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Is our presence in the Ukraine a reverse Cuban Missile Crisis?

Posted on February 25th, 2015 in War by Robert Miller

William Polk, writing in Consortium News has written an article that we all should read with a sense of alarm. He has deep expertise in the Cuban missile crisis and sees a reverse of that crisis in Ukraine today. Like our Monroe Doctrine which covers this hemisphere, we must respect the Russian demands for a more neutral Ukraine, one in which NATO membership would be denied. We have already broken our promise not to expand NATO in an agreement with Gorbachev: there is no paperwork on this agreement because the Russians “trusted” us and we broke our promise. Shame on us. But let’s not foolishly get into a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. The consequences of such an action could trigger a massive nuclear war which could endanger planetary species survival, including that of our own. The military and the necons are insisting we arm Ukraine, but a far better strategy would be to walk away, remove the barriers to peace we have insisted on and begin negotiations with Putin to defuse the war and bring peace to the region. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, should be fired for her participation in the coup that sent democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych into exile. This is an important test for President Obama: will he continue to follow the neocon line of confrontation or turn away from that dangerous policy and make peace?

Ukraine War: A Reverse Cuban Missile Crisis

Guided by an aggressive neocon “regime change” strategy, the United States has stumbled into a potential military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, a dangerous predicament that could become a Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse, as ex-U.S. diplomat William R. Polk explains.

By William R. Polk

In a rather ghastly Nineteenth Century experiment, a biologist by the name of Heinzmann found that if he placed a frog in boiling water, the frog immediately leapt out but that if he placed the frog in tepid water and then gradually heated it, the frog stayed put until he was scalded to death.

Are we like the frog? I see disturbing elements of that process today as we watch events unfold in the Ukraine confrontation. They profoundly frighten me and I believe they should frighten everyone. But they are so gradual that we do not see a specific moment in which we must jump or perish.

In October 1962, Americans were terrified over Soviet missiles in Cuba, as this newspaper map showing distances between Cuba and major North American  cities demonstrates.

So here briefly, let me lay out the process of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and show how the process of that crisis compares with what we face today over the Ukraine.

Three elements stand out in the Cuban Missile Crisis: 1) Relations between the USSR and the U.S. were already “on the edge” before they reached the crisis stage; each of us had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction aimed at the other. 2) The USSR precipitated the Crisis by advancing into Cuba, a country the U.S. had considered part of its “area of dominance” since the promulgation of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. 3) Some military and civilian officials and influential private citizens in both countries argued that the other side would “blink” if sufficient pressure was put on it.

Allow me to point out that I had a (very uncomfortable) ringside seat in the Crisis. I was one of three members of the “Crisis Management Committee” that oversaw the unfolding events.

On the Monday of the week of Oct. 22, 1962, I sat with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary George Ball, Counselor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council Walt Rostow and Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson and listened to President John F. Kennedy’s speech to which we all had contributed.

The account Kennedy laid out was literally terrifying to those who understood what a nuclear confrontation meant. Those of us in that room obviously did. We were each “cleared” for everything America then knew. And we each knew what our government was seeking — getting the Russian missiles out of Cuba. Finally, we were poised to do that by force if the Russians did not remove them.

Previous to that day, I had urged that we remove our “Jupiter” missiles from Turkey. This was important, I argued, because they were “offensive” rather than “defensive” weapons. The reason for this distinction was that they were obsolescent, liquid-fired rockets that required a relatively long time to fire; thus, they could only be used for a first strike. Otherwise they would be destroyed before they could be fired.

The Russians rightly regarded them as a threat. Getting them out enabled Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to remove the Russian missiles without suffering an unacceptable degree of humiliation and risking a coup d’état.

Then, following the end of the crisis, I wrote the “talking paper” for a review of the crisis, held at the Council on Foreign Relations, with all the involved senior U.S. officials in which we carefully reviewed the “lessons” of the crisis. What I write below in part derives from our consideration in that meeting. That is, it is essentially the consensus of those who were most deeply involved in the crisis.

