Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Cuba Dispatches – The View from Moscow
In the fall of ’62, brother Jeff and I were each doing our thing. He was reluctantly learning Vietnamese – he had wanted Russian – at the Army Language School (ALS) in Monterey while I hunkered down in Bloomington feverishly preparing for my PhD exams at Indiana University (IU).
One day in October I was surprised to find the Cold War swirling around me. I had thought that day-to-day reality was behind me when I finished my tour on the front lines of the great East-West conflict in Europe four years earlier. However, the Soviets had secretly begun their build-up in Cuba during late summer. First, ground troops were sent by sea from Leningrad. To avoid detection by US and British aircraft routinely surveilling Soviet shipping out of the eastern Baltic, the troops were kept out of sight below decks by day.
Even when the literary-minded infantry commander requested permission to go topside as the ship was passing through the narrow strait off the Danish coast – just to glimpse the legendary castle at Elsinore where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set – the ship’s captain turned him down. To all intents and purposes, the vessels that NATO overflights observed were just ordinary Soviet freighters routinely carrying cargo to Cuba.
Not until early October when Soviet missile launchers had been emplaced in Cuba and the defensive ground force was encamped ashore did the US detect Khrushchev’s near fait accompli. The ominous ’13 days in October’ ensued with National Security Advisor Bundy convening an ad hoc ‘executive committee’ (Ex-Comm) chaired by the President and his brother to cope with the crisis.
During the crisis, anticipating missile strikes on their bases, the Strategic Air Command dispersed 200 bombers with nuclear loads to civilian airports.
Meanwhile at normally placid IU, a fellow grad student in Soviet Studies, the left activist George Shriver had done his political work well. Although he had withdrawn from grad school in the spring of ’62, moved to New York, and opted for a career as a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) staffer, George left behind at the university a solidly organized, albeit small SWP affiliate, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and its off-shoot, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC).
Coming to the end of my time at IU that fall semester, I was unaware of those small campus activist groups. A typical liberal, left politics were not my thing. My PhD coursework completed, I was intensely studying for the doctoral exams in November.
The exams loomed large in a grad student’s life. If one passed successfully, one was admitted to ‘candidacy’, meaning you moved on to researching and writing a dissertation – in effect, a book-length manuscript – toward attaining a PhD degree and beyond, an academic career.
For me then, nothing had higher priority in October ’62 – not even the hair-raising confrontation between the United States and the USSR over little Cuba just 90 miles off-shore. Likewise, the unfolding Cuban Missile Crisis made barely a ripple in the routine at ALS on the California coast. Jeff and his fellow GI students continued to attend language classes six hours a day while the Kennedy (JFK) Administration was quietly building up its assets for the low-key but escalating war in Vietnam.
Meanwhile off the Florida coast, tensions were rising. Soviet anti-aircraft missiles brought down an American U-2 over Cuba while another US spy plane, actually on a high altitude weather mission, accidently strayed into Soviet airspace, a provocation even at the best of times. Soviet MiGs scrambled, US fighters rose to meet them, and the errant U-2 pilot barely escaped, not to mention that an aerial dogfight was avoided.
Serious people in the States feared the possibility of full-scale armed conflict between the superpowers, one that could rapidly escalate into nuclear war. They weren’t far off the mark as we subsequently learned. In the Ex-Comm meetings in the White House, shielded from public view, the generals were strongly pushing JFK to attack Cuba and take out the Soviet missile batteries soon expected to be ready to threaten American cities and military installations.
The protestors – Fair Play for Cuba stalwarts – were trying to march down a
broad avenue amidst several thousand shouting and cursing fellow students.
Anticipating missile strikes on Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases, the Pentagon dispersed 200 bombers loaded with nuclear bombs to civilian airports from Portland to Philadelphia. In turn, the Army mobilized a quarter of a million troops for an invasion of Cuba – my parents living in Miami told me the roads south to the sea were clogged with military vehicles. Even inexperienced, first-year student nurses in training at hospitals across the country were put on alert for casualties from a nuclear attack.
Naturally I was deeply concerned – who wouldn’t be – and I had to make a very fundamental decision. Time was short before my PhD exams, but so was the nuclear fuse lit between the superpowers. With WWIII waiting in the wings, should I hang it up – forget about studying day and night and have a final fling before everything came to an end – or should I push on. I voted for a future.
As the missile crisis deepened, I was walking across campus to the library one afternoon to collect more books and saw a clutch of people – perhaps eight in number – carrying signs critical of the President’s naval blockade of Cuba. American warships were on station to prevent Soviet freighters from delivering the missiles, the final step in the dangerous contretemps underway. The protestors – FPCC stalwarts – were trying to march down one of IU’s broad avenues amidst a huge crowd of several thousand shouting and cursing fellow students.†
Occasionally a hostile student would dash out of the crowd, snatch a protester’s sign, and tear it up to stormy cheers. Farther along the march route,
another onlooker ran out, threw a punch, and a brief scuffle ensued – the marcher slugged was trying to shield the two women at the center of the group.
