisis marks the closest the world has ever come to nuclear destruction. In the thirteen days between October 14, 1962, when CIA officials obtained photographic intelligence that Soviet missiles were being assembled in
I was almost twenty-four years old, living with two roommates in a basement flat on the lower East Side of
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The crisis can be understood as a conflict between three figures - Kennedy, Krushchev, and Fidel Castro. Kennedy represented the “great white hope,” the debonair Bostonian, the apex of American mastery and intelligence, the model of what every American of my generation had been conditioned to worship. Khruschev was his nemesis. He was fat, old, and bald. He couldn't speak English, and he had a habit of taking his shoe off and banging it on the table to make his point. But beneath the crudity of his image, the points he sought to make were closer than Kennedy's Camelot to my own hopes and dreams.
Castro was different from the other two. At thirty-five he was the only one who had actually made a revolution. The people of
Like many young African Americans of my generation in
Fidel accepted Malcolm's invitation to stay at the Hotel Theresa on
On October 16, 1962, President Kennedy's advisors told him that the Soviet Union was building nuclear weapons launching sites in
"I speak to you as a friend, as one who knows your deep attachment to your fatherland . . . Now your leaders are no longer Cuban leaders inspired by Cuban ideals . . . We know that your lands and lives are being used as pawns by those who would deny your freedom."
From a white perspective, the Cubans were only a marginal factor in the struggle between superpowers. The perspectives of Black people in the
By October 24, the quarantine was in full effect, and Russian ships, including a submarine, were nearing the 500 mile barrier. Kennedy now faced a major choice. The
That afternoon, I learned that the confrontation was about to take place as I came up out of the bowels of the subway and fixed on a newspaper headline: NUCLEAR WAR IMMINENT.
It infuriated me that somebody's program of blowing up the planet would interrupt the business of my growing up and healing the searing, corrosive scars of segregation that were tearing me in half. How could they do this to me when everything was finally coming together? I remembered when I was a kid; air raid sirens would go off every few days in our neighborhood. My father instructed us to get under a table when we heard the wailing sound. He told us not to look out of the windows when the whistles blew as bombs might be dropping from the sky. I stared across the intersection at a sullen sky, expecting at any minute to be confronted with evidence that a war had begun. Would there be a warning siren? Would there be a flash of light? Would the ground tremble beneath my feet?
Later that day the news came. Inexplicably, Russian ships had not challenged the quarantine. "We have a preliminary report which seems to indicate that some of the Russian ships have stopped dead in the water." The report was confirmed. Still the crisis was not over. Russian technicians were in
The President had said that the missiles could hit targets 1000 miles away. How far was it from
During those days in October, I experienced a crisis of consciousness. I couldn't find a point of balance, a center. As I read the news, a space opened up within me to two types of terror: one concrete, routine, familiar; the other abstract, technological. Which was worse? I couldn't say. It was eerie waiting for the bomb to drop, trying to sort out my emotions of rage and impotence. My anger came from the reluctant admission that maybe the peace activists were right all along. Maybe preventing a nuclear holocaust was more important than gaining civil rights for Black people.
Webster's Dictionary defines the verb to annihilate as "to destroy all traces of, to obliterate, to nullify or render void, to abolish." It is possible to argue that segregation is a lesser evil than annihilation because in the former, a human being may be degraded but is at least allowed a physical existence. In a nuclear blast, all people would be eliminated. This instant stands in contrast to the social death routinely enforced, which allows one set of people, through conscious and unconscious acts of commission and omission, to abuse another people. I couldn't accept the possible truth that total annihilation was worse.
On the evening of October 25 Kennedy received a "very long and emotional" letter from Krushchev. Some people who reviewed the message ominously suggested it showed that Krushchev was unstable and incoherent. In his book, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy thought otherwise. "It was not incoherent, and the emotion was directed at the death, destruction and anarchy that nuclear war would bring to his people and all mankind. That, he said, again and again and in many different ways, must be avoided. We must not succumb to 'petty passions' or to 'transient things' he wrote, but should realize that if war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war." Krushchev ended the letter proposing to withdraw weapons from
Great sighs of relief were felt throughout the land. But some saw in Kennedy's actions another example of white arrogance, the willingness on the part of Kennedy to risk the threat of global nuclear disaster rather than lose face. Kennedy chose to force Krushchev to back down unilaterally, with a potential loss of face. But the question remained: what would have happened if Krushchev had refused to back down?
Nuclear weapons are tools of a conquering, violent culture. Racism at domestic and international levels heightens the potential vulnerability and miscalculation surrounding nuclear proliferation. Few people of color have had any role in debate, development, or decision-making about the goals of this brutal technology. In a nuclear holocaust whole populations will be vaporized in the flash of an eye. People deciding the appropriateness of such a choice inevitably would bring their prejudices and fears to the devastating decision to annihilate whole peoples. The concentration of nuclear power in the hands of a Eurocentric technological elite, paranoid about the aims and aspirations of the majority of the world's population—people of color—magnifies the potential for global disaster. The great and growing gulf of human communication between the rich and poor, European and non-European, multiplies the potential antagonism that could result in planetary holocaust. In this context organizing against nuclear proliferation is, by definition, a multicultural effort, bringing the intelligence and wisdom of every community to the global task of defeating the excesses of racism, human aggression, and technology-gone-berserk.
Nuclear weapons are a violation of the sovereignty of the world's people. Freedom from annihilation is a human right.