War Gaming 

Shortly thereafter, I participated in a Top Secret Department of Defense war game, designed by Professor Thomas Schelling of MIT in which he set out a scenario of a sequence of events — ironically placed near Ukraine — to show that the USSR would accept an American nuclear attack without responding.

It was, as he said, in our “post mortem” discussion of the game, a vindication of an extension of the theory of deterrence. It was to prove that we need not fear a reaction to a limited nuclear attack. Henry Kissinger had popularized this idea in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. [Kissinger  realized his mistake and partially repudiated what he had argued in a later, 1961, book, The Necessity for Choice.]

In the post mortem discussion of the Game, I argued – and my military, intelligence and diplomatic colleagues on our war game team agreed with me – that the idea of limited nuclear war was nonsense. No government could accept a devastating attack and survive. If it did not retaliate with a “victory-denying response,” it would be overthrown and executed by its own military and security forces.

And the original attacker would, in turn, have to avenge the retaliation or it would face a similar fate. Tit for tat would lead inevitably to “general war.”

Twenty years later, in 1983, a second Department of Defense war game (code named “Proud Prophet”) in which I did not participate and which was heavily weighted to the military confirmed what I had argued in 1962: there was no such thing as a “limited” nuclear war if both sides were armed with nuclear weapons. Limited nuclear actions inevitably ended in all-out war.

So, to be realistic, forget “limited” war and consider general war.

Even the great advocate of thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller, admitted that their use would “endanger the survival of man[kind].” The Russian nuclear scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, laid out a view of the consequences in the Summer 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs as “a calamity of indescribable proportions.”

Nuclear Consequences

More detail was assembled by a scientific study group convened by Carl Sagan and reviewed by 100 scientists. A graphic summary of their findings was published in the Winter 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Sagan pointed out that since both major nuclear powers had targeted cities, casualties could reasonably  be estimated at between “several hundred million to 1.1 billion people” with an additional 1.1 billion people seriously injured. Those figures related to the 1980s. Today, the cities have grown so the numbers would be far larger.

Massive fires set off by the bombs would carry soot into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to fall to a level that would freeze ground to a depth of about three feet. Planting crops would be impossible and such food as was stored would probably be contaminated so the few survivors would starve.

The hundreds of millions of bodies of the dead could not be buried and would spread contagion. As the soot settled and the sun again became again visible, the destruction of the ozone layer would remove the protection from ultraviolet rays and so promote the mutation of pyrotoxins.

Diseases against which there were no immunities would spread. These would overwhelm not only the human survivors but, in the opinion of the expert panel of 40 distinguished biologists, would cause “species extinction” among both plants and animals. Indeed, there was a distinct possibility that “there might be no human survivors in the Northern Hemisphere … and the possibility of the extinction of Homo sapiens.”

So to summarize:

–It is almost certain that neither the American nor the Russian government could  accept even a limited attack without responding.

–There is no reason to believe that a Russian government, faced with defeat in conventional weapons, would be able to avoid using nuclear weapons.

–Whatever attempts are made to limit escalation are likely to fail and in failing lead to all out war.

–And, the predictable consequences of a nuclear war are indeed an unimaginable catastrophe.

These dangers, even if today they seem remote, clearly demand that we do everything we possibly can to avoid the fate of the frog. We can see that the “water” is beginning to heat up. We should not sit and wait for it to boil.

We did not do so in the Cuban Missile Crisis. We and the Russians worked out a solution.  So what will we, what should we do now?

Realistic Thinking

The first step is to “appreciate” the situation as it actually is and to see clearly the flow and direction of events. Of course, they are not precisely the same as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. History does not exactly repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain has pithily said, subsequent events sometimes “rhyme” with those that went before.

Consider these key elements:

–Despite the implosion of the Soviet Union and the attempts to cut back on nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States remain parallel nuclear powers with each having the capacity to destroy the other — and probably the whole world. Hundreds if not thousands of our weapons apparently remain on “hair trigger alert.” I assume that theirs are similarly poised.

