Christopher Lee

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Five Thoughts For Today: Why the 50 Year-old Spectre Of The Cuba Missile Crisis  Hovers Over Iran

16 October 2012

Here’s the First Thought of Today: Fifty years ago this month, the thirteen day stand-off that became the Cuba Missile Crisis set the whole world’s nuclear teeth on edge. Russia was putting missiles into Cuba. America said take them out or else.  Or else meant the already airborne US Strategic Air Command B52 nuclear armed bombers would attack. John F Kennedy stared, Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev blinked. The Americans now say that if the buttons had been pressed in October 1962, 200 million would have died.

Here’s the Second Thought: In the same year, President Kennedy’s  Secretary of Defense Robert  McNamara went along to give a speech at the American Bar Foundation.  Not many people remember ABF speeches.  The whole world remembered one phrase from that one – MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.

His thesis was simple: America would have the biggest possible stockpile of nuclear weapons. So would the Soviet Union. So if one side attacked, the other would survive enough of the first wave of attack to immediately retaliate.  Thus both societies would be mutually destroyed.  With this indisputable understanding of mutually assured destruction, neither side would risk war.

Third Thought: For the next thirty years, until the fall of the Soviet Union, the world really believed that there was a high chance that nuclear war between the USSR and USA would happen one day.

Fourth Thought for Today: Nuclear weapons have not gone away and the new members of the nuclear club look like basket cases that would never even think about MAD. They’d simply go for it. Mushroom clouds galore.

By the 1980s, both sides could have destroyed the whole world.  Moscow and Washington twitched most days of the week. When the Americans ran their annual military command and control exercise, Able Archer, the Soviet Higher Command thought it could be for real.  In 1983, the Soviet Union’s EWS – Early Warning System – thought it had picked up an American missile attack. That was close to testing the worst aspects of the MAD thesis.

Today, the East West nuclear weapons systems may not have been run down or cold-stored – hundreds on both sides are still on Go status – but the perceived chance nuclear war sets in three areas: the Koreas, India-Pakistan and Iran with Israel and its commanders of its 100 or so nuclear warheads keeping a scary eye on that place.  Most of the quietly minded analysts in this high-risk weapons business will say that the real possibility is a confrontation between India and Pakistan and that the US and Russia could easily be dragged in.

To keep the scary stuff going, we get the headlines of terrorists getting hold of suitcase bombs.  Alarmist? Of course. But bookmakers will give you odds.

What has changed is the perception of fear.  Since 9/11 the world has been told to fear terrorism without anyone defining what the term means.  The fact that it takes two hours longer to get through airports is enough to convince most that the threat is real.  The second perception comes with the spread of so-called social media and instant reporting.  Every demo, uprising or worse gets posted.  The mass media of the personal phone is the new fear.  Why?  Because we believe what we think we see.

The greatest change in the perception of fear is the gradual realization that there are no Khruschev-Kennedy stare-outs to fix crises. The great military and economic powers can no longer fix the calamities of war and potential war without leaving a trail and residue of even worse calamity – Iraq is an example, Afghanistan will be.

So the next test will be Iran.  It is a self-made Cuba Crisis. Maybe sanctions can fix it. Maybe Israel thinks it has a better idea and that, if it happens, would drag in Russia and the United States. Fifty years after Cuba and Bob  McNamara, the spectre hangs over Tehran.  That, is the Fifth Thought For Today.

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