Throughout the ordeal, campus security and the city cops stood by impassively as the FPCC folks struggled on, advocating at that moment as the nation was rallying around the flag probably the most unpopular position imaginable. As I walked on, I thought, ‘God, those people are brave’.
Fortunately for the world, cool heads prevailed in the Kremlin and at the White House, and the crisis came to a peaceful resolution. We all breathed a sigh of relief. It might have been otherwise if JFK had not fended off General Curtis LeMay and other hawks on the Ex-Comm pushing for a preemptive air and land attacks on Cuba.
After the USSR collapsed in ’91, it was revealed in Moscow that the Soviet combat brigade in Cuba had been equipped with tactical nuclear weapons, and the commander was authorized to use them if American forces came ashore.
Castro was furious the Soviets had backed off and pulled their missile batteries, leaving revolutionary Cuba high and dry. He was well aware of the CIA’s attempts to assassinate him and assumed the ‘imperialist’ United States would not stop at taking him out, but would launch another invasion of the island.
At IU, but for a few bruises, IU’s pro-Cuba contingent survived its ordeal to protest another day. Jeff finished at the language school and shipped out to Vietnam, and I passed my PhD exams and headed for Moscow late summer ‘63 for a year of dissertation research for my doctorate.
I had been selected for the official US-Soviet graduate student exchange designed to encourage better mutual understanding to help avoid war. The idea was that each side’s young scholars would get an up-close experience in their respective societies. I was assigned to the law school at Moscow University. It was to be a remarkable year.
My arrival at Moscow Law School in September ’63 was preceded by Castro’s state visit to the USSR that spring. Khrushchev wanted to make amends to the unhappy Cuban leader for the Soviets’ abrupt retreat from Cuba. Castro had agreed to go to Moscow to discuss a very generous Soviet aid package as a kind of reparations. The trip was organized around the May Day celebrations, the second most important holiday in the Soviet calendar.
It was the most elaborate welcome ever extended to a foreign head of state. A red carpet was laid out from Lenin’s Tomb to Swan Lake. Castro reviewed the gala May Day parade in Red Square from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum along with the Soviet leadership – a rare honor for a foreign leader.
Castro & Khrushchev, May Day parade, 1963
Soviet crowds were ecstatic over the charismatic Cuban leader, a genuine revolutionary hero. In the late ‘50s American media had lionized the guerrillas for their daring forays against the Batista regime, so one can easily imagine the exuberant Soviet press adulation that preceded Castro.
For Khrushchev, the visit was of the utmost significance as it helped repair the damage to his image with his comrades after the humiliating withdrawal from the Caribbean. It also shored up his flagging leadership position in the international communist movement – for the time being.
Soviet crowds were ecstatic over Castro, a genuine revolutionary hero.
Fidel understood the great leverage he had and extracted a huge political, economic, and military aid package. On the symbolic side of the state visit, the USSR heaped honors and laurels on him, including an honorary Doctorate of Laws from what would shortly become my Soviet alma mater, Moscow University (MGU). The degree was conferred in the Great Hall at MGU’s Lenin Hills campus high above the River Moskva. The citation noted Castro’s contribution to the “application of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine to State and Law.”
In his acceptance remarks before the throng of students, including my soon-to-be fellow law students, Fidel told them that his first big mistake in life was to study law in a capitalist society with its main emphasis on commercial, property, and real estate law, “laws of a society doomed to disappear.” He assured his audience to rousing cheers that Marxism-Leninism would guide the solutions to all of Cuba’s constitutional, legal, and institutional questions.
Castro went on to tour the length and breadth of that vast country from Murmansk near the Arctic Circle to ancient Samarkand in the Soviet Central Asian desert. At every stop he was enthusiastically feted by the local establishment and the general public. After more than 40 days, he returned triumphantly to Havana.
Castro and Soviet sailors in Leningrad, 1963
I arrived in Moscow for my research year in early September. The university was still on summer break so I had time to look around. I made a point of going to several Soviet movies – nothing remarkable, ordinary fare – primarily to ‘tune up’ my Russian language ear. The only one I recall was a WWII drama which, given the country’s staggering losses of 27 million dead, was in ’63 still well within living memory of nearly all.
The scenario followed a predictable plot line – first the Soviet forces suffered serious reverses, but then regrouped and through great heroism exacted a terrible toll on the enemy. What surprised me though was that all around me in the theater older men were weeping.