–Both Russia and the United States are governed by men who are unlikely to be able to accept humiliation – and almost certain murder by “super patriots” in their own entourages – and would be forced to act even at the cost of massive destruction to their countries.

So pressing the leadership of the opponent in this direction is literally playing with fire.  As President Kennedy and the rest of us understood in the 1962 crisis, even if leaders want to avoid conflict, at a certain point in their mutual threats, events replace policy and leaders become bystanders.

–Both the Russian and American people have demonstrated their resilience and determination. Neither is apt to be open to intimidation.

–Both the Russians and the Americans are guided in their foreign policy by what they believe to be “core concerns.” For the Americans, as the Cuban Missile Crisis and many previous events illustrate, this comes down to the assertion of a “zone of exclusion” of outsiders.

America showed in the Cuban Missile Crisis that we would not tolerate, even at almost unimaginable danger, intrusion into our zone. Among the Russians, as their history illustrates, a similar code of action prevails. Having suffered, as fortunately we have not, horrifying costs of invasion throughout history but particularly in the Twentieth Century, the Russians can be expected to block, by any means and up to any cost, intrusions into their zone.

[I have laid out the Russian experience in a previous essay, “Shaping the Deep Memories of Russians and Ukrainians,” which is available on my website, www.williampolk.com]–We said we understood this fundamental policy objective of the Russians, and officially on behalf of our government, Secretary of State James Baker Jr. agreed not to push our military activities into their sphere. We have, however, violated this agreement and have added country by constituent country of the former Soviet Union and its satellites to our military alliance, NATO.

–We are now at the final stage, just short of Russia itself in the Ukraine, and, as the Russians know, some influential Americans have suggested that we should push forward to “the gates of Moscow.” Those who advocate what the British once called a “Forward Policy,” now see the necessary first steps to be the arming of Ukraine.

–And finally, there is no way in which we or the European Union could arm Ukraine to a level that it could balance Russia. Thus, the weapons are likely both to give the Ukrainians unrealistic notions of what they can do vis-à-vis Russia and to be seen by the Russians as “offensive” moves to which they might feel compelled to respond. Consequently, they could lead us all into a war we do not want.

Policy Prescriptions

So what to do? In a word: stop. What we are now doing and what we contemplate doing is not in our interest or in the interests of the Ukrainians and is perceived as a threat by the Russians. We cannot deliver on the policy we would encourage the Ukrainians to adopt by arming them without a war. Economic sanctions are a form of that war, but they are unlikely to accomplish what we have been proclaiming.

So, the logic of events could force the Russians and us to the next step and that step also to the next and so on. Our moves in this direction could cause massive death and destruction. We should stop doing what does not work and is not in our interests nor in the interests of either the Ukrainians or the Russians.

But stopping on what terms? Having myself helped to negotiate two complex but successful ceasefires, I have learned two things: first, a ceasefire cannot be obtained unless both parties see it as less bad than the alternative and, second, a ceasefire is merely a necessary precondition to a settlement. So what might a settlement involve?

The elements of a general settlement, I believe, are these:

–Russia will not tolerate Ukraine becoming a hostile member of a rival military pact. We should understand this. Think how we would have reacted had Mexico tried to join the Warsaw Pact. Far-fetched?

Consider that even before the issue of nuclear weapons arose, we tried to overthrow the pro-Russian Cuban government in the Bay of Pigs invasion and tried on several occasions to murder Cuban Head of State Fidel Castro. We failed; so for two generations we have sought to isolate, impoverish and weaken that regime.

We would be foolish to expect that the Russians will not react similarly when challenged by an anti-Russian Ukrainian government. Thus, to press for inclusion of Ukraine into NATO is not only self-defeating; it risks overturning a generation of cautious moves to improve our security and increase our well-being and is pointing us toward at least a cold – if not a hot – war. We need to adopt a different course.

