MOYERS: The fall of '62. We had a lot to give thanks for on that Thanksgiving day, 40 years ago.
Once President Bush raised the analogy to the Missile Crisis, I wanted to talk about it with one of America's leading scholars on the subject.
James Blight started out in cognitive psychology and now teaches international relations at Brown University.
Among the highly acclaimed books he's written or edited is WILSON'S GHOST: REDUCING THE RISK OF CONFLICT, KILLING AND CATASTROPHE IN THE 21ST CENTURY, and this one on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The research done by James Blight and his colleagues has changed how we see the Missile Crisis.
Most recently he spearheaded a conference in Cuba attended by Americans, Russians, and Cubans, including Fidel Castro, who were key players in that close call 40 years ago.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
President Bush recently indirectly invoked the Cuban Missile Crisis to talk about the confrontation with Iraq.
Can we possibly compare what's happening in Iraq to Cuba?
BLIGHT: Sure, in certain ways that I think are illuminating about the current situation. You felt in 1962 that the situation was spinning out of control...
MOYERS: That's the...
BLIGHT: ...that the unthinkable could actually happen.
The question, was it as dangerous as many people thought it was? I think the answer is it was much more dangerous than many people thought it was.
It was certainly more dangerous than was understood by the hawksthe so-called hawks within the Kennedy Administration, who were recommending day after day, both civilian and military advisors to President Kennedythat the proper approach to discovering these missiles on the island of Cuba was to attack with an air strike, but probably also invade the island because it would be necessary to determine if any of them were hidden.
While you were there, get rid of the Cuban leadership of Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro, and Che Guevara. Replace it with a leadership, a regime change, so to speakas is now said. Replace it with a leadership that was more in tune with the wishes of Washington.
Kennedy... Kennedy was cautious.
We must... think about what happened to him the year before, during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April of 1961. He was humiliated. The whole country was humiliated. And he had been in office less than three months. And if he hadn't handled it so expertly, hadn't taken full responsibility for it, it's possible that he could've even been impeached.
Now Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs invasion and its failure that he had to take with a grain of salt advice given to him by both the intelligence community and by his military people.
He was a man who worried about what he did not know, because it was what he didn't know in the Bay of Pigs that really harmed the American situation.
Now, in the Missile Crisis, now we know now that were 162 nuclear warheads on the island. We thought that there were none.
About 90 of these nuclear warheads were for war fighting. They weren't for launch against the United States. They were for launch against an invading force of U.S. Marines or U.S. Navy ships out at sea.
If the attack had gone forward and the invasion had occurred, the U.S. Marines would've met nuclear fire and would've been torched and totally destroyed in a mushroom cloud on the beaches of Cuba.
What would Kennedy have done?
I mean, I'm not... I don't want to appear to be hyperbolic. But if that had happened, Kennedy would've had to respond with nuclear weapons. Kennedy felt that was true at the time. It would've taken two hours for this nuclear counterstrike to occur.
Another thing is that there were 43,000 Russians on that northern perimeter of the island. Most of them would've been destroyed.
And so with a war fighting capability that could've sunk every American ship within 50 miles of Cuba with nuclear torpedoes, with the ability to totally destroy any American forces that would've reached the island, and having killed many thousands or tens of thousands of Russians, we ask, "What would Khrushchev have done?"
Sergei Khrushchev, Khrushchev's... Nikita Khrushchev's son, is a colleague of mine at Brown University. His office is right down the hall. He's written several books about his father.
And I ask him this, and many people have asked him this, "Sergei, what would your father have done in the event of that attack knowing what we know now about the capabilities on the island?"
He said he would've had the following choice: resignmaybe get shot if he didor respond militarily, either by seizing West Berlin, which would've required the United States and NATO to use tactical nuclear weapons against Soviet forces, or to attack NATO nuclear missiles in Turkey, which would've required a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union. We were two or three moves away from that if the attack had occurred.
MOYERS: The analogy breaks down, it seems to me, at this point. No one is suggesting that Saddam Hussein has any capacity now to strike the United States or anybody else.
So a preemptive strike now, Bush's advisors claim, would have no unintended consequences such as those would've... that would've happened in Cuba.
BLIGHT: If we were to attack Iraq, without giving Saddam Hussein and his people an opportunity to launch, let's say, chemical and biological tipped missiles at Israelthat's the scenario that I think most people fear the mostbut the reason that it's important to think a little harder about this, I think, with the example of Missile Crisis in mind, is that very, very bright people in that administration believed exactly the same thing in October of 1962.
