Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis: A UCL Workshop
Earlier this month I attended a history workshop at UCL on memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For thirteen precarious days in October 1962 the world was a hair’s breadth away from nuclear war, and subsequent memories of the event have shaped the way in which nuclear issues are discussed to this day. In attendance was a group of scholars and teachers from various corners of the globe: Brazil, France, the USA, the UK, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The aim of the workshop was to explore the ways in which the Cuban Missile Crisis has been remembered over the last half-century, as well as how this memory has filtered into teaching practices at secondary schools in different nations.
A major portion of the workshop was concerned with recent historical findings about how governments of different countries reacted to the Crisis. Much of the discussion was around new research coordinated by Dr. Benoit Pelopidas in a forthcoming volume, Global Nuclear Vulnerability. It was intriguing to hear about how the same event can have been so differently interpreted and remembered in different national contexts.
Distinctions in perception stood out even between NATO nations supposedly on the same side in the Cold War stand-off. For example, the UK was apparently the most pessimistic and aware of their vulnerability. The Brazilians, through their diplomatic connections to Central American governments, attempted to act as mediators to Cuba and also showed some awareness of vulnerability. However, at the other end of the spectrum the French government was relatively unafraid of nuclear war actually taking place. Similarly, the Chinese organised some minor protests condemning US action, as well as blood donations at its Havana embassy, but apparently little more. The New Zealand and Australian governments, moreover, did not consider the conflict a potential threat to their own territories.
This new research is important in that it offers a broader historical insight into the Cuban Missile Crisis, with current scholarship being almost exclusively from a USA/UK perspective. It is amazing to consider that where for one country the Cuban Missile Crisis was one wrong move from a nuclear apocalypse, in another it was an unexceptional moment in the history of international politics. By revealing the different ways in which the Crisis was perceived internationally, the research makes it clear that there is not (and has never been) a unified understanding of the danger and effects of nuclear weapons, nor of historical near-misses. This is a dangerous thing in a world where nuclear proliferation is a constant theme within the day-to-day workings of international politics.
Three important things stood out for me from the workshop overall: firstly, that memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in different countries reveal a general overconfidence in the ability of governments to manage and maintain a nuclear arsenal. Some countries were entirely unconcerned or unaware of the danger they were in, even at the height of the crisis. Where the sense of danger was more tangible, the Cuban Missile Crisis often serves as an example of diplomatic success rather than a cautionary case-study for all the things that could have so easily gone wrong. Most frightening of all, perhaps, was that a nuclear war could have been started by accident by something as minor as a systems error or misreading of information.
A second striking point that emerged from the workshop was how popular representations of the Crisis in film and media, far from accentuating the danger, have actually reinforced a sense of complacency around nuclear war. When total annihilation via nuclear weapons can be so readily resolved by any modern comic book hero (with nuclear weapons in general and the Cuban Missile Crisis specifically being a not-infrequent trope of the Hollywood blockbuster) then they become accepted as an unexceptional feature of national defence capabilities.
Finally, the workshop highlighted that the historical paradox of nuclear weapons is more alive and well today than ever before. If nuclear weapons are so powerful and destructive that they can never conceivably be used, why should they still hold such a central part of the arms race and a nation’s military arsenal? And yet, the idea of giving up a nuclear arsenal is anathema to more conservatively minded positions on defence policy. Indeed, it can be difficult to argue against the instinctive fear of your neighbour having a destructive capacity far superior to your own.