A few weeks later I was no longer the only occupant on my floor of the dorm – the law students had come back for fall semester. Most had been working in Kazakhstan, one of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian republics, performing their pro bono ‘social duty’ helping bring in the harvest. Moscow Law School soon came alive, and it was time for me to present myself to my Soviet advisor.
The law school was near the city center, lodged in a time-worn 18th century building not far from the Kremlin. It was a rather ornate structure and must have been at one time the grand residence of a wealthy merchant.
At the appointed hour, I climbed the stairs to the Jurisprudence Department on the second floor. The door stood open, and I entered the cavernous room with elaborately ornamented flourishes along the high ceiling, décor I’d never before seen in an academic office.
My advisor, Dr Professor A I Denisov, a nationally known jurist, chaired the department and had assembled his faculty to welcome the American visitor. For me, a rookie in Russia, it was somewhat daunting as they all rose to greet me with customary handshakes. Andrei Ivanovich introduced me to each colleague, several of whose names I recognized from having read their books.
Everyone was cordial, but it was still little overwhelming since the huge windows overlooking the street below were open – AC not an option – and noise rising from passing buses and trolleys sometimes drowned out the chair’s deep hoarse voice. Finally, an ice-breaker of sorts as I was introduced to a junior docent about my age.
He asked where I lived in the States. Told him my parents lived in south Florida, at which he lit up with a big smile and said, “I’ll be flying over there in a few days.” He was bound for Havana for the academic year to lecture at the law school through simultaneous translation on Soviet administrative law.
The docent was part of the vanguard of the big Soviet aid package negotiated by Castro during his spring visit – one of a number of law profs being dispatched to Cuba, effectively to transmit the Soviet legal model. Coincidentally, a generation earlier when East Europe fell behind the Iron Curtain, Professor Denisov, as a young scholar, had performed the same function in Communist Bulgaria as the new regime there struggled to put a Soviet-style system in place.
As had been the case in Communist East Europe earlier, by the late ‘60s most of the textbooks used in the Cuban law schools were verbatim translations of Soviet texts into Spanish.
I soon settled into a routine in Moscow – research at the Lenin Library, classes at the law school, and occasional forays into the impressive world of Soviet high culture, music, ballet, and theater. One evening that fall I was at the Bolshoi Theater with a group of fellow American exchange students. We had gone to see the Russian opera Boris Godunov. As foreign visitors in the USSR, we were privileged to have excellent orchestra seats at nominal cost.
Bolshoi Theater, Moscow
We arrived early and waited for the curtain, which was delayed a few minutes. I had noticed that the theater’s first three rows were empty and cordoned off by ushers. Finally, some 75 Cuban Army officers trooped in and filled the seats as honored guests of the evening. They doubtlessly didn’t know Russian, so what they might have thought of that melodramatic opera – a dark tale of royal intrigue in the 17th century Kremlin – we’ll never know.
During intermission in the lobby, the officers kept to themselves. Just as the US trained allied Latin American military personnel in our higher command schools, the Bolshoi’s guests were also part of the Soviet aid program to revolutionary Cuba. They were in Moscow for advanced tactical training in Soviet Army schools.
North Vietnamese students posted a large sign in our dorm lounge gleefully welcoming Kennedy’s death; Russian students tore it down in a fury. _________________________________________________________
During my Moscow sojourn, I became aware of Cuba for the last time in late ’63. I was in my room in the Lenin Hills dorms when the terrible news arrived that JFK had been assassinated in Dallas just an hour earlier on the other side of the world.††
There were just a few Americans in the dorm, and we were desperate for information. From what we could glean from special Soviet news announcements interspersed with funereal music, Voice of America shortwave broadcasts, and phone calls to the embassy, the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had a possible Cuban connection. He was married to a young Soviet woman and had lived for a time in the USSR. Once back in the States, he identified himself with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
My Russian dorm mates greatly admired Castro and were quite upset at the suggestion that Cuba might be involved in the death of the President. Paradoxically, they also thought well of JFK even though he was the chief adversary of their country.
Sub rosa they appreciated JFK’s youth and vigor as a leader. Unspoken, but well understood, was an implicit comparison with their own sluggish, geriatric leadership. When North Vietnamese students from the floor below posted a large Russian-language sign in our dorm lounge that gleefully welcomed Kennedy’s death, the Russian students tore it down in a fury.
Two days later, when Jack Ruby shot Oswald before the cameras of the world, the Soviet public was shocked and dismayed by our gun-crazy culture, and nothing further was heard of a Cuban link. For me, dissertation research beckoned, and Cuba fell off my radar screen.
I returned to the States the following summer, and several months later Khrushchev’s comrades ousted him in a bloodless coup. The bill of particulars against him included a number of his policies dubbed ‘harebrained schemes’, among which the USSR’s Cuban debacle loomed large.