"If you go now and you go quickly," as Paul Nitze the...who was an assistant Secretary of Defense, argued, "Nothing will happen. Nothing bad will happen.
You will get rid of this infernal, communist devil in the Caribbean, Fidel Castro, who's causing us so much grief and getting away with it. And you will also teach the Russians a lesson. They have a sphere of influence over there.
Ours is here, and they'd better stay put."
Well, it was a very persuasive argument, except that they were wrong. And if the... I think...
MOYERS: They were wrong because they didn't know that Cuba had all...they had all these missiles, they had all these warheads, and they had authorization to use the...
MOYERS: But Jim, Cuba was heavily armed, 90 miles of the United States coast.
That mistake would've been very costly. What the Bush people are saying is, "It's impossible. He may... yes, he may have can... He may have gas to use against his neighbors, against Israel, but he can not retaliate in the same way that Castro could have."
And so the analogy breaks down on the weight of the threat to the world from Iraq today and Cuba then.
BLIGHT: It's true. I mean the analogy is an analogy. It doesn't say anything about what Saddam Hussein has or what... how he would use them. There's several points, though, I think, that are worth making.
One is, George Bush has not had his Bay of Pigs. He is not... he has not been humiliated.
He has not seen the extent to which the intelligence community and giving information about what capabilities are, and to a certain extent, intentions of Saddam Hussein and his regime. He has not seen that often these reports are wrong.
Likewise, with his military advisors who are giving, apparently, a very rosy view of what will happen when this regime is changed due to a multi-faceted attack by U.S. and British, or other forces. If it comes to that, if the inspections don't work some time in the next few months, the war would begin.
I don't know if you or your viewers areagain this is so long ago, I hate to even say anything about itbut one of my favorite movies is BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.
And at the end of this, Redford and Newman are holed up in this hut in Bolivia. And the hills are just full of people with guns. And at the very last minute they look at each other, they smile, they draw their guns, and they come roaring out of there. And the frame freezes as they're smiling, shooting off their guns.
But what you hear is hundreds and thousands of rifles being fired in their direction. They're dead. They're obviously dead. But they may have taken a few people with them. And that's how a hero goes down.
Well, okay, for Butch and the kid, they may have taken one or two or three of these guys with them. But a leader with weapons of mass destructionwhether nuclear or chemical or biologicalcan take not a few, but thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people could die.
Maybe many of them would be Iraqis. I would not be happy about that.
Maybe they would be Israelis. I wouldn't be happy about that.
They have different kinds of consequences. Biological weapons are notoriously difficult to control. Nobody knows where they're going to go. It depends which way...literally which way the wind is blowing.
MOYERS: So what do you think is the psychological game going on now, this weekend, between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein? Kennedy and Khrushchev gave each other a way out.
BLIGHT: Two things about that strike me. One is that George Bush may not have this capacity for...worrying whether he can be hurt by something he doesn't know or he can't even imagine, such as nuclear weapons in Cuba. See, we didn't imagine that.
BLIGHT: We don't imagine there are any in Iraq. Maybe there aren't. Maybe. But how much, if you're a betting person, do you want to stake on that?
MOYERS: You know, we didn't imagine 9/11 either. That was a real attack, a bloody attack, a calculated, deliberately, brilliantly executed attack by guys who want to kill us. And I must imagine that that's what George Bush is thinking Saddam Hussein could make happen one day. Do you?
BLIGHT: Well, yes. But I wonder if an attack on Iraq were to go forward... One thing that 9/11/01 showed us is that we're very vulnerable. I think it's the first time, I would argue since the Missile Crisis. When people woke up on the 12th, the 13th of September wondering, "Now what else going on?
I mean, are they...what else can possibly happen?"
If we attack...I mean how many ways are there to attack the United States of America and hurt us where it will really hit us where it will really hurt us?
It's an infinite set.
MOYERS: Yeah. If Castro had had human bombers, he would not have needed the Soviet missiles.
BLIGHT: No. And he would've used 'em in fact. Che Guevara, who some people may remember as a...as sort of the ultra left-wing of the left-wing of the Cuban revolutionary leadership, was upset, terribly upset after the crisis, because after the Missile Crisis, because the United States hadn't been destroyed.
And when he was asked by a Mexican interviewer in early '63, "Well, but...but surely, surely you must be satisfied or happy that Cuba wasn't destroyed?"
