My blog post today on Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 will focus on Cuba.
President 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 381).
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 military purposes.
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 base.
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 worse.
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.
Second, 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.