–We must recognize that the Ukraine is not part of our sphere of influence or dominance. It is neither in the Western Hemisphere nor in the North Atlantic. On the Black Sea, the concept of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an oxymoron. The Black Sea area is part of what the Russians call “the near abroad.”

The policy implications are clear: Just as the Russians realized that Cuba was part of our sphere of dominance and so backed down in the Missile Crisis, they will probably set their response to our actions on the belief that we will similarly back down because of our realization that Ukraine is in their neighborhood and not in ours.

The danger, of course, is that, for domestic political reasons – and particularly because of the urging of the neoconservatives and other hawks – we may not accept this geostrategic fact. Then, conflict, with all the horror that could mean, would become virtually inevitable.

–But conflict is not inevitable and can fairly easily be avoided if we wish to avoid it.  This is because the Russians and Ukrainians share an objective which the United States also emotionally shares. The shared objective is that Ukraine become a secure, prosperous and constructive member of the world community.

Becoming such a member can be accomplished only by the Ukrainians themselves. But as all qualified observers have seen, Ukrainian society and political organization have far to go to reach our joint objective.

This is true regardless of the Russian-American dispute. Its government is corrupt, tyrannical and weak. The best we can do is to remove outside deterrents to the growth of a healthy, secure and free society.

The way to do this is two-fold: first we need to stop our military intrusion into Ukrainian-Russian affairs, so diminishing Russian fears of aggression, and, second, wherever possible and in whatever ways are acceptable to both parties to assist the growth of the Ukrainian economy and, indirectly, the stability and sanity of the Ukrainian governing system. A first step in this direction could be for Ukraine to join the European Union.

This, in general terms, should be and for our own sakes must be, our strategy.

William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.

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The Dulles Brothers Tackle Ho Chi Min

Posted on February 14th, 2015 in War by Robert Miller
Ngo Dinh Diem with Eisenhower and Foster Dulles at the Washington Airport; he was installed as the President of Vietnam with support from the CIA, but was assassinated in 1963 supported by the CIA who had by then had grown tired of his leadership

Ngo Dinh Diem with Eisenhower and Foster Dulles at the Washington Airport; he was installed as the President of Vietnam with support from the CIA, but was assassinated in 1963 supported by the CIA who had by then had grown tired of his leadership which had produced a Buddhist crisis

Allen Dulles could not contain himself; he and his brother had overthrown two governments in the space of 10 months and he had to tell someone. In the summer of 1954 he invited two reporters from the Saturday Evening Post (preselected to have drunk the “Kool-Aid”) and took them into his confidence. Through these two reporters, he gave the world an account of his first year on the job. The resulting publication emerged as a three part series entitled “The Mysterious Doings of the CIA,” by  Richard and Gladys Harkness. The opening page of this article had the comment “The Post presents its own exclusive report on America’s ‘silent service’ the super-secret Central Intelligence Agency,” below which was a large photo of Allen and below that appeared “Here, revealed for the first time, are its methods, how it gets its operatives and money and its accomplishments—in Guatemala, Iran, and behind the Iron Curtain”(the behind the iron curtain story comes later).

1954 was also the year that the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in South Vietnam was defeated in a brutal battle. Unknown to most Americans is the fact that the United States was underwriting 80 per cent of the French costs in Vietnam in order for the French to remain as a colonial power in Southeast Asia (FDR didn’t want the French to be permitted back into Southeast Asia). Eisenhower justified this support of French colonialism in August 1953 when he said “then the United States votes $400,000,000 to help that war, we are not voting a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of a most terrible significance to the United States of America, our security, our power and the ability to get certain things we need from the riches of Indonesia territory from Southeast Asia.” It didn’t matter to the reporters in the room that Eisenhower was admitting that the real mission in Vietnam was exploitation of the country for its resources, rather than fighting Communism.  Eisenhower also advanced the domino theory that if South Vietnam fell, the entire Southeast Asia would fall to the Communists and ultimately threaten Japan. The U.S. News & World Report eliminated the rhetoric by stating, “one of the world’s richest areas is open to the winner in Indochina. That’s behind growing U.S. concern…tin, rubber, rice, key strategic raw materials are what the war is really about. The U.S. sees it as a place to hold—at any cost.”