He said, "No, no. I'm not happy about thatif the United States had been destroyed at the same time."
MOYERS: Put your psychologist hat back on. In terms of what's at stake, what do you think is going through Saddam Hussein's mind now? Does he want to be a martyr?
BLIGHT: My opinion is no. I mean he's...he's a survivor. He's survived all kinds of things. He doesn't want to be a martyr.
But it's in his interest right now, I think, to give the impression that he would not mind being a martyr if it comes to that... That he's tough, his people are tough, and they're fighting for Arab... I mean, it's a little harder to figure out what the cause is.
It's interesting that this tape that's come in recently that may or may not be from Osama bin Laden, seems to show a certain amount of respect for the Iraqis.
I mean, there's...is there any leader in the world who's killed more Muslims in the last 30 years than Saddam Hussein? I don't know who it would be.
But, you know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
MOYERS: But if like Castro, Hussein feels he has nothing to lose, what does he do? He can't call in the Soviet Union to rain death and destruction on the United States...
MOYERS: ...on the United States. What does he do?
BLIGHT: I would guess that what Saddam Hussein would do would be to try to destroy Israel. That... I... whether he can do that, whether he can destroy it with chemical and biological weapons, maybe some other conventional weapons, I'm not sure. But that would seem to me to be the analogy of interest here.
MOYERS: The Pentagon has already started using psychological language to...against Iraq, against Saddam Hussein. Does that mean they're just narrowing the exit a little further, that it's getting harder and harder to reverse course and get out of the inevitable?
BLIGHT: Sure. I think it is hardfor me, anywayto imagine now how a Bush Administration is going to be able to walk back from the threat of massive violence, short of a full...what will amount to a full capitulation. We go into Iraq. We stay in Iraq for a long time. We look under every blanket and every nook and cranny.
How much of this are the Iraqis going to tolerate? I don't know.
How much should they tolerate? I'm not sure.
But if the inspectors are given, whatever they...the free reign that is required by the...by the U.N. resolution, as interpreted by the inspectors and by the U.S., if that happens, they will have done something, the Iraqis will have done something that the Cubans never did.
They will have allowed their sovereignty to be violated in a way that was unthinkable to the Cubans.
Now, that in itself, having occurred within the context of the U.N. Security Council, I don't think the Bush Administration had that in mind initially. I thought probably we'd be at war by now, but the U.N. has slowed this process down and has rationalized it. It's like the Missile Crisis, I think.
I'm surprised daily by the kind...by the Bush Administration going to the U.N., by them sticking with it, by the U.N. agreeing, including Syria, 15-0, that they should move ahead with inspections if the Iraqis agree, and if they don't, then military action will take place. And now the Iraqis have agreed.
MOYERS: So let's sum all this up. Let me ask you this question. What can we learn about taking a look at the Cuban Missile Crisis in the year 196240 years agothat applies to the confrontation with Iraq in 2002? What lessons?
BLIGHT: I'll give you two. One is, be very cautious about what you don't know. If an advisor tells you that they can get 100% of the known missiles, known airplanes, known factories, don't believe it. We didn't get 100% of the scuds during the Gulf War, or anything close to it. So be cautious about what you don't know. Because in the Missile Crisis, it came so close, not only to hurting John Kennedy, but to leading to events that are scarcely even imaginable.
On the other hand, it's possible to talk with dictators. Khrushchev was the secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the mortal enemy of the United States, who said just a year before the Missile Crisis that "We will bury you"they will bury us.
These people don't want to die. They don't want their countries to be destroyed. They want to remain in power. And if the situation is sufficiently dangerous, then they need to be given a way out.
And the evidence is that not only would... not only did Khrushchev seek a way out at the last minute, but that Castro would've, too. But nobody asked him. And so he felt that he had no... the only way he could get our attention was to start shooting down our airplanes, possibly attacking Guantanamo Bay.
So the one lesson is to be very, very cautious where weapons of mass destruction are involved about what you don't know, or are not 100% sure of.
And secondly, talk to each other. Don't signal each other with bombs or with alert levels or with how many planes are going to over-fly. I mean, you might get to that, but talk even if you're doing that.
Provide some kind of carrot that is understood as a carrot, as well as the sticks, as well as the bombs, the airplanes, the soldiers, the aircraft carriers, and that whole...that whole pressure-cooker that we're trying to build around Iraq.
MOYERS: Thank you very much, James Blight. I appreciate you being with us.
BLIGHT: You're welcome.