As the battle at Dien Bien Phu raged on, Pentagon officials drew up plans for Operation Vulture, an air campaign against Viet Minh positions. They also discussed the possibility of using two or three atomic bombs, but the French promptly rejected the offer fearing for the lives of their own soldiers (this too testifies to the radical psychology that had gripped our military leaders, seemingly unaware of the dangers of radiation, driven by the “bomb culture” that consumed the United States after WW II: we told ourselves that we were invincible and behaved that way).  On May 7, after fifty-six days, the French garrison fell and with it French colonialism in Asia was terminated; at that moment the French Vietnam War became the American Vietnam War in which 58,220 American soldiers would be killed before we were defeated in 1975.

After the French garrison fell, representatives of the United States, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China met in Geneva. Foster Dulles appeared just long enough to irritate the others in attendance; he refused to shake hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai and would not sit near any member of the Communist delegation, causing British Foreign Minister Anthony Edin’s secretary to proclaim his “almost pathological sense of rage and gloom.” At that meeting the Viet Minh succumbed to Chinese and Soviet pressure and agreed to divide the country at the 17th parallel, with Ho’s forces withdrawing to the north and French-backed forces moving to the South. As part of the agreement a national election was to be held in July, 1956 which would result in a uniform government for all of Vietnam. The United States refused to sign the agreement but promised not to interfere with the election, all the while planning how to undermine it. At that time Boa Dai was in charge of the South; he was generally scorned as a French puppet while Ho Chi Min in the north was regarded as a national hero: if an election was held then there was no doubt who would win it.

The Americans were not finished. As the French prepared to leave Vietnam, Americans maneuvered to replace Boa Dai with Ngo Dinh Diem, a conservative Catholic. With the aid of CIA agent Edward Lansdale Diem was installed and wasted no time in crushing his rivals and unleashing a wave of terror against former Viet Minh members in the south, thousands of whom were executed. Diem received strong support from the American government as well as Senators Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. To them it did not seem odd to have a Catholic running a Buddhist country for they too, at the time had sipped the Kool-Aid.

With United States backing, Diem cancelled the 1956 election that would have resulted in unification of the country under Communist, led by Ho Chi Min; but what brand of Communism was it? The Viet Minh had been fighting the French before the Russian revolution, but through the lens of the Americans, every Communist country, no matter what its history was evil: the very words ignited a guttural reaction from the American government, but especially from Foster and Allen Dulles who delighted in using that as cover for the development of business interests that served globalization.

Diem was assassinated in 1963 by the American government, specifically by the military assistant to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, the ambassador to South Vietnam . When Ho Chi Min heard of the assassination he said [from Wikipedia] “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” The North Vietnamese Politburo was more explicit:

“The consequences of the 1 November coup d’état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists … Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists  … Among the anti-Communists in South Vietnam or exiled in other countries, no one has sufficient political assets and abilities to cause others to obey. Therefore, the lackey administration cannot be stabilized. The coup d’état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last.”

The rest as we say is history. Every reader knows something about the Vietnam War. It is indelibly imprinted in the minds of those who lived through it as a conflict that permanently divided America, especially once the Pentagon Papers were published on the front page of the New York Times in 1971. It is mind-numbing to count up all the deaths that germinated from the Vietnam War; the numbers go into the millions. It is equally mind-numbing to consider what an alternative approach might have looked like. Had we envisioned Vietnam from a more longitudinal perspective, we might have concluded that it’s best to make the peasants and poor farmers into consuming customers, then we would have our cake and eat it too. Only seven years after the Vietnam War, that is what we did when we opened up to China. That too is another story.


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The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get by Chris Hedges

Posted on February 10th, 2015 in Culture,War by Robert Miller
This article by Chris Hedges recently appeared in Truthdig

The Terror We Give Is the Terror We Get


Posted on Feb 8, 2015

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